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Book Review: Ulverton, by Adam Thorpe

Ulverton was published in 1992, and won the Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for the best regional novel of the year. It has recently been republished as a Vintage Classic, an honour which puts it in the company of Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby and War and Peace to name but a few.  You can check out a list of Vintage Classics here. Thorpe has published a further nine novels, which have been favourably reviewed, but have not sold well, or won any further literary prizes. What is it about Ulverton that makes it, as one critic claimed in the Sunday Times, a masterpiece – if indeed it is?

Ulverton is certainly an unusual book – or to use Thorpe’s own description – ‘eccentric’. It’s made up of a series of what you might call short stories, as each is complete in itself, though each is told in a different voice and takes a different form, such as letters, or evidence for a trial, descriptions of a series of photographs and the script for a TV documentary. They cover the period 1650 to 1988 and all relate to life – and love and death – in the village of Ulverton on the English South Downs. Family names and locations recur across the whole period, but what primarily ties it together – in addition to the continuing exercise of human passions – is that each segment adds something to an understanding of the lost social and economic history of this part of the English countryside.

There are too many voices to give an outline of the story each tells. But the themes that subtly emerge begin with the aftermath of the English Civil War, and move through the improvements in agriculture that are loosely called the agricultural revolution, the Captain Swing riots against the introduction of agricultural machinery, the onset of the First World War, and ultimately the struggle between the romanticised preservation of ‘village life’ – which we have seen mostly in its horror, but sometimes in its pleasure and achievement – and new forms of economic development in the guise of new housing estates. Religious differences, class differences, the state of technology, relations between men and women – we see them all changing across the period. Thorpe is never dogmatic. There are few heroes or villains, at least in the foreground of Ulverton itself. The lawyer taking evidence about the riots may despise the rioters, but he has problems of his own; he never triumphs. The lady photographer’s excessive nineteenth century sensibility is balanced by a sad love story delicately sketched in. Thorpe is very conscious that the life of an agricultural labourer was in Hobbs’s phrase ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’, and his sympathy is clearly with the downtrodden and oppressed. But he is never sentimental about it. On the other hand, this is not an account of the gradual betterment of life; no one seems to have learnt much.

As you can see, this is a complex and subtle book. Thorpe does a wonderful job of bringing the varied voices to life. He seems to have captured perfectly just the sort of thoughts and feelings each of his characters might have had, and also the language they use to express them. Thus the late seventeenth century vicar lost in the snow on the Downs: ‘On Furzecombe Down I tasted of despair. Yea, on Furzecombe Down the whirlwind came and filled my mouth and the snow stopped up mine ears and I chewed on ashes and was blind.’ Or the improving farmer: ‘I asked why should the iron poison the soil. He said it was common knowledge. Ah, how common knowledge vitiates all attempts at individual Improvement of husbandry, and of the science of its betters!’ Or the lady photographer for whom ‘nothing is more profoundly salubrious than an old stone wall, nothing richer than a bedraggled plum tree, nothing more enticing than a raven’s discarded feather, or a dust filled barn spread with ancient sacks’. This is ventriloquism of the highest order.

But it’s not an easy book. It is made even harder by the fact that Thorpe tries to give a voice to the voiceless of the past. He gets round the problem in the segment dealing with the Captain Swing rioters by having the lawyer ‘persevere in the translation of but thick grunts into some semblance of Rational discourse.’ But two other of the stories are told, perforce, in an almost unintelligible dialect. The first, from 1775, concerns a mother who is communicating with her son in London. He has been convicted of an unexplained crime and is expected to be executed. Being illiterate, she has engaged the services of the local tailer to write her letters for her; he is scarcely more literate himself. It is actually very funny, and very worth persisting with. Reading it out loud helps, but it is hard going. The second dialect section is even more difficult. It is a monologue from 1887, directed, as far as I can tell, by a carter to his passenger, a boy on his way home from boarding school, but I’m guessing here. It is one long sentence with no punctuation, making even reading out loud difficult … ‘oh Heaven boy certain sure an sometimes they wheel groanin out of a field that brashy an thin I have seed they harrers a-blizzy off they tangs athirt it come harrerin time aye’ … and this goes on for several pages. I see the point, and on a third or fourth reading I get the gist of this bit, but must it really be that hard?

So is it a masterpiece? Despite misgivings about the dialect, and the length of a couple of the segments, I think it is. The subtlety and delicacy of the connections Thorpe draws both within and between the segments is masterly. The varied voices are clever, but it goes beyond that; here is imagined history that is fully alive.

You can read more about Adam Thorpe and his work here. Asked why his later books – which many critics admire – haven’t proved popular, he says “I don’t know.  One can hardly say I’ve been unambitious.’ You can read the rest of the interview with him here.

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