A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Norman Nicholson (‘NN’) is best known for his poetry, but his poetry is in a way just the distillation of a lifetime of all kinds of literary output, from book reviewing and broadcasting through topographical guidebooks, stage plays and carol and song lyrics to two, published, full-length novels.
This piece focuses on his novels, which date from the mid-1940s, when NN was a youngish man of around 30. The Fire of the Lord was the first to be published, in 1944, followed by The Green Shore, in 1947.
Now long out of print and largely overlooked if not forgotten, even by literary academics and NN enthusiasts, these novels glimmered only briefly in the world of published fiction and quickly faded away.
Even NN himself seems to have virtually disowned them in later life.
I’d suggest, though, that they are still very much worth seeking out and reading. Although they are both rather in the genre of ‘kitchen sink’ dramas, as opposed to anything grander or more wide-ranging in scope, they are nonetheless reasonably gripping stories in their own right. In addition, they represent hugely interesting (albeit thinly-disguised) portraits of NN as a young man and, as such, reveal something of the foundations which underpinned his more-acclaimed poetry and stage drama.
The characters of both novels are humble working-class young inhabitants of the small coastal industrial town of Odborough – very obviously representing the real town of Millom, in southwest Cumbria, which grew (or was rapidly thrown) up around the mining of rich deposits of haematite iron ore and its smelting in giant blast furnaces.
For those unfamiliar with Millom, start by imagining all the grimy and unlovely terraced back-to-backs of Coronation Street incongruously transplanted into a remote coastal estuary hidden between the high mountains of the English Lake District and the sweeping expanses of the Irish Sea. In its heyday in the mid 19th and early 20th centuries, Millom was a boom town that sucked in a very mixed population of industrial workers from all over Britain and Ireland, but it’s now something of a decaying, anachronistic, bygone relic; still a discrete, significant community but, inhabited mainly by people who can seem somewhat isolated, insular and impoverished.
NN himself was a son of Millom in its heyday; his own father derived a reasonable living from clothing much of the town from his small men’s outfitters shop in St George’s Terrace. NN grew up with and was educated alongside the children of farmhands and miners and ironworks labourers, but was soon recognized as being uniquely and extraordinarily gifted, intellectually. University, followed by a teaching (or similar) career beckoned for the young teenaged NN, but he developed tuberculosis of the larynx and his family had little choice but to place him in a TB Sanatorium in rural Hampshire, where he was confined to a bed, virtually in an open field, for fifteen months during which he was forbidden to speak, other than in a whisper.
During this timeNN seems to have devoured and digested most of the ‘standard’ canon of English Literature. He referred later in life to this enforced teenage exile from Millom as ‘my university’ and it doubtless widened his intellectual and social and lifestyle horizons, to the extent that his eventual discharge and return (still in a pretty delicate state of health) to the very different environment of Millom and his family came as a considerable shock to the still-teenaged NN.
This (the early 1930s) is where NN’s late-flowering (not published until 1975, when NN was in his 50s) autobiography ‘Wednesday Early Closing’ rather abruptly ends, but his novels must have emerged from this subsequent stage in his adult life (as did his first steps in published poetry) and represent some of the only surviving clues as to how the adolescent NN eventually came to make sense of his life in Millom, both socially and spiritually.
Turning to the actual novels, the first – The Fire of the Lord – emerged in the latter part of the war in 1944, and the second – The Green Shore – in 1947.
By then, NN’s love life had involved firstly his very close friend since childhood – and another academically-gifted schoolmate – Bessie Satterthwaite, who did eventually tread the conventional path to university. This relationship (for reasons as yet unknown) ended and he began another with a school teacher from well beyond Millom, named Enrica Garnier, to whom his first book of poems, Five Rivers [1944, Faber and Faber] was dedicated. However, this relationship too was later to fizzle out.
The two novels are very similar indeed in theme and technique, as well as in style.
Both have allegorical, symbolic, Christian themes. The former concerns both the cleansing, fertility-restoring nature of Pentecostal Fire and Biblical verses relating to Elijah’s sacrifice at I Kings 18 verse 38, whilst the latter uses as its epigraph a William Morris poem, A Garden by the Sea, and specifically the lines
Dark shore no ship has ever seen,
Tormented by the billows green
Whose murmur comes unceasingly
Unto the place for which I cry.
For which I cry both day and night,
For which I let slip all delight,
That maketh me both deaf and blind,
Careless to win, unskilled to find
And quick to lose what all men seek.
NN’s two novels are so similar that in many respects they form a seamless saga of the lives and loves and spiritual journeys of selected inhabitants of Odborough/Millom. At the same time they recount closely and vividly life in a small, industrial community.
And, quite unlike NN’s poems and other writings, both of the novels positively throb with passion.
NN’s fictional male and female characters are attracted like magnets to one another; those so attracted indulge in sensual TOUCHING, no less – electric and thrilling touches between elbows and forearms or other ordinarily-innocuous bodily appendages, but sometimes in moments of intensity going so far as to involve the groping of bosoms, etc. Tame to contemporary tastes all surely very seriously sexy stuff for the 1940s?
However, these basic urges clash inevitably with the protagonists’ religious faith and moral principles – a challenging scenario, indeed, and one which the young NN must have experienced acutely himself.
