There is a terrific photo of A.E. Coppard on Brighton racecourse one Sunday morning in 1901. Dressed in running gear (white shorts, sleeveless vest, bare feet in leather running shoes so thin they look more like ballet pumps), he’s down on his haunches, leaning forward, waiting for the starting gun. There are no competing runners nearby; he was obviously posing for the camera. But the photo isn’t a fake. Coppard was 23 at the time. For the previous eight years, he had been running professionally at weekends to earn a bit of money; he spent his winnings on books, a luxury he couldn’t afford on the proceeds of his low-paid day jobs. The races varied in length (130-yard sprints, quarter-milers, cross-countries, the five-mile Lewes Road Handicap held every Boxing Day) and so did the jobs: ousted from school at the age of nine, after the death of his father, he worked variously as an errand boy in a bespoke tailoring house, a messenger boy for Reuters, an office boy for an auctioneer, a junior clerk for Sunlight Soap and Jordan & Co, and a cashier for an engineering company. It was sprinting he excelled at, though, which presumably served him well at Reuters, where he’d sometimes carry out his duties on roller skates. Curiously, the name given to his kind of running was pedestrianism: ‘Pedestrians,’ he explains in his autobiography, ‘are the scallywags, the riff-raff of creation who run merely for money, while athletes are gentlemen who maintain the purity of something or other by being austerely avid for medals and cups and suchlike, things insuperably unuseful to a pedestrian.’ Coppard once won five medals in a single afternoon and gave them all away.
If there are other writers who competed as professional runners, I’m not aware of them. (Samuel Beckett was a good sprinter but that was in his schooldays.) To Coppard, the importance of running was that it taught him he was best over a short distance, a lesson he applied to his fiction. Though he published many collections of stories, he never attempted a novel:
Novels seemed awfully long-winded to me, I never wanted to write one, the effort demanded a sort of imaginative conspiracy too complex for my handling, and a pen-driving stamina I did not possess … Nor could I ever begin a tale experimentally like a novelist, picking up enlightenment and developing the theme as I went along, to land up at last at a fortuitous goal. I had to know all, everything, before I could begin to write.
The tone he strikes here is modest – if only he had the panoramic vision of a Tolstoy rather than needing ‘to see all round and over and under my tale before putting a line of it down on paper’ – but at other times he’s prescriptive, even belligerent: ‘I hold that all the best stories in the world are short ones and that they are the best because they are short.’ Like many a short story writer since, he was pressed to write a novel by publishers, on the grounds that it would greatly increase his sales. But as he saw it that would mean ‘hacking out mere episodes into epic stature, draping the holes in them with bogus mysticism, factitious psychology and the backchat of a paperhanger’. Sticking to his guns, he became (in the words of Frank O’Connor) ‘the greatest of all English storytellers’.
Times change. Mention Coppard today and you’ll be met with blank looks. Until recently I knew him only by name, one I associated with a brand of gently nostalgic, middlebrow English writers who used initials for their forenames – H.E. Bates, W.H. Davies, L.P. Hartley. Yet early reviews compared Coppard to Hardy, Kipling and D.H. Lawrence, and he was acclaimed by (among others) Ford Madox Ford, Malcolm Cowley and, later, Doris Lessing. Though his most productive decade was the 1920s, and he was well enough known by 1931 for a bibliography of his work to be published (with interjections from himself and blank pages at the back for readers to note down ‘future collations’), his fame reached its peak in 1951, thanks to the selection of his Collected Tales by the Book of the Month Club in the US. For a non-American non-novelist to be a Book of the Month choice was unknown. But as Russell Banks points out in the preface to The Hurly Burly, Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Bowen, Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg had led a campaign on Coppard’s behalf. In the 1970s, he had another revival in the UK after a couple of his stories were adapted for television and Lessing put together a selection. But by the 1980s, in the Dirty Realist era of short fiction, his work was mostly out of print again.
