22 January 2014
…which take us through a single extraordinary day in the life of a settler in some unnamed colony. It’s extraordinary because so many things happen at once… and because Crace somehow makes it clear that in this little settlement of only 58 souls, some big themes are going to be covered. He, Crace, is so vague about where the place is that it feels like a page deliberately left blank. But it isn’t going to be blank forever. Up to now the owners of the land, ‘Master Kent’ and his predecessors, have allowed it to be treated as common ground: squatters’ rights are granted to anyone who constructs a rudimentary dwelling surrounding a hearth. But now Kent has employed a cartographer to survey and map their little world; he has plans for it, which include enclosing it with walls. We could be anywhere from Ireland to New Zealand, but the ruling class has brought with it its sense of ownership of everything it finds.
But this isn’t only a leftist critique of colonialism, because the first-person narrator is also picking his way through some thorny moral questions during the course of this day at the end of summer. Crace has already had him seeking to justify his own actions, or decisions not to act, in terms of collective and individual responsibility. The novel begins, extraordinarily, with him identifying himself with the community in almost two full pages told entirely in the first-person plural: so it is ‘we’ who can smell and taste the straw burning in the master’s yard, and all are apparently mystified by this unheard-of event. But there, near the end of page 2, comes the ‘I’ that separates the individual: ‘I know at once whom we should blame.’ So that’s all right, then. Except it isn’t: he keeps his mouth shut, despite his certainty that a prank carried out by three young bachelors has got out of hand. They were happy and full of mischief at the end of the harvest, had got themselves high on magic mushrooms, and thought they could smoke out the master’s thieving doves….
The narrator – we don’t hear his name until Chapter 3 – is further separated from the others after his hand is burnt by a burning bale of hay he is trying to push. So he is nursing it at his home when the others decide to go to where new smoke has been seen in order to hunt the culprits of what is clearly arson. He only hears reports of how two new squatters, having threatened the mob with bows ready to shoot, are deemed guilty of having caused the fire in order to catch doves for eating. (This despite the only evidence being cooked remains ‘disguised’ as those a blackbird.) Kent, a quiet and undemonstrative man, decides that they should be placed in the community’s pillory for seven days. The woman with them, her head bloodied when one of the real perpetrators enthusiastically smashes down their hovel on to her, spits at Kent. She, despite a garment she wears of cloth richer than any of them have ever seen, has her head shorn, as have her men-folk. Later, perhaps inevitably, the narrator lets it be known that he had no part in this ugly example of peremptory justice.
And then it’s the evening. Kent provides the usual harvest supper on what is supposed to have been a well-earned day of rest. The narrator, who arrived at the settlement twelve years earlier as Kent’s servant, has the outsider’s ability to describe the way of life. Earlier in the novel he has been writing as though he has entirely thrown in his lot with them. There’s a nobility in this sense of community: ‘On harvest days, anyone who’s got a pair of legs and arms can expect to earn supper with unceasing labour.’ But we have also had him casting a cold eye on the number of physical traits shared by a population he never quite refers to as inbred. He married into this, and exchanged a life in the manor house for one of toil on the land. But he is now a widower, and is keen to remember his links with Kent, having been brought up with him when his mother was Kent’s wet-nurse. He retains a sense of superiority, of difference, and is happy to be charged with searching for the spitting woman – ‘Mistress Beldam’ – after she appears like a ‘spectre’ at the feast and disappears again. I’ll come back to that little errand, because…
…before that, Kent has used the festival mood to announce what the survey is about. The land will no longer be given over to mainly arable farming; from now on the word is ‘wool’. He paints a rosy picture of leisurely days when they will no longer need to pray for the right weather for their crops… and only the narrator seems to pick up on the fact that he never once mentions sheep. The dancing begins, and the air is full of sexual possibilities – until the shorn-headed woman arrives. She seems to galvanise all the men, and when the narrator goes to search for her, he realises there are others who would be happy to offer her comfort in their own ways. But we know our man by now, and it is no surprise at all to hear his self-justifications: he is fulfilling a duty, and if he were to suggest his own cottage for her resting-place, he would not be committing adultery like most of them.
