PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
The first novel from, the renowned storyteller Hugh Lupton opens with a scene that could be straight out of Thomas Hardy… A helpless observer of the damage that enclosure is doing to his beloved landscape and the people who live there, a young man torn between romantic love for his muse, Mary Joyce, and the consequences of a moment’s folly with a woman named Betsy Jackson, Clare comes to see that ‘ the bright world has begun, one by one, to break its promises.’ Yet, while the immediate causes of his grief and disillusionment are personal, they are always intricately linked to what is happening to the land – and it is to Lupton’s great credit that, in this engaging and lyrical novel, he brings this relationship between emotional and psychological life and the environment into play at every turn.
This vision transforms a bittersweet love story that takes place ‘seven generations ago’ into a study of the politics of land use, revealing the true nature of British agriculture as systematic exploitation of land and people whose tragic consequences Lupton notes in an afterward, ’we are reaping the full harvest of today.
Three novels about poet John Clare have now been published within a short space of each other - and why not? His story is, after all, the stuff of which fiction is made.
In this beautifully crafted book, Lupton has focused on one pivotal year of Clare’s life; one that foretells the misery and mental problems that would beset him in later years.
But, this is not a book about just one man; it is about a society undergoing colossal upheavals from which the English countryside and its people have never recovered, when the Enclosures Act brings with it riches for some but abject poverty for many.
Lupton has brought to bear his vast understanding of English folklore and culture, and produced an exceptional evocation of an England lost.
This novelisation of a year in the young life of the poet John Clare is a testament to a lifetime's groundbreaking commitment to folk culture. A renowned folk performer, but a first-time novelist, Hugh Lupton is neither a prose stylist, nor a formal innovator of fiction. But he is a master in two areas: storytelling and English rural folk culture. Lupton knows Clare and his village of Helpston, Northamptonshire, as well as anyone, and reconstructs Clare's times with a rare conviction. The context, landscape, language and texture of Clare's life and landscape are re-imagined in enchanting and accurate detail.
Clare has spoken to many creative people across the years: poets Arthur Symons and Edmund Blunden at the start of the twentieth century; Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott and Paul Farley more recently. Playwrights have taken different routes through Clare's life: Edward Bond's play The Fool, revived brilliantly this year in Kilburn after a 35-year hiatus, sets the poet in a world of violent class war, while Simon Rae's play Grass, places an eco-warrior Clare in the 2001 foot-and-mouth pandemic.
Prose writers have also had varying takes on Clare: Alan Moore gives us a magical, anarchic version of Clare in Voice of the Fire; Iain Sinclair psycho-maps Clare's naturally contoured mind in Edge of the Orison; Richard Mabey takes Clare as his companion on a recovery from depression in the brilliant memoir Nature Cure. Serious thinkers like E. P. Thompson, Raymond Williams, Adam Phillips, Roy Porter and Ronald Blythe have also been thrilled by the access Clare provides to a long-forgotten, largely unwritten, world of labouring-class rural life and working intimacy with nature. Even Christopher Hitchens starts his polemic God is Not Great with an account of Clare.
But Clare's reach doesn't stop there. A wide variety of musicians continue to perform and record Clare's folksongs, fiddle music and ballads. The thriving John Clare Society will be thirty years old in 2012. Clare's poetry is now included in primary and secondary school curriculums. There are plans for TV documentaries and Hollywood interest too. His cottage in Helpston is now redeveloped into a glistening multi-million-pound Clare museum. This is truly Clare's moment – he's everywhere. But why is this previously obscure peasant poet of the natural world, born in poverty in 1793, who died in an asylum in 1864, suddenly of any relevance to us now?
The Ballad of John Clare provides the answer. Clare was born into a time of agricultural and social change. We live in a time of impending environmental catastrophe. The focus of this novel is enclosure – that massive reorganisation of the use of agricultural land that took place, parish by parish, inch by mapped inch, across the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The rotating open field system of Clare's farming youth, peppered by common land, heaths, woods, scrub and wetlands, was reformed by Acts of Parliament. Rigid lines determined new ownership. Land was drained and reclaimed, hedged and fenced. Ditches were dug, rivers straightened, woodlands erased, and commons ploughed. Clare's horror at the abuses of the land around him – and the sheer ignorance of natural wonder that allowed it – led to a loss of a personal Eden from which he never recovered. There is therefore a direct relevance of Clare's poetic vision, and personal experience, to current anxieties about the ongoing impact of our industrialised, alienated distance from the earth and skies we continue to poison. Clare is now beginning to occupy the same place in relation to green environmentalism that Mary Wollstonecraft does in relation to feminism. Embedded within his proto-green politics is a celebration of common customs and common land, and an acute eye for an extraordinary rural life now all but gone.
