An English village rests quietly beyond the reach of magistrates, civil law and the church. The surroundings are sumptuous and bucolic. But the hardscrabble residents who derive a living from the soil of the commons are too immersed in their day-to-day subsistence efforts to dwell for long in aesthetic contemplation of their rich, natural setting. Their intimate involvement with the land from which they coax their simple livelihood nurtures a sense of place that is practical and utilitarian. Work is an unending, ever-challenging affair. At harvest time, an abundant crop can bring some relief and relaxation from quotidian toil and uncertainty. A more meager yield will serve to remind the members of this remote parish that the threat of scarcity is never far from their doors.
The 16th Century saw the initiation of unprecedented changes in the English countryside. For ages the land of the commons had provided a living, albeit a harsh one, to the impoverished peasantry. Patchworks of arable acres had allowed for the cultivation of grains and the raising of geese and some livestock. When the price of wool far exceeded that of grain, elite landowners were no longer willing to allow their vast acreage to be used in a hodgepodge manner by the unwashed masses.
The enclosures that followed effectively closed off once communally occupied land, now destined to become pasturage for sheep. In the name of efficiency and profit, peasants were sent packing. It was a brutal time. According to one historian, “Where there had been thriving villages and a sturdy population of hard working peasantry, nothing was left but waste and ruined cottages, and rough grass nibbled by flocks.” In his 16th Century classic
“Utopia,” Sir Thomas More wrote famously that sheep “may be said now to devour men and unpeople, not only villages, but towns…”
“I’m not a product of these commons but just a visitor who stayed.” So says Walter Thirsk, the narrator of the splendid “Harvest,” penned by award-winning novelist Jim Crace. A townsman, Thirsk had been charmed on his arrival to the parish by the lush countrified ambience. A woman native to the place became his wife, and he adopted the ways of the peasant farmer. Like his neighbors, Thirsk does his best to derive sustenance from the earth. With the death of his wife, his initial infatuation with the village begins to give way.
Thirsk first came to this unnamed place as the manservant to Charles Kent. Kent had married Lucy Jordan, daughter of the master of the village manor. On the death of Lucy’s father, Kent himself assumes the role of master of the agrarian domain. Now a widower like Thirsk, he remains kindly and considerate but is obviously a man grieving his loss. And like Thirsk, he is childless. This has profound implications for Kent and everyone else in this rustic hamlet.
For a time Kent alone is aware that a significant disruption is in store for these country denizens so rooted in their ways. For generations the community has lived according to the seasonal round. Though existence is tough, there is a rhythm and predictability to village life. These are a people who do not venture beyond the settled bounds of their parish. They are especially unaccustomed to change. Thirsk muses: “We should expect our seasons to unfold in all their usual sequences, and so on through the harvest and the years. Everything was bound to keep its shape. That’s what we thought.”
Already there have been ominous happenings in the usually undisturbed routine. An inadvertent fire has destroyed Kent’s dovecote, sending his beloved birds up in smoke. Almost simultaneously a trio of desperate and indigent strangers has encroached on the parish periphery. The xenophobia of the community is roused. The newcomers are not given a friendly welcome. The three have their heads shorn. The two men are pilloried, while the woman is allowed free range of the vicinity. No one has bothered to obtain their names.
An ale-soaked harvest feast soon follows, and there Kent nervously reveals the big plan, the “progress” which is about to descend on all. Former townsman Thirsk quickly grasps what Kent is trying in a circumlocutious way to tell the gathering. This impending new arrangement “involves the closing and engrossment of our fields with walls and hedges, ditches, gates. He means to throw a halter around our lives. He means the clearing of our common land. He means the cutting down of trees. He means this village, far from everywhere, which has always been a place for horn, corn, and trotter and little else, is destined to become a provisioner of wool. The word that he and no one dares to whisper let alone cry out is sheep.”
This tale of the wholesale displacement of people deemed superfluous to the designs of the rich and powerful reverberates down to our own time. In “Harvest” Jim Crace weaves a whopping good story and demonstrates that he is still at the top of his game.