One last thing. The night is one of heavy rain, and he postpones his search to carry out a promise he made himself: the older of the men in the pillory has to stand on tip-toes in order not to choke – I find the monstrousness of this punishment a highly implausible device – and he wants to find something for him to stand on. But he’s forgotten to look before now, and can’t find anything he can lift with his one good hand. Ah well, there’s always tomorrow. Hmm. Walter Thirsk – we’ve found out his name by now – is too keen to justify himself after the event, and not very good at doing the right thing in the first place. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Crace has described how, since the settlers have never managed to build the church as they intend, the pillory is the village’s only meeting-place. It’s where marriages and other ceremonies take place, and is something like a long-armed version of – wait for it – a cross. As I said, a bad feeling.
Yep. These chapters cover the following day, and contain two set-piece shocks. One is the discovery that the older man has died during the very night when Walter didn’t help him, and the shock has at least as much to do with the way it is revealed as with the gruesome details. As genteel guests arrive – their presence, and their claim on the land, is the other shock – Kent and another man are carrying the body of the man, with its legs partly eaten away by a foraging pig that should not have been out of its pen. What the guests seem to be witnessing is a community falling apart.
Almost from the beginning, I’d been thinking of the way the moral aspects of this novel link it to the sort of 19th Century fiction I read all the time. Walter is by no means a bad man, and often seems to have a clearer sense than the others of how he, and they, should behave. But… well, you know. He doesn’t carry out his good intentions, is always seeking to justify what he gets wrong. And, somehow, it had always seemed inevitable that Crace would make him pay for his failures. This is what happens in Dickens, this is what happens in Jane Austen… and it’s beginning to happen here. Ok. But…
…what I hadn’t expected was another favourite feature in the works of those earlier authors: the complicated will. Pay attention now. Master Kent had married into the family that owned the land: Lucy Jordan was the last of her line, and her father’s will stipulated that she could only pass on ownership to a male heir. But she recently died in childbirth – I forgot to mention that – so now a male cousin has stepped in to claim his inheritance. This is what the survey is about, and the picture Kent paints of a life of ease is his way of sweetening a very different reality. It hasn’t been made clear yet, but the rights of the villagers under this new owner must be in serious doubt.
Walter has heard this from the man they all call Quill, the surveyor. He is easy for them to mock, with his non-labouring hands, his beard they compare to a woman’s triangle of pubic hair – and, most importantly, his disability. He has some problem with the left side of his body, doesn’t have the full use of his left hand. Earlier, Walter has been happy to join in with the mockery behind this man’s back, but now he allies himself with him as he maps the end of their way of life. Walter notes that he too has a left hand that is out of use for a while, and increasingly sees himself as an outsider despite the twelve years he has spent in the village. He is the only one that Quill tells about the will and the new owner, at Kent’s request, before their inauspicious arrival. Clearly, Kent is another one who feels the need to get someone on his side that he can trust, and Walter is happy to oblige.
But there remains an ambivalence. When Edmund Jordan arrives, well turned-out and with three men, Walter also arrives at the house with Quill. He finds himself being regarded as ‘Kent’s man’, is able to move around the house as he used to when they first arrived. He knows about fine houses from his earlier life, is dismissive of this one – even asserts that he would not live there in preference to his own little cottage. Having separated himself for two days from the activities of the others, he now tries to resume that earlier, easier alliance with them. It is ‘our’ way of life he says he values, and that is being threatened.
Another day, and more shocks. In Chapter 7, not quite half-way through the novel, Walter lists for us the terrible things that have happened so far. Really, he needn’t have bothered. In addition to the events of the first five chapters, there has been another atrocity – the killing of Kent’s beloved mare in the night – and the reader’s growing realisation that Edmund Jordan represents a rapacious kind of capitalism. Worse, he has the typical confidence of people in power not only that he represents the law – as the owner, he nominates himself as magistrate – but that he will be unbending in his pursuit of the culprit. Before the end of the day ‘one of you’ will be hanging from the oak which, minutes earlier, he had been planning to uproot as an unproductive waste of his land. But it’s all right: he’ll see to it that the church, no more than an outline of foundation-stones at present, will be built. I’ll come back to Edmund Jordan and his self-righteous brand of aggressive capitalism.
