Five Gold Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens
I shall let the author speak for his book himself:
Ulverton opens in 1650 when a returning veteran of Cromwell’s army is murdered by his wife and the man she married while he was away. In 1989, the victim’s skeleton is unearthed by a descendant of the murderers constructing a development that will help spoil what remains of old Ulverton. In the ten intervening episodes, we encounter a sin-obsessed clergyman, a farmer obsessed with improving fertilizer while his wife goes insane and he carries on an affair with a servant, an adulterous aristocratic wife, an illiterate mother whose son awaits hanging for supposedly stealing a hat, an elderly carpenter cadging drinks by recounting how he fooled his tyrannical master, a group of rebellious agricultural workers on trial in 1830 for smashing farm machinery, a woman photographer in 1859, a ploughman reminiscing about village life, the excavation of a prehistoric barrow during the beginning of World War I, and the diary of a frustrated secretary during the death of George VI and coronation of Elizabeth II, in whose honour ancient wagons and farm tools are to be burned in a bonfire. “Why can’t folk leave the past alone?” asks the secretary. At the end, the village within earshot of a roaring motorway, houses computer firms, and seems destined for inevitable urbanization.Ulverton not only re-creates “the rich and complex pages of our ancient country”, but is a reflection on language, time and change.
This continues to be the novel most people know me by, which is frustrating. I remember the precise moment of inspiration, while crossing a ploughed field up on the Berkshire Downs on a cold clear February day. The whole thing mapped itself out in my head, and I felt an extraordinary pull from the chalky earth.
In fact, as at least three critics noticed, as can be read in the following excerpts, it is a way of telling social English history through the means of literature.
Hilary Mantel: May 10 1992
ON THE cover of Adam Thorpe’s novel there is a detail from The Haywain – a little rustic figure, almost formless, who seems to rise out of the water and mud. This is Thorpe’s subject matter: the landscape of England and the half-noticed people who live against it. His chosen ground is a downland village in west Berkshire; his book is a series of interlinked narratives, each one fed by its predecessor, each one informing what follows.
1650: A shepherd who has left his pastures to join Cromwell’s army, and who has seen service on the Irish killing-fields, returns to reclaim his bit of land; in his pockets are rings (cut from dead fingers?) and a tangle of dusty ribbons for his wife’s hair. Only one person, the shepherd-narrator, sees him arrive; then he vanishes. Gone away again, or dead? The narrator knows the answer, but conceals it. His simple, strong language reveals gradually the depth of his loneliness and sexual need; his stoicism cracks, and he trades truth for comfort. And a local legend is born: the shepherd who consorted with a witch.
The next century brings ”improvements”: a farmer keeps his mind on Mr Tull’s seed drill and on the qualities of hog’s dung to avoid thinking of his dead child, who appears to him at night.
1742: a woman sits in her room at the great house, writing letters to London to a lover who will never come back.
The 1830s bring riots, machine-breaking, ”Captain Swing”.
Each story creates its own world; Adam Thorpe writes beautifully, balancing each sentence as if it were poetry; he gives a voice to his often inarticulate characters without ever patronising them, and his idiom is always appropriate, always evolving. The stories work by accretion, so that as the book progresses it takes on more and more power. Images and motifs recur, and are more potent because they seem to arise naturally out of the consciousness of his characters; the inner metaphors by which they live are drawn from their observation of the world about them.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, with the coming of photography, a different quality of attention is turned on the village.
As the First World War breaks out, the squire is excavating a barrow above Ulverton, prospecting for the bones of early Britons while sending the present generation to be dug into the Flanders mud.
In 1953, when the villagers are burying a ”time capsule”, they are still under the sway of local legends, garbled and amplified. A bradawl thrown into the river in 1803 comes to light 150 years later, and is mistaken for a Saxon dagger.
And in 1988, Ulverton is the setting for a TV film: a year in the life of a property developer. At this point the author himself speaks: Adam Thorpe, expert on local ghosts and local curses, is blamed when the ”Westminster” – five beds, ”Victorian” conservatory – fails to sell. Whatever the future – light industrial units, low-cost starter homes – the past is inviolable. A skeleton which appears to be that of a Cromwellian soldier comes to light in the property developer’s field.
Andrew St George: May 14, 1992
”IT MAY be,” wrote John Moore in the 1944 Brensham Trilogy, ”that the country towns and villages will be for a period the repositories (like the monasteries in the Dark Ages) of a certain way of life, a certain sort of culture.” Adam Thorpe’s bold and fascinating first novel, Ulverton, proves him right. Thorpe has written an anatomy of a Berkshire village from the Civil War to the present, a fictional repository of accreted history held in lives, voices and landscapes.
Ulverton holds together curiously. The first chapter resurfaces in the last. The book opens in 1650, as a Roundhead returns home to find his wife has remarried; he disappears, murdered, and the centuries wash over him until in the final chapter a property developer is thwarted by the discovery of a soldier’s skeleton beneath a 1988 building site.
The 10 chapters in between are peopled with vanished forms of rural life. Three apprentices mimic a hellfire sermon just after the Glorious Revolution.
Then in 1712 an agrarian revolutionary, excited by talk of muskings, spewey loam and Mr Tull’s seed drill, tells of his mad wife’s death and his weakness for the milkmaid.
