“A group of true peasantry?”; Rural Realism and The Village

Peak DistrictI’ve been watching with interest the new BBC series The Village that follows the life of a rural Derbyshire community in the early 20th century. Among the most common response to this seems to be that the series is too depressing and bleak in its portrayal. Now admittedly with at least one death per episode, the background of World War I, and the on-going themes of poverty, domestic violence, criminality and injustice, set against a landscape that is not so much idyllic rolling hills but rather rugged, bleak, and by the looks of things, darned windy… it does not make for cheery Sunday night viewing. But I’m finding it enjoyably refreshing to see a series portray rural life without the twee gloss of rose-tinted nostalgia for an idyllic English past, and instead approaching something closer to the “rural realism” as described by George Eliot.

George Eliot’s early works – Scenes of Clerical Life (1857), Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), and Silas Marner (1861) – all focus around rural Midlands locales in the early part of the nineteenth century, and in doing so address a key problem that Eliot had earlier noted as dominating over typical representations of rurality. In 1856, writing in the Westminster Review on Riehl’s Natural History of German Life, Eliot argued that the true condition of the rural classes had been obscured from view:

How little the real characteristics of the working-classes are known to those who are outside them, how little their natural history has been studied, is sufficiently disclosed by our Art as well as by our political and social theories.  Where, in our picture exhibitions, shall we find a group of true peasantry?

There are, she notes, certainly many depictions of the rural peasantry, but these show “the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred”, rather than “the truth of rustic life”:

The notion that peasants are joyous, that the typical moment to represent a man in a smock-frock is when he is cracking a joke and showing a row of sound teeth, that cottage matrons are usually buxom, and village children necessarily rosy and merry, are prejudices difficult to dislodge from the artistic mind, which looks for its subjects into literature instead of life. The painter is still under the influence of idyllic literature, which has always expressed the imagination of the cultivated and town-bred, rather than the truth of rustic life. Idyllic ploughmen are jocund when they drive their team afield; idyllic shepherds make bashful love under hawthorn bushes; idyllic villagers dance in the checkered shade and refresh themselves, not immoderately, with spicy nut-brown ale.

Yet, Eliot counters, “no one who has seen much of actual ploughmen thinks them jocund; no one who is well acquainted with the English peasantry can pronounce them merry”; if we look more closely, we find that

The slow gaze, in which no sense of beauty beams, no humor twinkles, the slow utterance, and the heavy, slouching walk, remind one rather of that melancholy animal the camel than of the sturdy countryman, with striped stockings, red waistcoat, and hat aside, who represents the traditional English peasant.  

The rural scenes of Eliot’s early fiction therefore move away from the idyllic towards a closer observation of the conditions of rural life and people. There are certainly instances where we find nostalgia for the rural past creep in as rebuttal to the forces of modernity, most famously in the “old leisure” passage of Adam Bede which looks fondly back on “those old leisurely times” that have gone, “gone where the spinning-wheels are gone, and the pack-horses, and the slow waggons, and the pedlars”, and replaced by the steam-engine that “only creates a vacuum for eager thought to rush in” (AB chapter LII).

But Eliot also complicates this with the harsh realities of rural life, particularly with regards to the moral codes of the community: as she points out in the essay on Riehl, rural simplicity does not beget intrinsic morality, for “to make men moral something more is requisite than to turn them out to grass”. Accordingly, her fiction repeatedly shows up the problems of the moral codes of rural communities, from the suspicion with which “settlers from distant parts” are regarded by a community for whom “the world outside their own direct experience was a region of vagueness and mystery” (Silas Marner, chapter 1), to the stringent gendered codes that operate to exclude sexually transgressive women whilst giving slight punishment to the men who are responsible for their wrongdoing (as in Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss).

And I think The Village works in this vein of “rural realism”, offering a portrayal that complicates the idyllic simplicity and the intrinsic morality of the countryside with a rather harsher vision of rural life. Particularly notable I’ve felt is this idea of the complicated moral codes that operate within the community: social relations continually shift from a sense of a closely bounded community within the village, to the familial isolation upon the farm, and there’s a similar sense of unstable social codes operating in the shifts between exclusion and inclusion of individuals based on moral judgements that are at times dubious or wrongly biased. In last week’s episode, Grace Middleton’s internal struggle at the religious salvation of her previously violent drunk husband nicely pulled out the complexity of individual emotional responses vs the wider sense of what is “right” in the community, in a way that nicely captured the moral tensions and individual difficulties faced. Throughout, the harsh realities of rural life continually intersect with these themes, coming back to the basic facts of life and death on the farm, whilst recognising the wider forces that are shaping, and shaped by, the rural landscape.

The Village isn’t without its problems – it’s taking me a while to get on board with the Big House family and the obvious move to the “all is not as grand as it seems” theme that seems to preside over most of their story-lines – and it’s not without the occasional vision of “cheery villagers on the green”. But it’s nonetheless an important shift in the representation of rurality, and a welcome turn away from the simplified idyllic vision of the rural past towards something more closely evoking Eliot’s call for a vision of rural realism.

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