25 October 2012

James Prior's Forest Folk: A Novel Construction of the New Woman and the New Man: Introduction

The novelist James Prior was born James Prior Kirk in Mapperley Road, Nottingham in 1851 to Sarah and James Kirk, his father having a millinery concern in the city of Nottingham. He went to a preparatory school run by the Goodalls before going to a school run by a man named Porter for ten years, and then began working for a solicitor: his father intended him to join the legal profession, but instead Prior spent a great deal of time studying languages and literature. He left the legal profession following a major argument with his father, but his intention to pursue a career in writing initially proved fruitless. He taught for a short time, attempted a degree, but problems with his eyes, including intervals of temporary blindness, put paid to any future career prospects.1

Prior was under thirty when his father died in 1880, and after continuing the family business for a year left for Uppingham, Rutland, to help an uncle in difficulties with his farm, but in the process Prior lost a considerable amount of money, presumably inherited from his father. By the time of his permanent move to the small Nottinghamshire market town of Bingham with his wife Lily and two daughters in the early 1890s, he had already written a book of short stories – Three Shots from a Popgun (1880) – and three plays – Don Pedro the Cruel (1882) and John Smith of London and Live and Let Live (both published in one volume in 1883).2 All failed to bring Prior any commercial success or critical acclaim. It was not until after his first two novels, Renie (1895) and Ripple and Flood (1897), that he began to gain recognition.3 He published four more novels: Forest Folk (1901), Hyssop (1904), A Walking Gentleman (1907) and Fortuna Chance (1910).3

All of the published novels are set in the East Midlands, predominantly in Nottinghamshire, and reveal a considerable interest in and knowledge of local history and local working-class characters. Forest Folk, his most well-known book, was a modest success and is a good example of Prior's use of the Nottinghamshire dialect and of the countryside. It is set in the early nineteenth century when Luddism was at its height, and takes place in and around the Nottinghamshire village of Blidworth. But Fortuna Chance was the last book of Prior's to be published: two later novels – 'November' and 'Loosestrife' – remained in manuscript stage.5

1 Jean Anabel–Cooper, 'James Prior – An Appreciation', Nottinghamshire Countryside Volume 26, No. 1, 1965, pp. 23– 25.

2 James Prior, Three Shots from a Popgun (London: Remington, 1880)
–––––, Don Pedro the Cruel: A Historical Tragedy (London: Hamilton, Adams, 1882);
–––––, John Smith of London: A Comedy in Five Acts and Live and Let Live: A Comedy in One Act (Nottingham: James Prior, 1883).

3 James Prior, Renie (London: Hutchinson, 1895);
–––––, Ripple and Flood (London: Hutchinson, 1897).

4 James Prior, Forest Folk (London: Heinemann, 1901; repr. Nottingham: The Bromley Press, 1946);
–––––, Hyssop (London: Heinemann, 1904);
–––––, A Walking Gentleman: A Novel (London: Constable, 1907);
–––––, Fortuna Chance (London: Constable, 1910).

5 Ivory Buchan, 'James Prior: An Appreciation', Nottinghamshire Countryside, July 1941, pp. 8–9.

Prior may in large part have lived for his pen, but he certainly did not live by it. Census returns for 1891 (a short time before his move to Bingham) show him living with his wife and two baby daughters in the neighbouring village of Radcliffe on Trent. He is listed as 'living on his own means', although these means inevitably began to dwindle. Perhaps an indication of this is in his poem 'Girl and Woman', written in 1914 in the unpublished 'Canticles by Vacuus' shortly after the death of his wife, where the dead narrator Lily speaks of 'giving cheerfully out of a scanty store'.6 For his contributions to literature Prior was given a small civil pension, but a mixture of circumstances conspired to destin him to oblivion. He was shy and retiring and a strong indication of his nature is revealed in a letter of 1919 declining an invitation to give a talk on an unspecified subject. Writing to W. A. Briscoe, he first thanks him for his 'attack upon the lethargy' of his publishers and then exclaims: 'But to lecture! even "talk" publicly! A mild-mannered man like myself, only accustomed to raise my voice authoritatively in the bosom of his complaisant family!'. He continues to give his self-effacing excuses:

'I simply shouldn't know how to do it. I know that you will say I should only have to stand & stutter, but I should not be sure of the stutter; & as for the standing, probably in my blind eagerness [...] I should plunge straight down among the audience.'7

There is more than a hint of Prior's sense of humour in the letter, indicating a spontaneity that some critics have suggested is lacking in his narrators. Although the local dialect of his characters' dialogues sparkle with wit and energy in the novels, his narrative style perhaps bears too much of a strained formality out of keeping with the new century. Prior said that his writing probably came from his father, who had 'a gravely exact way of expressing himself with a pen'.7 Publishers were no longer interested. The James Prior Memorial Committee was set up shortly after his death and such writers as J. M. Barrie, John Buchan and Eden Phillpotts lavished great praises on his work. Despite the irony of Prior being a teetotal Methodist, the Forest Folk pub was built in Blidworth, incorporating a memorial room with a stained glass window in his honour.8 But his books have remained out of print for many years. Prior is now unknown apart from among a few regional novel enthusiasts and local historians, and there is almost no critical work on him.

6 James Prior, Nottinghamshire Archives Office, M263, 17 November 1919.

7 S[tephen] Fisher, James Prior (Nottingham: James Prior Memorial Committee, [1917(?)]), p. 3.

8 Gordon Wright and Brian J. Curtis, The Inns and Pubs of Nottinghamshire: The Stories Behind the Names (West Bridgford: Nottinghamshire County Council, 1995), p. 16.

