Challenge to Sirius by Sheila Kaye Smith (1917)

Review by Thecla W:

I found this novel hard-going but it has a certain dreary fascination for any fan of Cold Comfort Farm.

The narrative is chronological and the novel is structured in episodes, each one set in a specific place: Sussex, London, Sussex, America, Yucatan, Sussex.

Frank Rainger lives with his father at Luke Coalbran’s farm in Sussex. He plays with the farmer’s children, especially a girl called Maggie, and helps on the farm. He enjoys farm work but also wants to write. After his father drowns he goes to London and gets some journalistic work covering religious matters. He has an affair with a novelist called Rita, and writes a book which is rejected by publishers. Realizing that he won’t succeed as a writer he returns to Sussex. Maggie has married and Frank joins her brothers, Tom and Dave, working on the farm again.

The American Civil War starts. Tom and Frank sympathize with the Confederates. Frank and Maggie admit their love for each other but she won’t leave her children. Tom has decided to go to America to join the Confederate army and Frank goes with him. Frank is taken prisoner by the Union army but escapes and heads for the coast, hoping to get to Nassau and thence to England. However, he is shipwrecked on the Yucatan coast. He is found by a priest who takes him in. He stays in the village for 11 years before returning to England. Maggie is a widow and they marry.

The language has points of interest. There are excellent descriptions of the countryside and the natural world. Those of Sussex are particularly vivid.

Kaye Smith uses “rustic” language in the speech of the farming families which distinguishes them from Frank, his father and people he meets in London and America. Examples are “it ud täake all day” and “Tomorrow we’ll be able to pick the Notch farm fuggles”. The Sussex names are likewise rustic e.g the Hoads of Birdskitchen, Harmon of Mockbeggar Farm.

Black people in America are referred to as “niggers”. This strikes the modern reader as extremely offensive but I assume was common parlance when the novel was set and probably also in 1917 when it was written.

For me, the protagonist, Frank, is a major stumbling block. He seems to drift through the novel, rarely strongly motivated by anything. Instead, he reacts to the things that happen to him but there is little sense of development or maturation in his character.

It is difficult to see why he makes certain decisions. When Tom first mentions his desire to fight for the Confederacy, Frank says to him “So you’d fight for slavery?”. In spite of this awareness, he joins the Confederate army with Tom, largely out of a sense of solidarity with his old friend and says “I don’t mind which side of the fence I’m on”. His reasons for fighting are given as “he had lost the old life and had to find a new one, because he wanted to be with Tom, because he wanted to forget Maggie”.

He describes the South as “the side of nature and freedom and beauty” and the war as “the inevitable clash between the free, pastoral South and the hard-headed, business-minded North”. In spite of his awareness of slavery, he perceives the South as free.

He refers to black Union soldiers thus “like monkeys in Federal uniforms and fighting like monkeys with bites and scratches and kicks”. Kaye-Smith and her husband were Anglicans who later converted to Roman Catholicism, although he was related to the reforming Quaker Fry family. In general Anglicans tended to sympathize with landowners and thus the South, non-conformists with the slaves.

After Frank is rescued by the priest, he remains in the Yucatan for 11 years. He doesn’t seem to be motivated by religion or gratitude and it is difficult to see why he stays so long. He only leaves when the priest dies, just as he only left Sussex to try his luck in London when his father died.

The title is a puzzle. On p 354 there is a reference to the challenge to Sirius. Frank is  looking at the stars.

“All human endeavour and travail is a challenge to the stars’ remoteness….challenges to Sirius, the Great Indifference”

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8 thoughts on “Challenge to Sirius by Sheila Kaye Smith (1917)

    • Some of her books are brilliant–“THE LARDNERS AND THE LAURELWOODS ” is a good example of middlebrow fiction for women.”THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF ALARD” and “ROSE DEEPROSE” are entertaining also.Do not write her off as she writes literature not “fluff “novels which are fashionable with modern bloggers.

  1. I’ve not read this book, but the two novels by Sheila Kaye-Smith that I do know are much better than you make this one sound. They are ‘Little England’ and ‘The George and the Crown’, both set at the time they were written, not historical novels. What I like about her books is that she is one of the few writers of the period who can write about the working-class and the poor without condescending to them. The use of dialect, which can be off-putting to modern readers, is part of this.
    Maybe this treatment of the American Civil War is an attempt to write obliquely about the First World War? ‘Little England’, which followed a year later, is very troubled by the War.
    These days we tend to see the American Civil War as being ‘about’ slavery. Kaye-Smith is being accurate in showing that, at the time, it was often seen differently, in Britain as well as in the Southern states of the U.S. The Confederacy could be seen as fighting for freedom because they were standing up for the rights of individual states against the Union.
    Despite the negative review, I’m going to put this book on my reading list.

  2. Sorry erica, lost my password but might be worth noting that William Wilberforce was a member of the Church of England and very influential campaigner against slavery.

    Sent from my iPad

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