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Published online by Cambridge University Press: 29 March 2021
Ronald Blythe is often seen as Britain’s finest living rural writer. He has published over thirty books, some of them, like Akenfield and The View in Winter, widely acknowledged as classics, inspiring a film and follow-up books by others. His literary output has been extraordinary: novels, short stories, poetry, rural documentary writing, oral history, ‘parish’ writing, religious books, his own autobiographical work (among a remarkable milieu of creative people), and historical studies ranging from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. He has also edited a great range of authors and types of writing. Ronald Blythe is especially an East Anglian author, writing about that English region, in whose work the local and the religious are often to the fore. As this famous author approaches one hundred years of age, this article is a forthright academic appreciation of his work, a discussion of its themes and impressive variety, and an analysis of the meanings and importance of his writing to modern readerships.
1 For his poetry, which I will not discuss here, see R. Blythe, Decadal (London, 2015).
2 R. Blythe, Field Work (Norwich, 2007), p. ix.
3 Interview with Ronald Blythe, by Alan Macfarlane, 31st January 2016 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5215ieT2bU> [7th July 2020].
4 R. Blythe, The Stories of Ronald Blythe (1985, London, 1986), p. 203. The stories date from 1957 and thereafter in original publication.
5 On H. E. Bates, see K. D. M. Snell, Spirits of Community: English Senses of Belonging and Loss, 1750–2000 (London, 2016), ch. 9.
6 Blythe, Stories of Ronald Blythe, p. 139.
9 Blythe, Under a Broad Sky, p. 105.
10 Blythe, Stories of Ronald Blythe, p. 212.
12 Blythe, ‘The Church Mouse’, in Stories of Ronald Blythe, for example p. 194, is a good example of such displacement.
13 Blythe, Time by the Sea, pp. 241–4.
15 R. Blythe, A Treasonable Growth (1960, London, 2010), p. 97.
16 Blythe, A Year at Bottengoms Farm, p. 60.
17 Blythe, ‘The Windfall’, in Stories of Ronald Blythe, pp. 183–5. On Blythe’s knowledge of the natural world, see also R. Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey through Trees (London, 2007), p. 41.
18 Most notably, the stunning passages of Blythe, Treasonable Growth, p. 261.
26 R. Blythe, The Assassin (Norwich, 2004).
27 Blythe, Treasonable Growth, pp. 12, 13, 15, 19, 77, 97, 113, 194, 264.
29 R. Blythe, Preface, Akenfield (1969, London, 2005), p. 8; and personal correspondence with K. D. M. Snell.
30 R. Blythe, Akenfield (1969, Harmondsworth, 1977), p. 19. Subsequent reference will be to this earlier edition.
31 P. Thompson, The Edwardians: the Remaking of British Society (London, 1975); H. Newby, The Deferential Worker: A Study of Farm Workers in East Anglia (Harmondsworth, 1975); R. Samuel, East End Underworld: Chapters in the Life of Arthur Harding (London, 1981).
32 M. W. Williams, The Sociology of an English Village: Gosforth (London, 1956). The genre of community studies is well discussed in R. Frankenberg, Communities in Britain: Social Life in Town and Country (1966, Harmondsworth, 1970); G. Crow, ‘Community studies: fifty years of theorization’, Sociological Research Online, 7:3 (2002); N. Charles and C. A. Davies, ‘Studying the particular, illuminating the general: community studies and community in Wales’, Sociological Review, 53:4 (2005); G. Crow, What are Community Studies? (London, 2018).
33 Blythe, Borderland, p. 238. This is a frequent issue raised in Akenfield.
34 Blythe, Time by the Sea, p. 196.
35 For example, W. Hasbach, A History of the English Agricultural Labourer (London, 1908); G. E. Fussell, The English Rural Labourer (London, 1949).
36 For more recent appraisal of interwar rural issues, see P. Brassley, J. Burchardt and L. Thompson, eds, The English Countryside between the Wars: Regeneration or Decline? (Woodbridge, 2006).
37 This verdict is repeated by at least three of Blythe’s interviewees, and it features in some of his other writing too. Blythe, Akenfield, pp. 41, 76, 110.
38 Blythe, Time by the Sea, p. 237.
39 Blythe, Borderland, p. 197. Compare Blythe, Akenfield, p. 316, for the same point.
40 On tied cottages, see also M. F. Tilley, Housing the Country Worker (London, 1947), pp. 19, 57–9.
41 Blythe, Akenfield, p. 187. Interview with Hugh Hambling.
43 Blythe, ‘Akenfield Recollected’, in his Field Work, p. 151.
44 Blythe, Akenfield, pp. 164–74.
46 R. Samuel, ‘Perils of the transcript’, Oral History, 1:2 (1972), 19–22.
47 Indeed, they collaborated in Tony Parker’s biography of Studs Terkel, in effect playing oral historical methods off with each other. See T. Parker, Studs Terkel: A Life in Words (London, 1997).
