The Short Day Dying made quite an impression in Great Britain when it was first published by Faber and Faber in 2005. Lovingly reviewed, the book was short-listed for the 2005 Whitbread First Novel Award and winner of a 2006 Betty Trask Award for first novelists under thirty-five. A couple of comments from British reviewers are typical. Writing in The Guardian March 19, 2005, Ian Marchant stated, “Hobbs has exactly captured the voice of West Country Methodism.” The subtitle of Kirsty Gunn’s review in The Observer March 13, 2005, called the novel “a masterclass in less is more.” Both of these observations help explain why the British loved the novel and why some Americans, according to remarks on the Internet, find it puzzling.
The Short Day Dying is highly localized in place, time, style, and subject matter. In penning the novel, Peter Hobbs drew partly from his own background, growing up in Cornwall and Yorkshire. A descendant of Methodist lay preachers, Hobbs was inspired by the diaries of his great-great-grandfather, who might have served as the model for the novel’s protagonist, Charles Wenmoth. Narrated entirely from Charles’s first-person point of view, the novel consists of short chapters that resemble journal entries, although not dated. Like journal entries, they are mostly summary, without much dialogue or dramatization. Also like journal entries, they embody Charles’s voice in a not quite literate style that features run-on sentences, lack of commas and quotation marks, and colloquial use of the verb “were” (probably a remnant of the subjunctive mood that hung on in some British dialects and traveled to Australia). The style might slow readers down slightly, but The Short Day Dying is not hard to readno harder, say, than As I Lay Dying (1930) by William Faulkner, another highly localized author whose influence on Hobbs the book’s inside cover acknowledges. Other influences mentioned are William Blake, who supplied the novel’s epigraph, and Thomas Hardy.
Like journal entries also, The Short Day Dying has little in the way of incident or excitement but instead focuses on Charles’s reactions to daily or weekly events. The novel does rise to a climax when Charles almost drowns trying to cross a flooded river, then comes down with a feverish sickness. His sickness is as much psychological as physical, brought on not only by his exposure to the storm but also by the death of his beloved invalid Harriet French and by his subsequent spiritual crisis. Even in the best of times, however, Charles’s mood is not the best. Throughout the novel he is plagued by self-doubt, disappointment, and, as the title encapsulates, a sense of time passing without God’s work being done or his life fulfilled. The result is a rather bleak prevailing tone in the novel.
The most immediate cause of Charles’s unhappiness is his experience in the ministry. The great days of the Methodist Revival in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, right up to the time of Charles’s father, are over with, at least in Cornwall. By Charles’s time, interest in Methodism and religion generally has waned, with church membership and attendance way down. Typically he finds himself preaching to just a few people in almost-empty churches and chapels. He branches out in his ministry by teaching classes for the young (also poorly attended), by visiting the sick and destitute in their homes, and by hiking about the countryside and nailing up tracts. Although he successfully completes his apprenticeship as a lay preacher early in the book, his experience is so dispiriting that he continues to doubt his abilities and, during his spiritual crisis, considers leaving the ministry. Encouraged by his godfather and mentor, Mr. Pendray, who advises him that the crisis will pass, Charles apparently decides at the end of the book to continue serving.
Charles’s rough beginning in the ministry significantly parallels that of the founders of Methodism, John and Charles Wesley. Both Wesleys attended and graduated from Oxford University, where in the late 1720’s they started a Bible discussion group whose members were called Methodists. Ordained in the Church of England, the two Wesleys were invited in 1735 by General James Oglethorpe to join his settlement in Savannah, Georgia, where they could minister to the colonists and the Native...
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