'It is, perhaps, in the female characters that the author is most successful; so much so that we have found ourselves wondering at times if the name on the title-page is not a woman's disguise. Man or woman, the author is to be congratulated on a really clever novel.'1
These words appear in the first review of Forest Folk, published in a 1901 issue of The Athenaeum. They are among the early encouraging criticisms of Prior's work, but they are also revealing in that they highlight the crucial issue of gender: in Prior's books, contrary to the conventional male discourse, women feature prominently and often in a far more favourable light than men. Six years after the review of Forest Folk a review of A Walking Gentleman appeared in the same journal, with this significant sentence about the male progagonist:
'All we see of [Lord Beiley] makes him out a weak, amiable, and rather colourless young man. His lady, on the other hand, is singularly strong-willed and generous, and so the couple reverse the traditional characteristics of the sexes.'2
So the stress was still on gender. J. M. Barrie later declared that if he had known Prior was living in Nottingham when he himself briefly worked there as a leader writer, 'I would have rung every bell to get at him. He is a fine writer whose work I cherish.'3 But Barrie's brief period in Nottingham was from 1883 to 1884: at that time Prior had yet to publish a novel, and hardly anyone would have been aware of his plays.
D. H. Lawrence was certainly aware of Prior's work, and shortly before he left Croydon to return to Nottinghamshire in 1912, he wrote two letters to Edward Garnett, the first (dated 13 December 1911) saying: 'What a curious man James Prior is! I did not know him, and he was so near home. I was very much interested. But what Curious, highly flavoured stuff!'4. His second letter, on 3 January 1912, states that 'the whole household [...] has devoured James Prior', and then adds: Why is he a failure? Wm. Heinemann said he was.' He goes on to quote Heinemann – Lawrence's first publisher, and also Prior's publisher of Forest Folk and the bizarre Hyssop – on Prior's work: 'Very good, I thought – but went quite dead, quite dead.'5 But Prior didn't appear to have devoured Lawrence: his comment on him is a blunt 'We deal in different realities.'6
J. M. Barrie, on the other hand, dealt in a similar reality to Lawrence, who in 1910 informed Jessie Chambers that he was in 'exactly the same [sexually indeterminate] predicament' as Barrie's Tommy Sandys.7 Tommy and Grizel shows Grizel looking after Tommy – who never grows up emotionally – as she might a young girl, and she too has gender concerns: 'Perhaps [...] I should have been a man.'8 Prior's characters cannot be described as sexually indeterminate, but in his novels there is a clear preoccupation with gender reversal which no doubt in part explains Barrie's enthusiasm for them. And these are the essential features of Prior's main characters – strong women and weak men. We are in New Woman territory, yet there is no specific mention of a New Woman in the whole of Prior's work.
1 Anonymous, Athenaeum, 'Forest Folk, By James Prior', 3840 (1901), 688.
2 Anonymous, Athenaeum, 'A Walking Gentleman, By James Prior', 4168 (1907), 297.
3 Fisher, p. 8.
4 The Letters of D. H. Lawrence: September 1901–May 1913, ed. by James T. Boulton (London: Cambridge University Press, 1979), I, 334.
5Boulton, I, 344.
6 Ivory Buchan, 'James Prior: An Appreciation', Nottinghamshire Countryside, July 1941, pp. 8–9.
7 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, 'The Beast in the Closet: James and the Writing of Homosexual Panic', in Speaking of Gender, pp. 243–68 (p. 243).
8 J. M. Barrie, Tommy and Grizel (London: Cassell, 1900), p. 290.
A clear conventional New Woman character nevertheless appears in Ripple and Flood, only to be unsympathetically portrayed. Mrs Orpet rides a bicycle, wears knickerbockers and talks enthusiastically about tennis, cricket and bimetallism. She has an aggressive manner, and the first person narrator, Edward, decribes her as 'something between a man and a woman'.8 One is reminded here of Prince Rimânez's alarming remark in Marie Corelli's anti-New Woman novel The Sorrows of Satan (1895): 'And as for the tomboy tennis-players and giantesses of the era, I do not consider them women at all – they are merely the unnatural and strutting embryos of a new sex which will be neither male nor female'.9 This is Punch with a kick.
