Sheila Kaye-Smith on George Eliot

I am psychic.  You don’t believe me? You should.

At my mother’s funeral, which was attended by warring factions, the priest swung the censer and it broke. The assistant had trouble picking it up:  it was hot.   I knew this was the work of my mother’s ghost: she was upset by the strife. The family members  were stationed on different sides of the aisle, some glaring in the shade; with a few exceptions, they were rude at the cemetery.  They were furious about the will –how they hated to share!–just as in Middlemarch and War in Peace.  I was the only one who noticed my mother’s ghost, but certainly some must have felt it.

I am also psychic in the choosing of books, which are often startlingly related to each other.   For instance, I recently reread Adam Bede and mentioned here that I read it as a child.  And then I picked up All the Books of My Life, by Sheila Kaye-Smith, and lo and behold! she writes about Adam Bede, which she had been forbidden by her mother to read until she was 21.  She knows it would have appealed to her as a child.

George Eliot was better suited to the heaviness of my mind [than Dickens], but grown-up intervention had robbed me of the very book that would have suited me best.  The characters and the story are better adapted than in many of the others to a young reader’s perceptions, the comedy is unobtrusive and the tragedy obvious.  Instead I read Silas Marner and found it completely uninteresting.

Nothing was banned at my house, but I had a similar experience with Eliot .    At my grandmother’s house, I read Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, but could not understand Eliot’s other books.  Adam Bede is such a vibrant novel, actually one of her best.  I liked the drama, and the preacher Dinah’s standing by the shallow, beautiful  Hetty, an unmarried pregnant girl accused of infanticide who is not sympathetic until she runs away, trying to find the father of her child.  Dinah stands by her in prison and brings out Hetty’s good qualities.

Kaye-Smith would have liked Adam Bede, but had problems with Middlemarch as a 16-year-old

I followed The Mill on the Floss with Middlemarch, a book which of course I ought not to have read till much later…. The slow careful building up of the characters of Dorothea and Casaubon never amounted to anything I could understand or appreciate….  Indeed I knew that I was bored and felt disappointed with myself for being so…

I, too, found Middlemarch a slog as a teenager.  It was only later, in my twenties, that I appreciated it.  But for all the perfections of Middlemarch, may I admit that I still prefer Adam Bede?

By the way, you can read my posts on Sheila Kaye-Smith’s novels The End of the House of Alard and Joanna Godden here and here.

Sheila Kaye-Smith’s The End of the House of Alard

Sheila Kaye-Smith

Sheila Kaye-Smith

I began to read Sheila Kaye-Smith after the writer Charlotte Moore recommended her in a “Books of the Year” article in The Spectator. 

Last year I very much enjoyed Joanna Godden, Kaye-Smith’s intriguing, if inelegant, novel about a woman sheep farmer.  And recently I found a free copy of The End of the House of Alard at Internet Archive. Published in 1923, it is the absorbing story of the fall of the aristocratic Alard family.  It begins by sketching the history of the Alards, from their earliest ancestor in  the Crusades to the present squire, Sir John, in the twentieth century.  The Alards still have their estate at the end of World War I,  but no money, partly because of Sir John’s bad investments, mostly because of the war.

end of the house of alard sheila kaye-smith 2119983_150814173718_IMG_1970This  is a departure from Kaye-Smith’s early rural novels, which Stella Gibbon satirized in Cold Comfort Farm, along with books by Mary Webb and D. H. Lawrence  But it is easy to see why The End of the House of Alards was a best-seller.  She fascinatingly portrays the consequences of the war and the changing culture.  The Alard veterans of the Great War are still harnessed by tradition, while the younger Alards question social class as they fall in and out of love or seek meaningful work.   The oldest son, Hugh, was killed in the war, but two other sons survived:   Peter, the new heir, will manage the estate, while George, a clergyman, holds the family living.

The return of the heir is the impetus of the novel, almost a satire of other such returns of heirs.  In the second chapter, the family is excited as they await Peter’s homecoming.  His mother barely recognizes him out of uniform; he has become much  heavier and more stolid.  Even the writing here is a bit heavy-handed, I’m afraid.  (But I loved the book).

Here is how the house looks to Peter.

The drawing room was just the same as it had always been….The same heavy dignity of line in the old walls and oak-ribbed cieling spoilt by undue crowding of pictures and furniture.  Hothouse flowers stood about in pots and filled vases innumerable… a water-colour portrait of himself as a child faced him as he came into the room.

Although Peter is conventional, he has been changed by the war. For one thing, he is untraditional in love.  He is in passionately love with the doctor’s sexy, intelligent Catholic daughter, Stella Mount.  (Yes, I noticed that name, too.)  Their idyll is vaguely reminiscent of love affairs in D. H. Lawrence’s novels, though Peter doesn’t have a Lawrentian mind.  He lets himself be talked out of marrying  middle-class Stella, and marries a rich Jewish woman for her money. (An anti-Semitic portrait of his wife:  write it off to the times. The point is not the woman, but that he sold out.)

Mary, the only married daughter, is also unhappily married.  She leaves her rich husband to live on her own and he divorces her on fallacious grounds of adultery.  Her father forces her to defend the suit, and there is a scandal.  Finally she goes quietly away

The youngest brother, Gervase, a Catholic convert, has broken with the old life –to an extent that shocks even his most liberal sisters, Mary and Jenny.  Reverend George is crushed when he realizes the Catholic church offers more comfort and ritual to Gervase than his own Anglican church and good works.

And Jenny, who cannot meet an appropriate man, consciously decides to chase the rich farmer to whom she is attracted, Godfrey who has bought land from the Alards.

On the morning when she first goes to flirt with him,  she thinks of Stella.

She remembered once being a little shocked by Stella Mount, who had confided that she liked making love herself just as much as being made love to….  well, Jenny was not exactly going to make love, but she was going to do something just as forward, just as far from the code of well-bred people–she was going to show a man in a class beneath her that she cared for hm, that she wanted his admiration, his courtship…

The oldest sister, Mary, is a hysterical spinster, devoted to her parents, and envious of the young.  The youngest Alards have the best chance of happiness, because they reject the past.

This novel is much better-written than Joanna Godden, and I look forward to reading more of Kaye-Smith’s novels.

Sheila Kaye-Smith’s Joanna Godden

Sheila Kaye-SMith ESKS

Sheila Kaye-Smith

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.

Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith, 4901896Published 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?