For me, the strength of the Man Booker-nominated novel Harvest by Jim Crace is its depiction of place and time. The date is unspecified but the mid-17th century seems plausible. For instance, the landowner Master Kent has plans for land enclosure and has recruited the services of “Master Quill” to survey and chart his property in anticipation of this; common male dress is identified as quilted cap, breeches and leather jerkin. We are far from town or coast and “anyone who is not blood is married to someone else who is”. Christianity is established but the old pagan influences are still strong. The village does not have a church although Master Kent aspires to build one. Visitors are immediately presumed to be witches and demons, wrong-doers punished in a pillory.
Crace’s narrator, Walter Thirsk, is an outsider, who has lived and worked in larger places. In both direct and indirect speech, his eloquent prose suggests a semi-literate person whose main linguistic sources are the Bible and the physical world around him. The narrative is full of references to the sky, the land, birds and animals, vegetables, tools, crafts, work : “garths”, “muniments”, “fumiter”, “manchet”, “heddles”, “loggats”, “platters”,“stirruping”, “fletchings”, “dunnocks”, “tilth”, “longpurples”, “pickthread”, “copotain”.
Quite soon during Harvest I found myself recalling another re-imagination of the same period, in Red Shift by Alan Garner. That novel runs three concurrent Cheshire narratives, set in the present (1970s) day, in Roman Britain and during the English Civil War. Unlike Crace, Garner concentrates on dialogue rather than description. He makes his Roman soldiers especially sound bluntly contemporary. They have names like Logan, Face, Magoo and Macey and say things like, “Don’t push it!” “Bollocks!” and “I don’t give a toss”. His 17th century characters speak a language which is a little more expansive, a little richer, although still clipped and cursory. Garner is keen to give the past a visible, fast-moving grittiness.
The countryside as a place of the mysterious pagan past, not yet sharing all the values of modern society, has often been the perspective of David Rudkin. Yet, as the vicar in his 1974 TV film Penda’s Fen points out, “pagan” simply means “belonging to the village”, and the human scale of “the village” is something that may well remain particularly attractive in the future as the world elsewhere becomes crowded, noisy, overwhelming.
Rudkin’s lead character in Penda’s Fen, Stephen, is a visionary rather like the three characters called Tom in Garner’s Red Shift. At the start, school-leaver Stephen’s Christian beliefs are strict and conservative, but by the end he is accepting the blessing and the mission bestowed by the pagan King Penda: “cherish our flame, our dawn shall come”.
Crace’s “Master Quill” immediately recalls The Draughtsman’s Contract, Peter Greenaway’s film set in a slightly later period where the hiring of a stranger to chart their property disrupts a middle-class family. In Greenaway’s world, Christianity is firmly established, and the religious elements in his script deal with internal tensions between two arrogant men of comparable ages: the Protestant German son-in-law Talmann and the draughtsman (probably Catholic and of either Scottish or Irish family) Neville. Like Crace, Greenaway’s language evokes his historical period eloquently.
Although the countryside of The Draughtsman’s Contract is thoroughly enclosed and cultivated, the older mysteries prevail. The grounds of the Herbert property are adorned by classical statues of pagan gods, while prowling around the periphery of the drama is a mysterious moving statue, at the start perusing the alfresco diners from the roof above and by the end spitting pieces of pineapple onto the ashes of the dead Neville’s last drawing.
Stephen Prince’s A Year in the Country website, “an exploration of an otherly pastoralism…(the) underlying unsettledness to the English bucolic countryside dream” works some of the same artistic ground covered by Crace, Garner and Rudkin, and looks strikingly as if it was produced in 1969 rather than in the last couple of years.