There’s enough plot in this novel to make any 19th Century author proud. It doesn’t make it a 19th Century novel, of course – Crace’s post-imperialist agenda and his readiness to deal with the most intimate details of sexuality confirm him as an undeniably 21st Century writer – but things move on at an often vertiginous pace. And all the time, despite his attempts to make himself inconspicuous, Walter is constantly finding himself somehow implicated in the misfortunes of the village. His position has already started to become ambiguous: he is acting as Quail’s assistant, using his injured left hand as something of an excuse to blur the boundary between himself and the non-labouring classes. This contrasts with his earlier mockery of them, and with his dismissal of the upper-middle classes’ way of life in their big houses. He’s inconsistent, attempting to ally himself with this very class as he also occasionally tries to return to the ‘we’ of the first pages of the novel…
…but Kitty Gosse, the widow whose bed he leaves in the morning – witnessed by the village gossip, there to tell Kitty of the horse’s death – is under arrest as part of Jordan’s heavy-handed administration of so-called justice. And, apparently unable to see how it looks to his neighbours, Walter is willing to take Jordan’s men right into their houses as they search for evidence concerning the killing of the horse. Any clothing must have been covered in blood during the attack with a metal spike, and suspicions are voiced indiscriminately. But, of course, the blood-stained item is the cloak everyone recognises as ‘Mistress Beldam’s’, discovered in a derelict cottage. This is no 19th Century whodunit.
Crime solved, then? Not at all. Kent, apparently appaled by Jordan’s bludgeoning methods, pretends the cloak had been his wife’s. He concocts a story – and I really don’t know what’s going on here – in which an intruder must have stolen it, intending to escape on the horse, and killed the horse when it refused to be ridden. Walter knows this won’t do, that the villagers – the women, anyway – will be only too pleased to point the finger at the female outsider. But protecting her has become a new strand in the ever murkier story. Walter and Quill, ever closer co-conspirators – Walter fantasises that a job with Quill could be his ticket out of there – seek to warn her when she visits the remaining man in the pillory. (It turns out that he is her husband, much to Walter’s unreasoning regret.) She leaves when she hears the other villagers on their way to the big house, hoping to petition Jordan for fair treatment of those arrested: Kitty, the gossip we met earlier as she tried to intervene over their arrest of the little harvest queen.
What I’m finding more interesting is the device of the enclosed, claustrophobic microcosm of society. I recently read a novel that won the Arthur C Clark Award for British science fiction, Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden. Beckett’s is an even more closed-off world than the one in Harvest as, 150 years after an emergency landing on a distant planet, descendants of the survivors are doing their best to hold together as a viable community in a Godless world. It seems to work, until conditions change… and, as with Harvest, the reader sits in judgment as to the plausibility of the author’s unfolding scenario. So far, as I did when reading Dark Eden, I’m wondering whether such an ambitious project is feasible for an author. Not easy things to pin down, the workings of societies.
Meanwhile, as we move into the second half of the novel, Walter is becoming increasingly alienated from the other villagers. His absence, as he goes about the master’s business, has been noted by them. He is the butt of similar comments to those they usually make about the gentry, to do with the way they benefit from the labour of others. This is plausible stuff, but we know that the villagers won’t get anywhere with rebellious talk of this sort. Jordan, having assumed power, pushes forward an autocratic agenda that his men, Walter believes, will be all too able and willing to enforce. Kent, in the presence of the utterly self-assured Jordan, is diminished to a point the villagers have never seen before, and seems powerless to prevent the newcomer doing whatever he wants. And what he wants is the kind of clearance of smallholders that is all too familiar a story.
In Chapter 9 Quill, far more willing than Walter to stand up for what he believes in, has been speaking to the man in the pillory. What he finds out is that the three newcomers had been turned off their land in exactly the way that Jordan is clearly planning, only seven days’ walk away. Jordan’s ruthless way of doing things, it seems, is the norm.
