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MARSH HAY (1933)

1933 Grayson & Grayson. [Published under the pseudonym Stephen Hockaby.]

I can report upon my great-grandmother, Glory Burntfen, from hearsay only, for I never knew her. She died many years before I was born. She was the witch of Louding, and, in her way, I believe, a famous woman.

Tales varied as to her origin. Some folk thought that she was born mature, a true child of the devil; others had a story that she was got by an unfrocked priest upon his woman after the celebration of the Black Mass in the priory ruins of Ocklburgh. The most credible tale, however, and the one which accounts most readily for her restlessness and her constitutional inability to settle down, is that she was born of wherry-owning parents whose clumsy, flat-bottomed, brown sailed wherry used to take a cargo of eels and marsh hay into Yarmouth down the Bure, and bring coals and timber back.

The story of Etin Burntfen, like his character, at first appears to be simple. His life has been influenced primarily by his family and by the Oxfordshire countryside. Etin begins his narrative three generations earlier, where the wild nature and yearning desires which drive his great-grandparents’ destinies will echo through his own life and fate. Raised by a rigorous Protestant mother and an amiable adventurer of a father, his childhood is filled with moments of youthful play, work, discovery, and combat, all set against the fields and riversides of pastoral Oxford. When a distant uncle appears with a dark-skinned, bewitching girl in tow, Etin and his siblings find their family dynamics permanently changed. It is the dangerous gypsy-born cousin Azalea who, in adulthood, will set Etin and his brother against each other, and who will be directly responsible for two deaths.

At the turn of the twentieth century, Etin sets out with Kate, his sister, on a trip to London. Kate is determined to “change the world” and earn a living as a preacher of roadside sermons. Along the way they meet Vincent, a sincere young black man who becomes their traveling companion and — when Etin decides to pursue boxing — his sparring partner. Recruited for a light-heavyweight match by a promoter who witnesses Etin’s prowess dealing with disruptive sermon hecklers, the fight starts him on a career of boxing exhibitions. The combination of physicality and travel appeals, and along the way Etin falls for his sister’s college friend, Mary. As the years go by, relationships are resumed and a world war looms large for Britain. Etin must decide his fate, and choose between the patient, peaceful love of his life and the beguiling gypsy woman who still casts a spell.

Gladys Mitchell published five novels and one children's book under the pseudonym of Stephen Hockaby in the 1930s. These are books filled with complex, colorful characters, fascinating and precise historical backgrounds, generous amounts of humor and pathos, and expertly rendered details which provide each story with authenticity and vitality. They represent some of the author's very best work. They have never been reprinted, which is a great injustice.

Five years into her career as mystery writer, Miss Mitchell published Marsh Hay under the Hockaby name. This story of a rural family and the meandering, steady stream of triumphs and tragedies which carry them through life is, on the surface, a departure from the Mrs. Bradley detective series. With the Hockaby books, Mitchell is free to visit other eras: much of Marsh Hay unfolds in the first two decades of the 1900s; Seven Stars and Orion chronicles life in the fourteenth century. Though issues of death, crime, and morality appear, they serve a dramatic rather than deductive purpose. But for fans of the author's mystery books, all of her great literary qualities are not only on display in these pseudonymous tales, they are strengthened and often surpassed.

I always maintain that Gladys Mitchell is a consummate storyteller. Even her slightest mystery stories have an enjoyable readability if you're receptive to her prose. Mitchell invests Marsh Hay with so much vibrant detail -- of characters, of locale, of events -- that I find the creation of the fictional Burntfen family and their world to be an amazing imaginative achievement. The novel carries some flaws: it's more anecdotal and less structured than it perhaps should be, and the book's final moment is unusually weak (the last sentence reading: Mary had seated herself at the table and was picking at the cloth). Generally, though, Marsh Hay is quite successful, a story filled with complex people and situations presented -- true to its rural cast -- in a straightforward, practical manner.

Narrator Etin Burntfen relates his family's many experiences, from his father working with Colonel "Buffalo Bill" Cody's travelling shows to his sister's roadside journeys as a preacher and his own rise and fall as a professional boxer. Etin -- through the author -- is generous with all the characters along the way, from Old Mother Hitchin, an eccentric sweetshop proprietress from youthful days, to the village vicar, who is begrudgingly allowed to teach Latin to the narrator. As Mitchell charmingly describes the wary relationship between the vicar and Etin's Calvinist mother:

She would bake and brew, and often I have seen her go striding away across our flat fields in the evening, her bonnet like a helmet, her umbrella like a sword in her right hand, and her basket laden, as it were, with spoils, on her way to the vicar's dwelling-place. She would never go inside the church, however, and once called him to his face a 'long-frocked idolator' predestined, according to her naive belief, for hell. They were friends, and had great respect for one another.

Mitchell paints her Oxfordshire subjects with great spirit and humanity, and this book (like most of her work) flows with an assured energy and ease. As with the other Hockaby titles, Marsh Hay works just as well as a character drama as it does a convincing historical narrative. The author's skill with prose is matched by her attention to both characters and countryside. I offer a final quote to demonstrate:

By all the country roads in Oxfordshire, hills heaved their yeoman bodies into the clouds. They had no trees, these round, bare, homely hills. The country folk grew like them, simple, kind, unconscious of their own nobility.

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