Jerry and Ben by Willie Riley (1919)

Review by George Simmers (see his Great War FIction blog)

This is a book that must have seemed old-fashioned even when it was written (1919), which may have been a large part of its appeal.

Peg, Mamie and Betty are single women, with nothing much to look forward to but living as perpetual aunties, until Mamie receives an unexpected  legacy from a servant she did a good turn to many years before. This is a cottage in Wharfdale. The three of them go there, and are drawn in to the life of the community.

They take a particular interest in their farming neighbours, Jerry and Ben. Jerry lives his life by the strictest principles of the Bible. As someone says: ‘Religious isn’t the word for it. And I don’t know what is. He has it so bad it’s the same as a tooth-ache.’ (30) He has a puritanical loathing of music, and beats his son Ben for playing the concertina on the Sabbath. He deeply disapproves of Ben’s love for Edith, daughter of the village drunkard. Jerry is the most complex character in the book , desperate to do what his Bible says is right, but liable to fits of temper in which he becomes violent towards his son, and which he later regrets.

The newcomers watch this family drama unfold. Betty leaves to marry elsewhere, but Gee-Gee, a (rather impossibly) sweet American girl comes to join them. She charms everyone, and even gets through to Jerry by countering his Old Testament darkness with New Testament quotations in favour of kindness and love.

The book is firmly set in Wharfdale, and there are lovingly detailed descriptions of landscapes, and of the changing seasons. A Christmas chapter adds little to the plot, but shows local seasonal customs.

Riley was a Methodist preacher, and many of his characters converse in tags from the Bible and the hymnal. The book draws morals, showing kindnesses repaid and patience rewarded. There are deathbed scenes of a rather Victorian kind, showing people making exemplary deaths by repenting their sins or demonstrating their faith. In accord with the Nonconformist tradition, alcohol is seen as dangerous, and as a terrible snare for the weak. One character proves he is worthy of a good woman by giving up the drink. A young woman who has vowed never to touch alcohol drinks rum while feeling desperate, and afterwards feels sullied and worthless because of it.

I would see this book as having a strong appeal to an older female readership who could see themselves in Mamie, the woman who leaves her role as auntie to other people’s children to become, in effect, auntie to a whole village, tending, nursing and giving advice. The book would confirm their feeling that the world had moved on from the narrow religion of the stricter sects, but that religion still mattered, and old-fashioned Christian principles were good to live by. The fantasy figure of Gee-gee, the diminutive American girl who spreads a sweeter gospel, would have been an attractive one to imagine.

The book’s values are traditional and conservative. There are no hints of class conflict, and the middle-class incomers are referred to as ‘the quality’. A modern reader might wonder about other possibilities, especially since the village where the story is set is called Scargill.

The rural community is not totally idealised. As well as drunkenness and child-beating, there is also even a murder (though surprisingly little is made of this). But it is a village untouched by modernity. The 1914-18 war has not happened. Villagers sing old songs like ‘The Miller of Dee’ and ‘A-Hunting We Will Go’, not music-hall or gramophone novelties. There is little sense of the village as an economic community; Riley is vague about where money comes from.

This is a pleasant and enjoyable novel, and I wanted to know how the romantic complications would work out in the end.  I can’t help comparing it, though, with another rural novel, published the year before, in 1918, which treats the tension between a  fiercely religious man and his son – Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Little England.  Put next to that book, which never condescends to its villagers, and does not shirk the economic facts of rural life, Jerry and Ben is a tourist’s-eye-view of the countryside, comfort reading for nice people with a taste for nostalgia.

See also our profile of Willie Riley.

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4 thoughts on “Jerry and Ben by Willie Riley (1919)

  1. Riley was trying to describe the kind of fierce, narrow Christian outlook that, at the time he wrote, was still around in the Dales. This was published in 1919, and was the last book he wrote whilst living in Bradford. His previous book, also published in 1919, ‘Through a Yorkshire Window’, was very much about the effect of the First World War on the Dales, the main character being a wounded soldier recuperating in Upper Wharfedale from injuries received on the battlefield. Riley had also been writing regular articles in the Newspaper ‘The Standard’ about the effects of the War on the Dales people. I am saying this to assure that Riley was perfectly aware of the issues of the Great war.
    Now ‘Jerry and Ben’ does go back a few years to before the War. But Riley’s foremost issue is the negative effect that Jerry’s narrow, Calvinistic attitude had on other people, despite the man having his good side too.
    The story is set in and around Hebden just east of Grassington. Jerry’s farm is at Holebottom, a short way up to the north of Hebden.
    This book was so popular that one of the houses in Holebottom was named ‘Mamie’s Cottage’, and there is to this day a property there known as Jerry and Ben’s, which is a holiday let.

    • I agree that narrow harsh Christianity was still a living issue for some in 1919 – as it still is today in some families. It was theme that had been dealt with very fully in nineteenth-century novels, though, and I think this book is looking backward to nineteenth century issues rather than looking forward to those that would most exercise novelists in the twentieth century.
      I shall take a look at ‘Through a Yorkshire Window’.
      Thanks for giving me an excuse to take another trip to Grassington and Hebden. My wife and I spent a very pleasant fortnight in a Grassington cottage a few years ago, and I’ll look at the place with new eyes after reading Willie Riley. He really is very good at describing the locality.

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