The unique quality of A. E. Coppard’s short fiction derives from his powers as a lyrical writer, his sympathetic understanding of the rural, lower-class folk who organically inhabit the English countryside so memorably evoked in his tales, and his “uncanny perception,” as Frank O’Connor remarked, “of a woman’s secretiveness and mystery.” Coppard’s earliest reviewers and critics emphasized the poetic quality of his tales. The title story from The Field of Mustard is one of the great stories in English, and it suggests the full range of Coppard’s creative genius, including his lyric portrayal of the English countryside and its folk, especially its women, whose language and life-consciousness seem wedded to the landscape.
The Field of Mustard
Like other lyric short stories, “The Field of Mustard” is nearly plotless. It opens with the suggestion that everything has already happened to the main characters, “three sere disvirgined women from Pollock’s Cross.” What remains for Coppard is to evoke the quality of these lives and the countryside of which they are a part; the tale proceeds as a kind of lyric meditation on life and death in nature. The women have come to “the BlackWood” in order to gather “dead branches” from the living trees, and on their way home, two of them, Dinah Lock and Rose Olliver, become involved in an intimate conversation that reveals the hopelessness of their lives. Rose, wishing she had children but knowing she never will, cannot understand why Dinah is not happy with her four children. Dinah complains that “a family’s a torment. I never wanted mine.” Dinah’s “corpulence dispossessed her of tragedy,” and perhaps because she has had the burden as well as the fulfillment of motherhood, she expressed the bitterness of life in what serves almost as a refrain: “Oh God, cradle and grave is all for we.” They are old but their hearts are young, and the truth of Dinah’s complaint, “that’s the cussedness of nature, it makes a mock of you,” is reflected in the world around them: The depleted women are associated with the mustard field and the “sour scent rising faintly from its yellow blooms.” Against this natural order, Dinah and Rose wish that “this world was all a garden”; but “the wind blew strongly athwart the yellow field, and the odour of mustard rushed upon the brooding women.”
As Dinah and Rose continue their conversation, they complain of their feeble husbands and discover a mutual loss: Each had been a lover of Rufus Blackthorn, a local gamekeeper. He was “a pretty man,” “handsome,” “black as coal and bold as a fox”; and although “he was good to women,” he was “a perfect devil,” “deep as the sea.” Gradually Coppard’s pattern of imagery reveals the source of these women’s loss to be the very wellspring of life—their love and sexual vitality. The suggestion is explicit in their lover’s name, “Blackthorn,” who had brought them most in life yet left them now with “old grief or new rancour.” This grim reality is suggested earlier when the women meet an old man in the BlackWood; he shows them a timepiece given him by “a noble Christian man,” but is met only with Dinah’s profane taunt, “Ah! I suppose he slept wid Jesus?” Outraged, the old man calls Dinah “a great fat thing,” shouts an obscenity, and leaving them, puts “his fingers to his nose.” Dinah’s bitter mockery of Christian love gradually merges with the sour scent of mustard and surfaces transformed in Rose’s recollection of how Blackthorn once joked of having slept with a dead man. These women, gathered in “the Black Wood” to collect dead wood from the living trees, have in effect slept with death. The yellow mustard blooms quiver in the wind, yet they are sour. The same “wind hustled the two women close together,” and they touch; but, bereft of their sexual vitality, they are left only with Dinah’s earlier observation that “it’s such a mercy to have a friend at all” and her repeated appeal, “I like you, Rose, I wish you was a man.” The tale ends with the women “quiet and voiceless,”
in fading light they came to their homes. But how windy, dispossessed, and ravaged roved the darkening world! Clouds were borne frantically across the heavens, as if in a rout of battle, and the lovely earth seemed to sigh in grief at some calamity all unknown to men.
Coppard’s lyric tales celebrate the oral tradition. His stories are often tales of tales being told, perhaps in a country tavern (as in “Alas, Poor Bollington!”). In some tales an oral narrator addresses the reader directly, and in others the rural settings, the characters, and the events—often of love ending in violence—draw obviously upon the materials of traditional folk ballads. Coppard himself loved to sing ballads and Elizabethan folk songs, and the main characters in these stories are sometimes singers, or their tales are “balladed about.” In many tales, Coppard used rhythmic language, poetically inverted constructions, and repeated expressions that function as refrains in ballads. The most explicit example of a tale intended to resound with balladic qualities is “A Broadsheet Ballad,” a tale of two laborers waiting in a tavern for the rain to pass. They begin to talk of a local murder trial, and one is moved by the thought of a hanging: “Hanging’s a dreadful thing,” he exclaims; and at length, with “almost a sigh,” he repeats. “Hanging’s a dreadful thing.” His sigh serves as the tale’s refrain and causes his fellow to tell within the tale a longer tale of a love triangle that ended in a murder and an unjust hanging. Finally, the sigh-refrain and the strange narration coalesce in the laborer’s language:
Ah, when things make a turn against you it’s as certain as twelve o’clock, when they take a turn; you get no more chance than a rabbit from a weasel. It’s like dropping your matches into a stream, you needn’t waste the bending of your back to pick them out—they’re no good on, they’ll never strike again.
