East Hoathly makes a night of it

Marilyn Butler

  • The Diary of Thomas Turner 1754-1765 edited by David Vaisey
    Oxford, 386 pp, £17.50, November 1984, ISBN 0 19 211782 3
  • John Clare’s Autobiographical Writings edited by Eric Robinson
    Oxford, 185 pp, £7.95, September 1983, ISBN 0 19 211774 2
  • John Clare: The Journals, Essays, and the Journey from Essex edited by Anne Tibble
    Carcanet, 139 pp, £6.95, October 1980, ISBN 0 85635 344 2
  • The Natural History Prose Writings of John Clare edited by Margaret Grainger
    Oxford, 397 pp, £35.00, January 1984, ISBN 0 19 818517 0
  • John Clare and the Folk Tradition by George Deacon
    Sinclair Browne, 397 pp, £15.00, February 1983, ISBN 0 86300 008 8

Every so often, formal early literature permits us a glimpse into the life of the non-literate common people going about their daily business. There’s the snatch of conversation in Henry IV, Part I when a couple of carriers grumble about the inn at Rochester, the worst on the road for fleas: ‘Why, they will allow us ne’er a jorden, and then we leak in your chimney; and your chamber-lie breeds fleas like a loach.’ While this is a touch of homely wisdom which anyone might have overheard in daily life, its appearance in literature is rare enough to earn a special adjective: ‘Shakespearean’. We have got used to the notion that the working lives, talk and attitudes of the vast majority of the population in past times belong to what Peter Laslett calls, hauntingly, the world we have lost.

The Diary of Thomas Turner claims notice as a sustained insider’s account of how ordinary people lived from day to day in a pre-industrial English village. On Thursday 27 December 1756 two of Turner’s neighbours, Thomas Fuller and William Piper, arrived uninvited and stayed smoking and drinking (‘sponging,’ their host records bitterly) until they began to quarrel,

because Tho. Fuller told that which in my opinion was really true, viz., Master Piper, being lavish of his professions of kindness, and how much he loved his dear neighbour, which at last occasioned Tho. Fuller to tell him that he could never recollect any favour or kindness he ever showed him. But he did remember that once ... he wanted to borrow about £4 from him for a few days, but the poor old man would not let him have it, though he ... could have spared it; and told him of many such-like mean actions, which made the poor old man at last so angry that he cried and bellowed about like a great calf.

But it’s not long before we discover that the Fullers could be as sharp over money as Will Piper. Next June Joseph Fuller was entrusted by Turner with the task of beating down a man who wanted nine guineas for a horse, but Joseph bought the animal himself, and barefacedly informed Turner that the price was now £11.

Turner kept his diary for 11 years from his mid-twenties, while he was the mercer – keeper of the general store – of the Sussex village of East Hoathly. His parents were shopkeepers in nearby Framfield, and the only two of Thomas’s sons to reach maturity also went into trade as mercers. Though Turner frequently complains to his diary of hard times, he was in fact doing well enough to be able to buy his shop in 1766. No wonder, since he emerges from the diary as one of the most enterprising and efficient members of the community, who was not only the village undertaker but its part-time schoolmaster, scribe and financial and legal adviser, as well as serving the parish year by year as churchwarden, overseer of the poor, or surveyor of the highways.

Much of the interest of the diary arises from Turner’s doings on behalf of the parish. When he was overseer of the poor, for example, it was his job to question a pregnant unmarried woman to find out who the father was, and then, if she talked, to interview the man in the hope of getting him to take on his responsibilities, as opposed to adding to the parish’s. Unfortunately Turner doesn’t record these interviews in detail, or quote the interviewees at all; some of his readers are going to wish that his literary tastes had been formed less by Young’s Night Thoughts and Sherlock’s Sermons, more by Defoe, Smollett and the prints of Hogarth. But if he doesn’t equal Pepys or Boswell in vitality and curiosity, Turner has a powerful advantage over either of them, or indeed over perhaps any published English diarist – the panoramic view his official position gave him of his neighbours’ social behaviour. Unaided, Turner’s diary might not be quite a classic, but it becomes one in the hands of its exemplary editor David Vaisey, who has trimmed it to not much more than a third of its original length, and richly supplemented its information about the village’s inhabitants and about Turner’s family and business. In this way he quietly helps to substantiate the observation he makes in his excellent introduction: that the value of the diary does not lie in its characters and scenes, but in its power to put flesh on the dry bones of parish records.

