The Ballad of John Clare

Written by Hugh Lupton
Review by Sally Zigmond

Very little is known about the early life of John Clare, the ‘peasant poet’ who was a contemporary of Keats and Shelley. But he was born into the poverty of the life of an agricultural labourer, and his life, filled with disappointment, ended in insanity.

Hugh Lupton uses his deep knowledge of traditional English country life, with reference to Clare’s poetry and from what little is known about his early life, to pen a sensitive and lyrical novel. His style is poetic and, once one falls in with the deliberate archaism of the style, it sweeps one along.

Lupton follows the church and farming calendar of one single year. It begins on Rogation Day 1811 and ends on the same day the following year. Although the regular cycle of events and customs seem eternal, beneath the surface lies disruption and hardship. The common lands are being enclosed which, as we now know, marked the end of this way of life. Those who already own land—from the landed gentry down to the comfortable yeomen farmers—were able to acquire more, and those who had little or nothing were made poorer, displaced and moved on, many to the new factories: part of the Industrial Revolution that changed England for ever.

This novel has the feel of early Thomas Hardy about it. Despite the harsh weather, hardships and hunger, the depictions of the country life, its festivals and customs, are just a little bit too rosy for me. And although it isn’t all maypoles and harvest suppers (for instance, a gypsy lad is falsely accused of attempted murder) the overall tone is one where the farming poor are noble and the landowners weak and grasping. I’m sure the reality was somewhat more complex.

Nevertheless, I thoroughly enjoyed this engaging novel.