A few years ago in a “Books of the Year” article in The Spectator, Charlotte Moore charmingly recommended Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novels.
My most enjoyable wallow in the past this year has been provided by Sheila Kaye Smith, ‘the Hardy of Sussex’, whose intense human dramas, enacted in a primitive rural landscape about to be forever changed, were satirised in Cold Comfort Farm. Try The End of the House of Alard — the title says it all.
You are missing out on a guilty pleasure if you know the books of Kaye-Smith and Mary Webb only from Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. Although Gibbons’s witty satire is amusing, it destroyed the reputation of these once popular writers for us.
I am a fan of Mary Webb’s Precious Bane, which won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Prize in 1924.
I recently curled up with Kaye Smith’s Joanna Godden. It is not in the same class as Webb’s Precious Bane–the writing is much rougher–but Kaye-Smith’s portrait of a woman farmer is intriguing.
Published in 1921, Joanna Godden chronicles 20 years in the life of a woman farmer. When Joanna inherits a sheep farm from her father, she scandalizes the neighbors and other farmers by managing it herself.
It is not easy being a woman farmer. She is snubbed by the other farmers, and has trouble managing her father’s men. She makes staff changes: she hires a new “looker” for her sheep, partly because he will obey her, partly because she is attracted to him. After a disastrous experiment with breeding sheep, she realizes her father would never have hired anyone so inexperienced.
The writing is rough, but the story is gripping.
Kaye-Smith’s description of Joanna in the opening pages shows us that she is no “lady.” She is loud, outspoken, big, and likes frills and plumes.
She was emphatically what men call a “fine woman’ with her firm, white neck, her broad shoulders, her deep bosom and strong waist; she was tall, too, with large, useful hands and feet. Her face was brown and slightly freckled, with a warm color on the cheeks; the features were strong, but any impression of heaviness was at once dispelled by a pair of eager, lively blue eyes. Big jet earrings dangled from her ears, being matched by the double chain of beads that hung over crape-filled bodice. Indeed, with her plumes, her earrings, her necklace, her frills, though all of the decent and respectable black, she faintly shocked the opinion of Wayland Marsh, otherwise disposed in pity to be lenient to Joanna Godden and her ways.
Joanna becomes the richest, most successful farmer on the Romney and Walland Marshes in Kent.
But what to do for sex? She wants a relationship, but will not marry anyone who is after her money. She falls in love, but…
Kaye-Smith also explores the complications of sisterhood. Joanna is alternately affectionate and violent towards her sly, pretty younger sister, Ellen. Joanna sends her to boarding school so she can become a “lady,” but when rebellious Ellen comes home, the marshes bore her.
Ellen runs away with a man. Years later, Joanna, has an unsatisfying romance, and finally faces a problem she cannot solve.
Rachel Anderson writes in the introduction to the Virago edition: “Popular romantic heroines of the twenties, whether large or small, were uncertain whether they wished to be liberated from man or dominated by him: to choose true love inevitably meant to choose male domination.”
I enjoyed this book very much, though I won’t lie and say it’s good. Has anybody else read Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novels? What else should I read?
I love Precious Bane – have read some of Webb’s other work, but haven’t found anything else as good. Must give Kaye-Smith a try. Have you read Josephine Tey? There’s a very funny bit in To Love and Be Wise where she satirises that “loam and love-child” genre: the very unpleasant Silas writes terrible (and terribly popular) novels in which the only uplifting element is the steam from the dung-heap, and there’s a line like, “It was not Silas’ fault that the steam went upwards. If he could have invented a dung-heap that steamed downwards, he would have done so”.
Yes, Webb’s other books are strictly for fans. (Well, I haven’t read all of them, but I know what you mean.) I read Josephine Tey long ago but may have missed To Love and Be Wise: I certainly don’t remember the steam in the dung heap. It sounds, very, very funny.
Thanks for a great review I have many green Viragos waiting to be read but this one is added to the wishlist
It is very enjoyable, if not the best.:)
I’ve read Mary Webb’s Precious Bane as well as Come to Earth. The problem with them is they take the D.H. Lawrence perspective on women and sex seriously. I’ve not read Kaye-Smith’s novel but am interested to read about it as she and Stern were the first two women to talk in print about Jane Austen’s novels as women readers — her love for Austen and Austen’s “idyllic” world is quite a contrast to this farm and hard crude world.
She was influenced by Lawrence: I must admit that Gone to Earth goes to far, but I do love Precious Bane. I’ll look for Austen’s book.
I’ve read Precious Bane and liked it very much, and will put Joanna Godden on my wish list. She sounds a bit like Bathsheba Everdene. Isnt it sad how often a shot taken in sarcasm or satire can destroy the target entirely. I liked CCF but after reading PB, came to see how CCF sadly put people off the source novels which are worthwhile reads in themselves. Humor can be an edged weapon.
You’re right, Joanna is like Bathsheba Everdene. Yes, CCF is very funny–I love it!–but it would never have occurred to me to read Sheila Kaye-Smith if I hadn’t read that tiny thing in The Spectator. For modern readers, we assume the books she satirized were all bad.
I love Precious BAne.
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