He was, says D. S. DONALDSON in this piece, one of the greatest of all commentators on traditional agriculture and the varying fortunes of the people who practiced it
For me, the key theme of Colin Tudge’s piece on farming in literature is the dominance of money and profit, the role of power relations, inequity and injustice – and how these play out in food and farming. It’s worth remembering (with a wry smile) that farming itself, as it displaced hunting/gathering after the ice age, created the very conditions in which complex hierarchical social relations and inequities could develop: settled ways of life, population growth, and the production of surpluses which could be stored and controlled by elites. Another irony worth noting is that writing, that cornerstone of the humanities, first developed in order to keep a record of precisely those commodities – food chief among them – delivered to the storehouses.
No-one captures the moods and the realities of farming better than Thomas Hardy. His descriptions of a huge variety of ‘Wessex’ countryside, landscape and farming practices are breathtakingly beautiful, but doubly melancholy: first, because they’re gone forever, and second because the stories usually put their characters through grievous trials and great sadnesses that rarely end happily. Almost invariably, class and money are the root causes of the tragedy. In Tess of the D’Urbervilles for example, Tess, child of a poor family, after being raped by the rich Alec D’Urberville, then left to fend for herself by her hypocritical middle class husband, finds hard employment at Flintcomb-Ash. No trace of bucolic ease here:
“Before her, in a slight depression, were the remains of a village. She had, in fact, reached Flintcomb-Ash… There seemed to be no help for it; hither she was doomed to come. The stubborn soil around her showed plainly enough that the kind of labour in demand here was of the roughest kind… There was not a tree within sight; there was not, at this season, a green pasture – nothing but fallow and turnips everywhere, in large fields divided by hedges plashed to unrelieved levels…
The swede-field in which she and her companion were set hacking was a stretch of a hundred odd acres in one patch, on the highest ground of the farm, rising above stony lanchets or lynchet – the outcrop of siliceous veins in the chalk formation, composed of myriads of loose white flints in bulbous, cusped, and phallic shapes. The upper half of each turnip had been eaten off by the live-stock, and it was the business of the two women to grub up the lower or earthy half of the root with a hooked fork called a hacker, that it might be eaten also. Every leaf of the vegetable having already been consumed, the whole field was in colour a desolate drab; it was a complexion without features, as if a face, from chin to brow, should be only an expanse of skin. The sky wore, in another colour, the same likeness; a white vacuity of countenance with the lineaments gone. So these two upper and nether visages confronted each other all day long, the white face looking down on the brown face, and the brown face looking up at the white face, without anything standing between them but the two girls crawling over the surface of the former like flies.
Nobody came near them, and their movements showed a mechanical regularity; their forms standing enshrouded in Hessian ‘wroppers’ – sleeved brown pinafores, tied behind to the bottom, to keep their gowns from blowing about – scant skirts revealing boots that reached high up the ankles, and yellow sheepskin gloves with gauntlets…
They worked on hour after hour… In the afternoon the rain came on again, and Marian said that they need not work any more. But if they did not work they would not be paid; so they worked on. It was so high a situation, this field, that the rain had no occasion to fall, but raced along horizontally upon the yelling wind, sticking into them like glass splinters till they were wet through. Tess had not known till now what was really meant by that. There are degrees of dampness, and a very little is called being wet through in common talk. But to stand working slowly in a field, and feel the creep of rain-water, first in legs and shoulders, then on hips and head, then at back, front, and sides, and yet to work on till the leaden light diminishes and marks that the sun is down, demands a distinct modicum of stoicism, even of valour.”
It gets worse: later in the winter it starts to snow so they have to work indoors, but it’s harder work still, as her companion, Marian the overweight alcoholic, warns her:
“ ‘Well, as for the weather, it won’t hurt us in the wheat-barn; but reed-drawing is fearful hard work – worse than swede-hacking. I can stand it because I’m stout; but you be slimmer than I…’
They reached the wheat-barn and entered it. One end of the long structure was full of corn; the middle was where the reed-drawing was carried on, and there had already been placed in the reed-press the evening before as many sheaves of wheat as would be sufficient for the women to draw from during the day…
Putting on their gloves, all set to work in a row in front of the press, an erection formed of two posts connected by a cross-beam, under which the sheaves to be drawn from were laid ears outward, the beam being pegged down by pins in the uprights, and lowered as the sheaves diminished.
The day hardened in colour, the light coming in at the barn-doors upwards from the snow instead of downwards from the sky. The girls pulled handful after handful from the press… they went on seizing the ears of corn, drawing out the straw, gathering it under their arms, and cutting off the ears with their bill-hooks, nothing sounding in the barn but the swish of the straw and the crunch of the hook. Then Tess suddenly flagged, and sank down upon the heap of wheat-ears at her feet.
‘I knew you wouldn’t be able to stand it!’ cried Marian. ‘It wants harder flesh than yours for this work.’
Just then the farmer entered. ‘Oh, that’s how you get on when I am away,’ he said to her.
