Saturday, 10 November 2012

Joseph and his Brethren by H.W. Freeman

This 1928 novel is another Suffolk book, telling the story of a farming family, the Geaiters, who take on the unpromising Crakenhill Farm and, through astonishingly dedicated hard work, make it profitable.  Benjamin Geaiter, the patriarch of the family, generates gossip in the local village; he has served time for manslaughter and, it is rumoured, beats his wife.  Emily Geaiter expires (due to overwork and not any sort of assault) in the first chapter, and the novel focuses on Benjamin and his sons and their unassailable passion for the land they work.  Repeatedly, the younger Geaiters toy with the idea of leaving Crakenhill, and repeatedly they are drawn back to the farm.  None of them marry; even handsome Harry, the youngest, is persuaded by his brothers' arguments and his own love of the farm to break off with his sweetheart.  But when their old housekeeper dies, she is replaced by eighteen-year-old Nancy, hired almost on a whim by Benjamin, who spots her scrubbing a doorstep and recognises strength and diligence when he sees it.  Nancy makes Crakenhill much more pleasant, but she also disrupts the delicately balanced relationships between father and sons, and brother and brother.

All the brothers fall in love to some degree with Nancy, but their hamfisted competition for her affections falls away when they realise that she is pregnant, and Benjamin is the father.  Benjamin marries Nancy at the eleventh hour, and their son Joseph is at first an unwelcome addition to the family.  But gradually the Geaiter brothers come to dote on Joseph, and he loves nothing more than to go with them about their daily tasks, absorbing their skills and their passion for their land.  Second marriages and half-siblings create tensions around inheritances, as all listeners to The Archers will know, and the last part of the novel shows how these factors affect the brothers, and how they seek to preserve their affectionate unity through difficult times.

The date of this novel and the characterisation of the Geaiter brothers make me think this must have been one of the many texts satirised by Stella Gibbons in Cold Comfort Farm.  There is an awful lot to remind us of the male Starkadders here, especially among the dimmer Geaiter brothers.  Here is Ern, tempted to leave Crakenhill for the army, having second thoughts:

Ern was sitting with his head in his hands, looking intently out of the window, and he was hankering after his cows.  He had just caught a glimpse of a farmyard with cattle chewing tranquilly in the byre, just as they did at Crakenhill [...] In a neighbouring field five big black sows were routing in the turf with their litters tumbling happily around them; they looked up with a grunt, snout in the air, to watch the train roar past [...] All the longing which had been struggling with him for the last two hours, suddenl burst out and took possession of him - the longing for his cows and pigs, for Crakenhill with its sagging roof and crow-stepped gable, for his brothers, even his father, because they belonged there.

Nancy's transformation of shabby, uncomfortable Crakenhill into a pleasant farmhouse also prefigures Flora Poste's good offices at Cold Comfort.  While the book is necessarily focused on its male characters, and the constraints and pleasures of rural life for them, Freeman is also acute in the way he depicts his few female characters and the limited scope they have.  Nancy, orphaned and exploited, quite possibly raped by Benjamin, still chooses to marry him because marriage to a successful farmer increases her status hugely.   The emphasis throughout is on the hardness of rural life, the endless backbreaking toil of farming and housekeeping and childrearing, but Freeman also stresses the beauty and nobility of this work and the rewards of such a strong connection to the land/.

As well as Cold Comfort, this book has obvious echoes of Hardy, although for me it lacked the ironic narrative voice that you get in Hardy; the narrative is straightforward and generally reticent, although you occasionally do get a little narrative comment on the actions of the characters, who are mostly seen in the round, their good and bad aspects unflinchingly examined.  This can make them difficult to love or even like, although they remain interesting and I found, once the plot had wound itself up, that the novel was rather compelling.  So did a lot of other people, apparently, because this book was a bestseller in its day and an American Book of the Month choice.  This book was written away from its location, when H.W. Freeman was living in Florence; I think this helps account for the intensity and the lyricism of his descriptions of the Suffolk countryside, conjured from his imagination and his memory. The primacy of the landscape in this novel does mean, however, that the characterisation is occasionally simplistic, although eldest brother Ben, Harry and young Joseph do all emerge as distinct personalities.

There is a current paperback edition of this book, published by Old Pond Press, who also publish a couple of other Freeman novels.