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Passion and Cruelty in Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans [book review]

Turf or Stone is an “amazing, fantastical, invigorating reading experience” according to Kate Gramich in her foreword to the Library of Wales edition of  Margiad Evans’s novel. 

That was a long way from my experience. I find it hard to accept that such a dark, troubling and uncomfortable novel about the extremes of human emotion could be invigorating. Passion, violence and cruelty are ever present, with only a few moments of unexpected tenderness to lighten the darkness. 

We’re only a few pages into the book when this becomes evident. Mary Bicknor, a servant cum companion to an eccentric lady, is to be married. She has hitherto enjoyed a comfortable existence but falls from grace when she discovers she is pregnant by Easter Probert, a groom at a local farm.  The vicar hurriedly pushes the pair into marriage. But this is a relationship clearly doomed never to work. 

Disastrous Start to Marriage

The bride cries all the way through the marriage service. There are no witnesses or guests. Mary is presentably dressed but Easter turns up in old and dirty clothes. He’s forgotten a ring so at the last moment has to take a thick twisted one from his hand that is far too big for the woman. On their way home, he snatches the ring back and pushes her over into the mud

Easter continues to be a cruel husband. He’s a serial womaniser who takes pleasure in hurting and humiliating his wife. Mary is driven to despair. She contemplates suicide but finds comfort instead in an affair with her husband’s employer, a married man with three children. She applies for a legal separation order so she and her young son can start a new life away from both men. The novel ends with Easter on the receiving end of a form of poetic justice. 

A Monstrous Womaniser

n Easter, Margiad Evans has devised a protagonist who has few redeeming qualities. He is sullen, insolent and brutish. Appropriately Easter is described repeatedly in nightmarish, animalistic terms. When his employer’s daughter Phoebe hears him knocking the door one night, she’s confronted with the grotesque vision of a man peering through the window looking “livid, the upper teeth were showing and a large spider’s web, really on the inside, seemed at that distance to be hanging from his mouth. 

Enough to give you the creeps. Yet he has no trouble persuading women into his bed. He seems to have a strange and perplexing hold on them; they recognise the danger he presents and are repelled by him but they still don’t walk away.

Moral Complexity

However much he bears a resemblance to some brooding Gothic figure, Easter is not a caricature. Evans invests him with moral complexity, particularly in his relationship to women. We’re told he “loved women who were sad and gentle, and suffered him,” That word “suffer” is central to understanding his constant swings swings between sexual desire and hatred, between a desire to be loved and violence when he isn’t. 

He’s hoping that Mary will be kind towards him but when she doesn’t “suffer” him, he takes revenge in brutish behaviour. One of the most terrible scenes in the novel takes place when his wife is five months pregnant. He comes home with “a surprise”: a dead rat he puts into her bed.

And he pushed it deeper and deeper into her flesh, till, hanging round his neck, she dragged herself up, and with the poisonous little carcass crushed between them, seized him by the ear and tugged.They struggled furiously in the darkness.He did not strike her; he half carried, half dragged her across the room and poured a jug of water over her head. 

The details are horrific. Told that the “rats eyes are running, there are flies’ eggs in the fur, the tail’s half off,” Mary crawls away “like a thrashed animal in snarling despair” to cower with her face against the wall. The scene ends with Easter swamped by ‘voluptuous tenderness’ sleeping with her in his arms. 

Childhood Influences

Turf or Stone suggests the reason for his Easter’s appalling cruelty lies in his neglected childhood. Which created in him a deep seated desire for human warmth. I’m no psychologist but can’t see how violence will get him what he most desires. Even if I understood his motivation, it didn’t make me warm to him in any way, particularly when you see the predatory way he creeps around his employer’s fifteen year old daughter. 

This is a novel thick with misery and strife. Too much of it really for me to enjoy. If it had come with more light and shade, and if we’d been given more access to Mary’s side of the relationship, I think I would been more interested. I’d been looking forward to reading this having heard for years about Margiad Evans but in the end it was a disappointment.

Turf or Stone by Margiad Evans: Endnotes

Margiad Evans

Margiad Evans was the pseudonym of Peggy Eileen Whistler who though born in England developed a lifelong affinity with the Marches, the area on the English/Welsh border.

She became aquainted with this part of the world when she was a child and visited her aunt and uncle’s farm near Ross on Wye. Her family moved to a house just outside Ross when she was aged 12. After her marriage she went to live on a nearby farm.

Margiad Evans wrote extensively throughout her life: novels, short stories, autobiography and poems. She kept a journal, often written on scraps of paper or in exercise books. After her death her husband Michael Williams donated many of her letters, journals and diaries to the National Library of Wales.

Turf or Stone was her third novel, published in 1936.

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