It was not until 13 years later – in 1910 – that Prior (whose opinions Edward seems in part to be voicing) developed a more tolerant attitude towards extremes of the type. Fortuna Chance in Prior's eponymous and last published novel is clearly modelled on the conventional idea of the fin-de-siècle New Woman, although the book is set during the Jacobite rising of the first half of the eighteenth century. The narrator – whose views are again scarcely distinguishable from what appear to be Prior's own, says 'though tied at birth to narrow dogmas and formulas and by no means learned [Fortuna] might yet claim to be of the first of that new thing in the modern world, an emancipated woman.'10 But the above representations – favourable or otherwise – have a clear date, whereas Prior's Nell is far from age-specific. In fact his New Woman in Forest Folk is a variety of the Old Woman who has always existed, a person similar to Schreiner's New Woman, who 'is essentially [...] the old non-parasitic woman of the remote past, preparing to draw on her twentieth-century garb'.11 But Prior's New Woman is working class and frequently shares characteristics with gipsies and witches: a very different person. I shall demonstrate that Prior's Nell in Forest Folk is in the New Woman mould, although dehistoricized.
8 Ripple and Flood, p. 268.
9 Marie Corelli, The Sorrows of Satan (London: Methuen, 1895; repr. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press, 1998), p. 66.
10 Fortuna Chance, p. 21.
11 Woman and Labour, pp. 252–53.
Forest Folk is set at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It depicts two farming communities near Blidworth village – the Rideouts, who farm a small area of land, and Arthur Skrene, who has moved nearby with his sister Lois after inheriting some expensive farming stock from his uncle, a major tenant farmer in the village. From the initial encounter between Nell Rideout and Arthur the gender reversal is evident. Arthur meets a tall, surly ploughboy who threatens to smash Arthur's gate and only later, when a gust of wind blows off the ploughboy's hat as Arthur is leaving, does he see that he has been addressing a young woman. Arthur himself, conversely, is 'rather slightly made' and afterwards described by Nell as 'a little un'.12 The gender reversal pattern is repeated throughout the book, and the narrator says of Nell:
'Her amusements were those of the male farmer, she coursed hares with her greyhound bitch, she shot rabbits for the pot, as often as she might she rode to hounds on her old hunter Hasty' (p. 30).
Other actions of Nell's transgress the conventional 'feminine' behavioural patterns. In a fit of pique she throws a dead hare at Arthur. Later, when she is again disguised as a man, there is a violent dispute between them over property transgression – part of a long-standing argument involving the use of some of Arthur's gates as a thoroughfare to a main road, This could, of course, be seen as an example of the dominant discourse against the reverse discourse. The middle-class Arthur stands for authority, self-restraint and sobriety, and in opposition to this dominant discourse is the reverse discourse as seen in the working-class woman Nell. He is bent on preserving the status quo, having 'a fine sense of legality and property' (p. 51). He is a volunteer sergeant in the yeomanry, a cavalry force set up in the early eighteenth century for home defence, But in what sense is his sense 'fine'? He later looks at his smashed gate and trampled crops 'with the reckoning mien of a man taking an inventory'. (p. 62). When the narrator uses the word 'fine', it is not at all clear that it is meant in a positive sense. 'Fastidious' would perhaps be a good synonym, a suggestion borne out by the narrator's ensuing comment: 'Altogether it was a very pretty quarrel, which it is not my intention to spoil by settling' (p. 57). The narrator appears not to take sides in the dispute, although it will become clear through this chapter and the next that the narrator is in far greater sympathy with Nell than with any other character in the novel. Furthermore, it would be fair to add that the female working-class discourse, backed up by the narrative discourse, is in fact the principal one in the book and often subverts the middle-class discourse. Even as Arthur attempts the inventory of damage, his far from hostile thoughts are with Nell the perpetrator. As Ivory Buchan, in what is perhaps the only serious and unbiased critical assessment of Prior's work, notes: 'as in all [of Prior's] novels it is the lower classes who steal the thunder', and mentions Hardy as an 'obvious comparison'.13
12 Forest Folk, pp. 8, 18. Further references to page numbers in this book are given after quotations in the body of the dissertation.
