It’s no secret that I love Edith Olivier’s The Love Child (by the by, any of you who are enjoying Eowyn Ivey’s The Snow Child, I definitely recommend The Love Child as a companion read). I keep reading more books by Olivier, and being disappointed that they’re not as good… Well, this blog post mentioned Country Moods and Tenses (1941) as their favourite of her works, and it sounded like it might be useful for my thesis, so I got a copy online and read it speedily. And I paid a teeny bit more to get this unusual and beautiful cover, created by Olivier’s friend Rex Whistler.
Sorry the photo is a bit dark, but you get the impression.
Well, long story short, it won’t replace The Love Child in my affections – but it’s still rather a lovely book to have on the shelf, and is quintessentially Olivier. The more I read by her, especially her non-fiction, the more I realise that she sees herself primarily as a countrywoman, and as a Wiltshire-woman. She was mayor, after all.
Birds and animals have many habits which indicate the coming weather to a wise watcher. If the partridges are still flying in coveys on February 1st, it foretells a late spring; if they pair as early as the last week of January, the season will be an early one. Pheasants crow in the night to warn of the approach of bad weather, but lately they have decided that German bombs are as bad as tornadoes. They are extremely sensitive to the sound of a coming raid, and can hear, or feel, the fall of a high-explosive bomb quite twenty miles away. Then at once they lift up their voices in shrill chorus.
But it is not just the flora and fauna in which Olivier is interested. She turns her attention to the human inhabitants of Wiltshire, including many photographs. Those of scenery are a little underwhelming (being in black and white, they offer rather less than modern day equivalents) but the many and various photographers (including Cecil Beaton) have captured some astonishingly natural shots of labourers and villagers. These were the most interesting to me. Indeed, through Olivier’s country moods, it was human behaviour which most appealed to me. Those of us who are familiar with E.M. Delafield’s Provincial Lady will identify with this excerpt – which, by the by, is one of the elements of Olivier’s countryside which certainly hasn’t changed:
In spite of the country genius for making festivals out of buying and selling, nothing can prevent a Sale of Work from being a terribly dreary affair; yet every village must have at least one every summer. For weeks beforehand the whole parish is busy with preparations. A garden is lent; the morning arrives; the stalls are prettily arranged; and then, a few hours before the time fixed for the opening ceremony, the goods have to be hurriedly scrambled into the schoolroom to escape a deluge of rain. Everyone agrees to make the best of it. A leading lady of the neighbourhood declares the sale open. The clergyman makes a tactful speech. The members of the audience look feverishly round. There is nothing at all to buy, and nobody to buy it.
One of my problems with Olivier’s writing elsewhere is that her writing is rarely witty – all a little too earnest. So I was grateful to find the above section, with its Delafieldian tones. Although Country Moods and Tenses does lean towards the solemn for the most-part, these little flavours of humour help elevate the book. And Olivier finds humour in her observations about the countryside she so dearly loves, in both present and past.
In the Middle Ages, the traveller in Europe (or even in England if he went beyond his own county) had to be an adventurous fellow indeed. Morrison, who published one of the earliest road-books, tells his readers that they should certainly make their wills before leaving home; and one of his first bits of practical advice is an instruction on the different technique of duelling in each European country. He tells the traveller that he will meet with more thieves in England than anywhere else; but he adds this encouraging postscript: “Having taken purses by the Highway, they seldom or never kill those they rob. All private men pursue them from village to village with hue and cry.”
It is the future which Olivier cannot observe with laughter, from her 1941 vantage. She worries about universal education meaning that village children no longer learn a trade, or follow in their parents’ farming footsteps; she is concerned about the buildings which are insensitive to their surroundings; she fears that village will become homogeneous, losing their customs and heritage. Who’s to say that she was wrong?
But this certainly isn’t an exercise in hand-wringing. Olivier writes joyfully about the countryside, even while documenting its changes. Who knows quite what her purpose was in writing Country Moods and Tenses? Surely she couldn’t have hoped to stall the changes. Perhaps she just wanted a simple set of recollections. It would be impossible to encompass all of 1940s village life in one book, but Olivier does capture at least her enthusiasm. I’ll finish with one sentence, entirely honest, which demonstrates Olivier’s ethos – as well as the shifting sands she was up against:
And no one with a first-hand knowledge of the two could possibly prefer a screen decked with film-stars to a sty full of little pigs.