Another rite of passage is beautifully, and painfully, uncovered in The Ballad of John Clare which tells the story of twelve momentous months in the early life of the peasant poet, educated beyond his class and struggling to make sense of a world in which starvation and malnutrition are a constant presence owing to the land enclosures and rural reclamation by landowners in early 19th-century England. The poet courts his childhood sweetheart, labours in the fields, has his first sexual encounter and plays the fiddle with the village band in prose that is rich, appealing and perfectly pitched.
John Clare, the ‘peasant poet’ whose collections include The Shepherd’s Calendar, was described by Akenfield author Ronald Blythe as ‘England’s most articulate village voice.’ After years out of fashion, he is attracting a lot of attention again, people being drawn to the story of the troubled poet and horny-handed son of toil who escaped from an asylum in Essex and walked home to Northamptonshire (where he was certified insane and locked up). The Ballad of John Clare which follows hard on the heels of The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds, tells of 12 turbulent months in the life of the labourer. Not a rural idyll but a life of grinding poverty, after the Enclosure Act of 1801, for the poor of the parish.
The Ballad of John Clare imagines one year in the life of the young poet as the Enclosures threaten to change his world for ever. This first novel stands out for its strong storytelling, poignantly elaborated in the kind of language Clare himself used.
For Christmas this year I received The Ballad of John Clare by Hugh Lupton. It is without doubt the best novel I've read since 1981 (When I read "To Kill a Mockingbird").
A carefully-woven tale of rural life amid the industrial revolution, the confusion of first love and a community split by political decisions made far away is the first novel offering from a Norfolk writer well known for other styles of work. Set exactly 200 years ago in the harsh but beautiful fields and villages around Peterborough, the book sees John Clare make his way through a tumultuous year. Major changes in both his personal life and among the community which surrounds him – and in which he plays a key part as fiddle player, worker, son, brother and courting youngster– run side by side.
This is a difficult life for all, even without the approaching enclosures which are about to change life forever for every member of the rural scene, whether for the good, or more likely for the bad. Life is relatively cheap, food scarce for those who own no land and fairness, whether in law, employment or education, is an unrecognised concept.
The story is bookended by two Rogation Sundays – one in 1811when all is simple and exciting in Clare’s life and the second in 1812 when much has changed and he has discovered the true meaning of sorrow and begun to understand the grim realities of life – “the bright world had begun, one by one, to break its promises”.
Murder, bare handed poaching, class war, a vicious fight in a field over nothing more than rights to kill a hare and a truly chilling– and quite drawn out – scene of abortion feature to bring the reader as close as possible to the genuine challenges of life in a far harder time. There are many lighter moments – the method employed by Farmer Joyce and his man Will
Farrell to test the soil for readiness for the springtime sowing cannot fail to raise a smile, as well as a question of whether their tactic was ever truly employed in the real world. One would imagine the answer is a hearty yes!
The carnage of Plough Monday is a heady reminder that the behaviour of young men may not have significantly worsened over the decades after all. Dressed as Plough Bullocks and Witches, the local men drunkenly abuse, threaten and fight their way through the village, getting away with it only thanks to annual custom.
There are also moments which should educate those readers who know little of 200 years past. Whether it is the language, both Romany and local slang, used throughout the book but with a helpful glossary to explain, or the methods used by landowners and the legal system to keep the workers in check, the reality of the time is carefully laid bare by Lupton.
The most important point he makes remains the impact of the enclosures. Lupton admits the book is compacted into a year when the enclosures actually took several years to bring into place.
But this compaction brings its own rhythm to the story and helps to make sense of a complicated time when, in simple terms, the landed classes took advantage of a change in the law which made the lives of many non-land owning classes harder than they already were.
It’s no surprise that Lupton has spent many years making a name for himself telling myths, legends and folk tales – he is a “central figure in the British storytelling revival” over the last 30 years. These well honed skills are demonstrated more than admirably by the lyricism
which runs throughout his novel.
Mainly fiction, but based on the life of the nature poet John Clare, with the majority of the story improvised around a few known facts, this is a book which will teach as well as entertain.
Very little is known about the early life of John Clare, the ‘peasant poet’ who was a contemporary of Keats and Shelley. But he was born into the poverty of the life of an agricultural labourer, and his life, filled with disappointment, ended in insanity.
Hugh Lupton uses his deep knowledge of traditional English country life, with reference to Clare’s poetry and from what little is known about his early life, to pen a sensitive and lyrical novel. His style is poetic and, once one falls in with the deliberate archaism of the style, it sweeps one along.
Lupton follows the church and farming calendar of one single year. It begins on Rogation Day 1811 and ends on the same day the following year. Although the regular cycle of events and customs seem eternal, beneath the surface lies disruption and hardship. The common lands are being enclosed which, as we now know, marked the end of this way of life. Those who already own land—from the landed gentry down to the comfortable yeomen farmers—were able to acquire more, and those who had little or nothing were made poorer, displaced and moved on, many to the new factories: part of the Industrial Revolution that changed England for ever.