13 Buchan, p. 9.
There are at least four clearly detectable discourses in Forest Folk, although there is substantial interweaving, overlapping, changing of allegiances, and collisions. Tant, for instance, is Nell's brother and a half-hearted Luddite. To some extent he represents the male working-class discourse standing in opposition to Arthur and often to Nell, but Lois is indebted to him for probably saving her life and 'arrests' him in order to hide him from the police. Arthur not only neglects to do his duty as a sergeant in the yeomanry and surrender Tant to the police but even ignores the fact that Lois is harbouring Tant in one of Arthur's rooms at High Farm.
The narrative discourse supporting and supported by Nell frequently develops overtones from the temperance movement. The male working-class discourse often includes a certain mindlessness caused by drink and frequently says thing contrary to all conventional conceptions of reason. In his defence, Tant tells his sister Nell 'We're a band o' true honest-hearted mates. 'sociated together for our common weal', and Nell swiftly paries: 'At least yo get drunk together' (p. 27). But wastrel and drunkard though he is, Tant supports Nell in her fight over property access. And when sober he appears to align himself more with the female working-class discourse, once even helping with the household chores, although he sees his eventual redemption in being a soldier'hacking Frenchmen i'stead o' tunnips' –sentiments of which Arthur would surely approve (p. 70). However, his dominant sister Tish even taunts him by suggesting that he would be better in a dress, an idea of which Tant does not altogether seem to disapprove. These are the first tentative indications of the New Man whom I discuss in Chapter Three.
But the most important discourse to look at in Forest Folk is of course female and working-class, which the narrator presents as a formidable force that men recognize but often misunderstand and are afraid of. It pervades all other discourses, gaining converts and enemies in equal measure. To the narrator this discourse exists for example in gipsy culture. Fisher informs us that until about the age of 15 the only novel Prior had read was George Borrow's The Bible in Spain because it was the only one his austere father permitted –purely because it contained the word 'Bible'.14 With numerous readings of this book informing Prior's early literary education, it is hardly surprising that Borrow's romantic love of gipsies affected him so much. Out of six published novels two represent gipsies in a highly favourable light. Ivy Sivil in Ripple and Flood and Afla Lee in Fortuna Chance strongly resemble New Women in their independence and strength of character. Significantly, both of these women exhibit strong 'masculine' traits. Edward, for example, says:
'Ivy could swim – a rare accomplishment with us; she could run and climb and jump, and play at every boy's game; she often took command of the ferry-boat during her father's absences.'15
Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft suggest that Ivy is similar to Isopel Berners in Borrow's The Romany Rye, although Ivory Buchan sees in her a 'family resemblance' to George Eliot's Maggie Tulliver.16 Alfa also exhibits 'masculine' traits: she proposes to Roland, and feigning sickness, she takes the initiative by lying on top of him under a blanket to conceal him from his pursuers. In his Introduction to Trigg's Gypsy Demons and Divinities, E. E. Evans-Pritchard says that gipsies have a 'proud, independent character', and Trigg claims that their origin goes back too far to remember.17 Conventional New Woman literature also sees the gipsy as important, as in James's The Bostonians, where the nascent New Woman figure Verena Tarrant as a child 'seemed to belong to some queer gipsy-land or transcendental Bohemia', and:
'[W]hen in the country, once or twice [...] she had, with a chance companion, strayed far from home, spent hours in the woods and fields, looking for raspberries and playing she was a gipsy'.18
14 Fisher, p. 3.
15 Ripple and Flood, p. 10.
16 Stanley J. Kunitz and Howard Haycraft, eds, Twentieth Century Authors: A Biographical Dictionary of Modern Literature (New York: Wilson, 1942), p. 1131;
17 E. B. Trigg, Gypsy Demons and Divinities: The Magical and Supernatural Practices of the Gypsies (London: Sheldon Press, 1975), pp. xi, 6–7.
