Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Little England is a very good novel about the effect of the War on rural England, so when I heard that The George and the Crown (1925) was about an ex-soldier (thanks, Pat) I thought I’d take a look at it.
Sheila Kaye-Smith is nearly forgotten today, but was a major figure in her time. When the Manchester Guardian polled its readers in 1928 to foretell which living novelists would be remembered in a hundred years time, Kaye-Smith was the highest-scoring woman on the list, at number seven (way, way ahead of Virginia Woolf). At some time between then and now, Kaye-Smith dropped out of fashion, and has never had a revival like that of another rural novelist, Mary Webb, whose fevered works have a camp quality that is quite the opposite of Kaye-Smith’s scrupulous honesty.
The George and the Crown are a pair of public houses in a Sussex town. The Crown caters to the carriage trade, the George to the roughs. Dan, son of the George’s landlord, and Ernley from the Crown served together in the Army, till the better-educated Ernley, after being wounded and gassed at Second Ypres, moved on to a commission.
But the friendship stood firm built on [….] memories of the black and ravaged soil of Flanders, of horrors and dangers and terrors and squalors, lit up by queer gleams of human laughter.
The book traces the disintegration of this friendship, and also the remorseless rise of the gentrified Crown at the expense of the unrespectable George.
Dan is a good man, trying to make his way honestly in a difficult world. He gives up his claim on Belle, the young woman he loves, for the sake of his friend.
The novel is very definitely set in postwar England, but the impression given by Kaye-Smith is that while the war has had a significant and sometimes devastating impact on individuals, it has made little difference to the country, except, perhaps, to speed up some of the processes of disintegration that were already present (as in quite a few novels of the early twenties).
For Dan, it is implied, the War may even have had benefits. It taught him discipline, we are told, as well as giving him the friendship that meant so much to him. War’s uncertainties are less threatening than some of the challenges of peacetime, and much less so than the power of the nature. The sea is a powerful presence in the book – a source of romantic escape from the responsibilities of the land, but also a source of danger. When a mistake leaves Dan stranded and in danger of drowning, he reflects:
He had faced death before – he had lain sick but disciplined under shell-fire in France. This was worse – infinitely worse. Shell-fire was nothing – it was only death. This was worse than death, for he was afraid not only of death but of the forces that were dealing death to him.
The War has done little to affect the natural process by which each character moves towards the destiny implicit in his or her make-up: the improvident fail; the sailor returns to the sea; the woman returns to the man she loves; the motherly woman finds a child; the good man becomes lost in the contradictions of a world of complexities.
Like Little England, this is a good novel – believable, rich and absorbing. So why has Kaye-Smith been more or less forgotten? The answer, I think, is that she was writing in a genre that was already looking old-fashioned. Her books owe much to the example of Thomas Hardy. (I read an account of a luncheon where the two sat next to each other, got on very well, and made an agreement – he could have all the southern counties west of Weymouth, while everything east of Weymouth was hers.) By the nineteen-twenties, rural realism still had its admirers – as shown by the Guardian’s poll – but it was far from new. Little England, especially, with its central figure of a nonconformist preacher, seems to be looking back to the concerns of the mid-Victorian novel.
The most fashionable novels of the twenties – Huxley and Waugh, for example – could hardly be more different from Sheila Kaye-Smith’s rural tragedies. They have a sharpness and heartlessness quite alien to her compassionate look at very ordinary people. What gives her books their quality, I think, is that she can write about working-class characters quite without condescension or sentimentality. She’s worth reading.