Many will be daunted by the prospect of a 613-page historical novel written entirely in verse and narrated in dialect by an unlearned servant from a cloth mill town in Gloucestershire. I had heard about this Unbound release already, but my interest was redoubled by its shortlisting for the Rathbones Folio Prize and the RSL Ondaatje Prize. Although I, too, was initially intimidated by the heft of the hardback that came through my door for review, I found that I could easily settle into the rhythm and – provided I had no distractions – read 40 or 50 pages of it at a sitting.
The text is presented as a document found hidden behind a panel in the tower room at Mount Vernon, a manor house outside Stroud, in 1938. From the very first lines, readers will be entranced: “If you tell a story oft enough / So it become true.” As an elderly woman in the 1880s, Mary Ann Sate looks back at the events of the 1820s and 1830s, a time of social turmoil and upheaval in the family for whom she worked, the Cottrells. Harland Cottrell, a doctor, had two sons, Ned and Blyth, who were three years apart and extremely different in personality. They vied for their father’s approval and for the love of Lucetta, Mary Ann’s closest friend. While Blyth left for London to study anatomy, Ned fell in with radical thinkers and got involved in the weavers’ strikes and riots.
Through it all, Mary Ann was an uneasy observer and eventually a reluctant participant, standing guard during the mill workers’ clandestine meetings. With unemployment rising amid the clamour for universal male suffrage, the scene was set for a climactic clash between the common people and the landowning class. Progress requires sacrifices, and even 60 years later, when she’s working for old Master Blyth, Mary Ann questions whether she made the right choices. Writing is a compulsion and a form of confession for her. In common with the religious thinking of the time, she believes the course of her life was pre-determined:
Whether it be God or fate or what not I know
But all is laid out
We are but stands of corn
Who chose not whether we be bathd in sun
Or beatd flat by storm
Such is the piebald nature
Of our God glorious world
As seen even in these short excerpts, the book has no punctuation, not even apostrophes, and biblical allusions, spelling errors, archaisms and local pronunciation (such as “winder” for window and “zummer” for summer) make it feel absolutely true to the time period and to the narrator’s semi-literate status. There are no rhymes in this free verse epic, but occasionally Mary Ann comes out with some alliteration, perhaps incidental, or particularly poetic lines (“The road ahead unravel / Like a spool of canary thread / Taking me always away”) that testify to her gifts for storytelling and language, even though she made her living by manual labour for some seven decades.
The manner of the telling makes this a unique work of historical fiction, slightly challenging but very worthwhile. It was a perfect book for me to start reading on a weekend when I visited Stroud for the first time – I could picture the valleys and golden stone houses that are so precious to Mary Ann. I do hope that the novel’s prize shortlisting will bring it more attention. (Good luck getting your book club to consider it, though – if yours is anything like mine, people are unlikely to be willing to read a book of over 300 pages, let alone over 600.) I would particularly recommend it to fans of Jane Harris’s The Observations.
Rebecca Foster 4/2
Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly
Unbound 9781783528660 pbk Apr 2019