by Hugh Lupton - £9.99 Dedalus Ltd (2010)
paperback ISBN 13: 9781907650000 | ISBN 10: 1907650008
A bitter-sweet tale which evokes both the splendour and the harshness of life in rural England at the beginning of the 19th century and deals with the events which would lead to tragedy for the peasant poet. It is novel which will have a universal appeal because of its strong and deeply moving story.
For many readers The Ballad of John Clare will bring to mind the major novels of Thomas Hardy. What marks The Ballad of John Clare from other books about John Clare is that it deals with John Clare’s early life, in fact when he is seventeen. The teenaged Clare is in tune with nature and the rural environment around his home in Helpston in the East of England. In the momentous twelve months covered by the novel we see him courting his childhood sweetheart, having his first sexual encounter with an older woman, labouring in the fields, playing his fiddle and singing at local entertainments, but above all we see him at one with the natural world. This is no rural idyll, however, as the enclosures are about to begin, taking the land held in common by communities and parcelling it out to the local landowners. Starvation and malnutrition are a constant presence in rural England. The Ballad of John Clare has a very strong sense of place and brings to life the villages and countryside around Peterborough and lets us empathise with the young John Clare. Educated beyond his class, the peasant poet is about to emerge on his short and tragic career.
"The first novel from, the renowned storyteller Hugh Lupton opens with a scene that could be straight out of Thomas Hardy… A helpless observer of the damage that enclosure is doing to his beloved landscape and the people who live there, a young man torn between romantic love for his muse, Mary Joyce, and the consequences of a moment’s folly with a woman named Betsy Jackson, Clare comes to see that ‘the bright world has begun, one by one, to break its promises.’ Yet, while the immediate causes of his grief and disillusionment are personal, they are always intricately linked to what is happening to the land – and it is to Lupton’s great credit that, in this engaging and lyrical novel, he brings this relationship between emotional and psychological life and the environment into play at every turn.
This vision transforms a bittersweet love story that takes place ‘seven generations ago’ into a study of the politics of land use, revealing the true nature of British agriculture as systematic exploitation of land and people whose tragic consequences Lupton notes in an afterward, ’we are reaping the full harvest of today."
(John Burnside - The Times)
(Price & availability last checked: January 2019)