Monday, 30 September 2013

Cold Comfort Conjugation in my Darkest Sussex

It’s a tarrible gurt noration (terrible great travesty) told abroad that a dusty parody of the rural novel, Cold Comfort Farm (1932), deserves its popularity as a vaunted classic of English comic fiction, when the distinguished prototype from which Stella Gibbons derives her satire (Sussex Gorse, 1916, by Sheila Kaye-Smith) is a fine novel in its own right, and unjustly neglected.

Sheila Kaye-Smith, 1923,
Robert John Swan (1888-1980)
The pose in the picture is said to be based
on Titian’s A Man with a Quilted Sleeve. 

As I wrote to a Professor of Modern English Literature in California, whose Intensive Writing Course on The Fictions of the Sexes includes Cold Comfort Farm:
I’d be very interested to know whether any critique of this novel in your tutorials ever includes the acknowledgement that the writer Gibbons satirises (Sheila Kaye-Smith) was a very fine chronicler of Sussex dialect and rural life, and her novel, Sussex Gorse, is a moving work of literature, true to the character of Sussex farming stock. I was brought up for some years on a Sussex farm so I can vouch for the fidelity to customs and dialect of Kaye-Smith’s writings. You may find the dialect impenetrable in Kaye-Smith BUT another point to consider is that Sussex dialect is very similar to US Southern rural speech with pronouns ‘his’n’ and ‘her’n’, for example, while Sussex has exported many other grammatical features to the States.
I am invariably admiring of the open-mindedness of academics, and the professor truly did not disappoint me in his prompt response:
Thank-you for that excellent reference. I am tracking down copies of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s work for our University Library, and will read her for the next time I teach Cold Comfort Farm.
My mother, poultrykeeper on East Sussex farm 1930s.

Of course, for American dialectologists, these grammatical niceties present an ever-widening, ever more complex vista of the diaspora of those inheritors of our rural English tongue.

I am not an American dialectologist but I can observe with certainty that Zane Grey and his fellow practitioners of classic Western fiction, including Colonel William F. Cody (Buffalo Bill), correctly conjugate their possessive pronouns:
‘Keep back ... you snake! Or I’ll put out one of them slinky eyes of your’n!’
‘I felt as how ef yer was a good set of fellers you wouldn’t mind havin’ another true rifle and arm with your’n, for this is an all-fired dirty Injin country, you know.’
Yet the odd thing is that I would not again have been reminded of my early interest in Sussex dialect – an interest that had all but faded from my mind – had not a certain ‘award-winning’ literary composition been cited to me as a superlative example of the common speech of Sussexers, when analysis of the text revealed at once in the tenth line a solecistic howler that no Sussex child – let alone an acclaimed scholar of our county’s provincialisms – would have inflicted on the ear of her elders. And the contentious phrase?
Gaffer stands in the yard and counts ourn hogs an’ lambs.
Ourn? No! Our hogs an’ lambs. (I imagine the prize for that literary composition was awarded by metropolitan critics.)

As the Rev. W.D. Parish, Vicar of Selmeston, writes, in his Dictionary of Sussex Dialect (1875):
The possessive pronoun is thus conjugated in Sussex,
Mine, thine, hisn [his own] or hern.
Ourn, yourn, theirn.
[Mine, thine, his, hers, ours, yours, theirs.]
To aid our parsing, the Rev. Parish gives us any number of specimen utterances.
That new lean-to of yourn is a poor temporary thing.
Robbuts! Ah, I layyou never see such aplaace for robbuts as what ourn is! 
These strict observances of grammatical rules cannot be neglected, in my view, when attempting to faithfully reproduce Sussex rural speech heard within living memory.

In my own fiction, Sister Morphine (2008), I remember, the speech of Wilkes, a Sussex farmworker, employs two possessive pronouns (the episode, Dispossession), both observant of rules that neither Buffalo Bill nor Zane Grey contravene ... so if they didn’t breach them why should we?

Yore ma sez as how the babe is her’n.