The Fire of the Lord, in a far less raunchy but otherwise similar way, anticipated by a decade or so the small-town goings-on of, for example, Peyton Place. It focuses on two interlocking love-triangles. One involves Maggie Birker, a middle-aged but nonetheless comely small businesswoman, who runs a successful bakery from her home, supplying bread and pies and cakes to the townsfolk. Maggie had married when very young a much older man, Benjamin Fell, who not long afterwards experienced a conversion into a total nonconformist Christian religious zealot and walked out on his young wife Maggie and his Odborough home in order to become an itinerant preacher. Many years passed with no contact whatsoever, so Benjy was eventually presumed dead, and Maggie took up with and married Jim Birker, a skilled patternmaker by trade, and a lot younger than Maggie, employed in the nearby industrial centre of ‘Furness’ (Barrow), whom Maggie placed firmly under her thumb. Jim lost himself in his (shift) work and while he and Maggie lived under the same roof they led separate lives, spiritually.
Maggie employs a young girl, Elsie Holliwell, who is disabled (deaf) and a devout Anglican churchgoer. Elsie and Jim move from a relationship of mutual indifference to one of intimacy and passion, as a result both of their affinity as young people and Jim’s dissatisfaction with Maggie.
Meanwhile, Maggie’s first husband, Benjy, returns to the town and to the farm where he was brought up, which has since been bought by the Odborough Ironworks Company, in order to tip blast furnace slag on its land. Benjy’s family farmhouse has fallen into dereliction, but he clandestinely moves himself into it, and immediately makes a nuisance of himself with the town policeman (a bumbling character who is the comic relief of the book but who also lusts after Maggie), by raising fires, etc (this is set in wartime, so there were strict blackout rules in force).
‘Old Benjy’ is passed-off by Maggie as the uncle of her first husband, and he goes along with the subterfuge, but proclaiming all the while that ‘the fire of the Lord’ must consume and purify all the dross before new life and fertility can begin to grow. This Biblical and prophetic ‘Green’ theme, relating in particular to responsible land use and the perils of greedy, intensive farming practices, is echoed very frequently in NN’s later works, such as in his successful play, The Old Man of the Mountains.
The novel is set in darkness – during the blackout and in the dark winter months of the year – whilst the characters symbolically strive each in their own way to find a route through their personal darkness and into the light, exemplified by the fire of the Lord.
Elsie and Jim ultimately become an item, (but not without much soul-searching on Elsie’s part), whilst Benjy (appropriately and symbolically) meets his end cremated by the fiery slag as it is being tipped upon his ancestral lands.
Benjy’s fiery death has repercussions. Jim’s marriage to Maggie wasn’t lawful or valid, given that Benjy had been still alive then, so he and Elsie are freed to pursue their lives together but, significantly, the book closes with Jim suggesting that they start a new life together ‘somewhere where nobody knows us’. A lyrical, descriptive passage follows, packed with vivid images of Nature and the earth’s fertility, fulfilling community life and even resurrection. Elsie, witnessing all this, firmly declines to go away.
Elsie’s fictionalized thoughts of course very much mirror NN’s personal mission never to leave Millom, and his reasons for valuing ‘belonging’ and being a part of a universal plan. Later, in a periodical article, he expressed this overtly:-
‘The universe is not just a huge mechanical coffee-grinder, ticking over and over without aim or purpose. It works to a pattern; it works to a plan. And part of the sheer enjoyment of being among mountains comes from our sometimes feeling swept up in the plan, where every end is a new beginning and every death a new birth.’
The Green Shore similarly has a young and passionate, but disabled, central character (this time with a leg iron), in the form of Alice Dale, as well as a strange, older and prophetic figure who shuns conventional society. This is in Anthony Pengwilly (‘Old Pen’,) who lives in the old lighthouse by the wide and gleaming ocean, and replaces Old Benjy in his dark and desolate slagbank. Anthony’s chosen hermetic ways are challenged by his swelling affection for Alice, and similarly, Alice herself has to reconcile her own deep religious and spiritual principles and society’s conventions with her stirring and compelling personal passion.
Concurrently there’s another love story playing out, in the form of Alice’s ambivalent relationship with a fellow-adolescent suitor, in the form of Alan Grisebeck.
These growing passions are subtly drawn and closely observed, always in the context of the grand and sweeping landscape in which the novel is set, all the way to the dramatic conclusion.
The wider world outside Odborough also features, via Alice’s excursion with her pals in the back of a motor van, to ‘Blackport’ Music Festival (obviously the seaport Whitehaven, further up the coast) and mention of ‘Burnet Scales’, otherwise the nearby little Victorian seaside resort of Seascale.
Professor Philip Gardner, a lifelong admirer of NN’s works, has mentioned that NN had originally intended to call The Green Shore (for obvious reasons) No Man is an Island, but the title got used up elsewhere.
To conclude, a critical appraisal of NN’s novels cannot realistically acclaim them as being in any way blockbusters or masterpieces – they are indeed flawed and, in parts, rather heavy-handedly over-written; but I’d contend that they don’t deserve their present, almost total, obscurity. They are significant signposts to NN’s further personal and literary development and, on another level, are in their own right well-plotted and well-written sagas of small town life, which I’m sure a present-day script or screenplay writer could transform into compelling drama.