Sussex Gorse by Sheila Kaye Smith (1916)

Our second reading group looked at the novels of Sheila Kaye Smith this month. We had a few Kaye Smith novels, and then were delighted to receive a donation of several more from Pat, who is doing a PhD on her – thank you Pat!

Previous reviews of Kaye Smith’s novel Joanna Godden (1921)have been very positive (review 1, review 2), praising her clear, direct style, the characterisation of the flamboyant, independent Joanna, and the evocative depiction of place – in this novel, the Romney Marshes.

However, Tuesday’s reading group was much more critical! The oddly named Challenge to Sirius (1917) was set in the 1850s and followed the protagonist’s attempt to become a novelist in London, to time as a Yeoman farmer, to fighting in the American civil war to being shipwrecked on the coast of the Yucatan… Green Apple Harvest (1924) had a similarly convoluted plot, while staying put in England; our reader of Joanna Godden (1921) thought the focus on Joanna’s search for love rather tedious, though the character was well drawn.

All readers struggled with Kaye Smith’s use of dialect: e.g. “She must täake her punishment, säum as you.” (That’s a good rural novel sentence, isn’t it? Enough to confirm the prejudices of us who have read Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm and have been frightened off the rural novel for ever.) None of us really know what the Sussex accent is supposed to sound like, so all these diaereses leave us none the wiser. But all readers praised Kaye Smith’s description of the landscape.

Here’s Val H on Sussex Gorse:

I’m pleased that I have finally managed to read a rural novel, but I don’t want to go through the experience again. My book is Sussex Gorse, published in 1916 and, I gather, one of her earliest successes.  It is subtitled The Story of a Fight, and is just that. It is 1835. Reuben Backfield, a farmer and the son of a farmer, is uneducated, self-centred and driven by his instincts but he is also strong, passionate, ambitious, forward-looking and self-improving. Some moorland, always left fallow, is taken from his family in the enclosures and he vows to buy and make a success of the whole moor. Everything he does is towards this end, from marrying a girl with a dowry to buying the latest machinery and even sponsoring the local Tory Parliamentary candidate who might vote for taxes to help farmers.  Everyone in his family is expected to share his dream and work as hard as he does, and everyone is assessed by him in terms of contribution.  So his wife is there to produce strong sons to save him the expense of hiring labourers and when some daughters come along too, he is cross until he realises that they will be useful around the house when his ailing, house-keeping mother dies.  Of course his children and wives and mother and brother have their own dreams and have to run away or be broken on his wheel. He is a tyrant who is bemused by opposition – his way is best and worthy so why can’t people see this? The real opposition to him is not the people around him but the land Itself, which in his eyes is living and resents his encroaching and fights his attempts to tame it.  It is as much a character as the family and villagers and Reuben probably thinks it and they are in league against him.

All this is interesting and I did want to know what happened.The writing is very fluent, the story well-told and some of the descriptive passages lovely.  And Sheila Kaye Smith was apparently very accurate and expert in her subject. But the misery after disaster after tragedy was too much to take. Events that would break a normal family could be dismissed In a few sentences and forgotten, as new calamities arrived. The story is not told from the single viewpoint but might as well be, and this helps to create Reuben’s character but is very tiring.

And although it is a small point, the dialogue was infuriating for being in dialect, with extra vowels everywhere. I can see why Stella Gibbons wrote Cold Comfort Farm!


4 thoughts on “Sussex Gorse by Sheila Kaye Smith (1916)

  1. Interesting thoughts! I have been thoroughly put off reading rural novels after Cold Comfort Farm, and I applaud you all for getting through these. I have a copy of Joanna Godden, I think, and so may well have a go at it one day. To be honest, the constant hardship and misery is what also puts me off Hardy, although I can seem to cope with it in Russian novels!!

    • Maybe it’s the dialect? I bet you don’t get that in the translations from Russian! I’m not keen on Hardy either – I have taught Jude the Obscure and found it almost unbearably depressing/annoying.

      I know this post won’t encourage many people to try rural novels, but I can only report the truth from the reading group!

      • I think it *is* the dialect – I’ve spent too much of my life cringing at Hampshire and Suffolk accents!!

  2. If you want real rural dialect, not a literary treatment of it, try the novels of Jan [as in ‘John’] Stewer. Impenetrable Wiltshire as recited by my grandfather for village entertainment.

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