‘But it is my own loss,’ she pleaded. ‘Not yours.’
‘I want it finished,’ he said doggedly, as he crossed the barn and went out at the other door.”
There were happier times when Tess worked as a milkmaid at Talbothays dairy (where she fell in love with her husband-to-be, who was working there in order to learn the business of dairy farming, prior to setting up as a farmer himself). As always, Hardy gives a rich and detailed picture of the dairy business, including a fascinating episode which begins with a customer’s complaint:
“They came downstairs yawning next morning; but skimming and milking were proceeded with as usual, and they went indoors to breakfast. Dairyman Crick was discovered stamping about the house. He had received a letter, in which a customer had complained that the butter had a twang.
‘And begad, so ‘t have!’ said the dairyman, who held in his left hand a wooden slice on which a lump of butter was stuck. ‘Yes – taste for yourself!’
…The dairyman, who had thrown himself into abstraction to better realize the taste, and so divine the particular species of noxious weed to which it appertained, suddenly exclaimed –
‘’Tis garlic! and I thought there wasn’t a blade left in that mead!’
Then all the old hands remembered that a certain dry mead, into which a few of the cows had been admitted of late, had, in years gone by, spoilt the butter in the same way. The dairyman had not recognized the taste at that time, and thought the butter bewitched.
‘We must overhaul that mead,’ he resumed; ‘this mustn’t continny!’
All having armed themselves with old pointed knives, they went out together. As the inimical plant could only be present in very microscopic dimensions to have escaped ordinary observation, to find it seemed rather a hopeless attempt in the stretch of rich grass before them. However, they formed themselves into line, all assisting, owing to the importance of the search…
With eyes fixed upon the ground they crept slowly across a strip of the field, returning a little further down in such a manner that, when they should have finished, not a single inch of the pasture but would have fallen under the eye of some one of them. It was a most tedious business, not more than half a dozen shoots of garlic being discoverable in the whole field; yet such was the herb’s pungency that probably one bite of it by one cow had been sufficient to season the whole dairy’s produce for the day.”
Hardy describes many other aspects of farming and rural industry in other novels. In Far From The Madding Crowd, shepherd Gabriel Oak wishes to marry Bathsheba, who inherits and manages her own farm (see the wonderful description of Oak in his shepherd’s hut in chapter 2). The Woodlanders records a range of woodland crafts: Giles Winterborne is a woodsman, apple farmer and cider-maker, his beloved’s father Melbury is a timber merchant, while Marty South is daughter to a thatching spar-maker who is ill, forcing Marty to take over his work. Bees and bee-keeping feature in Under The Greenwood Tree. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard is a successful grain merchant who hires then fires Donald Farfrae, whose greater command of agricultural science eventually leads him to eclipse Henchard in the grain business.
However, to repeat: Hardy’s account of farming is not rose-tinted nostalgia (though there are certainly nostalgic elements, and he often described in detail customs and practices which were even then dying out, and his work thereby represents an important historical archive as well as a key part of the literary canon). The precarious nature of many of his characters’ livelihoods, and the subtle and complex gradations of class are always centre stage. To close with a final example, then, this time from The Woodlanders: in the opening scene, a master barber from the town arrives one winter’s evening in the tiny woodland village of Little Hintock to try to persuade young Marty South to sell him her beautiful chestnut hair – her best feature – so he can make a wig for the lady of the manor, who covets it for herself. Barber Percombe peers through each cottage window until he finds Marty, who is making thatching spars to meet an imminent commitment made to timber merchant Melbury: her father is sick so she has to do it herself.
“In the room from which this cheerful blaze proceeded, he beheld a girl seated on a willow chair, and busily occupied by the light of the fire, which was ample and of wood. With a bill-hook in one hand and a leather glove, much too large for her, on the other, she was making spars, such as are used by thatchers, with great rapidity. She wore a leather apron for this purpose, which was also much too large for her figure. On her left hand lay a bundle of the straight, smooth sticks called spar-gads – the raw material of her manufacture; on her right, a heap of chips and ends – the refuse – with which the fire was maintained; in front, a pile of the finished articles. To produce them she took up each gad, looked critically at it from end to end, cut it to length, split it into four, and sharpened each of the quarters with dexterous blows, which brought it to a triangular point precisely resembling that of a bayonet…
The young woman laid down the bill-hook for a moment and examined the palm of her right hand, which, unlike the other, was ungloved, and showed little hardness or roughness about it. The palm was red and blistering, as if this present occupation were not frequent enough with her to subdue it to what it worked in. As with so many right hands born to manual labor, there was nothing in its fundamental shape to bear out the physiological conventionalism that gradations of birth, gentle or mean, show themselves primarily in the form of this member. Nothing but a cast of the die of destiny had decided that the girl should handle the tool; and the fingers which clasped the heavy ash haft might have skilfully guided the pencil or swept the string, had they only been set to do it in good time…
The young woman turned at the crunch of [the wig-maker’s] boots on the sanded floor, and exclaiming, ‘Oh, Mr. Percombe, how you frightened me!’ quite lost her colour for a moment.
