Sunday, 26 December 2010

Ribstone Pippins

Continuing my project to read the works of Maxwell Gray, I just finished her 1898 novel Ribstone Pippins: A Country Tale.

Ribstone Pippins is a short novel (148 pages) that takes place over a few days in the life of Jacob Hardinge, a young carter who lives with his grandmother at "Westway" (perhaps Westridge, near Chale) on the south-west coast of the Isle of Wight.

Jacob has made the decision to propose marriage to his sweetheart, Elisabeth Woodford, and plans to fit this into a delivery to "Estridge" (probably Yaverland), where she is in service. He packs a gift of choice apples - the eponymous Ribstone Pippins - and takes his wagon first to "Oldport" (Newport), where he endures the embarrassment of going into a posh shop to buy Elisabeth a blue kerchief, then on to Estridge.

On arrival, however, he finds Elisabeth is not there, and a serving-girl tells him she has run off to Portsmouth with a soldier called Hopkins. The next day, tormented by visions of her fate and imagining she might have turned to prostitution, he travels despondently homeward back through Oldport. At the smithy at "Malbourne" (Calbourne), however, he and his fellow carters hear a cry from the roadside, and find the gravely ill Elisabeth lying there with a head wound. They take her home, where she lies at death's door.

A few days later Jacob receives an illiterate letter from Estridge saying that "hall you was tolled fryDay nite was lyes throo jellusy". He hurries to see Elisabeth, who is roused by his tearful presence and wakes to recognise him. The truth is revealed; Elisabeth didn't elope to Portsmouth, but fell ill in service and was sent home. Worsening en route, she was taken to the infirmary in Oldport, and on her partial recovery tried to walk the eight miles home, not realising how weak she was, and had fallen on the road. She recovers, and the next spring she and Jacob marry.

It's admittedly a slight story, and somewhat idealised; Jacob is a kind of noble savage, untutored but honest, honourable and in tune with nature. But its strength is its warm and realistic treatment of Jacob and his friends Moses and Ben, carters who banter through the day (although, oddly, never swear) as they manage their heavy horse team, Thunder, Cherry, Farmer and Diamond (a potentially lethal job, whose procedures and terminology - the lead, thill, body horse, etc - are closely observed). An added point of interest is that the dialogue is in 19th century Isle of Wight dialect ...
I minds en and I minds wold clack ever zence I wer the tittiest little maäid, avore I could chipper no zense

I remember it and I remember the old clock ever since I was the tiniest little girl, before I could talk any sense
... which, despite daunting first appearances, rapidly becomes accessible.

I strongly suspect - in fact I'm absolutely certain, from close similarity of spelling and vocabulary choice - that Maxwell Gray wrote the novel with a copy of William Henry Long's 1886 A Dictionary of the Isle of Wight Dialect to hand.  I read them side by side, but a hypertext edition referencing the dialect words would be very handy. Overall, it's hardly a deep novel, and the central plot twist is a bit unlikely, but it's enjoyable for its snapshot of the rural Isle of Wight of a century and half ago. Ribstone Pippins is online at the Internet Archive: ID ribstonepippins00graygoog.

A Dictionary of the Isle of Wight Dialect makes interesting reading in its own right. The book was published by subscription (i.e. sponsored), and its subscribers form a list of Isle of Wight worthies at the time, such as A Harbottle Estcourt (the Deputy Governor of the Isle of Wight) and Hallam Tennyson (Alfred Lord Tennyson's eldest son). It's not just a glossary of local terms (which include "mallishag" = caterpillar, "cocksettle" = overturn or somersault, and "nammet" = a snack), but also includes illustratory anecdotes, as well as folk songs, a dialect Christmas play, and an Isle of Wight "Hoaam Harvest". The content was obsolete even at the time of writing - it's billed as "A Treasury of Insular Manners and Customs of Fifty Years Ago" (i.e. 1836), and this places the likely time slot for Ribstone Pippins. The dialect is virtually extinct now, although I'm sure a few words and turns of phrase persist (I remember an older relative saying that she called caterpillars "mallishags" as a child).

Addendum: I've just been reading contemporary reviews of Ribstone Pippins. They're divided between those that considered it a pleasant and gentle romance, and those that thought it ghastly. I can't resist quoting in full one of the latter, from an 1898 edition of the New York based Chap-Book Semi-Monthly:
WERE it not for the device of a rivulet of prose wandering through a meadow of margin 1, this small "country tale," Ribstone Pippins, could barely be expanded into its present slender volume. The prose appears to be deftly divided — after the well-known manner of Miss Murfree 2 — into alternate leaves of dialect and and description. One suspects that the latter may be designed to heal the blows of sound made by the intolerable consonants of the peasant "vearmers". Jacob, the carter, is no clod to whom a yellow primrose is yellow and no more 3, but he has "clean, young, healthy blood leaping in his strong pulses," and can gaze at the harvest moon o' nights and sigh with any man. And of course he goes courting with eleven red apples — Ribstone Pippins — in his handkerchief, taking his wool sacks to the town at the same time as becomes a farmer poet. A pretty enough journey it is, too, with Thunder, the big stallion, and Charlie, the sober thill horse, as they ride along the early English ways, scattering vowels of strange shire-song along the morning peace. It would have been better and fairer and more humane had Jacob's journey ended as lovers' journeys should in lovers' meetings. The quite needless insult which meets him at the little door, where he had pictured his Alisbeth's face, quite mars what should have been all pure joyous pastoral. For having ruthlessly plunged her sweethearts into woes of her own making, their author is obliged to drag them out again perforce. This is done by one of those deathbed recoveries which are the despair of science and the recourse of the hard-pushed romancer. If, indeed, desperate illness tied at the approach of a proper carter, how might that fading trade look up. Shorn of its willful fine writing, the book would barely amount to more than a pleasant sketch of magazine length. To put it forth with the full pretentions of a book seems to have but little other ground than that once—or twice—its author has done better.
1. An allusion to a line in Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The School for Scandal.
2. The American author Mary Noailles Murfree (1850-1992), who wrote dialect fiction in Appalachian settings.
3. An allusion to Wordsworth's Peter Bell.

- Ray

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