Simple tales of country folk

Her writing can be as brutal as Hardy, as sharply satirical as Thackeray. And, at long last, a wider readership is about to discover the little-known work of Mary Mann

There are not many grimmer stories in Victorian literature than
Little Brother. Set in a Norfolk village in the 1890s, no more than five pages in length, it 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.

There are not many grimmer stories in Victorian literature than Little Brother. Set in a Norfolk village in the 1890s, no more than five pages in length, it 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. 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."

And who, you might wonder, is responsible for this ghastly vignette from a bleak, fog-bound rural world without child allowances and decent sanitation? Thomas Hardy? George Moore? In fact, the author of Little Brother turns out to be not one of the great late-Victorian doom and gloom merchants, but an obscure farmer's wife named Mary Elizabeth Mann.

In the 70 years since her death in 1929, there have been various attempts to revive Mann's work, mostly by local publishing firms anxious to claim her as a "Norfolk writer". These efforts picked up in 1998, when AS Byatt was persuaded to include Little Brother in The Oxford Book of English Stories (Byatt described the piece as "plain, and brief, and clear and terrible", while noting that the narrative tone was far from simple: "she is recording, not judging, but her telling is spiky with morals and the inadequacy of morals".) Now Radio 4's Afternoon Story is devoting a week to Mann's oeuvre, a Dictionary of National Biography entry is in preparation, and there are plans for a one-woman show, featuring Patience Tomlinson, who will be reading the stories on air. Clearly, down in the vexed and crowded basement of late 19th century literary reputations, something is stirring.

Though chronically out of print (the most recent collection, Tales of Victorian Norfolk, was published by a tiny Suffolk imprint in the early 1990s), the stories are not hard to get hold of. Mary Mann herself is a much more elusive quarry. All that is really known of her prior to the appearance of her first novel, The Parish of Hilby in 1883, is that she was born 35 years before in Norwich, the daughter of a local merchant named William Simon Rackham, and at 23 married Fairman Joseph Mann, a substantial yeoman farmer whose land lay around the village of Shropham, near Reepham in south-west Norfolk.

In Shropham (rechristened "Dulditch" in her writings) lie the roots of Mann's career. As the owner and lessee of nearly 800 acres, Fairman Mann was a significant local figure: secretary and treasurer of the board of school managers and guardians and overseer of the poor. As well as looking after their four children, his wife was expected to devote herself to the life and wants of the parish. It is this first-hand observation of a community enmired in the 1880s agricultural depression that gives her best work its sheen. No one who reads her stories could doubt that, at some point, their author had seen a baby's corpse sprawled in the litter of a labourer's cottage, or watched "Wolf-Charlie", 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") at work breaking stones by the roadside.

In a literary life that extended well into the 20th century, Mann wrote nearly 40 novels and books of stories. Mostly set in the few square miles around Shropham, their point of view is usually 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 his wife's hobby soon became a important part of the family income.) Unsparing of middle-class pretensions - unsurprisingly, her favourite English novelist was Thackeray - she 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.

The Patten Experiment and The Parish Nurse (1903) were well received by contemporary critics (DH Lawrence was a fan), but her claim to lasting literary attention rests on the "Dulditch" stories. Mann wrote 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. What separates her work from that of a vengeful late-Victorian determinist like 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.

Perhaps half-a-dozen of Mann's voluminous output of stories are the equal of this. Like many another late Victorian, and doubtless for the best of reasons - among other things, she supported two daughters in their attempts to establish professional career - she wrote rather too much: the novels, seemingly written with one eye on the sensitivities of the contemporary reader, are really no more than period pieces. 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.

'Tales of Victorian Norfolk', read by Patience Tomlinson, will be broadcast on Radio 4 each afternoon from Monday to Friday at 3.45pm

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