Though the principal characters in East Hoathly’s many bastardy cases don’t speak directly, their actions speak for them, especially the brisk Turner’s. Exceptional efforts were called for late in 1757, when the pregnant Mary Vinal, already the mother of one illegitimate child, swore that the father of her next was one Richard Parkes, ‘husbandman of the parish of Ringmer’. On 25 October Turner set off at 2 a.m. for Ringmer, accompanied by two colleagues from East Hoathly, one of whom, a prosperous farmer called Jeremiah French, was known to Turner as a scourge of paupers and a depresser of wages – though Vaisey goes further, and shows that for several years French had been systematically evading payment of the poor rate. The delegation from East Hoathly roused the parish officials of Ringmer, and by 5.40 a.m. located Parkes, as he waited for breakfast at a nearby farmhouse. After getting his agreement to marry Vinal, Turner and one fellow parishioner proceeded with the groom to Lewes to get the licence, while French hurried back for the bride.

We got to Lewes about 7. 15 and breakfasted at The White Horse and took out a licence, I being a bondsman for the poor creature. We came back just by 11 o’clock when we immediately repaired to church and Mr Porter married them in Mr French’s, the clerk’s, and my presence, I being what is commonly called ‘father’.

The knot tied, Turner and another parish employee escorted the bridegroom on foot to Uckfield to get Parkes to ‘swear his parish’, which proved to be Hellingly: whereupon a messenger had to be sent back to remove the bride there. Turner was engaged non-stop in this business from two in the morning till nine at night, at a cost to the parish of £2 19s 6d, but he reckoned it a good day’s work for East Hoathly. The clear profit to the parish may have been less than it looks. Parkes and Vinal had already begun proceedings to marry, and in fact on 23 October had the banns called a second time, when a woman in the congregation forbade them.

The poor girl, whose name was Anne Stevenson, declared that about three years ago she had a child by him, and that he had many times promised her marriage ..., and that he had kept her company so lately as Michaelmas last, and farther that she would be glad to be married to him at any time.

Anne Stevenson and her bastard remained chargeable to someone, though whether it was to East Hoathly is not recorded.

Turner almost invariably indicates some passing sympathy with the woman in such cases (‘poor creature’): his attitude seems businesslike and not censorious. An exceptional case which drew a stronger reaction was that of Elizabeth Elless, who was taken violently ill and died when only two days from full term. Turner saw there would have to be an autopsy, arranged it and attended it; his unemotional entry records the shape of the incision the surgeon made in the abdomen, a large letter T. Elless had stubbornly refused to name the father, but she was spotted in the woods the night before she died with Peter Adams, a married yeoman farmer who, Vaisey tells us, had already fathered 11 legitimate children, and a bastard on someone else. Turner and others now suspected that Adams might be implicated in Elless’s death, but it was impossible to prove, and after some stern words from the rector, the Rev. Thomas Porter, to which Adams responded with oaths (‘poor hardened wretch’), the matter dropped.

Getting bastards was not Turner’s own vice. Nor was bad language, a practice which he deplored in many of his neighbours, most notably the prosperous Jeremiah French. But Turner, who belonged to the village’s ‘middling sort of people’, after Porter and French but well ahead of the local scamps, joined in the village craze for gambling, on horses, games of cricket, cards, or anything else in which the outcome depended on chance; a typical evening out left Turner and his wife gainers or losers by two or three shillings. He also shared the other main leisure occupation of the leading citizens, drinking. Parties at the Rectory or at French’s house often lasted till the small hours or into the next day, and could occur two or three times a week in the winter months.

Turner thought drink was his worst weakness – ‘beastly’ is one of his usual words for it – and since it caused disabling hangovers he had ever reason to try to give it up. He thought he had a weaker head than other people, but sometimes he specifies all the toasts that were drunk, and on these occasions at least he paid a fair price the morning after. One problem was that good wine and brandy (‘Nantz’) were smuggled in cheaply from France. Moreover Turner, as a grocer, had a professional’s interest in good drink, just as he plainly had in good and well-cooked food. Another problem was that Turner, the upwardly-mobile tradesman and local entrepreneur, might feel resentful of his betters the Frenches and the Porters, but did not feel that he could turn down their invitations, or behave less sociably than others when he got there. His unhappy dealings on this subject with his conscience and his liver make one of the leading themes of the diary.

