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How little the real characteristics of the working-classes are known to those who are outside them, how little their natural history has been studied, is sufficiently disclosed by our Art as well as by our political and social theories. Where, in our picture exhibitions, shall we find a group of true peasantry? … The notion that peasants are joyous, that the typical moment to represent a man in a smock-frock is when he is cracking a joke and showing a row of sound teeth, that cottage matrons are usually buxom, and village children necessarily rosy and merry, are prejudices difficult to dislodge from the artistic mind, which looks for its subjects into literature instead of life.
George Eliot's words in an 1856 essay on W. H. Riehl's Natural History of German Life provide an indicative starting point for this collection, encapsulating many of the myths and stereotypes that have typically dominated cultural ideas of rurality. Art and literature, Eliot argued, had long depicted a vision of rural life as a world of idyllic ploughmen, buxom maidens and rosy-faced children – a vision, she contended, that was far from the ‘truth of rustic life’: ‘no one who is well acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry’.
They have no time to sit and look at Nature. Their life is one long fight with her. I am ashamed sometimes. This painting as a life-work – it is playing at living. They live.
So says Mr Forrester in Charles Lee's novel Cynthia in the West. Published in 1900, the novel is set in the fictional Cornish fishing village of Tregurda. ‘They’ are the local inhabitants whose lives and livelihood is entirely dependent on the sea. Being both a local man and a painter, Forrester occupies a unique position in the novel – his perspective on the workers is sympathetic and, as can be seen above, makes him question painting as an occupation. Yet within the novel he socializes with a colony of painters who have descended on Tregurda from London. They view the local inhabitants with scorn, distrust and as an ‘alien race’ and it is the complex relationship between the two groups which Lee's novel explores.
Charles Lee was a popular novelist in his own lifetime but he and his work have largely dropped out of cultural consciousness. He has received a small amount of recognition in the last twenty years with the republication in 2003 of his anthology of bad verse The Stuffed Owl.
The essays in this collection focus on the ways rural life was represented during the long nineteenth century. Issues of national versus regional identity, class, gender and sexuality are discussed. Contributors bring expertise from the fields of history, geography and literature to present an interdisciplinary study of the interplay between rural space and gender during a time of increasing industrialization and social change.