Then follows an eighteenth-century epistolary love affair as a woman writes to the father of her illegitimate baby, dreaming of raspberries and mutton and correcting his feeble poems.
The year 1803 brings a monologue from a wheelwright, proud and knowledgeable: ”Thy work goes on till the article be broke up, which if thy work be carried out proper won’t be till long after thee be dead an’ buried.”
Thirty years on, Thorpe offers the diary of a tubercular circuit judge in Sessions during the turmoil of the machine-breaking riots. All the while, Ulverton persists by changing. Its fields take on new names; a dotty squire has a chalk horse etched out of the hillside.
A photographer’s handbook from 1859 finds mellow certainties in the tamed landscape: a wooden bridge, soon to be replaced, over an ”oft-flooded ford”; or the village schoolmaster and the rectory tea, all recorded, all perfectly fitted to the surroundings. The photographer even manages a typically Victorian expedition to an Egyptian excavation, merely an extension of home.
The best chapter comes from 1914, and tells of an amateur archaeologist digging at Ulverton. News of the Great War comes piecemeal, but a pall of foreboding hangs over the proceedings. The local squire exhorts a recruitment meeting with his own history: ” ‘My grandfather . . . bore this sword at Waterloo’ . . . The Squire swung it through the evening air, and its high hiss was the civilised thrum of the great Empire, quietly valiant, subduing only the bloody places of the world, erecting Industry in its stead.”
Then follows 1953, bringing radio, gramophone records and tape-recording.
Lastly, in 1988, history becomes something fought over, as the developer builds ”Balmorals”, ”Westminsters” and ”Windsors”. Thorpe finds a pattern of timely moments that deliver England then and now, resonating backward and forward.
Ulverton amounts to a rural version of Simon Schama’s fine Dead Certainties, putting the fictive spin on historical events. Its strengths come from its breadth of vision, its wide sympathies and from Thorpe’s powers as a creator of historical dialogue: he has used glossaries, unmodernised spellings and books of husbandry to produce a credible context.
The weaknesses lie in the book’s resolute diffuseness, and in the obtuse connections between the chapters. However, Thorpe knows that among the sifting processes of history, where facts harden, persist and reappear in new forms, historians are forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner out of earshot. Connections have to be earned. As time thins the density of attachment with the past, his book charts the double sadness of waning understanding and growing ignorance about the environment. Modern life, scabrous and disconnected, can only look back to better times, since it has no past image of itself by which to create a present. This makes the book a passionate appeal for rural continuity and gradual change, for a world in which it makes a difference where one lives.
GuardianJohn Fowles: May 28, 1992.Outwardly the story of a Wessex downland village (I suspect not too far from Richard Jefferies’ heartland, near Swindon), it is told in a dozen very varied accounts (starting in Cromwellian England and ending in the 1980s). What I found remarkable in this long fictional sequence (from very different periods and social milieux) of episodes from our rural and agricultural past was their skill and vividness. One , is not introduced so often for nothing: Thorpe’s characters and events constantly intertwine, snake their way through the generations. This interconnectedness is partly what gives the book its rich and dense texture; and gives it its sense of crossing rhythms – the slowness of time and its ephemeral transience. It should also shame all urban groaners fearing themselves back in Cold Comfort Farm. It really isn’t one of those.
We aren’t used to the many deep matters Thorpe evokes or touches on, nor to such a thorough grasp of the complex nature of our national rural past, and through it, of all existence itself. He lives in France and some of that country’s literary expertise in getting close to the imaginative reality of the past haunts his work, with an added skill in uncovering the endless English ways (perfide Albion!) we have found to mask and conceal our paradoxical nature.
He seems equally at home with dialect, farming language and (most importantly) the “sound” of period. He has a truly great skill with different tones of voice – perhaps the hardest thing for any novelist to acquire. For this doesn’t just require a vocal skill at mimicry, but the knack of conveying it in print. The last episode in this novel (dated 1988) is a mock script for a documentary on the village. It is sour-funny, as a hideous Thatcherite developer moves in and tries to ride rough-shod through the usual bureaucracy (strangled by their own lamentable jargon) and kerfuffling local opposition. Most of the modern village, on every side, express themselves in a language so tired and debased that it explains in itself why England these days so often seems self-torpedoed. If you are losing your language, you are in grave danger of losing yourself.
One of the amusingly incoherent opponents to this 20th century rape of the village called Ulverton is a man called Adam Thorpe; but as the novelist, he neatly traces the blood of the appalling developer of 1988 to that of the sullen murderer in the novel’s first episode three centuries earlier. I suspect he is as au fait with contemporary literary theory as he is with obsolete agricultural naming.
Hilary Mantel does describe the material tenor of the book in its ten sequences or chapters with a little crticism. I do not agree with Andrew St George’s critic “The weaknesses lie in the book’s resolute diffuseness, and in the obtuse connections between the chapters”. These are not weaknesses but the way memory works. Past history is sometimes forgotten in one or two generations, sometimes changed in details, and the amount of changes becomes such that a new history is entirely created. “Resolute diffuseness” and “obtuse connections between the chapters” are the essence of what John Fowles calls the “frequent symbol, the wild clematis “.
Five Gold Rings
Four Calling Birds
Three French Hens