Enthusiasts

Anita Brookner

  • Where I Used to Play on the Green by Glyn Hughes
    Gollancz, 192 pp, £7.95, January 1982, ISBN 0 575 02997 8
  • Virginie by John Hawkes
    Chatto, 212 pp, £8.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 7011 3908 0
  • Ancient Enemies by Elizabeth North
    Cape, 230 pp, £7.95, November 1982, ISBN 0 224 02052 8
  • Dancing Girls by Margaret Atwood
    Cape, 240 pp, £7.95, October 1982, ISBN 0 224 01835 3
  • Master of the Game by Sidney Sheldon
    Collins, 495 pp, £8.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 00 222614 6

Glyn Hughes’s novel, Where I Used to Play on the Green, won both the Guardian Fiction Prize and the David Higham Fiction Prize in 1982, yet it received not a tenth of the publicity awarded to winners of the Booker and the Whitbread. This is a pity, for it is a fine achievement, although too dour a story to command affection in the media. It reminds us not only that the past is a foreign country but that England, too, is a foreign country and perhaps never more so than at times and in places which we think we know fairly well. Those whose images of 18th-century England have been fashioned by the painters of that time and who are accustomed to the smiling faces of a well-fed squirearchy, looking ineffably satisfied with the onward march of progress and its own contribution to the wealth of nations, will receive a shock when they read Glyn Hughes’s account of the coming of Wesleyanism to the poverty-stricken weavers of Yorkshire and the madness and suffering that attended it. His characters are historically real, although perhaps not historically important: William Grimshaw, the fanatical wandering preacher, and his associates, early martyrs – the word is not too strong – in the cause of the simplest and most primitive of trade unions; a cast of six-year-old children sent to work in the pits, of narrow-minded cloth manufacturers on the brink of becoming the new rich; and an illiterate and starving populace at the mercy of every restriction laid on it in the name of ‘enthusiasm’.

The novel purports to be about William Grimshaw, an ordained clergyman, prone to distraction and confusion. A choleric man, he is at his most effective when thundering to a congregation largely indifferent to his strictures and retaining more than a trace of pagan loyalties. After the death of his wife, the preacher, now further troubled by sorrow and desire, begins to feel a new sense of guilt, loses his taste for the landscape and the natural pleasures that had previously delighted him, and falls to making pacts with God. His second wife is carried off by one of the regular plagues of typhoid that ravaged the insanitary village houses of those days, but not before she is entreated by her half-mad husband to ‘accept salvation’. This involves penitence and scourging, prayers and fasting, and, worse than these, the forcible confession of sins that may not even have been contemplated, let alone committed: over all is the fear of the eternal flames, the begging to die and to be taken into God’s bliss.

The power of this terrible creed, soon to be subsumed into Wesleyanism proper, is sustained by the crazed and superhuman energy of the itinerant preachers who tramp over the moors, through the burns, from village to village and town to town, commanding the half-starved to fall on their knees and pray until they feel the descent of the spirit. Soon it seems as if no little rush-lit household is safe from their harrying, bullying, shouting presence. Predictably, there are a number of converts, since many of the meetings take place in crowds, in the open air, where a fit of hysteria is easily carried from person to person, and the most glorious cases of ‘salvation’ are to be witnessed in writhings on the ground or the ecstatic flowing of tears. The novel is particularly alarming to read because the author takes no sides but simply lets his undifferentiated narrative sweep relentlessly on until there seems no reason why it should ever end. I was beginning to succumb to the peculiar malaise that signals a too-powerful authorial presence or immanence, when the conversions stopped just as suddenly as they had begun, prosperity started to make inroads into the region and its industries, and religious enthusiasm became harnessed to the work ethic, for the greater profit of all concerned. At this point, a new family arrives in Grimshaw’s parish, which is called Haworth: their name is Brontë.

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