Ulverton is a fictional equivalent of Stephen W. Hawking’s A Brief History of Time (1988); the main focus is on the passing of time in a fictional village in the region of England that Adam Thorpe, like Thomas Hardy, calls Wessex. Beginning in 1650, Ulverton dramatizes the changes in village life and values every thirty or forty years. There is nothing particularly new in an episodic novel spanning centuries; the once-popular novelist Jeffery Famol did so in Voices from the Dust (1932), as did Virginia Woolf in Orlando (1928). Famol’s fiction is romantic melodrama, however, while Woolf is concerned more with androgyny than with history, whereas Thorpe is concerned with the minutiae of historical and social change, what he calls “the rich tilth of an unrecorded history.” What is really experimental about Ulverton is Thorpe’s use of voices. A poet, Thorpe reconstructs with rich and remarkable authenticity the languages of the past in this his first novel, each of the twelve episodes being narrated in one or more spoken or written voices of the participants, some of them nameless, encompassing all social levels and ranging from seventeenth century Puritanism to a contemporary film script. Some episodes have a strong narrative line; others are practically plotless; and some require the reader, like an archaeologist, to piece together an ambiguous narrative from fragments. Though each section is self-contained, later ones make allusions to people and events in earlier ones, some of which have taken on the elaborations of folklore.
Ulverton opens in 1650 when an aging farmer named William encounters Gabby Cobbold, a veteran of Oliver Cromwell’s army, returning home to find his wife Anne, who thought him dead for five years, remarried to a shepherd named Thomas Walters. When Gabby disappears, William suspects that Anne and Thomas, fearing that Gabby would try to reclaim his wife and farm, have murdered him. William uses circumstantial evidence to force Anne, whom he considers a witch, to become his lover as payment for his silence. Besides this grim drama, the 1650 episode recalls atrocities committed by Cromwell’s Ironsides and challenges the belief that the Puritan regime is the kingdom of God on earth.
In 1689, the Puritan commonwealth long since overthrown, an Anglican clergyman, the Reverend Mr. Braziei, with his young curate and a tubercular verger, becomes lost in a blizzard. More Puritan than the Puritans, Brazier is obsessed with sin and speaks in wildly apocalyptic language. The storm causes Simon Kistle, the curate, to claim that he has found perfection in the resurrection and to proclaim himself free from sin. To Brazier, Kistle’s words, learned from Quaker texts, are blasphemous. When the ranting curate throws the Bible into the darkness and then strips off his clothes, Brazier saves his own life by putting them on and then stripping the corpse of the verger, who has frozen to death, and putting on his garments as well. Clothed not in righteousness, the minister survives, but when he narrates this episode in a sermon to justify himself, he seems more mad than the dead curate.
From 1712 (an episode ironically titled “improvements”), Thorpe offers the diary of a farmer obsessed with improving his soil by fertilization while his wife is going mad and he is carrying on an affair with the maid. Thorpe gives considerable detail about the agricultural husbandry pursued by this bad husband, who has his wife beat him when she arouses him sexually. Their youngest child has died less than a year earhet, and the wife is sunk in depression. When the maid becomes pregnant, the farmer is more concerned about gaining a male heir than about his mistress’ well-being; he refuses to marry her after his wife has killed herself, and he is disappointed when she gives birth to a daughter. Meanwhile, the dead wife’s spirit returns to haunt her husband. The farmer records all these events, from farming to fornication, from the death of his wife to the birth of his daughter, with the same dry matter-of- factness, as if no event were more important than another. He also casually mentions Anne Cobbold as a witch, the death of her husband in 1689, and Parson Brazier as an old fool.
In 1743, the voice is that of A. C., an adulterous wife whose husband, lord of Ulverton Hall, is away wenching while she carries on a correspondence with her lover, a tutor in London, by whom she has had an infant son. The story is gradually revealed through her letters, as she sends him money for his extravagances. At the end, her uncomprehending messengers are found out and punished. One may be hanged; the other, a black boy, is flogged and transported to the West Indies.
A. C.’s elegantly erotic prose is followed in 1775 by the correspondence of Sarah Shail, an illiterate mother who dictates letters to a tailor whose...