Easily the most mortifying episode began at the Frenches on 22 February 1758, and continued in several village houses the following day:

After supper our behaviour was far from that of serious, harmless, mirth for it was downright obstreperous mirth mixed with a great deal of folly and stupidity. Our diversion was dancing (or jumping about) without a violin or any music, singing of foolish and bawdy healths and more such-like stupidity, and drinking all the time as fast as could well be poured down; and the parson of the parish was one among the mixed multitude all the time, so doubtless in point of sound divinity it was all harmless. But ... I must say I am always very uneasy at such behaviour, thinking it is not like the behaviour of the primitive Christians, which I imagine was most in conformity to our Saviour’s gospel. Nor would I on the other hand be thought to be either a cynic or a stoic, but let social improving discourse pass around the company.

Turner slipped home unobserved and ‘far from sober’ at 3.30, to be followed by his wife at ten past five. Both were roused at six by the rector and his wife, who pretended they needed cream of tartar, but actually wanted to go on with the party:

They poured into my room, and as modesty forbid me to get out of my bed in the presence of women, so I refrained. But their immodesty permitted them to draw me out of bed (as the common phrase is) tipsy turvy. But, however, at the intercession of Mr Porter they permitted me to put on my breeches (though it was no more than to cast a veil over what undoubtedly they had before that time discovered); as also, instead of my clothes, they gave me time to put on my wife’s petticoat. In this manner they made me dance with them without shoes or stockings until they had emptied their bottle of wine and also a bottle of my beer.

After breakfasting in three different houses, the revellers found their way to their own homes about 3.30 in the afternoon,

beginning by that time to be a little serious, and in my opinion ashamed of their ... drunken perambulation. Now let anyone call in reason to his assistance and seriously reflect on what I have before recited, and they must I think join with me in thinking that the precepts delivered from the pulpit on Sundays by Mr Porter, though delivered with the greatest ardour, must lose a great deal of their efficacy by such examples.

Episodes like these throw light on the manners of the 18th-century clergy, but also on Turner’s motives in keeping his diary. To some extent, he was supplementing the daily accounts he kept for his business with a more open but equally utilitarian record of various transactions, sums, names and dates. But there is also much reckoning of a more moral type, such as one finds in Puritan spiritual autobiography, except that the scale is mundane, and Turner is defending his actions and attitudes rather than the state of his soul. Just occasionally he writes as though the Almighty is a reader of the diary, in which case the only wise policy is to make a clean breast of things. Turner contributes 2s 6d to a fund to help the defence of two local smugglers, and promptly admits that his motive is not charity but fear that, unless appeased, the smugglers will reveal that he has done business with them. Much more often, as in passages already quoted, his phrasing suggests that he imagines a friend or neighbour scanning his account, and he can be seen justifying himself against very specific types of criticism.

Three of the most frequent themes of Turner’s diaries are his work as overseer, his attendance at drunken parties, and his disputes with his first wife and her mother. In all three cases, Turner plainly felt defensive. On the domestic front, he knew that his mother-in-law complained incessantly about him, even to the point of insinuating that he hastened his wife’s death by arranging for a gynaecological operation. At first sight, Turner’s remarks about his wife Peggy are oddly inconsistent, since he begins by writing about their quarrels (which are all her fault), and about a possible separation; then, from the time when she becomes seriously ill to after her death, he describes her as the best and most loved of wives. It is easier to follow these tacks if we imagine him treating his diary as a confidant, on whom he tries out his defence against some verbal assault he has just received.

His stress on his own humanity is also what one would expect from a sensitive overseer of the poor, who is unhappy at having so often to act in the interests of the hard-faced Jeremiah French. But the most interesting set of personal reflections arises from Turner’s descriptions of village social life. Over and again he tells us of his solitary pleasures, particularly his reading of theology, or ‘good’ and often difficult books, like Shakespeare’s plays and Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding. If he had been born into the right stratum of society, he would have read books all day; he likes nothing better than to discuss them with like-minded individuals – Francis Elless the schoolmaster, or Thomas Davy the shoemaker, with whom Turner shares one of the two informative ‘improving’ journals he regularly takes. The self-portrait Turner sketches in his diary is of a young man who naturally has little time for the ‘good friends, neighbours, acquaintances, intimates, gossips, lovers, haters, foes, farters, friskers, cuckolds, and all other sorts of Christians of what name or denomination soever’ who actually make up his village world. In other words, he sees himself as more innately like a gentleman than is the wealthy Jeremiah French, just as he is more like a clergyman (and a primitive Christian) than the boisterous Mr Porter.

