“Cider with Rosie” by Laurie Lee

In its obituary of Laurie Lee, the Guardian wrote, “that he had a nightingale inside him, a capacity for sensuous, lyrical precision.” The phrase encapsulates Lee’s extraordinary gift for poetry, the way he could lay a finely-turned line of verse down in this exquisite portrait of a long-dead England. He has a nimble, vibrant voice; there are flashes of “Under Milk Wood” dialogue, the Gerald Durrell language of boyhood, pitch-perfect comedy; and rifts with well-chosen, simple, ripe words. It is poetry in the finest school of Falstaff and Hal; a love letter to his mother (described below), his family, his childhood, and a country which has been extinguished by progress.

“…Solitary, eyes closed, in her silks and secrets, tearing arpeggios from the yellow keys, yielding, through dusty but golden chords to the peak of that private moment, it was clearly then, in the twilight tenderness she created, that the man should have returned to her…”

I am pleased, in some ways, that I did not read this book at school. I know it is the great favourite, but there is always that risk that schoolroom excavations can turn a work of art into a kind of icon of your exam years – I certainly couldn’t read “Of Mice and Men” anymore without recalling the classroom. Not, of course, that studying a novel ruins it in any way – that’s an argument everyone who has ever studied Literature is used to swatting away with disdain – but reading a book at a particular time can forever link it to a certain point in your own life. And I don’t think that I would have experienced the true, bittersweet sadness of “Cider With Rosie” as a teenager, when my childhood was still so recent –something about commuting on the tube every day so that you arrive at work snarling, sweaty, and slightly less humane, or seeing yet another swathe of the green-belt swallowed by uniform houses and office-blocks, really makes you ache for a time like Laurie Lee’s. When life was governed by the seasons and festivals, and when your village was your universe. I’ve romanticised it in the reading, but Laurie Lee doesn’t shrink from the harder truths either – he includes the deaths of children, and poverty, and the terrible cold; and there are murders here, and thieving, and glimpses of sexual abuse. It was by no means a pre-lapsarian world – but we seem to have lost a great deal of mythology in the transition to ours.

“I belonged to that generation which saw, by chance, the end of a thousand years’ life.

In what is only my second foray into the world of politics on this blog, “Cider with Rosie” also made me think very carefully about something Naomi Klein said in the Guardian last year:

“Climate change is place-based, and we are everywhere at once. The problem is not just that we are moving too quickly. It is also that the terrain on which the changes are taking place is intensely local: an early blooming of a particular flower, an unusually thin layer of ice on a lake, the late arrival of a migratory bird. Noticing those kinds of subtle changes requires an intimate connection to a specific ecosystem. That kind of communion happens only when we know a place deeply, not just as scenery but also as sustenance, and when local knowledge is passed on with a sense of sacred trust from one generation to the next.

But that is increasingly rare in the urbanised, industrialised world.”

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/apr/23/climate-change-fight-of-our-lives-naomi-klein

It is not just a sadness that we have lost this intimacy with our homes – it is blinding. Laurie Lee’s childhood was as much defined by his Cotswold valley as by his chaotic family; he knew the moment a season had changed, the names of local flora and fauna, and how to make his way home in the pitch-black of winter. How many of us can say that? Would we notice if a particular bird didn’t sing, or if the daffodils were late one year? We shouldn’t just read “Cider with Rosie” with nostalgic longing, we should use it as a kind of map. Because if we stop listening to the “white-whiskered, gaitered, booted, and bonneted, ancient-tongued last of their world,” then we are turning our backs on countless lifetimes of knowledge, which is not just beautiful – it is becoming necessary.

“The village in fact was like a deep-running cave still linked to its antic past…This cave that we inhabited looked backwards through chambers  that led  to our ghostly beginnings; and had not, as yet, been tidied up, or scrubbed clean by electric light, or suburbanized by a Victorian church, or papered by cinema screens.”

“The Rector’s Daughter” by F.M. Mayor

F.M Mayor had a wonderful ability to capture the essence of a relationship or character in a few words:

“The ladies were very happy together. Isabel carried the wraps, and was contradicted whenever Mrs Herbert wanted to contradict.”

“…but one only had to look at Mildred’s clear eyes and round, rosy cheeks to see that she was a lay nun, a wholesome, though not very luscious apple.”

And, one of the most loaded sentences I can remember having read recently: “Mary and Aunt Lottie removed to their suburb.”

