Magazine article The Spectator

A Devotee of Devon

Magazine article The Spectator

A Devotee of Devon

Article excerpt

COURT ROYAL : A STORY OF CROSS CURRENTS by Sabine Baring-Gould Praxis Books, Crossways Cottage, Walterstone, Herefordshire, HR2 0DX, £10, pp. 424, ISBN 0952842092

The regional novel in England sounds like a dull and worthy research topic; investigating it might be entertaining at times, but I suspect that one would just end by concluding that it existed once, and does so no more. People still write novels about life in various regions, of course; some writers still specialise in a particular area, but the glory days are over. When Cold Comfort Farm came out in 1932 to deal it a death-blow, there were still dozens of writers making an honest living in this way; it is often said to mock Mary Webb's books, but Sheila Kaye-Smith, Eden Phillpotts, Alice Dudeney and many others were just as vulnerable.

All these popular novelists had something that few, if any, have now: a regional audience, readers who wanted to read about Devon or Sussex or Yorkshire or wherever, and local newspapers which cooperated, sometimes by subscribing to syndicated serials. They were the tail-end of a once-vibrant tradition. Late-Victorian England was full of regional writers, most of them now known only to weary dealers in secondhand books.

One was the Reverend Sabine BaringGould (1834-1924), rector and squire of Lew Trenchard in west Devon, author of 'Onward, Christian Soldiers', 50-odd novels and many other works of non-fiction.

Though he also set novels in Yorkshire and Essex, his speciality was Devon, and he was an important figure in the literary life of both Exeter and Plymouth, strenuous in the promotion of such noble enterprises as local-history societies, village festivals and the collection of folksongs. But saying that altogether fails to convey the range of his sympathies. As a young Tractarian clergyman, he had fallen in love with Grace Taylor, a mill-girl; and against considerable parental opposition he educated her, married her and lived happily ever after. They had 15 children.

The early commitment to religious reform and the enthusiasm for crossing class boundaries were not forgotten and continued to mark his fiction. If you only knew that he was a 'squarson' and wrote 'Onward, Christian Soldiers', you might fall into the trap of thinking that his books would present a conservative and pious picture of rural England -- in which case you might be surprised by Court Royal (1886). …

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