As you can just possibly begin to imagine, my brother’s birth was a fearful page in the record my existence.
    I can remember Boy in his pram, a peevish elf in a pointed woollen hat. That elfin cap concealed a skull elongated by a forceps birth, as though he had been delivered by coal tongs.
    Coincidentally, Grasper the sheepdog was struck dead six months later in an altogether less violent thunder storm; a bolt aimed true and found the brass tag that honoured his name; a medal struck by lightning, you might say.
    Mention of that sheepdog recalls a variant account of my brother’s nativity story, a kind of parallel creation myth that relates the genesis of the Young Lord and Master. As it also concerns myself it bears retelling.
A lamb, you know, can be born with eyes of a different colour and, in ancient times, shepherds believed such a lamb had two different sires. In fact, a lamb characterised by this phenomenon is one of my earliest memories.
    When I was going on seven, on the way to the lambing sheds one spring morning, Wilkes, the farmhand, pointed out a tawny-eyed ram, then, in the pens, he showed me lambs with brown eyes and, later, a sickly lamb with blue eyes suckling on a ewe. Disowned, in a corner, on shaky legs, stood an even sicklier lamb with an eye of each colour.
    ‘ ’Minds me of the time tha’ brother of yourn come into this world ’cause, true enough, he were born in a barn.’
    ‘In a barn?’ I exclaimed in wonderment.
    ‘Ain’t you never heard tell of the birth of yore brother? T’was full moon and light as day. Heard this hollarin’ an’ fancied diddikoy folk mostlike must of took the wrong turnin’ into the yard. So afore it’s light I got the lantern an’, begger me, I wouldn’t of belieft it if I hadn’t sin it wi’ my own eyes, a diddikoy babe bawlin’ in the cowhouse! An’ no sign o’ the mite’s mother.’
     ‘On my word. Next thing I knowed, yore ma comes hurryin’ outen the gate in her nightgown so I arsts her if summat’s wrong.  Then the mistruss took on summat terrible – sez the diddikoys are allus up to tricks – sez they’ll take away a mort of things as they’ve no call to have. She set up such a din, cryin’ and sobbin’, sayin’ as how the brat’ll be tarrible difficult to rear on account o’ it bein’ a child o’ the gyppos.’
    ‘A gypsy’s child! No!’
    ‘Then yore ma ketches holt o’ the babe an’ laid it on a silk idydown. “They’ll be a bout o’ trouble wi’ tha’ boy, shouldn’t wonder,” sez I, but yore ma jest gives it a sup o’ milk, an’ a crust to bite on, an’ sez as how the babe is her’n.’   
    He rubbed his nose reflectively.
    ‘An’ nobody didn’t tek it away from yore ma agin, ’cause nobody didn’t know the mistruss had bin cheated by the diddikoys. Same as a cuckoo, surely.  Jest ’sposin’ a cuckoo come along and turned out all them blue eggs and laid a speckly brown ’un.’

Sturdy double negative.

You’ll note that I refrain from discussing the double negative here (‘nobody didn’t know’), which is such a feature of Sussex rural speech, no different from American ruralisms.
‘Eleven hundred hides stole from my camp,’ replied the grizzled hunter, ‘an’ ain’t never heerd of them since, let alone seein’ hide or hair.’  Zane Grey  
As H. L. Mencken remarks in his The American Language, (1921): ‘Syntactically, perhaps the chief characteristic of vulgar American is its sturdy fidelity to the double negative.’

Well, I don’t see nothing wrong in that.

NOTE: See Epitaph for an Anti-Hero (previous post) ‘... you don’t value nothing. You don’t respect nothing.’

Postscript April 13 2015

One other thought about the title, Cold Comfort: Please be aware that Cold Harbour farms and place names abound in England, particularly Sussex.

It is a Saxon place name, meaning a refuge from the cold.

The Cold Harbours or Coldharbours are all in the vicinity of one or other of the great Neolithic or Roman roads, and were originally the remains of partially destroyed Roman or Romano-British dwellings, or settlements. Travellers used them as being more or less secure places in which to spend a night. As the places became known, traders gathered there to distribute goods and do business, and eventually the places once more became villages, but retained the old generic name.

So the title is also a play on a familiar Sussex place name, in my own view. 

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