There’s such a lot of plot in this novel that by the fifth day (I think its Jordan who reminds them), a way of life lasting for generations is simply over. That triple coincidence of the drug-induced arson, the arrival of the first squatters in years and the near-simultaneous arrival of the new owner has enabled Crace to play out this parable of how privilege perpetuates itself. The moral aspects of the villagers’ behaviour, and of Walter’s in particular, seem to be less central as Jordan manipulates events for his own opportunistic reasons. But things might change – and Walter’s moral stature remains ambivalent….
For some chapters the main thread seems to be playing out the plot of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Even before Chapter 10, Jordan had seemed to be one of the fanatical judges in that play, and the timeless, unspecific location had been coalescing into late 17th Century Massachusetts. He is deaf to common sense, choosing to believe that the ribbons and flowers worn by the little ‘queen of the harvest’ mark her as an acolyte of the devil. In Chapter 10 itself, he is allowing his ‘side-men’ to do whatever they like in order to wring confessions from her and the two women. Walter’s narrative is too guarded for him to say it, but he’s talking about rape – not one of the usual tactics used by the witch-hunting fundamentalists. The truth, when it arrives, is no great surprise…
…but we’re not there yet. Mostly, we’re inside a hybrid narrative form in which Crace combines the fairly standard continuous present beloved of historical novelists with a highly self-conscious first-person narrator and a kind of jerky stream of consciousness. Walter isn’t writing this, or speaking it aloud to anyone, but several times each day he tells us what’s happening, and what’s been going on since the last time. It means that, unlike a narrator looking back on events, he doesn’t know where this story is leading any more than we do. (If Crace knows, he’s not telling. He’s just as likely to wrong-foot the reader as to offer clues.)
So we’re with Walter for three key encounters, all taking place in or just outside his dirt-floored cottage. For some time now he has been, at best, on the edge of this little community. John Carr, a trusted near neighbour and uncle (I think) of the little girl, overcomes his reluctance and, trying to make sure he isn’t seen or overheard, brings him the village news. He tells him not only about how disastrous the intended ‘petition’ turned out to be but that he, Walter, has been named as one of those connected with witchcraft. Before this encounter Walter is still able to use the phrase ‘our land’ almost without thinking. Not any more, as Carr’s use of ‘our’ definitely does not include him. Maybe he should leave, as the three original perpetrators of the arson have left….
Walter’s sensitivity to the nuances of tone and body language make him an improbable son of the soil – and yes, I know he wasn’t really born to it, but you know what I mean – and when the next visitor arrives his radar is as finely-tuned as with Carr. The visitor is Kent, and he’s very troubled. His account of events in the big house – and how often in this novel is Walter at one step removed, needing to hear other people’s stories? – is all about what he never refers to as a witch-hunt. This is the Crucible moment, as the women accuse about half-a-dozen people each. But they are only the followers, the ring-leader being ‘the gentleman’ – and Kent, barricaded in another room, has to imagine her mime of Quill’s disability because it’s Jordan who speaks his name. Quill’s real name is Earl and now, according to Jordan, he is some sort of ‘Erl-king’. His artist’s pestle and mortar, and his dried plants and minerals, are all evidence of his witchery.
Jordan is really enjoying this, has become, if he wasn’t one before, a pantomime monster. This is the situation when the villagers arrive at the house. Crace carefully lays Kent’s story over what we already know of the villagers’ petition: they think they know what world they are living in, one in which such pleading might have some weight. Kent’s account reveals the extent to which Jordan has torn up the old rules. Yet… Walter realises that he isn’t the one in danger, and none of the accused has named him.
Walter’s third visitor is a man nobody likes, Jordan’s groom. He doesn’t notice when a crowd gathers behind him, or that they see him as one of the oppressors. I’m not sure exactly what point Crace is making when he has the groom, very stupidly indeed, making a Jordan-style joke about warming his hands on the ‘twig’-like little girl as she burns. It’s her parents who first make a grab for him, and soon he is being beaten mercilessly. He only survives when another villager slashes his cheek wide open and the others, stunned by the blood, suddenly stop their punching and kicking. Meanwhile, Walter is again an outsider: he falls from his bench when the groom is grabbed and has his face kicked.