Moving to the dissertation itself, my principal intention is to show that there are correspondences between James Prior's novel Forest Folk, and New Woman and New Man representations at the fin de siècle and beyond. The dissertation is divided into three chapters.

In Chapter One, 'The Fin-de-Siècle New Woman in Context', I shall begin by exploring the nature of representations of the New Woman both during and after this period. I shall make use of several secondary works which provide information on the fictional construct that is the New Woman. Jenni Calder's Women and Marriage in Victorian Britain shows the changing roles of women throughout the Victorian era, commenting on events leading up to and including the New Woman. Elaine Showalter's Sexual Anarchy and Sally Ledger's The New Woman both give further focuses on the time before and during Prior's books, indicating exactly what the 'anarchy' consisted of and how it manifested itself. Both books examine specific texts relating to the New Woman. Elaine Marks's Bicycles, Bangs, and Bloomers focuses on the stereotyping of the New Woman in the media. The series of essays in Angelique Robinson and Chris Willis's The New Woman in Fiction and in Fact provide the most recent research in the field. All of these secondary works give a different idea of the various forms the New Woman took, and so help towards establishing a definition. With the information in these secondary texts I then draw on a number of primary texts which incorporate representations of the New Woman and the New Man. These include novels which feature different aspects of the New Woman question, such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, George Gissing's The Odd Women, Mary Cholmondeley's Red Pottage, and Ménie Muriel Dowie's Gallia. Because of her particular similarities to Prior's work, Olive Schreiner's extended essay Woman and Labour forms a common thread throughout the three chapters. Gender inversion and androgyny were predominant in New Woman novels and I draw a parallel between them and those in Prior's work, although I go on to suggest that Prior's New Woman is very different from conventional New Woman representations. It is the similarities and the differences that are important to this dissertation.

Chapter Two is called 'Prior's New Woman', where I shall look at Forest Folk in some detail, examining the correspondences between working-class Nell Rideout and representations of the New Woman in literature in and around that period, notably in that of George Egerton and Olive Schreiner. Here I make clear that such anarchy as was seen in Chapter One is very much in the foreground of Prior's novels, and examples from Forest Folk underline this. My argument, as already stated, is that Prior introduces a very different New Woman. Whereas conventional New Woman representations of the time are middle class, Prior's are working class, sometimes with gipsy blood, or having the qualities of benign witches, as is the case with Nell. Under the influence of Borrow in particular, Prior transforms the mannish Girton girl of so many fin de siècle Punch caricatures of the New Woman into a timeless young woman with a broad Nottinghamshire accent and with 'masculine' behaviour. There is an obvious parallel with this behaviour and that of her counterpart in conventional New Woman fiction. Prior welcomes the gipsy and the witch as the embodiment of his understanding of bisexuality and almost seems to suggest that they should be seen as the saviours of mankind.

Chapter Three is entitled 'Prior's New Man' and directly follows on from the word of the last paragraph because mankind, rather than womankind, is where Prior believes the problem lies. In Prior's novels there is also some psychological evolution on the part of the male towards the 'New Man', a term about which there has been very little written and which I shall define and investigate here. Patricia Marks gives examples of satirical representations of the New Man in periodicals in the years leading up to the close of the nineteenth century. But it is probably Olive Schreiner who named him as a phenomenon to be taken seriously in the later Woman and Labour (1911), indicating an ideal, equal partner. This New Man not only closely resembles Prior's New Man but also our own contemporary understanding of the term. George Egerton's characters from Keynotes and Discords also serve as similar parallels. Prior's gipsies – along with the 'witch' Nell in Forest Folk – represent a fusion of male and female which Prior sees as necessary to a civilisation in which man and woman should cohabit as friends and partners. My argument is that it is the male in particular who has not discovered the key to free himself from his prison of gender consciousness, although the New Woman has the key: her teaching can unlock him from the prison. Equally important for Prior, though, is a harmonious relationship between not only man and woman but also working class and middle class, symbolised here by Nell and Arthur, and Lois and Tant. And as dialect in Forest Folk is such an important part in the definition of what it is to be working class, I stress the importance of it.

My Conclusion attempts to set Forest Folk in context, sum up Prior's achievements in it, and also suggests the principal reason for Prior's present obscurity.

In the New Woman, Ledger adopts Michel Foucault's brief use of the expressions 'dominant discourse' and 'reverse discourse' to explore the warring patriarchal and New Woman discourses. I borrow this usage in Chapter One because the labels act as a convenient, albeit rather inexact, generalization over a number of diverse texts: the New Woman, however different in her various guises, was still a force against the dominant patriarchy. However, when discussing Forest Folk in the following two chapters, I find it more appropriate to be more specific about the several principal discourses present in the book: it is far more coherent to deal with several discourses in a single text than in a number of texts. And certainly the reality of discourse, as Foucault says, is rather more complicated:

'There is not, on the one side, a discourse of power, and opposite it, another discourse that runs counter to it. Discourses are tactical elements or blocks operating in the field of force relations; there can exist different and even contradictory discourses witin the same strategy; they can, on the contrary, circulate without changing their form from one strategy to another, opposing strategy.9

It is by examining the various conflicting discourses in Forest Folk that I intend to arrive at a fuller understanding of the text, of what Prior is saying.

9 Michel Foucault, The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality: Volume I (as The History of Sexuality: Volume I, An Introduction (London: Lane, 1979; repr. Penguin, 1998), pp. 101–02.

My James Prior posts:
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Introduction
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Chapter One
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Chapter Two
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Chapter Three
James Prior's Forest Folk (dissertation): Conclusion
James Prior (1851–1922) in Bingham
James Prior's Parents' Grave, Nottingham
James Prior: Three Shots from a Popgun (1880)
The Forest Folk memorial window
James Prior plaque, Blidworth

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