18 Henry James, The Bostonians (London: Macmillan, 1886; repr. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 74, 313.
And George Egerton's New Woman – usually symbolically nameless – embraces the power of both the gipsy and the witch. The witch too has existed since before recorded histoy: according to Maria Leach, the belief in witches has existed 'from earliest times to present day'.19 In 'A Cross Line' the husband calls his wife 'Gipsy', while to the fisherman she is a 'witch woman'. The protagonist of 'The Regeneration of Two' begins a kind of transformation on reaching Bygdo: 'The witchery of the surroundings begins to affect her. The resinous smell of the pines does her head good.'20 In her Introduction to the Virago Keynotes and Discords double volume, Vicinus states:
'Throughout her work the highest compliment Egerton could give a woman was to declare her a witch, in the sense of bewitching –someone who knew her sexual attractiveness and was willing to use it.'21
In 'A Cross Line', in an interesting allusion to the title of the book, Egerton's narrator says:
'They have all overlooked the eternal wildness, the untamed primitive savage temperament that lurks in the mildest, best woman. Deep in through ages of convention this primeval trait burns, an untamable quantity that may be concealed but is never eradicated by culture – the keynote of woman's witchcraft and woman's strength.'22
The culture the narrator refers to is obviously male, imperialistic, prescriptive, and above all anti-libertarian. And she says that such writers as Strindberg and Nietzsche had seen through the various layers of falsehood enshrouding the conventional woman to discover the true woman within –and this is of course and area of consciousness that Foucault later investigated.23 The quote is also significant in that Egerton's New Woman in many ways closely resembles Prior's Nell, albeit without the philosophical content. The same qualities that Egerton praised in her New Woman are those in Nell which captivate Arthur and Lois.
19 Maria Leach, ed., Funk & Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend, 2 vols (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1949–50), II, p. 1179.
20 George Edgerton, Keynotes and Discords (London: Mathews & Lane, 1893 (Keynotes), and Lane, 1894 (Discords); repr. London: Virago, 1983), Keynotes, pp. 14, 30; Discords, pp. 172–73. Further footnotes to the Virago edition are referred to as 'Egerton' with the addition (where applicable) of either 'Keynotes or Discords because of their separate pagination within the volume.
21 Egerton, p. x.
22 Egerton, Keynotes, p. 22.
23 Egerton, Keynotes, p. 23.
The not dissimilar worlds of witches and gipsies and their affinity with the natural world, with the exotic, with independence of action and spirit, with a certain enigmatic power, are important both to some New Woman writers and to Prior. This power is first seen in Forest Folk when Arthur is struck by the ploughboy's sudden transformation into a remarkable young woman with hair coloured with 'lustrous waves of that eloquent hue which is nearest to red but not red' (p. 7). She has undergone a 'miraculous alteration', and uses Arthur's entrancement to mock him: 'Yo mean to know me when yo see me again' (p. 10). The female working-class discourse is demoralizing the middle-class discourse, as it does later when Nell replies to Arthur, after his observation that she would 'make a gallant soldier's wife', 'I've no opinion o'sojers [...] nayther play-sojers nor workaday-sojers (pp. 129-30). Her caustic distinction of course belies her statement before the ellipsis.
The power Nell possesses affects and troubles other people, although for the middle-class Skrenes it exists as a benign, if somewhat disturbing, force. Both Lois and Arthur are amused by the sight of Nell returning from milking: 'the old blue smock-frock, the thick boots, the clumsy gaiters, the wooden piggin ledged on her hip'.24 They both admire the woman, though, and Arthur, in an expression that combines images of the working class, androgyny, and an unsettling sexuality, sees a 'conglomerate milkmaid, ploughboy and nymph' (p. 52). Lois later sees 'a woman as tall as a man, and with a man's frankness of outlook, yet a woman all over' (p. 131). Not for the first time, the narrator appends a qualifying phrase to a statement that might show Nell in too 'masculine' a light, as if for some reason he is afraid of gender contamination. Lawrence uses a very similar technique when he describes his New Woman figure Winifred Inger in The Rainbow: 'She was proud and free as a man, yet exquisite as a woman.'25 Masculine and gender constructs are joined in one person. Lois, of course, is also a representative of the middle-class discourse, but the insidious female working-class discourse is having a powerful effect on her. During her recovery from the attack on the farm she sees Nell as a kind of idol with curative powers:
'Arthur, if I were a Haroun-al-Rashid autocrat, I'd sit in a lighted saloon [...] and have her dash in and out on a wild Arab. I think the sight would shame my head into steadiness and my legs and back into strength (pp. 186-87).