His realism may not be quite as dirty as Raymond Carver’s but the title story of The Hurly Burly encapsulates what’s enduring about Coppard. Split into three sections over twelve pages, it’s centred on Phemy, ‘a charity girl taken from the workhouse’, who at 21 is forced to take charge of a family farm after the son who runs it is sent to prison and his widowed mother dies unexpectedly. The place is ‘a wretched house to work in, crickets in the kitchen, cockroaches in the garret, spiders and mice everywhere’. As a servant, Phemy struggles to cope with the ‘cataract of industry’ and ‘ceaseless flagellations’ of a ‘harsh rushing life’. But ‘at times the pressure was charged with a special excitation,’ as if ‘a taut elastic thong had been plucked and released with a reverberating ping.’ And she comes into her own as mistress of the place, taking command and restoring order. When the son, Glas (short for Glastonbury), returns from prison, he’s newly conscious of her charms (‘Why, she’s quite a pretty cob,’ he murmurs) and begins to share her bed, with inevitable consequences (‘I’m took,’ she tells him). The pregnancy is awkward, since he’s engaged to the well-to-do Rosa, but he insists they marry (‘there’s naught else to be done, and I’m middling glad of it’). So far, so fairy tale: Cinderella gets her prince. But she’s still Glas’s servant, he’s still seeing Rosa, and ‘if for a brief space a little romantic flower began to bud in her breast it was frozen as a bud.’ The baby is stillborn. Glas turns angry, as if ‘he had been duped’, and Phemy falls ill with blood poisoning ‘caught from a diseased cow that she had milked with a cut finger’. Death-by-anthrax concludes the action, much as it does in Jane Campion’s film The Power of the Dog, but there’s no saving grace.
It was a June night, soft and nubile, with a marvellous moon; a nightingale threw its impetuous garland into the air. She lay listening to it and thinking with sad pleasure of the time when Glastonbury was in prison, how grand she was in her solitude, ordering everything for the best and working superbly. She wanted to go on and on for evermore, though she knew she had never known peace in maidenhood or marriage. The troubled waters of the world never ceased to flow; in the night there was no rest – only darkness …‘Nurse,’ moaned the dying girl, ‘what was I born into the world at all for?’
‘If a way to the better there be,’ Thomas Hardy wrote, ‘it exacts a full look at the worst,’ and there’s an echo of Tess of the D’Urbervilles in what happens to Phemy: the President of the Immortals has his sport with her. At times Coppard’s worst is even bleaker than Hardy’s. Hence the complaint of one reviewer when ‘The Hurly Burly’ appeared in Coppard’s second collection in 1922 that ‘to crowd two illegitimate births, five deaths and one murder into nine short stories’ was too much. Whereas the pessimism of The Waste Land, published in the same year, stems from Eliot’s belief that civilisation has collapsed, Coppard’s view is that life, for the poor, has never been civilised.
For all its pessimism, the story finds ways to let in some light: through the vibrancy of its dialogue, for instance (‘Don’t keep clacking about Rosa,’ Glas tells Phemy when she reminds him he’s engaged), and through its evocations of the natural world: ‘The sycamore leaves were black rags … The turnips, washed by the rain, were creamy polished globes.’ Nearly all Coppard’s stories are set in the countryside and feature people who scrape a living from the land or from crafts whose names have disappeared from the language: websters (weavers), higglers (pedlars), drolls (jesters) and so on. Village pubs are central to the action, not least in one of Coppard’s most anthologised stories, ‘Dusky Ruth’, in which an overnight traveller is beguiled by a young woman with hair ‘as black as a rook’s wings’. As for the names of his characters, they sound like bit parts in a Shakespeare play: Codling, Cocking, Knatchbole, Tottel, Crabbe, Dogtrees. The milieu feels feudal. But there’s no nostalgia. Hardship and injustice predominate. And though Coppard’s sympathies are with the downtrodden he won’t give them, or us, the satisfaction of a happy ending.
