Rural Reads IV: Adrian Bell's Corduroy Trilogy
I wasn’t sure what to expect from Adrian Bell’s rural trilogy, Corduroy (1930), Silver Ley (1931) and The Cherry Tree (1932). They had been the latest in a flurry of books I had been ordering from independent London publisher Slightly Foxed. In fact, it was the sight of these beautiful (but shamefully unread) books on the shelf above the bedside table that first suggested the ‘Rural Reads’ theme for our 2021 reading resolutions.
Corduroy opens with Bell’s arrival at a farm in Benfield St George, just outside Stambury (in reality Bradfield St George, about 4 miles southeast of Bury St Edmunds), having escaped “from the threat of an office life” in order to learn about agriculture from Mr Colville at Farley Hall. The following 287 pages chart his gradual acclimatisation to the world of rural Suffolk, against a background of the agricultural calendar.
Bell’s books have a particular resonance for us: Elle and I live just a few miles from Bradfield St. George, and Bell's careful eye captures the neighbourhood beautifully. Much of the joy of reading these books has come from finding references to places, events and references we know well.
For example, a reference to a pint of 'Old and Mild' that Bell attempts to drink with the yardman, Midden, got me thinking about a very similar situation I had myself, though the offending beverage was called 'Light and Bitter', bought for me by my father-in-law, a lifelong Suffolk resident. We had stopped in at the pub for a 'swift pint' (in fact more like a pint-and-a-half in total), for which we had precisely 12 minutes. I only wish I'd had Bell's courage, and found somewhere discreet to pour it. Instead, I had to leave half my drink undrunk, and have never been allowed to forget it since.
The most familiar references are to Bury St Edmunds: the old Cattle Market, that had still been selling livestock when we were children, but which is now a modern shopping development; the Corn Exchange that is now a Wetherspoon’s pub, but which Bell visits in 1920 with Mr Colville to haggle prices for their latest harvest; and the Angel Hill, with the Athenaeum – where we were married – looking out on a car park full of market-goers, just as it is today.
Reading a passage in Corduroy about the Angel Hill, I went there on the lookout for the ‘blunt-nosed saints’ that Bell describes in the niches of the Abbeygate. I found the niches empty and assumed they had been removed since. However, a little online research revealed that they had in fact been removed during the Reformation, so Bell couldn’t possibly have seen them in 1920; they had a narrative truth that meant more than literal facts.
Which is, I suppose, the point. Adrian Bell’s books are often too good to be true, and he is weaving the material of his experiences into fiction, just as a novelist does. In his 1937 By-Road – which declares itself ‘a novel’ on the title page of my 1949 Bodley Head edition – Mr Colville and the nearby town of Stanbury make a reappearance: clearly Bell did not draw such a neat distinction between what we call his fiction and his memoirs.
In fact, it is his skills as a novelist that make his memoirs so engaging. Like Daphne du Maurier does so successfully in Rebecca and The Scapegoat, there is a sense of being dropped into a tight-knit society without understanding the rules: our protagonists blunder through one awkward social situation after another, gradually learning the ropes the hard way through trial and error. The difference is that, where du Maurier’s worlds are inherently dysfunctional, on the brink of chaos, the community Bell describes at Great Benfield is well-ordered, stable and coherent after his bohemian childhood in London.
But change was coming, and Silver Ley and The Cherry Tree chart the changing fortunes of the Suffolk rural communities, with new agricultural and employment policies, increasing costs and decreasing consumer demand, and revolutionary technology changing the landscape and workforce throughout Suffolk, and beyond. We still live in the shadow of the changes Bell observed in the 1920s. Small farms had once been the most important rural employers were being combined to make most economical use of resources, both mechanical and human. Bell describes seeing ‘eight men at work where formerly had been twenty’: today, hardly anyone living in the countryside is involved with agriculture, and a single farm-worker can harvest acres of land almost single handedly.
However, these are memoirs first and foremost, not social studies of rural Suffolk, so it is the personal stories that leave the longest impression. Occasionally Bell apologises for reminiscing too much: ‘Perhaps some may consider the last chapter a digression, with no real place in the kind of story this should be’, he suggests after a section in Silver Ley describing a hockey match with the nearby Willington family at Shelbridge Hall (possibly the Rothschild family at Rushbrooke).
But it is the reflections and recollections that provide the drama of the trilogy. There are memorable episodes galore: glorious set-pieces that capture a day or event with a skilled balance of excitement, humour and occasional melancholy: fox hunting, market day at Stambury, a flower show at Shelbridge, a village fair.
But, like the chapters of Levin mowing in Anna Karenina, it is the scenes of farming that really inspire me. The craft of agriculture – a heady mix of technical detail, moving comradeship and poetry – form the backbone and spiritual heart of the trilogy, and it is this carefully-detailed rural world that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.