Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith

Sheila Kaye-Smith was a prolific writer who lived for most of her life in East Sussex, and set many of her books there, drawing on the dramas of agricultural life;  Joanna Godden, published in 1921, was her first big literary success.  Joanna, "a mare that's never been properly broken in", inherits her father's farm on Romney Marsh, in 1897.   Failing to heed advice to get a manager to run it for her, she insists on managing the farm itself, and begins by sacking her shepherd when he fails to heed her advice.  She suffers some setbacks; a poor replacement shepherd and her own project of breeding giant sheep cause her to lose her flock, but after a few years the farm recovers its success, and she is grudgingly accepted as a guest (but definitely not a member) of the local farmers' dining society.  Joanna is a curious mix of the deeply traditional and the unconventional; she overturns class barriers when she and the local squire's son, Martin Trevor, fall in love, but she will not drive to market or anywhere else without a farmworker beside her.  Joanna's love affairs do not run smoothly, and her project to make a lady of her sister Ellen, through education at a school in Folkstone, has some decidedly unexpected and disruptive results.  However, Joanna is tough, resilient and not at all discouraged by the challenges life presents; she believes almost unwaveringly in the prospect of her own success.

Sheila Kaye-Smith was compared to Hardy in her lifetime, and the obvious Hardy counterpart for Joanna is Bathsheba Everdene in Far from the Madding Crowd.  They have some similarities; their determined independence, the way they are distracted and misled by sexual attraction, and their carefully-achieved status in a patriarchal community. Kaye-Smith is not above mocking her heroine's old-fashioned  Joanna Godden is a less subtle and much less tragic book than Hardy's, however, although Kaye-Smith's lyrical praise of the Sussex countryside is as vigorous, if not quite as evocative, as that of her Wessex colleague.  The pleasures of this novel are in the depictions of country life, in anticipating the obstacles life will put in Joanna's path, and wondering how she will overcome them - while remaining convinced that she will.  The ten years or so of the novel also track changes in farming practice and technology, the slow development of an ancient way of life, in a sympathetic but not overly nostalgic way.  I could have done with less of the transcribed dialect from the yokels, but that is a minor quibble.  The Virago edition of this book is still in print.

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