By Haydn Brown.
According to DJ Taylor in ‘Simple Tales of Country Folk’, published in The Independent as far back as 7 October 2000, Mary Elizabeth Mann’s writings “can be as brutal as Hardy, and as sharply satirical as Thackeray”. To illustrate her point, she states that there were not many grimmer stories in Victorian literature than ’, a book set in a Norfolk village in the 1890s and no more than five pages in length’. This story describes the visit of a well-meaning spinster to a philoprogenitive farm labourer’s wife who has just given birth to a stillborn thirteenth child. After commiserating with the mother, her visitor asks if she can see the corpse. This turns out to have vanished from the cradle. Venturing downstairs, the woman finds Mrs Hodd’s brood of children playing with what, at first sight, looks like a rather battered doll. This in itself would probably be enough to send shivers down the average 21st century spine. But what gives the story an even sharper tug, perhaps, is the dreadful laconicism of the final paragraph. Mrs Hodd, mildly rebuked for allowing this desecration, is unmoved:
“Other folkes’ child’en have a toy, now and then, to kape ’em out o’mischief. My little uns han’t,” she says. “He’ve kep’ ’em quite [quiet] for hours, the po’r baby have; and I’ll lay a crown they han’t done no harm to their little brother.”
Who, you might wonder, was responsible for this ghastly description from a bleak rural world where there was no child allowances and decent sanitation? Thomas Hardy? George Moore? – No! In fact, the author of ‘Little Brother’ turns out to be an obscure farmer’s wife named Mary Elizabeth Mann, an elusive person to say the least, who lived in Norfolk.
All that is really known of Mary Mann (nee’ Rackman) is that she was born in Norwich in 1846, the daughter of a local merchant named William Simon Rackham. In 1871, at the age of 23, she married Fairman Joseph Mann, a substantial yeoman farmer whose land lay around the village of Shropham in Norfolk; a village laying near to Attleborough on the edge of the Breckland and not far from the Gallows Hill interchange with the modern A11, but with the water meadows of the young River Thet keeping today’s world at arm’s length.
Mary and Fairman Mann lived first at Church Farm in Low Road Shropham, Norfolk and after a few years moved to Manor Farm, or otherwise known as City Farm, which lay on the Rocklands Road in Shropham. The manor had been the Mann family home for several previous generations. Sometimes unoccupied and frequently let, the Manor became the home of Fairman and Mary Mann. They must have been, in practice, like a Squire and his wife in many an East Anglian tale. Fairman, as the owner and lessee of nearly 800 acres, was a significant local figure – churchwarden, parish guardian, secretary and treasurer of the board of school managers and guardian and overseer of the poor. Mary, as well as looking after their four children of one son and three daughters, was expected to support her husband by also devoting herself to the life and wants of the parish; to visit the workhouse and care for the poor. This transition of hers after marriage, from town to country, affected her greatly and was to prove hugely influential in her future writing; for that’s what she became – an author.
Mary Mann took up writing in the 1880s with the guidance of an in-law relative named Thomas Fairman Ordish and her first novel, ‘The Parish of Hilby’ (1883) began a career that was to last some 35 years. During this time, she produced over 40 works, all of which focused on the experiences of Norfolk yeoman farmers during the late 19th century’s agricultural and economic upheaval. Shropham (rechristened “Dulditch” in her writings) was to be the bedrock of Mann’s career. Her books were generally set in the few square miles around her village of Shropham; the books’ themes would usually be that of the yeoman farmer who both owned and rented land and, as such, was badly affected by the agricultural downturn. Fairman Mann himself was a casualty, and Mary’s writing hobby was soon to become an important part of the family’s income – at a time when the condition of the Norfolk working class was at its worst for half a century:
“…. a squalid vista of roofless cottages and families sleeping 10 to a bed, where the death of a baby in childbirth was looked on as an act of divine mercy.”
Unsparing of middle-class pretensions, Mary combined a satirical turn with a profound sympathy for the distressed rural poor: ‘The Patten Experiment‘ (1899), for example, one of her best novels, covers the efforts of a clergyman and his family to live on the 11 shillings a week that was the standard 1890s farmworker’s wage. Both that book and ‘The Parish Nurse’ (1903) were well received by contemporary critics, but her claim to lasting literary attention rests on the “Dulditch” stories.