It’s another crucial moment. Suddenly, as he predicted (but not at all in the way he expected) Walter is safe. It’s everyone else who is in danger, because as soon as there’s talk of ‘witchery’ – a great taboo in this world – anything might happen. Very quickly, one family after another decides to leave in ragged groups of refugees, and that night Walter is the only one trying to sleep in any of the cottages in the village. He misses Kitty, still being held as a witch.
But tomorrow is another day, and he goes to the big house. He wonders at the mood, with Jordan smiling and Kent seeming almost relaxed. There is to be no more talk of witchcraft, and this is when both Walter and the reader realise what Jordan has been up to. He has terrified the villagers into complete capitulation – but he’s miscalculated. He can’t instigate his wholesale changes without a labour force and, over breakfast – breakfast! – he tells Walter he is glad he can rely on him. And all the while, much to Walter’s puzzlement, Kent is nodding and smiling encouragement. He is to be steward, in sole charge because everybody else, including the three accused, is to leave.
Which is what happens. Walter lurks in the shadows to avoid meeting Kitty’s gaze – he feels utterly compromised, despite Kent’s encouragement – having only taken proper leave of Kent. They have shared a moment of grieving for a defunct way of life, and for the landscape that had always seemed older than them all. But ‘not for long…’ says Kent wistfully, because very soon it will feel new and strange…. The women will be freed as soon as they reach the market square of the town three days’ journey away – this was the compromise Kent managed to squeeze from Jordan – and off they go, with the wounded and beaten steward more or less tied on to a horse and the little girl riding with the baggage.
Walter views the departure from a favourite old vantage-point, and he is distressed to see how close Kent seems to Jordan. They both wear the high hats of the gentry, both seem suspended from them, away from contact with the ground on their horses. And it all turns into one of those ‘pageants’ he remembers from the mummers’ plays of his childhood as Crace seems to be taking his parable to a new level. (I’ll come back to that idea.). He names the players: Privilege, and Suffering, Guilt, Innocence and Shame. And following them all, invisible, is Despair. Walter has, for his own reasons – I’ve no idea what these might be – not told them that the horses are likely to fall ill within hours, having grazed on windfall apples unsupervised by the groom.
Walter is truly on his own now. There is still the man in the stocks, but he has given his word – much to his own shame – that he will keep him there until the seven days are up. And he continues to worry away at what might have happened to ‘Mistress Beldam’ and to Quill. He keeps going over in his mind what coded messages Kent might have been giving him. At one stage, in Jordan’s presence at the breakfast table, Kent had stared at him wide-eyed. Walter thinks he recognises the look as the same one his wife used to use to warn him secretly to get something done. What did he mean? And how does it fit with Kent’s sorrowful talk about the ending not only of a way of life but of the land itself?
With not many chapters left, I’ve no idea where Crace is going with this. I keep referring to it as a parable, but I’m not sure what of. There are Christian elements, but they are heavily compromised, somehow: Jordan’s self-serving mock piety, and the little community’s failed attempts to build a church. But it goes beyond that. Considering that this is notionally a 17th or 18th Century world, there are no routine references to God or Christ, and their stand-in for a village cross is really their pillory. There isn’t even any mention of the names of days, so that if a Sunday has come around nobody’s noticed. I’m beginning to think of this not as a historical novel at all, but one set in a timeless, religion-less alternative world. That comparison I made earlier with settlers on other planets in science fiction doesn’t seem so far from the mark.
Chapters 14-17 – to the end
Is this novel any greater than the sum of its parts? I’m not sure. For something like the first ten or so chapters, Crace deals with some big questions: the ethics of the individual and of society; rampant capitalism and the rights of ordinary people; the limits of popular justice; the dynamics of closed societies; the mistrust of strangers…. But he seems to spend the rest of it withdrawing into Walter’s increasingly self-absorbed consciousness. Once almost everybody else has gone this ceases to be a novel concerned with society at all – we have no idea what happens to any of them – and we seem to be left with questions only of individual concern: how should we behave? What can we expect from those we help? The questions seem increasingly futile as Walter begins to realise that, in spite of a night of drink-fuelled dreams, this is a universe in which he’s on his own. If this really is a parable, is this what it’s about? And is Crace offering any answers? Maybe I’ll come back to that.