He replied, ‘You should shut your door – then you’d hear folk open it.’
‘I can’t,’ she said; ‘the chimney smokes so. Mr. Percombe, you look as unnatural out of your shop as a canary in a thorn-hedge. Surely you have not come out here on my account – for –‘
‘Yes – to have your answer about this.’ He touched her head with his cane, and she winced. ‘Do you agree?’ he continued. ‘It is necessary that I should know at once, as the lady is soon going away, and it takes time to make up.’
‘Don’t press me – it worries me. I was in hopes you had thought no more of it. I can NOT part with it – so there!’
‘Now, look here, Marty,’ said the barber, sitting down on the coffin-stool table. ‘How much do you get for making these spars?’
‘Hush – father’s up-stairs awake, and he don’t know that I am doing his work.’
‘Well, now tell me,’ said the man, more softly. ‘How much do you get?’
‘Eighteenpence a thousand,’ she said, reluctantly.
‘Who are you making them for?’
‘Mr. Melbury, the timber-dealer, just below here.’
‘And how many can you make in a day?’
‘In a day and half the night, three bundles – that’s a thousand and a half.’
‘Two and threepence.’ The barber paused. ‘Well, look here,’ he continued, with the remains of a calculation in his tone, which calculation had been the reduction to figures of the probable monetary magnetism necessary to overpower the resistant force of her present purse and the woman’s love of comeliness, ‘here’s a sovereign – a gold sovereign, almost new.’ He held it out between his finger and thumb. ‘That’s as much as you’d earn in a week and a half at that rough man’s work, and it’s yours for just letting me snip off what you’ve got too much of.’
The girl’s bosom moved a very little. ‘Why can’t the lady send to some other girl who don’t value her hair – not to me?’ she exclaimed.
‘Why, simpleton, because yours is the exact shade of her own, and ’tis a shade you can’t match by dyeing. But you are not going to refuse me now I’ve come all the way from Sherton o’ purpose?’
‘I say I won’t sell it – to you or anybody.’
‘Now listen,’ and he drew up a little closer beside her. ‘The lady is very rich, and won’t be particular to a few shillings; so I will advance to this on my own responsibility – I’ll make the one sovereign two, rather than go back empty-handed.’
‘No, no, no!’ she cried, beginning to be much agitated. ‘You are a-tempting me, Mr. Percombe. You go on like the Devil to Dr. Faustus in the penny book. But I don’t want your money, and won’t agree. Why did you come? I said when you got me into your shop and urged me so much, that I didn’t mean to sell my hair!’ The speaker was hot and stern.
‘Marty, now hearken. The lady that wants it wants it badly. And, between you and me, you’d better let her have it. ‘Twill be bad for you if you don’t… You see, Marty, as you are in the same parish, and in one of her cottages, and your father is ill, and wouldn’t like to turn out, it would be as well to oblige her. I say that as a friend…’
‘I’ve nothing more to say,’ she answered.
Her companion saw from her manner that it was useless to urge her further by speech. ‘As you are a trusty young woman,’ he said, ‘I’ll put these sovereigns up here for ornament, that you may see how handsome they are. Bring the hair to-morrow, or return the sovereigns.’ He stuck them edgewise into the frame of a small mantle looking-glass…”
[Percombe leaves, the lights go out in the village, except Marty’s, but at ten o’clock she hangs a cloth at the window to hide the light.]
“The door it was necessary to keep ajar… because of the smoke; but she obviated the effect of the ribbon of light through the chink by hanging a cloth over that also. She was one of those people who, if they have to work harder than their neighbours, prefer to keep the necessity a secret as far as possible; and but for the slight sounds of wood-splintering which came from within, no wayfarer would have perceived that here the cottager did not sleep as elsewhere.
Eleven, twelve, one o’clock struck; the heap of spars grew higher, and the pile of chips and ends more bulky… but still she worked on. When the temperature of the night without had fallen so low as to make her chilly, she opened a large blue umbrella to ward off the draught from the door. The two sovereigns confronted her from the looking-glass in such a manner as to suggest a pair of jaundiced eyes on the watch for an opportunity. Whenever she sighed for weariness she lifted her gaze towards them, but withdrew it quickly, stroking her tresses with her fingers for a moment, as if to assure herself that they were still secure. When the clock struck three she arose and tied up the spars she had last made in a bundle resembling those that lay against the wall.”
Hardy’s work, then, offers a deeply felt and richly drawn account of farming in the ‘Wessex’ of the nineteenth century. It’s hard to think of any other writer or artist who might help give a ‘feel’ for farming as strongly as these stories do: they are suffused with emotional responses to the countryside and to husbandry, while setting out very clearly the economic relations behind them. So, in my view, a definite ‘must’ for the College’s ‘Farming and the Humanities’ reading list…