Sunday, 27 July 2014

Two Devon romances

Just skimming through some regional notes, I found bookmarks to two Devon-based romances - with somewhat similar themes but very different mood - by authors better known for other works and other locations, Thomas Hardy and John Galsworthy.

"The attitude bespoke anguish" - from The Graphic (Summer 1883): 19.
Scanned image and text Philip V. Allingham, The Victorian Web

The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid (Thomas Hardy, 1883), despite its lightweight title,  is a tight psychological novella concerning the consequences of a Devon dairymaid inadvertently saving a mysterious aristocrat from suicide. Margery Tucker, taking a short cut across the grounds of a country house, encounters the Baron von Xanten sitting on the grass with a pistol. At her approach he puts the gun away, and they talk until the postman arrives, bringing a letter with good news. The Baron says "My guardian child—my good friend—you have saved me!".

The Baron, in gratitude, offers to grant her a wish, and Margery chooses to go to a ball in nearby Exonbury (Exeter). This the Baron arranges, in Cinderella style providing her with transport, a ball gown and other necessary clothing to pass as a lady. Afterward, when she has changed back to her own clothing, he burns the gown etc. - on the grounds that this was the strict letter of the agreement (that the only thing she wished for was to go to the ball) - and considers the deal done.

Margery, however, is attracted to the Baron, even obsessed, despite her awareness of their class difference. He acts the perfect gentleman, and doesn't take advantage of her. But the fact of her attraction disrupts Margery's existing engagement to the master lime-burner Jim Hayward, and the Baron, aware of this, bankrolls Jim's courtship of Margery, and organises a complicated bit of theatre to get the two married by pretending that it's his dying wish - though Margery insists that it be kept secret and that she and Jim should live apart. They eventually end up contentedly married on a normal basis, though Margery's fascination with the Baron von Xanten isn't fully dispelled even on his death (by reputed suicide) years later.

The story is set in Hardy's Wessex mythos, and largely takes place at Silverthorn, Lower Wessex, which has been identified by various Hardy commentators as Silverton, about 8 miles north of Exeter, traditionally a dairy farming district.
It was half-past four o'clock (by the testimony of the land-surveyor, my authority for the particulars of this story, a gentleman with the faintest curve of humour on his lips); it was half-past four o'clock on a May morning in the eighteen forties. A dense white fog hung over the Valley of the Exe, ending against the hills on either side.

But though nothing in the vale could be seen from higher ground, notes of differing kinds gave pretty clear indications that bustling life was going on there. This audible presence and visual absence of an active scene had a peculiar effect above the fog level. Nature had laid a white hand over the creatures ensconced within the vale, as a hand might be laid over a nest of chirping birds.
The story went through various drafts, Margery originally living at 'Stickleford Dairy-House' near Casterbridge (Dorchester), so the whole story has been transplanted from Dorset. FB Pinion's Thomas Hardy, art and thought (1977) comments that
It would be a wild goose chase to search for any of the background in or near the Exe valley. Some of the original topography is interesting. The yacht which carries the Baron away to sea had waited in a cove which must be Lulworth, from 'the miniature Pillars of Hercules' which form its mouth'. Jim's chase of the Baron and Margery began at the review which was held on a hill outside Casterbridge. This must be Poundbury or 'Pummery' (outside Dorchester).
This change of location explains the geological peculiarity of Jim's lime-kiln being sited on a small outcrop of limestone, of which there is no such thing in the Culm Valley adjacent to Silverton.

It's a rather strange story, mixing realism with fable-like allusions; there's a detailed synopsis and critique in Andrew Maunder's The Facts on File Companion to the British Short Story (pp 360-361), which notes that contemporary reviewers criticised its improbabilities, and that it has been dismissed as a "mere potboiler" by later critics. It was, nevertheless, popular with readers. The Victorian Web has an analysis of its format - Thomas Hardy's Novella The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid -- Short Story, Novel, or Novella? - and its reception by American readers on its serialisation in Harper's Weekly: Re-creating an American Reading of Thomas Hardy's Novella The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid (1883).