In that respect, ‘The Hurly Burly’ is outdone by a story he published two years later, ‘The Poor Man’. Despite his poverty and unprepossessing appearance (he has ‘an ugly nose, big as a baby’s elbow’), Dan Pavey is a cheery and likeable fellow, whose ‘sweet tenor voice’ – heard in the pub, the church choir and when he cycles to nearby villages delivering newspapers – is much admired in the local community. But he comes under suspicion from the new vicar and his wife, Rev. and Mrs Scroope, a well-heeled couple who lecture him on the dangers of poaching, gambling and boozing. Indignant, he denies all charges: he doesn’t poach, avoids anyone who bets and drinks only in moderation. To his mother, he rails against the ‘rectorial denunciations’ of the Scroopes and the hypocrisy of their class:
How can the poor be contented as long as there’s the rich to serve? The rich we have always with us, that’s our responsibility, we are the grass under their feet. Why should we be proud of that? When a man’s poor the only thing left him is hope – for something better: and that’s called envy. If you don’t like your riches you can always give it up, but poverty you can’t desert, nor it won’t desert you.
The trick of the story, once the reader is won over by Dan, is the gradual disclosure that he’s no innocent: fined for carrying betting slips on behalf of customers, he is later sent to prison for twelve months after a gamekeeper catches him poaching. In between he brings home the son he has kept a secret for five years – ‘Yours! How long have it been yours?’ his mother asks; ‘Since ’twas born,’ he replies – and for a time, sacked from the choir when Rev. Scroope hears of his indiscretion, he devotes himself to fatherhood and does his singing in a different church. Thanks to his toughness and amenability, he even gets by in prison. A reduced sentence is in the offing till Coppard undoes all hope with a brutal sentence of his own: ‘April came, May came, and then his son Martin was drowned in a boating accident, on a lake, in a park.’ The story ends with Martin’s funeral and Dan’s return to prison.
Coppard liked to say that his stories had little to do with him (‘There is no stupider fallacy than the assumption that anything his characters say inevitably embodies the author’s own private beliefs’), but he admitted that ‘The Poor Man’ was based on personal experience: out with his whippets in the countryside one day, he attracted the attention of a gamekeeper and was hauled off to the police station as a poacher and fined – ‘a disgraceful occasion’. He also owns up to the personal element in another story, ‘The Presser’. Banks doesn’t include it in his selection but it appears in Coppard’s Collected Tales, bizarrely reissued as part of a ‘Supernatural and Occult Fiction’ series in 2002. Far from being supernatural or occult, the story draws on Coppard’s childhood experience of working for a tailor in the East End. He even uses the actual name of the tailor, Mr Alabaster, while renaming himself Johnny Flynn. The same Flynn appears in other stories (it was also Coppard’s nickname) but what’s unusual about ‘The Presser’ is that it ends with a reprieve, indeed a double reprieve: a woman employee suffering domestic abuse is spirited away to a new address and ten-year-old Johnny, who has been living in London with an unpleasant aunt, is reunited with the mother he loves. For once, happiness wins out.
The key episodes of Coppard’s early life are all there in ‘The Presser’: the death of his father, the years of child labour in London, the return to his mother in Brighton. His autobiography, It’s Me, O Lord!, fills them out in greater detail, but also offers a caveat: no ‘fiction-monger’ writing a memoir can be trusted, he says, since he will ‘helplessly, perhaps even thoughtlessly, but more probably designedly, select, omit, minimise, exaggerate, in fact lie as wholeheartedly as in his normal creations. The mirror he holds up in autobiography is not to nature but to his fictive self.’ Banks is struck by how few photographs of Coppard exist: ‘He seems to have kept himself out of the camera’s way, no doubt deliberately.’ And despite more than a hint of self-regard, the autobiography conceals as much as it reveals. Though he wrote it in his seventies, he ends the book in 1922, with half his life still to come. On the last page he talks of the possibility of another volume of ‘reminiscences’ but he doesn’t seem to have embarked on one.