It is her first-hand observations of Shropham’s community, enmeshed in the agricultural depression of the 1880’s, that gave her best work its quality. Anyone today reading her stories could not doubt that Mary Mann, at some point in her life, had seen a baby’s corpse sprawled somewhere in a labourer’s cottage, or watched “Wolf-Charlie” at work breaking stones by the roadside; he the protagonist of one of her best pieces:
“He is called Wolf-Charlie, I suppose, by reason of the famished look in his melancholy eyes, of the way in which the skin of his lips, drawn tightly over his gums, exposes his great yellow teeth; by reason of the leanness of his flanks, the shaggy, unkempt hair about his head and face, the half fierce, half frightened expression”
Mary Mann was once one of the most popular English Novelists. Her books were frequently re-printed, several appeared in various popular series and 18 were listed in the standard bibliography “A Guide to the Best Fiction” in 1920. But because of the general reaction against things Victorian and Edwardian at the time, her reputation suffered and her books became neglected.
Again, according to DJ Taylor in her article of 2000:
“What separates [Mary Mann’s] work from that of Hardy is its absolute matter-of-factness. “Elly” in Ben Pitcher’s Elly, who murders her illegitimate child, is not a sacrificial lamb picked out of the flock by some malign instrument of destiny: Mann lets her stay ordinary, and as a result the portrait has an awful, glamour-free conviction. Her psychological touch, too, can be extraordinarily deft. Dora o’ the Ringolets features a flaxen-headed peasant girl whose chief anxiety is that her mother’s impending death will leave no one to arrange the hair that distinguishes her from her lumpish class-mates and monkey-faced brother. When Mrs Green dies, her husband blows some of the burial club money on the luxury of a tin of salmon (“Happen she’d been alive, she’d maybe ha’ picked a mossel,” he reasons). Proceeding upstairs he finds his wife’s body covered by a mass of shorn-off curls and a crop-haired child sprawled across her breast. The father takes time to recognise his daughter. “I thought yu was the boy Jim,” he mutters.
The best of the “Dulditch” tales, though, are unlike anything else in Victorian literature – hard-eyed, sympathetic, direct, unyielding. Some enterprising publisher ought now to take it into his head to reissue a proper collection of the work of this writer who, at the very least, can certainly be marked down as Thomas Hardy’s East Anglian cousin.”
After her husband’s death in 1913, Mary Mann moved to Sheringham where, in 1929, she died aged 80. Her grave is in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul, Shropham and bears the epitaph:
“We bring our years
To an end
As it were a tale
That is told”
In the 90 years since Mary Mann’s death, her work has undergone re-evaluation and there have been various attempts to republish, mostly by local firms anxious to claim her as a “Norfolk writer”. Those who have championed the cause in recent years have been local personalities such as Keith Skipper and author D.J. Taylor (quoted in this blog). Then there has been the fictionalised version of Shropham ‘The Parish of Hilby’ which was published by the Larks Press early in the millennium; with some of her stories having appeared in ‘Dead Men Talking’ – published by Black Dog Books and edited, again, by D. J. Taylor. Though chronically out of print, the most recent collection, of ‘Tales of Victorian Norfolk’, was published by a tiny Suffolk imprint in the early 1990’s. Clearly, Mary Mann’s work has been rediscovered as a major contributor to East Anglian literature, championed among others by A. S. Byatt, who in 1998 included her story ‘Little Brother’ in The Oxford Book of English Short Stories. In 2005 Eastern Angles Theatre Company used a collection of her characters and stories to create a new play ‘A Dulditch Angel’, directed by Orla O’Loughlin and written by Steven Canny.
Here is a list of some of Mary Mann’s works – which totalled over 40:
THE PARISH OF HILBY (1883), her first novel.
THE EGLAMORE PORTRAITS
ROSE AT HONEYPOT
THE PATTEM EXPERIMENT
A LOST ESTATE
THE PARISH NURSE
MRS PETER HOWARD. A winter’s tale
ONE ANOTHER’S BURDENS
THE MATING OF A DOVE
THE FIELDS OF DULDITCH
AMONG THE SYRINGAS
THE CEDAR STAR
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