Walter spends the night of the fifth day in the manor house, in the bed that Jordan had been sleeping in. He finds Mistress Beldam’s cloak there, and he is comforted (or not) by it. He is still obsessing about her, and about whether Quill ever did find her, and he decides to offer her the cloak, which he leaves in the porch. Tell-tale sounds in the night suggest that she has taken it…. He gets up early and, affecting a kind of swagger – for a moment, he is the one with the power – he releases the man in the pillory. He has decided on a project, believing this is what Kent wanted: as a kind of protest, he gets the man to help him plough a pair of long, straight furrows, a marker to anyone who returns. I’ve no idea what this is about, because the only point soon becomes merely the futility of the gesture. But, in the meantime, Walter has been able to ponder on the significance of having broken bread with the released man. Er… yeh.
Things begin to fall apart. After the shared ploughing, and after Walter alone has sown the furrows with seeds, the other man goes off. Walter has told him that he will be able to take what he wants from the village, hints that he and his wife will be able to make a lot of money…. Whatever Walter was expecting from him, he doesn’t get it. Beyond having decided he is not going to be Jordan’s man, he never has a plan, as he admits later. And from now on he goes deeper inside himself. He doesn’t find anything useful there… but in a field he finds what he thinks might be the hallucinogenic mushrooms and eats some, goes to Kitty’s cottage and drinks far too much of her ale. During a night of broken sleep he has dreams in which he fails to justify his own behaviour to the seven people in the world he has ever had a regard for. He becomes violently sick.
We’re into the seventh day, which sounds full of portent, another biblical-sounding reference. But, as with so many others, Crace doesn’t pursue the idea. What he has is Walter, half-recovered, fantasising about some kind of friendship with the people he now calls ‘the Beldams’. He is so confused, he doesn’t know if he himself prepared the bundle of possessions and provisions he will need for his journey away from here. He remembers imagining a twin, who has helped him… or was it the Beldams?
The last of these seems unlikely. When he realises they have spent the night in the manor house he makes his way there, and pictures a breakfast table laid for all three of them. What he finds instead are the remains of their meal and rooms that have been looted and smashed up. This has all the signs of being the woman’s handiwork – women inflict damage on things, he muses, while men’s violence turns against people – and, not long after, he looks out from a window and sees her setting fire to one cottage after another. He’s in a turret room rendered unsafe through years of neglect, and realises he is in danger if she decides to burn down the manor house. We’re in a genuine stream-of-conscience narrative as he calculates how quickly he will be able to get down the half-collapsed stairs…
…but, drawn there by the blood that has seeped from it, he opens a chest and find a body inside. It’s Quill, whose wounds are from having been run through the body many times. But it becomes just another unsolvable mystery…. Meanwhile, the Beldams leave the big house alone, and set out from the village with a big cart loaded with more or less everything of value. The plough and other tools, the looms that Kent’s wife had used… Walter ruefully remembers that this, in fact, was what he had promised them. After setting the manor house alight – he presents it to himself as giving Quill something like a proper cremation – he decides he will follow the Beldams at a distance of fifty yards. He imagines that they will soon allow him to travel with them…. Yeh, sure.
Just before this, Walter puts himself through a rite of passage. In a variation of the ritual of ‘beating the bounds’, in which an awareness of the confines of their own lives is literally beaten into children, Walter knocks his own forehead hard enough against the marker-post at the edge of the village to draw blood. He contemplates the other wounds he’s received – the burnt hand, the bruised face – and… and what? Perhaps he’s an Everyman – I always think that if I’m stumped for anything else – and the place he’s stuck in, whatever his plans might be, is the human condition. The first person plural, the ‘we’ that forms such a big part of the opening pages of the novel is looking increasingly desperate. He occasionally returns to it in moments of hope, such as when he pictures a life in some market town with Kitty and the young queen of the harvest or, less ambitiously, travelling the road with the Beldams. He must know he’s only fooling himself. He’s on his own. But then (cue mood music) aren’t we all?