[Yet again I must follow the ministerial code and declare an interest. K.M. Peyton very kindly helped me with my writing and with general advice when I was just getting started. I’ve always been in awe of her writing ability.]
Another from the David Fickling YA collection, this book is the sequel to Small Gains, and continues the story of the Garland family, Norfolk farming folk in the early nineteenth century, beset by a fair selection of woes and challenges. The Enclosure movement, agricultural mechanisation, rural unemployment and depopulation, disease and the harsh social and penal systems of the time all rear their heads as historical backdrop to the two books. Even as this story begins, in first person narration by youngest daughter Ellen, we get a fair taste of the uncertain nature of existence’
My name is Ellen Garland. I am the youngest of four. The eldest, Margaret, died of the wasting disease when she was sixteen. My brother Jack, a year younger, had to flee from home to escape hanging after he fired Mr. Grover’s hayricks, and my other sister Clara, now fifteen, is pregnant and still at home at Small Gains. I don’t know who by, but I can guess. To give the baby a decent name she married the vicar’s son, Nicholas Bywater, just before he too died of the wasting disease. To give Clara her due, she loved Nicholas dearly, as did we all. But the baby isn’t Nicholas’s.
You can see this is a strange kettle of fish for a very ordinary farming family to be in, and our father is very depressed.
‘ and Ellen herself is, within a few pages, to be involved in a prank that leads to her imprisonment and subsequent transportation to Australia.
The heroine, however, and the dynamo driving force of the family, is Clara, and for her parts of the story we move into the third person. Clara is not pretty, she is the practical one, the hands-on daughter, tough and passionate. She is her father’s anchor, not least because, like him, she is born to the land and (more than anything) to understand horses, disdaining the conventions of the time to train her champion trotter Rattler for his gruelling twenty-mile races. Serious money can be made for the family from racing and from Rattler’s stud services.
In both the previous book and this volume, Clara receives her fair selection of knocks, and often fate seems to be against her. Her baby and her unwanted marriage are both the result of blackmail, in order to benefit or protect her family: yet although her heart screams at the shackles that hold her, her courage and willingness to meet circumstances head on without losing anything of herself allows her to thrive. And yes, there’s some romantic interest here, for Clara is in love with the son of another farmer, Prosper Mayes, currently in India.
I can imagine some readers finding these books too muddled ‘ the switches in narration, the uneven jumble of events, frequent repetition of characters’ thoughts and utterances and self-searching ‘ whilst others might not like the almost melodramatic quality of Clara’s romantic rollercoaster. For me, however, Peyton tells it like it is. Practical realities to be met with grit and compassion, dreams that one should not let go of, conflicts and confusions (Clara has to acknowledge her sexual attraction to her arrogant, blackmailing husband but recognises that this is not the love she feels for Prosper)’ and yes, a Philip Glass kind of repetition in what we say and think and question as we vary our human theme toward greater self-knowledge.
This is not quite Kathleen Peyton’s best work, but it is still streets ahead of most of the field, and very moving, as ever. The writing style is relaxed, direct and appealing, the historical detail full of life and passion, and the emotional questions blisteringly relevant. She is, in the words of The Times, a ‘born storyteller’.