We only see the wind by eddies of dust and raindrops and by the birds beating across it. Adam Thorpe strews 350 years of the shifting schemes, crafts, passions, ways of speech and walkabouts of an English village across an altering West Country landscape and social order. It allows us to believe that we have seen time.
Ulverton is a fictional village, and “Ulverton” is 12 fictional narratives. The place is set in what might variously be Dorset, Wiltshire or Berkshire; like Thomas Hardy, Thorpe calls it Wessex. The narratives are spaced from Cromwell’s day to ours at roughly 30-year intervals.
Their time is not a thread, though, but an elastic band. Sometimes the world changes only moderately from one story to the next, and sometimes the change is vast. Between the 1830 hanging of John Oadam, a rural rebel who led his machinery-smashing fellows while wearing a crown of wildflowers, to the apparently contained words of a Victorian woman photographer in 1859, the planet might have jumped orbits.
The Ulverton stories are dazzlingly various: in voice, in the level of the tellers’ awareness, in completeness of narration. In 1803, an old woodworker cadging drinks in the pub tells of the master cabinetmaker he served all his life, a man so attuned to his work that when he lay dying, he could tell by the sound when one of the men making his coffin had hammered a brad wrong.
At the end of World War I, a retired colonial official tells of his neighbor, Ulverton’s squire, who, living on the hinge between his old English order and the unmanageable new times, falls into despair and hangs himself. The woodworker’s voice is rural-rough, the official’s possesses a strain of Edwardian poetry; but both are master storytellers.
Other voices are more fragmentary, more sunk into what the speaker can’t perceive and for that reason--part of the wonderful accomplishment of the book--are even more revealing. In 1680, Parson Brazier, in disgrace with his parish, rants in shattered Biblical phrases about the winter trek in which his old verger and his young curate freeze to death while he survives by putting on their clothes. Cromwell is dead, and the king and the Church of England are back on top, but in the parson’s broken voice and the dark suspicions he faces, we sense the civil wars and religious storms of the time.
In 1775, an impoverished woman dictates to a near-illiterate local tailor a series of pitiful messages to her son, who is to be executed for stealing a hat. The baleful rigors of the social system are in her voice. They are differently present in the stilted letters written in 1743 by Ulverton’s lady of the manor to her faithless lover, the decamped family tutor. It is a text whose vanity and goosey obliviousness--she casually notes that the gardener will hang for passing their messages--suggests the stultification of a rural ruling class and the corrupt idleness in which it imprisoned its women.
A lawyer is sent from London to take the testimony of the farm workers on trial for sedition after the 1830 riots against the enclosures and the new methods that threatened their livelihoods. The lawyer is prissy, fussy and suffering from consumption. He serves the Crown unquestioningly, yet we sense the urban professional who will rise with the middle classes in Victorian times.
By 1859, the change has taken place. Elizabeth Pyke speaks of her photographic plates in phrases of conventional feminine propriety. Bit by bit, we see a powerful liberation. The brilliance of her comments about photography (like the enthralling account of the work of the cabinetmaker, it is an instance of Thorpe’s richly detailed scope) shows her professional mastery. And her shrewd sympathy with the lives of her village subjects put her in the line of the 19th-Century reformers. Of one seamed face she writes how, in a smoky cottage with few facilities for washing, grime carves and hardens the wrinkles of the poor.
The rise of the independent yeoman farmers is suggested in one of the book’s finest stories. From 1712 we hear the voice of Plumm recounting his daily labor on his 60 acres. He belongs to a stern Nonconformist sect, the kind that so tormented poor Parson Brazier. Plumm and his wife keep a stick in their bedroom so that--since she is sickly and can’t have children--she can flagellate him piously to lower his lust. Lust will rise up; in several splendidly comic passages, Plumm impregnates the maid.
Impregnation is the point. Plumm’s acres of “brashy” (stubbornly thin) soil are his Eden and he is Adam, resolved to be fruitful and multiply. Once again, Thorpe transports us utterly into his character’s passion for his craft and into the craft itself. Plumm avidly watches the dawn of rural technological change, but he has to be cautious. His laborers will not use an iron plow or a seed-drill, insisting that they poison the soil. He has to go along, as well as defer to a pre-Christian tradition by putting up the figure of a corn-doll at harvest time. “How common knowledge vitiates all attempts at individual improvement,” he grumbles.
Beneath the variety of Ulverton’s episodes is the current that links them, and that makes this one of the great British fictional works of our time. Each voice gives us a richly accomplished story; as one voice follows another, we are given the waxing and waning of history, of the land, and of the ways in which society regards itself and the world it disposes of.
There are the speech changes over 350 years. The shepherd who narrates a pagan story of passion and violence in 1650 uses language that, in its liturgical simplicity, is much clearer to us than the thick Wiltshire dialect in the difficult though rewarding rambling of an 1890s farm worker.
There are the small changes and recurrences, the sprockets that engage time and move it along. The Devil’s Knob, where Parson Brazier sheltered--so called because it was a trysting place--becomes Kistle’s Cross, named after the unfortunate curate. By the 20th Century, it is Kissers’ Cross, having never lost its original use. The witchcraft power of bedwine in the first story--it is a lacy plant whose seeds spread on the wind--turns to a political symbol when John Oadam wears it in his hair to proclaim the broadcast of his rebellious cause.
There are larger recurrences. In the ghostly 1650 story, a soldier in Cromwell’s army comes home to find his wife remarried. The wife and her new husband, Tom Walters, murder him. Three hundred and fifty years later, Clive Walters, Tom’s descendant, is a builder and developer whose “tasteful” houses encroach upon the landcape’s grandeur. His excavations dig up the skeleton of the Cromwell soldier. It slows work and scares off buyers.
This is a coincidence, a trick of plot, if you like. But “Ulverton’s” sweep, its wisdom, and the splendor of its writing are such that even coincidences are appropriately incorporated in its construction of the passage of time and time’s power to make beauty come visible just at the moment of loss.