Lois is of course associating Nell with the Arabian Nights, and imagining that she has the power of mental and physical healing. Significantly, Nell later saves Arthur's life by symbolically using her garter on his wounded leg as a tourniquet. Furthermore, Lois says of her first face to face encounter with Nell:
'When she came into the house on that night, wet, disorderly and great, a part and parcel of the elements, she made me dwindle into a rag-doll with ink-dots for eyes and saw-dust for soul' (p. 187).
Nell is part of the natural, disorderly order of Egerton's New Women, Lois the socially constructed, manufactured middle- class world. Nell is complete, Lois suffers from a lack. And she is only too willingly becoming a victim of subversion by Prior's New Woman.
But if Nell has the power to cure, she is also perceived by the male working-class discourse as having the power to kill She has red hair, a feature associated in folklore with evil and misfortune.26 Her power embraces a timeless order and the male working-class is not entranced: it is terrified of her. Spettigrew first mentions a history of witchcraft in the Rideout family to Arthur, who calls him a fool (p. 87). Spettigrew says of Nell, 'I niver liked them fraunfreckles about 'er eyes; nor yit the colour of 'er 'air; there's a touch o' hell fire about it (p. 283). Much earlier, the narrator had remarked: 'In those days a rural community was as little complete without a witch as without a parson or a doctor' (p. 31). Superstition mixed with drink is a dangerous concoction. The drunken Spettigrew feels a 'superstitious hate' which with the 'up-push of opportunity' manifests itself in violence (p. 309). According to the temperance ideology of the narrator, pubs foster the environment for the hate which the madness of intoxication fuels. Jesses Limm had attributed his daughter's death to diphtheria, 'until he was helped to see a woman's devilry in it' (p.310). The narrator has in several previous passages shown how well acquainted he is with the taxonomy of drunkenness. Woman, in the shape of a witch called Nell, gradually –'nearer eleven than ten' – becomes the scapegoat for all the unsolved ills in Blidworth (p. 310). 'Blid'orth laws', 'a local name for the rough justice of Judge Lynch', is not timeless and seems to belong to a medieval past (p. 312).
24 One wonders of this vision is in any way inspired by Joan Southcott, who also used to be a milkmaid and was seen by some as a witch.
25 D. H. Lawrence, The Rainbow (London: Methuen, 1915; repr. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1949), p. 337.
26 Iona Opie and Moira Tatem, eds, A Dictionary of Superstitions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989; repr. 1992), pp. 325–26.
We have already seen how Nell is associated with the age-old witch or gipsy, and the timeless dialect she speaks is firmly rooted in the land in which it is spoken. But if Prior is really trying to dehistoricize her, why does he have her so spellbound by the activities in the Methodist chapel she regularly attends, which surely anchors her to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries?
This is where the narrator, barely distinguishable from Prior the Methodist, intervenes once more in a chapter entitled 'Hallelujah!', and allows his religious views to intrude on the narrative. There are two principal religious services in Forest Folk, the first of which is in a Methodist chapel and the other in the parish church.27 The former has a staunchly working-class following with participation being of vital importance. Here, the congregation is on familiar terms with the preachers and make well-received interruptions. The atmosphere is convivial, whereas in the Anglican church the atmosphere is starchy and formal, and the mumbling preacher impersonally labelled 'the surpliced man' (p. 306). Prior makes it quite plain that the Methodist Church belongs to the natural order which he juxtaposes to it. As Brother Lightfoot roars to God, 'a ray of sunshine came through the chink between door and jamb; a row of children had settled on the bottom step and were chattering like sparrows' (p. 99). Evidently, the narrator is underlining how much the Methodist chapel transports the churchgoers to a more natural world that is part of a timeless unity.