Turner’s tart reactions to his betters are rather like those of an NCO observing the officer class; suppressed rancour jaundices his descriptions of social life in East Hoathly. His excellence as an observer derives from his vantage-point, rather than from his own innocence or disinterestedness. Ronald Blythe has paid tribute to ‘the powerful ordinariness of his daily records ... A more authentic and exciting admittance to his times does not exist.’ But a diarist isn’t ordinary: however well-placed an insider, he becomes an outsider once he begins to record and judge the doings of his friends. Whenever a document is plainly destined for use by social historians, somebody will call it ‘ordinary’ or ‘typical’ or ‘authentic’, but all narrations, properly read, carry the marks and inevitable biases of their particular provenance.

It will be a pity if the will-o-the-wisp of ordinariness diverts any readers from the prose of the early 19th-century labourer-poet John Clare, as rooted a resident of his native Helpston in Northamptonshire as Turner was of East Hoathly in Sussex. Clare was not so sustained a diarist as Turner, but he kept a Journal for a year in 1824-5, which Anne Tibble and Margaret Grainger give in their selections of his prose; and he left numerous fragments of autobiography, including a letter about himself to his publisher, John Taylor, in 1821, given in Robinson’s book, and a memoir about his four-day walk home from an asylum in Essex in 1841, which both Tibble and Robinson include.

But subjective writings make only a part of Clare’s efforts to record his village environment. He was a close observer of the parish’s birds and flowers, and amassed numerous notes, which were to have been gathered into a ‘Natural History of Helpstone’, and are now presented from the scattered manuscripts in Margaret Grainger’s meticulous edition. Clare had another very relevant scholarly specialism, a trained eye and ear for country pursuits, sports and pastimes. Encouraged by London literary friends after the success in 1820 of his first collection of verse, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, he began to write down anecdotes of local customs, sports and superstitions, and to collect songs he heard his father and neighbours sing – again with the intention of publishing what would have been a unique cultural history of a parish, assembled from the inside. This material is selected and analysed in George Deacon’s John Clare and the Folk Tradition, one of the most informative and valuable studies of Clare’s poetry yet to appear. The total oeuvre proves him to have been an observer of his rural habitat on the same scale as Turner, though Clare’s methods are more conscious, specialised and systematic. It is Clare’s sophisticated approach to ‘simple’ material that presents his modern reader, whether primarily a historian or a literary critic, with more difficult problems.

Even if reports of Turner’s ordinariness are exaggerated, Clare’s un-ordinariness is daunting. The only son of semi-literate parents, he acquired literary ambitions in adolescence which isolated him from his parents and neighbours, though he went on living at Helpston, working as a labourer but thinking as a writer, until he was declared mad at 44. Whatever his prose and verse may be, it plainly isn’t the unfiltered discourse of Northamptonshire village man. Clare was a loner, who hid in the woods to watch, read and ‘rhyme’, ‘as it is common in villages to pass judgment on a lover of books as a sure indication of laziness’.

It looks as though Clare began his interesting Journal in 1824 because he was too ill that year to do much else. He used to keep notes that would have served equally for his ‘Natural History’ and for a poem:

Took a Walk in the fields heard the harvest Cricket – shrew mouse uttering their little clickering Songs among the crackling stubbles the latter makes a little earpiercing noise – not unlike a feeble imitation of the sky lark – I verily believe this is the very noise which is said to be made by the little swift footed bird called the cricket lark.

He also makes notes on his steady reading in modern and 18th-century poets, on his own plans as a writer, and on village occasions like the Statute, or half-yearly hiring fair held in late September:

The Statute – a very wet day for it the lasses do not lift up their gown to show taper ancles – white stockings but on the contrary drop them to hide dirty ones wrote a poem on the ‘Statute’ last year look it over – think it a good one Taylor is of another opinion – thinks it not but it is true like the ‘Lodge house’ and others he dislikes – I shall one day publish them – others he has in his possession under the title of ‘A Living poets remains’.

Taylor, who was also Keats’s publisher, figures largely in the prose, because one way or another Clare after 1820 could be said to be writing for him. In 1821 he sent Taylor a long autobiographical letter, a kind of curriculum vitae which could presumably have been used for advertisement, in which, as Robinson observes, Clare represents himself as middle-class patrons would wish to see him, as an honest, abstemious working man along the lines of Hogarth’s Industrious Apprentice. However informal it looks, what Clare set down henceforth was written with an eye to publication – which means that he isn’t a diarist in Turner’s sense, someone who puts daily thoughts and events down on paper for his or her essentially private purposes. Clare’s short Journal and his other autobiographical fragments could have cohered into another long-term project, like his Natural History and cultural record of Helpston. In the decade of De Quincey, Lamb and Hazlitt there was a ready public for the imaginative, impressionistic, factually unreliable Self-Portrait of an Artist.