The Romantic Adventures of a Milkmaid (Project Gutenberg #2996).

Still from A Summer Story

The Apple Tree (John Galsworthy, 1916) appears in the 1918 collection Five Tales, and has a very different flavour: a story of a man realising the consequences of a secret episode from his youth.

On the day of their silver wedding anniversary, Frank and Stella Ashurst - a very erudite couple (he's carrying in his pocket "Murray's translation of the Hippolytus") - are driving across Dartmoor to Torquay, where they met 26 years previously. At a stop, they spot a grave at a crossroads, and suddenly Frank is struck by the scene:
Surely there was something familiar about this view, this bit of common, that ribbon of road, the old wall behind him. While they were driving he had not been taking notice—never did; thinking of far things or of nothing—but now he saw! Twenty-six years ago, just at this time of year, from the farmhouse within half a mile of this very spot he had started for that day in Torquay whence it might be said he had never returned. And a sudden ache beset his heart; he had stumbled on just one of those past moments in his life, whose beauty and rapture he had failed to arrest, whose wings had fluttered away into the unknown; he had stumbled on a buried memory, a wild sweet time, swiftly choked and ended. And, turning on his face, he rested his chin on his hands, and stared at the short grass where the little blue milkwort was growing....

And this is what he remembered
This framing device introduces the story of how Frank, after finishing at Oxford University, is on a walking holiday with a friend; he asks for temporary lodgings at a farmhouse because his "football knee had given out". His friend returns to London, and Ashurst rapidly falls into a secret affair with the 17-year-old Megan David, a Welsh farm girl. At one of their meetings by an apple tree, she tells him she loves him, and he promises to take her away:
"To-morrow I'll go to Torquay and get some money, and get you some clothes that won't be noticed, and then we'll steal away. And when we get to London, soon perhaps, if you love me well enough, we'll be married."
Once in Torquay, however, he finds he has to wait for his London bank to authorise the money, and then he runs into an old school friend, Phil Halliday, who is staying there with his sisters who are convalescing from measles. In this congenial company - and particularly that of Stella, Halliday's artistic and intelligent eldest sister - he increasingly finds reasons not to return for Megan, and after a few days of Devon excursions, goes back to London with the Hallidays. A year later, he marries Stella. Finally we come out of the framing device, and Ashurst meets an elderly labourer who tells him the story behind the grave, and the consequences of his desertion are revealed.

It's a powerful and tragic story that has been adapted several times: two radio adaptations, including one by Orson Welles, and as an excellent 1988 film drama, A Summer Story, starring James Wilby, Imogen Stubbs and Susannah York. The film slightly embellishes the story and alters the timing; it has Ashurst - renamed Ashton - meeting Megan in 1904 and revisiting the scene in 1922, and his return is no accident, but a deliberate visit to find out what happened to her. Owing to the considerable changes to Torquay since 1904, other locations such as Dartmouth and Sidmouth fill in. See YouTube for the full film.

The segment filmed on Sidmouth sea front, with Peak Hill beyond
The location of the grave in The Apple Tree is fairly precise ...
They had walked that day from Brent, intending to make Chagford, but Ashurst's football knee had given out, and according to their map they had still some seven miles to go.
... and this matches the known background of the story, which is based on Jay's Grave, a roadside grave of uncertain origin near Manaton, at the south-east of Dartmoor. A great deal of Galsworthy's earlier work was written at Wingstone, a farmhouse in Manaton where he stayed with the then-married Ada Nemesis Pearson Cooper, who became his wife in 1905. Wingstone was their second home from 1908 to 1923, when the lease expired (ref: pp 323-324, The Literary Guide & Companion to Southern England, Ohio University Press, 1998).

The Apple Tree (in Five Tales, Project Gutenberg #2684).

- Ray

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