In Ripple and Flood, it is significant that the androgynous gipsy Ivy –also one of Prior's New Woman figures – becomes a Salvation Army preacher. She is incidentally one of the very few fictional women preachers of the period, and someone whom the narrator Edward will later marry. Prior is again associating his New Women with Low Church sects. Although she never gives a formal religious speech herself, Nell does very informally preach her beliefs about class tolerance. The Methodist chapel is her natural home, and in Chapter Three I shall explain what role Nell subsequently performs in the scoffing Arthur's education towards becoming her partner, the New Man. Juxtaposed to the Methodist service is a far more restrained Anglican service, although this time it is not 'the surpliced man' who allows in the natural order, but the congregation singing and the church roof figuratively disappearing to allow Lois and Tant a view of the sky. Tant too, as I shall also make clear in the next chapter, has made great advances towards New Man status, although it would be an exaggeration to call Lois a fully fledged New Woman.
But it is Nell who is at the heart of the book and much of the action, and Prior's novel is a paean to the female working-class discourse as represented by her. The gender anarchy seen in so many middle-class representations is present in the book, as is the strong spirit of independence and will to work. But one difference is that most of the significant scenes take place outdoors as opposed to the often claustrophobic middle-class home of the fin-de-siecle New Woman figure. But a notable exception, which again highlights previously mentioned similarities between Prior's New Woman and the more conventional New Woman, is Egerton's 'The Regeneration of Two', which had important outdoor settings. Vicinus sees the oudoors as Egerton's 'freeing agent, providing the space and climate for personal growth'.28 But unlike the conventional New Woman novel Nell's work is manual, and there is a positive lack of any direct comment in Forest Folk on woman's position in society. But Nell has an independence of spirit that makes her more than equal to any man, and her words will become more effective than the snobbish Arthur can imagine. Prior has reclaimed the New Woman from the middle class, saturating her in the exotic mystery of the gipsy, or in Nell's case the witch.
Ledger says that 'nineteenth-century novels quintessentially close with a marriage', but that most New Woman novels reject romance.29 With the exception of his first novel Renie –which ends with a vicar's wife mentally destroying her husband after their illegitimately born daughter has effectively committed suicide – all of Prior's novels either end with a recent wedding or with the assumption of an imminent wedding. It would be accurate to describe Pior as a writer of very low-key romantic novels. As Leclaire, in a book published in the same year as his bibliography of the regional novel, says of Prior's books: 'Le theme ordinaire de l'amour n'est pas absent, mais il n'encombre pas le roman.'30 Certainly, romantic love itself that is the central issue, but the dynamics of the man-woman relationship. Vicinus notes Egerton's prediction of an evolution in male-female relationships. This foreshadowed the writings of, for example, Schreider and Gilman: 'unlike other women of her times, she could imagine the creation of a more equal relationship between the New Woman at her strongest and freest and an evolving "New Man"'.
27 R. W. Ambler points out that Primitive Methodism was essentially a working-class phenomenon characterized by 'fervent prayer meetings held under shared leadership [...] and large-scale participation in worship'. This would suggest the kind of service depicted in Forest Folk, and the first church of this kind to be opened in Nottinghamshire – incidentally in Prior's home town of Bingham – was in 1818, when the congregation, far too large for the building, moved to the market place where 'hundreds joined in the grand chorus of hallelujah!'. See R. W. Ambler, Ranters, Revivalists and Rural Society South Lincolnshire 1817–1875 (Hull: Hull University Press, 1989), pp. 1, 30–33.
28 Egerton, p. xi.
29 Ledger, pp. 26, 54.
30 Leclaire, Lucien, Le Roman régionaliste dans les Iles britanniques, 1800-1950 (Paris: Société d'édition les Belles lettres, 1954).
The links below are to the posts I've made on James Prior:
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
The Grave of James Prior (1851–1922) in Bingham
James Prior's Parents' Grave, Nottingham
James Prior: Three Shots from a Popgun (1880)