Winter, 1860. Curate Richard Allen comes to lushly pastured Herefordshire. Sue Gee's historical romance reprises an epoch on the brink of the modern, when the Church still governs the parish and the family is sacrosanct - nominally. Ahead, as readers but not characters know, lie doubt, secularism, women's rights.
Richard is a deferential young man with almost no character. This does not tell against him. Every Victorian lass seems to have yearned for a curate's love: curates were, in fiction at least, women's men. They expressed Christ's tenderness for women, the poor and sick, without the mastery of the full-blown cleric.
Gee's gentle and restrained story celebrates the sanctity of the ordinary and the beauty of holiness. In a cynical age, such innocent writing is startling. Simplicity of heart and the hearth's pieties represent an ideal under threat. The sin-hating, wife-beating, lewdly Prosser; the woman outlawed by ecclesiastical courts; a curate enamoured of the dying vicar's wife: all manifest this threat. At the centre is the figure of a drowned, pregnant maidservant, trapped under ice, and the parable of "the woman taken in adultery".
This novel, categorically, ought not to work. It treats us to passages of Scripture and chunks of liturgy. The dialect characters ought to be shot ("Minna Davies! How be thee keeping this long time?"). The archaic theological conflicts have little sharpness. However, the novel transcends all this. Its clement and often sombre prose intelligently gratifies a taste for romance. The Marches countryside and homely interiors are Vermeer-ish. The relationship between husband and wife is the novel's most memorable aspect: the dignified cleric is reduced to childlike vulnerability as he enters into a consciousness of death.
Writing of surpassing beauty brings commonplace objects into clear, melancholy light. The quotidian "brass scales, a wedding present", which the vicar Bowen touches, line up like the children he never had, "the dishes balanced so perfectly upon their slender chains... the little dish swung and sank; its brother rose up to God". Without any fuss, Gee invokes the writing on the wall in Daniel, the parable of Dives and Lazarus, and the pregnant girl's "sinking" into river and damnation.
The 19th-century authors treated comparable themes more violently: think of Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter; or George Eliot's Scenes of Clerical Life. To their prophetic vision, we return with knowing nostalgia. Volcanic territory may leave an aftermath of the pastoral.
Gee, writing in a moment more apocalyptic than anything the Victorians dreamt of, conjures from their plight a gentle eros that thrills along an eyeline or in a tiny touch, an eye of sensitive, humane witness. The novel metaphorically trawls up the drowned girl and rehabilitates her, placing man's love of woman at the centre of its creed.
Stevie Davies's novel 'Kith & Kin' is published by Weidenfeld