Ulverton

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 405

Thorpe is concerned with the minutiae of historical and social change, what he calls “the rich tilth of an unrecorded history.” A poet, Thorpe reconstructs with rich and remarkable authenticity the languages of the past, each of the twelve episodes being narrated in one or more spoken or written voices...

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Thorpe is concerned with the minutiae of historical and social change, what he calls “the rich tilth of an unrecorded history.” A poet, Thorpe reconstructs with rich and remarkable authenticity the languages of the past, each of the twelve episodes being narrated in one or more spoken or written voices of the participants, 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 story from fragments.

ULVERTON opens in 1650 when a returning veteran of Cromwell’s army is murdered by his wife and the man she married while he was away. In 1989, the victim’s skeleton is unearthed by a descendant of the murderers constructing a development that will help spoil what remains of old Ulverton. In the ten intervening episodes, we encounter a sin-obsessed clergyman, a farmer obsessed with improving fertilizer while his wife goes insane and he carries on an affair with a servant, an adulterous aristocratic wife, an illiterate mother whose son awaits hanging for supposedly stealing a hat, an elderly carpenter cadging drinks by telling about fooling his workaholic master, a group of rebellious agricultural workers on trial in 1830 for smashing farm machinery, a woman photographer in 1859, a ploughman reminiscing about village life, the excavation of a prehistoric barrow during the beginning of World War I, and the diary of a frustrated secretary during the death of George VI and coronation of Elizabeth II, in whose honor ancient wagons and farm tools are to be burned in a bonfire. “Why can’t folk leave the past alone?” asks the secretary. At the end, the village is surrounded by a roaring motorway, houses computer firms, and seems destined for inevitable urbanization.

ULVERTON not only re-creates “the rich and complex pages of our ancient country” but is a linguistic tour de force. A thoughtful reflection on time and change, it is a distinguished contribution to the modern British novel.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, November 15, 1992, p.581.

Library Journal. CXVII, November 15, 1992, p.102.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 17, 1993, p.3.

The New Republic. CCVIII, April 26, 1993, p.42.

New Statesman and Society. V, May 1, 1992, p.38.

The New York Review of Books. XL, April 8, 1993, p.22.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, January 17, 1993, p.12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, September 28, 1992, p.66.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 8, 1992, p.20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, January 10, 1993, p.1.

Ulverton

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2011

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 spelling, grammar, and syntax show him to be almost as illiterate as she is. She is writing to her son Francis, in Newgate Prison awaiting hanging for stealing the hat of Lord Charles, which he picked up when it blew off. Francis, whose letters we do not see, writes back terrible things. His mother fears that he will be dissected by surgeons after his hanging. Meanwhile, she has to endure cold and poverty. Francis is pardoned, but his mother may die from a tumor growing rapidly in one breast.

The narrative in 1803 comprises the garrulous reminiscences of Samuel, a sixty-eight-year-old carpenter, about his slave-driving workaholic master Abraham Webb, who did much fancy work for “Ladybitch Chalmers,” the A. C. of the 1743 narrative. Speaking in a thick dialect, Samuel is cadging drinks at the inn with his meandering recollections of Webb, a pious but hard man who was so immersed in his work that while dying in 1797, he could hear that the coffin wood was not seasoned properly. Playing upon Webb’s piety, Samuel and his fellow workers tricked him into believing that their shouting from the top of a tree was the voice of God warning him to stop overworking them, for fear of damnation.

In 1830, a frustrated law clerk writes impassioned love letters to his absent Emily, while taking down the depositions of participants in and witnesses of a mob of unpaid agricultural workers who smashed farm machinery and demanded back wages. The clerk’s snobbish views and extravagantly clever prose are a sharp contrast to what he calls the barbarous peasant accents of the workers. Gloating over a gourmet meal and angling for an inheritance of seven hundred pounds a year, he is totally out of touch with the starving peasants asking for unpaid shillings. He wants them to be severely punished, though they were nonviolent until attacked. Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that the clerk is tubercular and that he will attain neither the inheritance nor Emily.