To Banks, what sets Coppard apart from other male authors of his generation – ‘perhaps of any generation’ – is the way he writes about women: whereas the typical male in his stories is too obtuse or self-absorbed to understand the woman he loves, ‘Coppard himself (and thus the reader) sees clearly into the hidden depths of the beloved woman’s vulnerable heart and mind.’ Banks wildly overstates the case but there are two or three stories where a woman gives out signals that a man fails to pick up, with unhappy or tragic consequences. In ‘The Black Dog’, it’s clear that the tempestuous Orianda will never marry the temperate Gerald but he’s unable to see it. In ‘The Handsome Lady’ the widowed Caroline tells the unhappily married John that ‘if there is love between you there is faithfulness, if there is no love there is no fidelity,’ but he’s too slow to take the hint or too worried there would be gossip, and by the time his wife dies the widow is already dead. And in ‘The Higgler’, another widow, Mrs Sadgrove, owner of a prosperous farm, invites Harvey Witlow to consider marrying her beautiful, silent, red-haired daughter, Mary. Harvey is poor; marriage to Mary will make him rich; he’s been seeing a girl, Sophy, but they’re not engaged. What’s more, despite Mary’s timidity he’s aware of ‘her friendly feeling for himself’. The only obstacle is his paranoia. Convinced there’s a catch in it, a ‘dodge’ or ‘snare’, he stops calling at the farm and marries Sophy instead. Soon enough the marriage turns sour and when he plucks up the courage to revisit the farm it turns out Mrs Sadgrove has just died. Before he leaves, in a rare moment of candour, he tells Mary how puzzled he felt when her mother made the marriage proposal: why ever did she want that?
‘She didn’t,’ said Mary … ‘It was me, I wanted it.’
‘You!’ he cried, ‘you wanted to marry me!’ The girl bowed her head, lovely in her grief and modesty, ‘She was against it, but I made her ask you.’
‘And I hadn’t an idea that you cast a thought on me,’ he murmured … He was in a queer distress and confusion. ‘Oh if you’d only tipped me a word, or given me a sort of look,’ he sighed. ‘Oh, Mary!’
Given how many of Coppard’s male characters are in thrall to women – the protagonists of ‘Dusky Ruth’ and ‘The Wife of Ted Wickham’, both included by Banks, are further examples – it’s striking how little Coppard has to say about women in his memoirs. Then again, doing so might have caused no end of trouble. He married Lily Anne Richardson in 1905, when he was 27 and she was 23; they’d met at one of the firms he worked for, where she was employed as a stenographer. In his memoirs she’s referred to only as L.A. and though he pays tribute to her as a helper – ‘She typed my manuscripts for me, corrected my grammar, my spelling, my mispronunciations. She set me subjects to write poems about, which I was never able to bring off!’ – he says nothing about the marriage itself and fails to mention that in 1929 she published a novel called The Golden Court, about a woman who finds solace in Italy after being jilted by her man. By then, unrecorded in his memoirs, she and Coppard had separated; the most he says is that, after giving up his job as an accountant at the Eagle Ironworks in Oxford in order to write, he lived alone in a rented cottage for three years while she kept her post at Witney Aerodrome, ‘thus gallantly absolving me from any financial worry about her; I visited her on a bicycle at weekends.’
The move to the cottage, on 1 April 1919, was foolhardy (‘Has he gone daft?’ his mother-in-law asked): he was 41 and had published only a handful of stories and poems, two of the latter in The Egoist just as T.S. Eliot arrived as editor. By the end of 1919, he’d earned only £31. While in Oxford he’d attended lectures and got to know writers and professors who might have supported his literary aspirations. But he didn’t seek favours, even when his first collection was rejected by publishers, and by April 1920 he was down to his last three shillings. The turning point came one sunny morning when a man called Harold Taylor called while Coppard was up in his bedroom, ‘not entertaining a lady … but just stitching at my trousers, and they being the only pair I had not got them on’. Taylor was about to launch the Golden Cockerel Press and – when Coppard, now in his trousers, joined him downstairs – told him how much he liked his work: would he let him publish a collection of stories? The press was so small that Coppard helped with the typesetting and printing, but his career was at last underway. Before the book came out the following April, a New York magazine paid him £50 for a single story called ‘The Tiger’ (a spirited tale about a woman who takes revenge on a man who raped her while she was drunk).