Coppard’s lyric mode is perfectly suited to his grand theme: the darkness of love, its fleeting loveliness and almost inevitable entanglements and treacheries. He writes of triangles, entrapping circumstances, and betrayals in which, as often as not, a lover betrays himself or herself out of foolishness, timidity, or blind adherence to custom. Some of his best tales, like “Dusky Ruth” and “The Higgler,” dwell on the mysterious elusiveness of love, often as this involves an alluring but ungraspable woman. Men and women are drawn together by circumstances and deep undercurrents of unarticulated feeling but are separated before they consummate their love.
Because of its portrayal of unconsummated love, its treatment of the rural poor, and its poetic atmosphere that arises from the countryside itself, “The Higgler” (the first story in The Collected Tales) is fully characteristic of Coppard’s best work. It is not simply a tale of unconsummated love, for its main character comes to absorb and reflect the eternal forces of conflict in nature. For Coppard this involves more than man’s economic struggle to wrest his living from nature; it involves man’s conflict with man in war, his conflict with his lover, his conflict with himself, and ultimately, with his own life source, the mother.
Harvey Witlow is the higgler, a man whose business it is to travel the countryside in a horse-drawn wagon, buying produce from small farms. The story opens with the higgler making his way across Shag Moor, a desolate place where “solitude . . . now . . . shivered and looked sinister.” Witlow is shrewd and crafty, “but the season was backward, eggs were scarce, trade was bad”; and he stands to lose the meager business he has struggled to establish for himself since returning from the war, as well as his opportunity to marry. “That’s what war does for you,” he says. “I was better off working for farmers; much; but it’s no good chattering about it, it’s the trick of life; when you get so far, then you can go and order your funeral.” After this dismal beginning, Witlow is presented with an unexpected opportunity to improve his life in every way; but he is destined to outwit himself, as his name suggests, and to know more fully the “trick of life.” As the tale develops, then, the reader watches him miss his opportunity and resume his descent into general desolation.
Witlow’s chance comes when he stops at the farm of a Mrs. Sadgrove. Here the higgler finds plenty of produce as well as the intriguing possibility of a relationship with Mrs. Sadgrove’s daughter, Mary, another of Coppard’s alluring, secretive women. Mary’s quiet beauty attracts Witlow, but he imagines her to be too “well-up” and “highly cultivated” for him. She shows no interest in him, so he is unprepared when, after several trips to the farm and an invitation to dinner, Mrs. Sadgrove tells him of her poor health and her desire that he should wed Mary and take over the farm. The higgler leaves bewildered. Here is his life’s opportunity: The farm is prosperous, and he is far more attracted to Mary than to Sophy, the poor girl he eventually marries; besides, Mary will inherit five hundred pounds on her twenty-fifth birthday. It is simply too good to believe, and after consulting with his mother about his opportunity, Witlow grows increasingly suspicious. The reader has already been told that “mothers are inscrutable beings to their sons, always”; andWitlow is confused by his mother’s enthusiasm over his opportunity. Even the natural world somehow conspires to frighten him: “Autumn was advancing, and the apples were down, the bracken dying, the furze out of bloom, and the farm on the moor looked more and more lonely. . . .”
So Witlow begins to avoid the Sadgrove farm and suddenly marries Sophy.Within months, his “affairs had again taken a rude turn. Marriage, alas, was not all it mightbe; his wife and his mother quarrelled unendingly,” and his business fails badly. His only chance seems to be to return to the Sadgrove farm, where he might obtain a loan; but he does so reluctantly, for he knows Mrs. Sadgrove to be a hard woman. She exploits her help and “was reputed to be a ‘grinder’”; and he has betrayed her confidence. In an increasingly dark atmosphere of loss, Witlow returns across Shag Moor to the Sadgrove farm, where Mary meets him with the news of her mother’s death that day. Now a prolonged, eerie, and utterly powerful scene develops as the higgler agrees to help Mary prepare her mother’s body, which lies alone upstairs in a state of rigor mortis. He sends Mary away and confronts the dead mother, whose stiff outstretched arm had been impossible for Mary to manage.
Moments later, in their intimacy near the dead mother, Witlow blurts out, “Did you know as she once asked me to marry you?” Finally Mary reveals that her mother actually opposed the marriage: “The girl bowed her head, lovely in her grief and modesty. ‘She was against it, but I made her ask you. . . . I was fond of you—then.’” To his distress and confusion, Mary insists that he leave at once, and he drives “away in deep darkness, the wind howling, his thoughts strange and bitter.”