This novel has the feel of early Thomas Hardy about it. Despite the harsh weather, hardships and hunger, the depictions of the country life, its festivals and customs, are just a little bit too rosy for me. And although it isn’t all maypoles and harvest suppers (for instance, a gypsy lad is falsely accused of attempted murder) the overall tone is one where the farming poor are noble and the landowners weak and grasping. I’m sure the reality was somewhat more complex.
Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this engaging novel.
Hugh Lupton is one of the key figures in the revival of the British storytelling tradition and for 30 years or so now he has wove stories of myths, legends and folk-tales from a whole host of different cultures, but his main passion is for that of the English landscape and its hidden layers. This is his first novel and it’s a beautifully told imagining of twelve months in the early life of the ‘peasant poet’ John Clare, in the early 19th century. It was a period in England’s history when starvation and malnutrition weren’t far away and such hardships form the backdrop for this novel which takes us through some of the most dramatic in Clare’s life as the young man – educated beyond his class – tries to make sense of the world. Lupton deftly describes the poet’s courtship of his childhood sweetheart (and first sexual encounter), his musical prowess playing fiddle with the village band, and his labouring in the fields in a landscape which would fire his imagination and lift his poetry to lofty heights. The result is an evocative a rites of passage novel as you’re likely to read.
The popularity of John Clare, the Northamptonshire peasant poet, continues to grow, well over 200 years since his birth. Happily, Clare's appeal has in turn inspired creative tributes from modern-day poets, playwrights and novelists. It is easy to understand their fascination, for Clare's life story was extraordinary: born into poverty, and with little formal schooling, he produced some remarkable poetry and, briefly, was a literary sensation in London, his work easily outselling that of Keats (with whom he shared a publisher). Such success was shortlived, however, and critical neglect was accompanied by mental deterioration. He spent the final twenty-seven years of his life in a mental asylum. His life was more heavily marked by tragedy than any other Romantic writer, and it cannot be long before some enterprising filmmaker provides the first cinematic take on Clare's story.
In the meantime, Hugh Lupton's The Ballad of John Clare is a welcome addition to the canon of Clare-inspired writing. Lupton, a first-time novelist but a renowned expert on British folk culture, concentrates on a single year in Clare's early life, when he was seventeen. Lupton constructs his narrative around the circularity of the seasons: the book begins on Rogation Sunday in 1811, and ends on the same day twelve months later, each chapter taking place on an individual festival or feast day. Lupton shows, by using the calendar as a structure, not only the grinding poverty of Clare's village, Helpston, but also the glimmers of joy that are brought by long-practised customs.
However, this year in Clare's life is one of tremendous upheaval, as Helpston and its neighbouring parishes suffer the indignities of enclosure, a process designed to improve the 'efficiency' of the land: trees are felled; streams are straightened; open, common lands are cut up, parcelled out to a few landowners, and closed off to Clare and his fellow peasants. The brutal change in the landscape heralds, in turn, a rupture in Clare's own happiness: in particular, as he reaches the cusp of adulthood, he experiences the first sensation of heartbreak at the hands of local girl Mary Joyce, a figure who haunted his thoughts for the rest of his life.
The narrative of Lupton’s novel suffers at times from its episodic structure, and it is only halfway through that the plot begins to take on some momentum. However, Lupton compensates for this with his excellent understanding of rural life in the early nineteenth century. It is refreshing to read about rural customs not as part of an academic catalogue, but acted out by characters who drink and dance and swear. Indeed, Lupton's use of rural vernacular, recurrent without being alienating, is his most impressive achievement: Helpston is a land populated by 'boggarts and todloweries' (fairies of the Fens); sheep wait to be sheared, wearing their 'ragged, slomekin' (dishevelled) fleeces; John and Mary look at one another like 'mawkins' (scarecrows) in 'some storm-tossed field'. He appends to the novel a useful, brief glossary.
Lupton's portrait of Clare is sketchy: in particular, he writes sparingly about the extraordinary literary talents that were burgeoning in the young man during this period. Pleasingly, though, fans of Clare will find echoes of his work in Lupton's prose. Aside from the incorporation of Northamptonshire dialect, ideas and images from Clare's poetry are worked into the novel: the tension between circular and linear timescales is found in Clare's collection The Shepherd's Calendar; the idea of enclosure and its destructive force a 'Boneparte' of England's own making directly springs from imagery in 'Remembrances'; and Lupton's precise description of the natural world is indebted to Clare's minute, secretive nature scenes.
In an afterword, Lupton humbly writes that guiding his reader towards Clare's own poetry is 'the true purpose of this story'. Through this vivid and accomplished novel, Lupton will achieve just that.
the themes and language explored in the novel provide a very accessible introduction to John Clare's early life and to the society and environment of England in the early 1800s.
'Above all, Lupton tells a first-class story of the poet and his milieu.'
No. of pages: 280
Publication date: 08.12.2023
Re-print date: 08.12.2023
978 1 915568 46 5
978 1 907650 99 4