‘Authentic’ no more looks the right word for Clare than ‘ordinary’. Admirers of his poetry often use such terms, especially when introducing poems on wildlife topics, like the ones in which he describes the nests of birds – ‘Where clumps of bramble berries are The haychat makes her slighty bed’ – and also conveys his own delight as a boy at seeing the eggs glitter through the thin structure. Clare himself set great store on the naturalness of his art, which he underlined by his use of dialect words, and his refusal to ‘normalise’, or to gentrify, his grammar and his spelling. But naturalness is as slippery an idea in a writer as ordinariness, and Clare was after all a professional, producing material about the country to be read in the town. Except when he is writing strictly for fellow natural historians, most of his descriptions of small animals and birds are tinged with sentiment, the poet identifying with wee timorous creatures; and this pathos, like his nostalgia for old songs and pastimes, and landscapes before enclosure, emanates from the literary rather than the rural world. Though Clare ‘saw’ village life with far more particularity than Turner – from Turner you get dancing (or jumping about) without a violin, from Clare you get the different blindfold games played on St Martin’s Eve – Clare saw in order to publish, which meant shaping and categorising and omitting what did not fit. Clare’s professionalism makes his record suspect, some would say corrupt, when put beside Turner’s.

Most of the prestigious modern studies of Romantic poetry, especially the American ones, leave out or underrate Clare; across the Atlantic, one senses, the modern English revival of his work, which began with Blunden, seems tied up with our middlebrow British hankerings after thatch and loam. But as Clare’s untidy and vast oeuvre emerges piecemeal, thanks to a devoted band of scholars and enthusiasts, it is clear that he was a much more significant figure than the naive onlooker holding a mirror up to nature. He was a major 19th-century writer and intellectual who was not only participating in literary life, but offering a very pertinent commentary on it. He dismisses Taylor’s conventional publisher’s taste in his own poetry, and implicitly compares himself favourably with Keats when he scoffs at Keats’s modish classicality: ‘the brook looks alone without her naiads to his mind.’ Deacon shows that he was perhaps the first serious collector of folk-ballads in Southern England, and that early in the 1820s he came to understand very clearly that this oral culture represented a tradition as valid in its way as the tradition of printed poetry. No other English poet draws so much on tradition, says Deacon, meaning both a line through Shakespeare, Milton, Thomson, Chatterton and Burns, and the heritage of the ballad, which was as much the collective property of its audience as of the individual singer.

From the 1780s, the recovery of this oral cultural tradition, which included local dialects, dances and sports, became a favourite pursuit of scholars with a radical bent, some of whom were self-taught. ‘Popular antiquities’ in the hands of Northumbrians like Brand and Ritson, the Shakespeareans Douce and Steevens, the vernacular dictionary-maker Francis Grose, was one of the first of those fields of working-men’s learning which were so much a feature of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 1820s Clare’s main correspondent on this topic was the radical pamphleteer William Hone, who published some of Clare’s notes in his huge compendium of popular customs, The Everyday Book. The more interested Clare became in this topic, the more he was bound to challenge received ideas of literariness, and to be suspected of unsound opinions, as C. A. Elton warned him in 1824:

Some grievously suspect thee, Clare!
They want to know thy form of prayer;
Thou dost not cant, and so they stare
      And smell free-thinking.

It wasn’t only his fellow villagers that Clare stood back from. Intellectually he was on their side – that is, he became increasingly interested in echoing the collective and oral literary tradition, rather than in producing the adulterated pastorals Taylor was asking for. Clare’s historical sense owes something to vague, ultimately urban nostalgia, but it becomes an increasingly knowledgeable study of two incompatible histories – those of the oral and the literate, of country people and town people. And his single-minded pursuit of comprehensive knowledge – or, to be as particular as he is, his scheme to know Helpston as no one had ever known it – is both typical of its era and, in this form, apparently wholly original. The work of the outstandingly gifted tends to be like that.

Clare in the end does something for modern readers that the mid-18th-century Turner can’t do, which is to warn us by his new historical self-consciousness how fundamentally our tastes, vocabularies and ways of seeing are conditioned by cultural, social and linguistic practice. By using a new ‘educated’ language-code, even a native loses fluency in his old ‘natural’ tongue. That wasn’t the point Clare was trying to make: he was more concerned to warn townsmen off thinking of Helpston as simple, indeed as anything less than a complete world. Both these rather pessimistic messages are useful: Turner and Clare may not write innocently about the world we have lost, but we don’t read innocently about it either.