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THE RURAL TRADITION 515 The Rural Tradition GLEN CA V ALIERO W.J. Keith. Regions of the Imagination: The Development of British Rural Fiction University of Toronto Press 1988., 199 With this book, W.J. Keith completes what amounts to a trilogy. In both its predecessors there is to some extent a ready-made focus of interest. The Rural Tradition discusses eleven writers from Izaak Walton to H.J. Massingharn in the context of the belief emerging in the eighteenth and nineteenth cenruries that English rural life was life of a particular kind, a way of seeing and feeling that was to be distinguished by more than just geography from that of cities. In The Poetry of Nature the connecting theme is the development of the poetic persona or secondary voice when considered in relation to the environments and the social conditioning of the principal British 'nature poets' from Wordsworth to R.S. Thomas. But in this latest study, although regionalism provides a unifying perspective, the main thrust of the argument is less obvious. One is conscious of this in the opening chapter. The author's desire to provide a controlling thesis leads to an attempt to define the word 'regional' as a means of defending his inclusion of some writers and exclusion of others. This kind of strategy, however, is determined more by the educational structures within which books of this nature are now required to operate than by the needs of those readers most likely to be drawn to read about the ruralist novel. Nor would the writers discussed here - Scott, Hardy, John Cowper Powys, to name a few - have thought of their work as relevant to such a context; and it is greatly (if paradoxically) to Keith's credit that he does not write as though he did either. Once the initial manoeuvrings are over, he gets down with enthusiasm to the descriptive and evaluative analyses of what these writers bring to the literature of country life. His accounts are carefut perceptive, and entirely self-explanatory. Keith starts, properly enough, with Scott, 'as dominating a presence for regionalists as that of Wordsworth in the subsequent history of "nature poetry.'" He stresses both the fusion of plot with background that one finds in the Waverley novels at their best, and also the successful balance Scott generally holds between historical accuracy in the portrayal of events and a romantic interpretation of them. Rightly declaring that Scott left an immense legacy to subsequent regional writers, Keith proceeds to define those writers' potential limitations: 'some stress representative manners to such an extent that the narrative declines into illustrative documentary, while others spin impossible tall tales against beguilingly credible backgrounds.' This case is developed in the various discussions that follow. The obvious Victorian figures - the two elder Brontes, George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell - are given some illuminating attention, though Keith's comments on the latter's North and South neglects to point out that, unlike her other novels, this one presents a view of country life that is by no means wholly friendly. There follows a chapter on R.D. Blackmore, one of those novelists whose reputations remain as 516 GLEN CAVALIERO depleted as their champions are persistent. Keith makes a case for Lorna Doone which should reawaken interest in what is now a relatively neglected masterpiece; but his accounts of The Maid of Sker and Springhavel1 are not detailed enough to rescue them from the virtual oblivion into which they have fallen. The 'regional' theme gets in the way of an evaluation of individual books in this instance. Where Hardy is concerned, the prospective reader may doubt whether anything further can remain usefully to be said: writers of this stature are a daunting subject for any critic. Keith avoids the pitfalls of reiterating the obvious. He makes a good case for considering Hardy in relation to Scott, and devotes more attention to the short stories than they usually receive. And by linking Hardy's regionalism to his anxieties concerning the effects of social change upon rural life, he comes close to the heart of the regional novelist's main concerns. Hardy's successors (as Eden Phillpotts, Sheila Kaye-Smith, Constance Holme, and...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 515-517
Launched on MUSE
2014-07-02
Open Access
No
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