48 E. Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou (1975, London, 1978); E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963); P. Laslett, The World We Have Lost (London, 1965).
49 C. Taylor, Return to Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village in the 21st Century (London, 2006).
50 R. Blythe, The View in Winter: Reflections on Old Age (1979, Norwich, 2005), pp. 40, 44, and see the discussion of other writers on pp. 97–116.
55 Blythe, Divine Landscapes, p. 9.
58 R. Blythe, The Age of Illusion: England in the Twenties and Thirties, 1919–40 (1963, Harmondsworth, 1964).
59 R. Graves, The Long Week-End: A Social History of Great Britain, 1918–1939 (London, 1940); J. Harris, The Big Slump (London, 1967); J. Stevenson, British Society, 1914–45 (Harmondsworth, 1990); R. Hattersley, Borrowed Time: The Story of Britain Between the Wars (London, 2007); M. Pugh, We Danced All Night: A Social History of Britain Between the Wars (London, 2008); J. Gardiner, The Thirties: An Intimate History (London, 2010).
60 Blythe, Age of Illusion, p. 130.
61 R. Blythe, The Circling Year: Perspectives from a Country Parish (Norwich, 2001), pp. ix–x.
62 R. Mabey, Gilbert White: A Biography of the Author of The Natural History of Selborne (London, 1986).
63 H. Rider Haggard, A Farmer’s Year, Being his Commonplace Book for 1898 (1899, London, 1987).
65 H. Williamson, The Story of a Norfolk Farm (London, 1941).
66 A. G. Street, Country Calendar (London, 1935).
67 H. J. Massingham, An Englishman’s Year (London, 1948).
68 R. Deakin, Notes from Walnut Tree Farm (London, 2008).
69 M. Cocker, Claxton: Field Notes from a Small Planet (London, 2015); M. Cocker, A Claxton Diary: Further Field Notes from a Small Planet (London, 2019). Indeed, in the latter book Cocker discusses Henry Williamson at Stiffkey on pp. 82–5.
70 W. Plomer, ed., Kilvert’s Diary, 1870–1879: Selections from the Diary of the Rev. Francis Kilvert (1938–40, Harmondsworth, 1986).
71 R. Blythe, Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year (1997, London, 1998), pp. 78–9, 92, 108. On George Mackay Brown, see also R. Blythe, Going to Meet George and Other Outings (Ebrington, 1999).
72 J. Galt, Annals of the Parish, or the Chronicle of Dalmailing (1821, Oxford, 1986).
73 Blythe, Word from Wormingford, p. 135. See also J. Barrell, The Idea of Landscape and the Sense of Place: An Approach to the Poetry of John Clare (Cambridge, 1972); J. Bate, John Clare: A Biography (London, 2003).
74 Blythe, Word from Wormingford, p. 114.
75 Compare Massingham, An Englishman’s Year, for example pp. 55, 146: ‘This impingement of the divine upon the earthly is a kind of incarnation, Spenser’s “heavenly beauty” manifested.’
76 Blythe, Talking to the Neighbours, p. 203.
77 Blythe, Borderland, p. 241.
79 See also Richard Mabey’s assessment in his foreword to R. Blythe, Aftermath: Selected Writings, 1960–2010 (Norwich, 2010); developed further in R. Mabey, Turning the Boat for Home: A Life Writing about Nature (London, 2019).
80 Blythe, Talking to the Neighbours, pp. 72–6.
82 Blythe, Akenfield, p. 135.
83 Blythe, Circling Year, p. 123.
84 See, for example, L. Jones, Cwmardy (1937, Cardigan, 2006); L. Jones, We Live (1939, London, 1978); and W. Brierley, Means-Test Man (London, 1935). On the local and regional traditions of fiction, see K. D. M. Snell, ed., The Regional Novel in Britain and Ireland, 1800–1990 (Cambridge, 1998), and K. D. M. Snell, The Bibliography of Regional Fiction in Britain and Ireland, 1800–2000 (Aldershot, 2002), the latter including the regional fiction of East Anglian counties.
85 Blythe, Time by the Sea, p. 151.
86 A. G. Street, Country Calendar (1935, London, 1940), p. xii.
87 Blythe, Time by the Sea, p. xiii.
89 C. Grogan, ed., Imogen Holst: A Life in Music (Woodbridge, 2007), pp. 126, 339, 344, 351. Blythe dedicated his Field Work to her memory.
90 Blythe, Time by the Sea, p. 38.
91 A. Wilson, Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith (2003, London, 2004), pp. 251, 254–6, 261.
92 My ex-colleague the late Christopher Storm-Clark (Department of Economics, University of York) told me that he spent days burning trunk loads of the papers and diaries of his famous literary grandmother Margaret Storm Jameson (1891–1986), documenting relationships and affairs with some of the leading writers of the twentieth century, because he had promised her that he would do so.
93 Blythe, Time by the Sea, p. 208.
98 Blythe, Talking to the Neighbours, p. 150.
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