Among the leading figures of the British storytelling revival, Hugh Lupton is one very worthy of ecocritical attention. Shows such as On Common Ground (performed with Chris Wood) and The Liberty Tree (performed with Nick Hennessey) passionately engage with the history of dissent and land politics in England. His first novel, The Ballad of John Clare, expands to book length On Common Ground’s tale of the young Clare’s doomed love for Mary Joyce amidst the onset of enclosure.
In the stage show Lupton explicitly equates the external landscape with Clare’s own inscape, so when the peasant-poet is alienated from the land by enclosure he is at the same time driven ‘out of his mind’. The novel, on the other hand, does not take us beyond the genesis of his poetic genius and his madness as two halves of the same seed of potential. It’s narrated in a rhythmic oral voice deploying, like Clare, elements of dialect syntax and vocabulary, and from an external, highly visualised perspective that only glancingly dips inside the characters’ consciousness. An enigmatic narrative ‘I’ is briefly introduced at the beginning; only the revelation of this narrator’s identity on the final page allows us, in a satisfying gestalt, to make sense of the metaphysical relationship between the system of perspective and Clare’s mind.
Using a carefully deployed set of characters, Lupton shows the differential effects of enclosure for different strata of the community. The big landowners get richer. Middling ones, like Mary’s father, do okay. Small-time farmers go bankrupt because of the cost of fencing their allocation. Day labourers, like Clare, get work doing the fencing for the landowners, but are then deprived of resources they once took from the commons to supplement their meagre wages. Squatters on the commons get moved on, their homes burnt down. Gypsies are eliminated. Trees are felled and streams straightened into dykes: ‘With every stroke of iron to timber there is a sudden veering in the flight of a bird; a sudden start in the winter-sleep of badger, hedgehog, mole; a sudden shift in the deep droning note of bees in their skeps against the church wall’ (167).
The consequences are not just economic. Enclosure obstructs access to the merestones marking the parish boundary that’s traditionally walked on Rogation Sunday. The break-up of the big shared fields makes agricultural work less sociable. Lupton thickens his story of enclosure and Clare and Mary’s romance by means of an encyclopaedic presentation of folk culture: hunting, harvesting, shearing, music, morris plays, the fair, superstitions, folk medicine, seasonal ceremonies and games. He doesn’t glamorise the hardship of rustic toil; he conveys how this unlettered community possessed a sophisticated culture, that bound the community together and to the ecosystem they inhabited, and that all this will be swept away by a reorganisation of land use motivated by the greed of the rich for more wealth at the expense of the poor and the wild. Let the reader judge what that says to England today, exactly two hundred years since the year the story is set.
First published in Green Letters, No. 15, 2011