Arabesque: The Mouse
Coppard’s vision of life caught in a struggle against itself, of the violence in nature and its mockery of morality, of the deceit among humans and of humans’ denial of their true nature—all this is marvelously represented in one of his first and finest tales, “Arabesque: The Mouse.” It is a psychological horror story of a middle-aged man who sits alone one night reading Russian novels until he thinks he is mad. He is an idealist who was obsessed by the incompatibilities of property and virtue, justice and sin. He looks at a “print by Utamaro of a suckling child caressing its mother’s breasts” and his mind drifts to recall his own mother and then a brief experience with a lover. These recollections merge in a compelling pattern of images that unite finally, and horribly, with an actual experience this night with a mouse. As a child horrified by the sight of some dead larks that had been intended for supper, he sought comfort from his mother and found her sitting by the fire with her bodice open, “squeezing her breasts; long thin streams of milk spurted into the fire with a little plunging noise.” Telling him that she was weaning his little sister, she draws him to her breast and presses his face “against the delicate warmth of her bosom.” She allows him to do it; “so he discovered the throb of the heart in his mother’s breast. Wonderful it was for him to experience it, although she could not explain it to him.” They feel his own beat, and his mother assures him his heart is “good if it beats truly. Let it always beat truly, Filip.” The child kisses “her bosom in his ecstasy and whisper[s] soothingly: ‘Little mother! little mother.’”
The boy forgets the horror of the dead larks bundled by their feet, but the next day his mother is run over by a heavy cart, and before she dies her mutilated hands are amputated. For years the image of his mother’s bleeding stumps of arms had haunted his dreams. Into his mind, however, now floats the recollection of an experience with a lovely country girl he had met and accompanied home. It was “dark, dark . . . , the night an obsidian net”; finally in their intimacy she had unbuttoned his coat, and with her hands on his breast asked, “Oh, how your heart beats! Does it beat truly?” In a “little fury of love” he cried “Little mother, little mother!” and confused the girl. At that moment footsteps and the clack of a bolt cause them to part forever.
The sound of the bolt hurls him into the present, where, frightened, he opens his cupboard to find a mouse sitting on its haunches before a snapped trap. “Its head was bowed, but its beadlike eyes were full of brightness, and it sat blinking, it did notflee.” Then to his horror he sees that the trap had caught only the feet, “and the thing crouched there holding out its two bleeding stumps humanly, too stricken to stir.” He throws the mouse from his window into the darkness, then sits stunned, “limp with pity too deep for tears” before running down into the street in a vain search for the “little philosopher.” Later he drops the tiny feet into the fire, resets the trap, and carefully replaces it. “Arabesque: The Mouse” is a masterwork of interwoven imagery whose unity is caught in such details as the mother’s heartbeat, the mother’s milk streaming with a plunging noise into the fire, the mouse’s eyes, and the “obsidian net” of night.
Coppard’s characters are sometimes shattered by such thoughts and experiences, but the author never lost his own sense of the natural magnificence and fleeting loveliness in life. It is true that many of his late tales pursue in a more thoughtful and comic manner the natural and psychological forces in life that were simply, but organically and poetically, present in such earlier tales as “The Higgler”; that is, in some of his later stories the reader can too easily see him playing with thoughts about Alfred Adler, Sigmund Freud, and, repeatedly, Charles Darwin (whose prose he admired). Yet the last tale (the title story) of his final volume is one of his best. “Lucy in Her Pink Jacket” is almost a hymn to nature, a song of acceptance in which lovers meet accidentally in a magnificent mountain setting. Their lovemaking is beautiful, natural, and relaxed, and they accept the web of circumstances causing them to part. Coppard’s description of his last parting character might serve as his reader’s image of himself: “Stepping out into the bright eager morning it was not long before [he] was whistling softly as he went his way, a sort of thoughtful, plaintive, museful air.”
Short fiction: Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, 1921; Clorinda Walks in Heaven, 1922; The Black Dog, 1923; Fishmonger’s Fiddle, 1925; The Field of Mustard, 1926; Count Stephan, 1928; Silver Circus, 1928; The Gollan, 1929; The Higgler, 1930; The Man from Kilsheelan, 1930; Easter Day, 1931; Nixey’s Harlequin, 1931; The Hundredth Story of A. E. Coppard, 1931; Crotty Shinkwin, and the Beauty Spot, 1932; Dunky Fitlow, 1933; Ring the Bells of Heaven, 1933; Emergency Exit, 1934; Polly Oliver, 1935; Ninepenny Flute, 1937; These Hopes of Heaven, 1937; Tapster’s Tapestry, 1938; You Never Know, Do You?, 1939; Ugly Anna, and Other Tales, 1944; Fearful Pleasures, 1946; Selected Tales from His Twelve Volumes Published Between the Wars, 1946; The Dark-Eyed Lady: Fourteen Tales, 1947; The Collected Tales of A. E. Coppard, 1948; Lucy in Her Pink Jacket, 1954; Simple Day, 1978.
Children’s literature: Pink Furniture, 1930.
Nonfiction: Rummy: That Noble Game Expounded, 1933; It’s Me, O Lord!, 1957.
Poetry: Hips and Haws, 1922; Pelagea, and Other Poems, 1926; Yokohama Garland, 1926; Collected Poems, 1928; Cherry Ripe, 1935.
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