Jim Crace: Harvest
Jim Crace has said that this is his last book and, if that is indeed the case, this is not bad sign-off to an illustrious career. It concerns the now well-documented enclosure of the common land, which started in England in the sixteenth century. (If you are interested in this topic, I can strongly recommend J A Yelling’s Common Field and Enclosure in England 1450-1850.) In an interview, Crace has claimed that this is not a historical novel, in the sense of being meticulously researched and accurate nor of being located in a particular period or even a particular place but rather one that intends to evoke the English landscape and this he does very well. As well as the background of the issue of enclosure, the theme of this novel is the not unusual one of an outsider coming to a settled community and completely disrupting it.
The story is set in an unnamed village. Not only is it unnamed by Crace but even the inhabitants do not have a name for it, calling it simply The Village. Wherever it is – and Crace gives no clues – it is remote. It has no church and two days by post-horse, three days by chariot, before you find a market square; we have no magistrate or constable. The story is narrated by Walter Thirsk. He is a newcomer, having arrived twelve years previously with Master Kent, the current owner. Master Kent had married the daughter of the previous owner. The couple had inherited it from her father but then she, Lucy, died, and Master Kent took over. Walter had been the servant of Master Kent but, once he came to the village, became one of the villagers. He married Cecily, a local woman, but she too had died. He is now a widower though he does occasionally visit Widow Gosse who, while not as beautiful as Cecily, is more passionate. He participates in the life of the village, primarily involving agricultural activities. He still remains on good terms with Master Kent, who is generally seen as a good man by his tenants.
The story starts at the time of the barley harvest. Like everything else in the village, this is a regular procedure, where little changes. There have been no new people coming to the village, except in passing, since Master Kent and Walter arrived. However, this is about to change with three key events occurring early on. The first one mentioned opens the book. The villagers see smoke coming from the common lands at the edge of the woods and realise that they have visitors. The second is the second paragraph of the book. The villagers see smoke coming from what seems to be the manor house but turns out to be from the hay lofts and stable roofs. They do what they can to put out the fire – Walter’s hand is badly burned – but a lot is destroyed. Walter knows full well what happened. The Derby twins and Brooker Higgs – the three remaining unmarried men in the village – went into the woods to get some magic mushrooms and, while high, tried to steal Master Kent’s doves, inadvertently setting fire to the barns. Fortunately for them, there are other scapegoats at hand, namely the people at the edge of the woods. The villagers approach them and, after an altercation, the three people, an older man, a younger man, presumably his son, and a woman, are taken, their hair shorn and the two men sentenced to the pillory for a week. Apart from Master Kent, everyone else knows the real culprits.
As Walter has hurt his hand, he cannot help reap the barley. The third event involves Mr. Earle. He has arrived a bit before and is seen making drawings and maps of the various fields. They all wonder what he is doing and suspect the worse. Walter, now that he is injured, is asked by Master Kent to assist Mr. Earle, known to the villagers as Mr. Quill. From Mr. Earle, he learns two pieces of bad news. Master Kent is not the real owner of the property. He only took it over through marriage but the real owner is a cousin of the previous owner. This cousin has been happy to live in the city but now wants to come to the village and introduce sheep farming, enclosing the common land and, essentially, drive off many of the tenant farmers. Walter is sworn to secrecy. Mr. Esmond, the real owner, turns up with his retainers and it is clear that he is in charge. When Master Kent’s horse is killed, he suspects witchcraft and carries out a detailed investigation. Things go from bad to worse.
Crace does a superb job of evoking the English landscape. Walter speaks in a somewhat archaic and poetic language but it is not too excessive and easy to follow. We get wonderful descriptions of the fields and surrounding countryside. Above all, the characters are all thoroughly convincing and well drawn. It did occur to me that, thought his book is (probably) set in the sixteenth/seventeenth century, whether Crace is not making at least some reference to modern times, with the drug use by the young men and the drunkenness we see a fair amount of. Mr. Esmond with his hypocritical views on Profit, Progress, Enterprise, as if they are his personal Muses could clearly be any one of a number of current Conservative politicians. His views on privatisation – Ours has been a village of Enough, but he proposes it will be a settlement of More, when finally he’s fenced and quickthorned all the land and turned everything-our fields, the commons and”the wasted woods”-into”gallant sheep country.” – would certainly appeal to them. However you read it – as a parable, as a historical novel or just as a good English story, it is an excellent book and a fine swansong from a first-class writer.
First published 2013 by Picador