His memoirs end with him resuming life with Lily Anne, ‘the kind creature’, after his lease on the cottage ran out. They don’t allude to his relationship with Taylor’s young wife, Gay, who became pregnant by him, had an abortion and at one point attempted to drown herself in a river. Like Lily Anne’s novel, the book Gay Taylor wrote under the pseudonym Loran Hurnscot, A Prison, A Paradise, ends with a woman’s recovery (in this case through finding God) after the end of an affair. But it’s non-fiction, written as a series of diary entries, and is devastating in its portrayal of her husband (renamed Hu), who encouraged her to take a lover, and of Coppard (renamed Barny), who ‘once the dew was off his many relationships with women, successive or synchronised, would make his wives into his mothers and his mistresses into his wives, for the sheer schoolboy joy of having someone to deceive’. The book came out in 1958: Coppard had died the previous year, so there was no fear of libel action, though if she came across it, Winifred May de Kok, his second wife, must have found it difficult reading. Fifteen years younger than he was, she had the first of two children by him, Julia, in 1927, when he was still married and still involved with Gay. They waited until Lily Anne died of cancer in April 1932 before marrying and moving to Suffolk. Five days before Lily’s death a son was born to Daisy Belcher, father unknown, in the village where Coppard had been living. As Daisy’s grandson, Shaun Belcher, has written, the child was almost certainly Coppard’s; Julia (who later married Karel Reisz) thinks so too. Winifred, meanwhile, wrote several books on childcare and in the 1950s was a presenter on the BBC television programme Tell Me, Doctor.
In his youth Coppard did his running on the track; in middle age, he ran from woman to woman. This wouldn’t automatically disqualify him from the role to which Russell Banks elevates him, as a male writer uniquely attuned to female hearts and minds. But attunement might have made him less inclined to misuse them. Once you’ve learned something of his entangled love life and duplicitous character, it’s impossible to see him as the honest broker – a kind of latter-day John Constable, lyrically memorialising English rural scenes – that early reviewers saw. Lessing, who met him on a fortnight’s trip to the Soviet Union as part of a delegation of writers, was struck by how playful and flirtatious he could be. In this he resembles the writer Rosslyn Teague in ‘The Man from the Caravan’, one of the stories in her selection, who leads the vulnerable Marion to imagine he’s in love with her but then goes off with her sister Rose. Coppard’s memoirs play a straighter bat but it’s the tales that have to be trusted, not the teller. And what the tales are chiefly concerned with is romantic intrigue, disappointment and despair.
Tales, not stories, is how he thought of them: ‘It is my feeling that the closer the modern short story conforms to that ancient tradition of being spoken to you, rather than being read at you, the more acceptable it becomes.’ It’s no coincidence that his rare forays into an urban middle-class setting are unconvincing; unless his characters are speaking in rural dialect, with a keen attentiveness to the natural world, they sound off key. Yet his taste in fiction was the opposite of folksy. Sterne, Joyce, James and Dostoevsky were among his heroes; he had no time for Kipling or Walter Scott. And while largely avoiding the self-referential, he let his hair down in ‘My Hundredth Tale’, in which a writer living alone in a forest looks back on his life (the child labour, the running, the books, the love affairs).
Neither Banks nor Lessing include it in their selections, which differ a good deal from each other: of his fifteen stories and her nineteen, only five coincide. The disparity indicates the difficulty of representing Coppard, who published fifteen collections and whose only sure-fire anthology pieces were ‘The Higgler’ and ‘Dusky Ruth’. Still, Banks puts the emphasis where it deserves to be: not on the faery diversions or the traces of Coppard’s allegiances as a socialist and atheist, but on relations between the sexes, with the men generally coming across as weak, witless, dishonest, exploitative and self-preoccupied. Lessing thought Coppard the polar opposite of such characters, ‘the most lovable of people’, someone who didn’t believe in tragedy. But he’s fascinated by how men mess up, for themselves and others. And in this they’re both him and not-him, fictively acting out ‘episodes in my life’ which, as he wrote in his memoirs, ‘not even the prospect of an eternity of hellfire would induce me to reveal’.
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