Not until the 1859 section does the reader learn that John Oadam, leader of the rustic rebels, was hanged. This chapter consists of a woman photographer’s elegantly styled lectures about twenty of her plates, one of which is a portrait of Hannah Heddin, who was ostracized for testifying against the 1830 rebels. The photographer is very conscious of time and of her ability to capture a moment of it. Four of her plates are of the excavation of an Egyptian tomb, with clear parallels to Thorpe’s novel as a sort of excavation of Ulverton history. She prides herself on preserving “a pulsating and ancient tapestry, that… was hid in utter darkness” before its scenes “began to perish.” The 1914 entry reveals, however, that most of her glass plate negatives were ruined by a gardener who used them as cloches for cabbages.

The 1887 episode is a nineteen-page-long monologue, unpunctuated, in an accent so thick as to be almost impenetrable (in the 1953 episode), a woman complains of such an accent). In it an aging ploughman furrowing a field relates to young Daniel Holland, recently returned from Eton, fragments of Ulverton’s history and complains of the coming of the railroad.

Aside from the railroad, the world of 1887 still seems almost medieval, so that the jump to 1914 is jarringly abrupt. The beginning of World War I is shown from the perspective of 1928, in the reminiscences of a widower retired from the civil service in India. He has joined the Squire in excavating a prehistoric barrow. While the dig is in process, war breaks out, and the apoplectic Squire gives ajingoistic speech ordering his employees to enlist, all but those he reserves to work on the dig. Percy Cullurne, a conscientious objector, refuses despite being vilified. Of those who go, most die horribly or come home mutilated. The Squire unearths an ancient skeleton; for the narrator, the barrow provides links with his ancestors, as he muses on time and the changes it has brought to Ulverton.

Not until the 1953 episode does the reader learn that the Squire committed suicide in 1923. The 1953 section is also linked with 1914 by Chopin’s B-minor Sonata, which the civil servant plays and which resurfaces in a radio broadcast about cartoonist Herbert Bradman, whose life is being typed by his (platonically) live-in secretary, Violet Nightingale. Her diary makes up this chapter, which extends back in memory to the 1920’s and to the death of her lover in World War II, and in the present shows the death of George VI and the coronation of Elizabeth II from the perspective of Ulverton, where many artifacts of the past-Victorian farm wagons, venerable agricultural tools—are to be burned in a bonfire to celebrate the new queerl. Yet it is this past that Thorpe is trying to preserve. “Why can’t folk leave the past alone?” asks Violet; she explores Ulverton House, which was vandalized by soldiers billeted there in World War II. She is cheered by the sprouting of “mummy seeds” recovered from an Egyptian tomb. As she types Bradman’s memoirs, she is so crushed to find him writing nothing about her except brief mentions of being interrupted by his nameless secretary that she throws the manuscript into the bonfire. Bradman does not realize what she has done; he thinks that the manuscript has been buried in a time capsule.

The 1989 conclusion, in the form of a film script, tells of Clive Walters, a descendant of Anne and Thomas Walters of 1650. Clive is a pushy developer who wants to erect new sardine-sized houses to sell for 200,000 pounds apiece on the outskirts of the ancient village, where some computer firms have akeady located. Pleased with the noisy nearby motorway, indifferent to the loss of rural quiet and of history, he thinks that his ancestors had a “bloody awful life” and cannot understand why the Ulverton Preservation Society, one of whose members is author Adam Thorpe, oppose his moneymaking “progress.” This episode reveals a modern failure of language, which has descended into the inarticulateness of “Er, you know.” Clive thinks that urbanization is inevitable. Why fight it? He is undone, however, when his excavations turn up the skeleton of Gabby Cobbold, murdered by his ancestors. When Adam Thorpe publishes this narrative, chapter 1 of the novel, Clive is infuriated, but it and a recession make him unable to sell his houses, and he loses a fortune. Yet the development has already done its damage.

Ulverton not only re-creates “the rich and complex pages of our ancient country” in both vivid and ironic detail but is a linguistic tour de force, using a variety of voices and dialects and many of the devices of poetry, such as sentences that sometimes break off in mid-word. A thoughtful reflection on time and change, it is a distinguished contribution to the modern British novel.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. LXXXIX, November 15, 1992, p.581.

Library Journal. CXVII, November 15, 1992, p.102.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. January 17, 1993, p.3.

The New Republic. CCVIII, April 26, 1993, p.42.

New Statesman and Society. V, May 1, 1992, p.38.

The New York Review of Books. XL, April 8, 1993, p.22.

The New York Times Book Review. XCVIII, January 17, 1993, p.12.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, September 28, 1992, p.66.

The Times Literary Supplement. May 8, 1992, p.20.

The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, January 10, 1993, p.1.

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