The Golden Arrow / Mary Webb
London: Jonathan Cape, 1932, c1916.
I've been a fan of Mary Webb's, ever since I read The House in Dormer Forest way back in university days.
I even have the full set of an old, cloth-bound collection of her work.
So I don't know why it took me this long to finally read The Golden Arrow, but I am glad I did. I was drawn in by the existential crises of one or two of the main characters, and by the country humour of others. And of course, the setting is excellently done. I don't know if Mary Webb's Shropshire can be topped for the balance of realism and idealism.
Mary Webb apparently wrote this over 3 weeks, inspired by the theme and the characters, some of whom were based on people she knew. John Arden, for example, is said to have been inspired by Webb's own father.
The story seems simple: Deborah and Joe Arden are siblings living in a small village. They're both at a marriageable age. Neighbour Lily has her eye on Joe. And into this mix comes a young minister, Stephen, who only has eyes for Deborah. Unfortunately for all that is proper, he is also in the process of losing his faith.
This set-up spools out into questions of love and what is right or wrong about relationships like those of the young pairs. Marriage or cohabiting are both pondered and practiced; it seems quite modern in a way. It's only the nature of different people and different ways of loving that cause the difficulties. And among all this emotional variation, there is picturesque writing and characterizations of all the people in their small circle. The sometimes ponderous descriptions and tragic characters are lightened in this novel by a fair leavening of humour and sarcasm, especially by Mrs. Arden, but also as a matter of local habit.
It's notable that the heaviness of some of Mary Webb's style both here and in other, darker books - as well as the general sort of rural tales at this time - led to the satirical response by Stella Gibson in "Cold Comfort Farm". Nevertheless, I enjoy Webb's writing and have copied out some thoughtful passages.
The Christmas scene comes in about 3/4 of the way through, when Deborah has come home to her parents after Stephen has decided to shake off this constraining domestic life and leave her. She is very depressed, but has dressed and come downstairs for Christmas Day. Tradition continues and carries them through the day, and it ends up soothing her spirit in unexpected ways. There's a quiet beauty to this, even among the humour and ribald jokes and dailyness of it all.
Faint tinklings -- quick and small as a robin's 'chink-chink' -- came up the dark slopes above Slepe on Christmas evening. The handbell ringers were coming Christmassing, as they did every year when the weather allowed them. ...
The gate clicked and John went to the door.
"Well, neighbours!" he said, "you're kindly welcome. What'm you going to give us?"
The postmaster, as head of the band, and bass bell, said he'd thought of 'Ox and ass', which every one knew to mean 'Good Christian men, rejoice'; though why the ringers always named it after a line in the second verse, no one asked.
"And a very suitable 'un," said Mrs. Arden, "for if we 'anna got an ox we'n two cows, and our Joe's an ass if ever there was one."
When the merriment subsided they grouped themselves in a semicircle, Job Cadwallader having been urgently entreated to come in at the right moment and not half a note too late as he always did; the postmaster cleared his throat and said in the tone of one inciting a mob to evil-doing --
The antique tune, sweetly and emphatically uttered by the bells, slipped out over the great plateau, pearl-tinted in the light of the stars and the rising moon. The sense of the words was in the air -- they were so well known by all -- and they brought the strange joy with which some old Christian hymns touch the human heart, a joy alien to those here - and to most human beings -- who are pagan at the core....
Afterwards John asked for "Lead, kindly Light," with a sorrowful glance at the silent figure by the fire.
"Oh! Laws me!" said Patty, "that gloomy thing agen! What a man! What do we want wi' encircling gloom and angels' faces, when we'm just going to sit down to Christmas beef an' pickle?"
"And beer," said the blacksmith, outside, in tones that would have been persuasive if they had not been stentorian.
"Ringing first," said the leader firmly....
"Well, thank you kindly!" said John at the end. "And, now come you all in, and have a drop and some pies."
They came in, shuffling, broadly smiling. The blacksmith was in high feather.
"Well, Joe!" he shouted. "What's one and one make?"
"Two. What a soft riddle!" said Joe.
"Three!" roared the blacksmith, with depths of meaning, and the less discreet laughed.
"Very mild for the season," said the postmaster, to cover this remark. "A mild, dropping time."
This is a quiet, lovely story, with many characters who are all different yet all surrounded by the same social conventions which must be faced individually. As shown in the quote above, there is some homely, country humour included, at the same time that the philosophy of love and belonging and religious instinct is also debated by Webb. I really liked this book; the character of Lily is bright and silly, and yet charming, and Deborah so dutiful and deep, even if her adoration of Stephen seems excessive at times. And Mrs. Arden is the perfect foil for both of these young women, with her practical care and getting-on-with-things approach. It's a good read for a slower time of year, so you can read at the proper pace of the story, and enjoy your time in rural England.