I wondered if A Country Wife by Lucy Pinney would be too redolent of its origins in the pages of The Times for me, but it made quite a satisfying, if fast, read. Her writing romps along in ebullient fashion, once past the first chapter, which sounded much too like a Katie Fforde novel for comfort and made me wonder if I'd made a mistake. Would this true story of a young women who leaves a job in the city to marry a farmer be a catalogue of complaint about the isolation, the unbearable eccentricities of the locals, the mud, the closeknit nature of farming families, the demands of livestock? All are indeed there, but complaint is absent. The author is not smugly heroic in her reaction to these various vicissitudes, and it would be a stony reader who failed to empathise with her pain when they discover that their tenancy of the farm they have struggled to run is illegal, and that both farm and stock must be relinquished. Elements of the novel remain, in the feckless in laws responsible for the fiasco which leaves the young couple homeless, the hauntings, even perhaps the ultimate bathos of the unfaithful husband and broken marriage, but I am too painfully aware that families are like that.
The animals, of course, are endlessly engaging; Samb, the handreared sheep, with whom Lucy is happy to curl up in the sun "in a tangle of arms (and legs, and hooves)", the sow brought in to dig the garden, who stops when she has dug herself a bed, the various (inevitable) dogs, and horses. The children, too, come across as people in their own right. Perhaps the most amorphous picture is of the husband, Charlie, whose abstractions, motives and eventual absence are simply too alien to comprehend. Battling with grief at her abandonment, Lucy must also keep livestock fed and cared for until they can be sold.
The final section of the book deals with Lucy's picking up of the pieces against a background of the last foot-and-mouth epidemic in 2001. As a columnist for The Times she was aware of the already calamitous state of farming in Britain, and she writes sensitively of the agonies that farmers went through with the destruction of their animals and the loss of their livelihoods. I found this part of the book particularly painful, remembering too well the anxiety of that time. Nonetheless, the book ends on an upbeat note (and a small victory for morris dancers!)
It will be interesting to compare this book with my other "farming" read, I Bought a Mountain. That is also - though not overtly - a book about a farmer leaving his wife, though in Firbank's case his wife not only became famous for her prowess as a sheepfarmer, but also for her defence of the local landscape. Even with my re-reading of Firbank incomplete, I can see parallels - particularly in the depiction of the other inhabitants: it's hard not to paint the locals as "characters", even if it's done with understanding and affection. This will be the subject of further posts.