Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1648
First published: 1930
Type of work: Novel
Type of plot: Historical romance
Time of work: 1774-1781
Locale: Western Virginia and Kentucky
Diony Hall Jarvis, a pioneer wife
Berk Jarvis, her husband
Evan Muir, Diony's second husband
Thomas Hall, Diony's father
Elvira Jarvis, Berk's mother
Thomas Hall, the well-educated son of a tidewater Virginia family, had settled in upper Albemarle County after having lost his fortune to a dishonest relative. In the upper country, he had married a young Methodist woman who had come down into Virginia from Pennsylvania. After their marriage, Mrs. Hall bore four children, two boys and two girls.
Of all the children, the oldest girl was by far her father's favorite. She had been named Dione, out of Greek mythology, but everyone called her Diony and spelled her name with a "y." Diony, with her father's help and the use of his small library, educated herself as best she could.
During the middle 1770's, visitors occasionally stopped at the Hall house, really little more than a large cabin, as they passed from the Fincastle country or perhaps from even farther away in the cane meadows of Kentucky. Word came to the Halls in that manner of Boone, Henderson, and Harrod, and of the settlements those men had begun in the Kentucky country. The accounts of the back country held smaller charms for Diony than thoughts of visiting her rich relatives on the coasts of Virginia and Maryland; as a girl, she believed a life of balls, great houses, carriages, and fancy clothes far more enticing than the rigors of the wilderness.
Among the Halls' neighbors was a family named Jarvis. Of the several boys of the Jarvis clan, there was one who was more than six feet tall, taller even than Diony's older brother. He was the first to succumb to travelers' tales of the Kentucky country. While he was gone, he sent back word by a trapper that he hoped Diony would wait for his return before she accepted a husband. She had one suitor, a man from the tidewater, but Berk Jarvis so captured her imagination that she had her father send a letter ending the suit with the man of wealth and position who had been seeking her hand.
When Berk returned, Diony quickly agreed to marry him and to go with him immediately into the wilderness, to the new settlement called Harrodsburg in the Kentucky country. Cloth was woven, garments were sewed, cattle were gathered together, kitchen utensils were selected, and seeds for a garden packed away. At last, all was in readiness for the marriage and the wilderness trek to follow immediately. Thomas Hall had had the banns cried in the Angelican Church, according to the British law of the Virginia colony, but the couple and Diony's mother wanted the Methodist minister to perform the ceremony. He did, but many of the people, including Diony and Berk, had some misgivings as to the legality of the marriage, even though the argument of the newly signed Declaration of Independence was brought forth.
After the marriage Diony, Berk, his mother, and a number of other Virginians set out on the wilderness road across the Appalachian highlands to Kentucky. They followed the trail laid out by Daniel Boone. Without accident, but with great difficulty, the party reached Harrod's fort in the wilderness. Berk bought a claim on a farm at some distance from the fort. As the months passed, the lives of the newly married couple slowly took shape. Only one shadow appeared. One day, while Diony and her mother-in-law were out of the fort, they were surprised by Indians. Before Mrs. Jarvis was killed and scalped, she managed to save Diony's life. Berk swore that he would be avenged and kill the Indian who had taken his mother's scalp.
Diony recovered from injuries received when attacked by the Indians. One day, while Berk was purposely gone from the fort, she gave birth to a boy whom they named Tom. The baby was not many weeks old when Berk set out with a party of men to aid George Rogers Clark in his expeditions against the British in the Northwest Territory. Within a few weeks, one of the party came back with an injury to his hand and the report of an Indian ambush. Berk had been taken by the Indians. Capture was at that time, even though the British gave a higher bounty for prisoners than for scalps, a certain death warrant for most prisoners.
In the weeks and months that passed after her husband's capture, Diony stayed in the cabin in the settlement and provided for herself and the baby. Help was forthcoming from Evan Muir, the man who had returned with the news of Berk's capture. In return for her nursing and cooking, Evan kept Diony and the child in meat and leather during the summer, fall, and winter. The following summer, he farmed the Jarvis homestead claim on a share basis.
Gradually the people in the settlement began to feel sure that Berk was dead, and at last a report came in that he had been killed. Still Diony refused to believe that her husband would not return. Although Evan did not press his suit for marriage, the women of the village warned Diony that it was not fair for her to continue taking his labor on her behalf without giving him the rights of a husband. Diony finally yielded to their arguments and agreed to marry Evan. She soon discovered that she really loved the man and that her passion for him was greater than it had been for Berk.
Diony and Evan moved to the Jarvis claim and lived in the house Berk had built there. For two years, they lived happily and worked steadily to improve the place. In that time, Diony gave birth to a child by Evan, another boy, who was named Michael.
One night, a call came from the edge of the clearing, and Berk Jarvis walked up to the door. Neither Diony, Evan, nor Berk knew how to resolve the predicament of a wife with two legal husbands and a child by each of them. Berk and Evan began a fierce argument, but they were interrupted by visitors from the settlement. The people from the settlement said that the frontier law was that the wife had to choose which of the husbands she would keep; then the other one had to leave for good.
After the visitors left, Evan waited silently; he felt that all he had done for Diony, his labor of three years, would speak for itself. Berk, however, began a recital of his adventures among the Indians, telling how he had traveled as a prisoner-visitor as far as Sault Sainte Marie and had finally been able to escape and return. He described his tortures in the early weeks of his captivity: the floggings, the gauntlet running, and the fear of being burned at the stake.
Late in the night, Berk finished speaking. When he had, Diony said that she had made up her mind. She chose to have Berk remain, even though Evan had been a steadier husband. She told them both to leave the cabin that night, for she wanted to be alone for a time before she faced her new start on life with her first husband.
Though it was her fourth published novel, THE GREAT MEADOW had been slowly developing in Elizabeth Madox Roberts' mind for many years. She was descended from pioneers who had settled in the Kentucky wilderness, and she wished to commemorate the part such settlers had played in transforming the great meadowland beyond the mountains into homes for themselves. She carefully considered theme, characters, style, and form. The result is a novel laid in the period of the American Revolution and the settlement of land west of the southern Appalachians, with such historical personages as Daniel Boone, James Harrod, and George Rogers Clark playing subsidiary roles. The progress of the war was briefly reported from time to time as something happening far away, except for Indian raids and skirmishes between white settlers and red men urged into battle by the British.
The dominant theme of the evolution of order out of chaos is developed in two movements: Diony Hall, an introspective but physically active young girl, seeks to control the welter of emotions and thoughts within herself as she matures into a young woman, and to find and understand the part she was intended to play in life by the great Author of Nature. She becomes a part of the other movement, that of the settlers who brought order and civilization into what had been raw wilderness. Diony is the only fully developed character in the novel, the only one seen from within as well as without. The two movements are intermeshed as the author alternately reveals Diony's thoughts and feelings and then shifts to the physical action of the story that involves Diony with the many other characters.
In style, the novel blends poetry and prose. Music abounds in ballads, hymns, the sounds of Thomas Hall's anvil, bird songs, the bells on horses' necks, and fiddle music for dancing. Images of weaving suggest the making of a historical tapestry ("the words and the wool were spun together"). Archaic locutions and dialectal words ("blowth," "frighted") give an eighteenth century folk flavor.
The principal weakness of THE GREAT MEADOW is the use of the Enoch Arden theme at the end when Berk returns after his long absence. For most readers, however, this ending may seem acceptable, particularly since Berk saved himself from being eaten by his captors through a convincing argument that his "thinking part" gave him his strength. This is a corollary of Diony's belief in "the power of reason over the wild life of the earth."