In “The Rector’s Daughter”, Mayor conjured an exquisitely sad story of truncated love, and depicted with grace and suppressed vitality the lot of a woman in the years just before emancipation. Mayor herself lived during that strange, liminal time when Victorian England was giving way to the liberated 20s – the daughter of a clergyman, she was one of the few women to study at Cambridge in the late 1800s before ultimately becoming a writer of considerable talent.

In “The Rector’s Daughter”, Mayor tells the story of Mary Jocelyn, the thirty-five year old, plain, unmarried daughter of the Canon of Dedmayne. Mary has lived a life of quiet self-sacrifice; first caring for her disabled sister and later dedicating herself thanklessly to her father’s work and the running of the church. Rather like Jane Eyre, a vein of creative energy and deep emotion runs through her, and she occasionally tries her hand at writing essays and poetry before setting these emotional impulses aside as evidence of mental instability. When Robert Herbert – a fellow clergyman and son of Canon Dedmayne’s greatest friend – comes to the area, Mary experiences love for the first time in her life and something approaching hope. For a brief spell she allows herself to believe that she may marry and have children of her own, but at the last moment Mr Herbert meets the young, beautiful and mercurial Kathy, and chooses her instead.

Reader, I married him.” That most famous of lines thrills the heart of any romantic, as the plain, fiercely intelligent and loyal Jane Eyre is rewarded by Charlotte Bronte with the love of the exquisite Mr Rochester. In F.M Mayor’s story, set fifty or so years later but in such a similarly limited rural world, Mary finds her soul-mate but not a husband. Her story is made up of a series of disasters and sacrifices: the cold father whose affection she seems unable to win; the lover who taunts her with impassioned declarations and subsequent indifference; Kathy’s temporary friendship; and the tantalizing hope of a literary career which never really moves beyond stuttered promises of opportunity. As much as I was reminded of Charlotte Bronte, I also found myself recalling John Williams’ “Stoner” – another tale of thwarted potential and wasted love:

He had wanted the singleness and the still connective passion of marriage; he had had that, too, and he had not known what to do with it, and it had died. He had wanted love; and he had had love, and had relinquished it, had let it go into the chaos of potentiality. Katherine, he thought. “Katherine.”

It is a desperately sad story, and yet, for some reason, never depressing. In part, I think, because there is a remarkable stoicism and even a dry sort of humour in the novel. Mary never truly feels what it is to be loved with faithful constancy, but she has the distinction of being a truly kind, intelligent woman who feels with a remarkable depth. That, in a way, is enough. Though her opportunities for articulating the reality of her inner-life are few, her life is not an arid one. On the contrary – you get the sense that her emotional reality has been far richer than that of the London intellectuals she encounters in one painful scene (“The point, I feel sure, is,” said Mr Worsley, crushing levity, “that whether one loves or hates, or is faithful or unfaithful, life is always a comedy and always a pageant.“) In the end, Robert Herbert’s posthumous affection  even grants Mary a kind of apotheosis: “…for no photograph, no speaking portrait, could have captured what he loved so much in her – that depth and intensity of feeling which rarely showed itself in her face, or even in her words. He could find it in his country’s winds, which she had relished in every part of her.” So often, in literature and in life, we are defined by our relationships – our parents, spouses, friends and children. Mary, however, through the pain of Robert’s rejection, finds something more noble and distinct. She is an individual – not by choice, perhaps, but there is something remarkable in her quiet strength all the same. In another story, written by another author, she may have been Mrs Rochester. In this world, though, she remains as Miss Jocelyn – and finds something heroic in her ability to flourish in suburbia, cherishing her brief experience of love and never drowning in self-pity. No Juliet-esque self-immolation here – instead, Mary ploughs on in Croydon.

There is also nothing heavy-handed in the novel. Mayor portrays the younger generation with the kind of acuity that punctuates Waugh’s novels, yet Kathy is no monster and Robert Herbert, though perhaps weak, is not a villain. It is simply a sad story of crossed-wires and complicated relationships but no-one is really to blame – it is just life, laid bare in all its confusion. In one of my earliest tutorials at Cambridge, when I had been expounding at tedious length and with teenage assuredness about the glory of eternal love, my supervisor gently informed me that I needed to learn to value the ephemeral. I think I have since, but I wish I had read this story then. Mary’s experience of love is no less precious for being fleeting – in a way it is even more vivid for existing in a vacuum. This is a beautiful novel – and, as has been the way this year, I have Susan Hill to thank for it.

Flora Mayor