Agrarian Trust

A Common Tale


by David Bollier

A Tragic Tale of Enclosure, Poetically Told

Thu, 05/29/2014 – 14:39

What does enclosure feel like from the inside, as a lived experience, as a community is forced to abandon its “old ways” and adopt the new worldview of Progress and Profit?  British author Jim Crace’s novel, Harvest, a finalist for the Man Booker Prize in 2013, provides a beautiful, dark and tragic story of the first steps of the “modernization” of a preindustrial English village.

The story focuses on a hamlet that is suddenly upended when the kindly lord of the settlement, Master Kent, discovers that his benign feudal control of a remote patch of farmland and forest has been lost to his scheming, cold-hearted cousin, Edmund Jordan.  Jordan is a proto-capitalist who has a secret plan to evict everyone and turn their fields into pastures for sheep.  He plans to become rich producing wool for the flourishing export market.  But Jordan can’t simply announce his planned dispossession of land lest it provoke resistance.  He realizes that he must act with stealth and subterfuge to take possession of the land and eradicate the community, its values and its traditions.

The story is essentially a tale of what happens when a capitalist order seeks to supplant a stable and coherent community.  But this states the narrative too crudely because the book is a gorgeously written, richly imagined account of the village, without even a hint of the ideological.  Told through the eyes of a character who came to the village twelve years earlier, the story doesn’t once mention the words “enclosure,” “capital” or “Marx.”  (Indeed, the Wall Street Journal’s reviewer praises the book for “brilliantly suggest[ing] the loamy, lyric glories of rustic English language and life.”)

Harvest depicts the sensuous experiences of a village community wresting its food from nature, but with relative peace and happiness.  “Our great task each and every year is to defend ourselves against hunger and defeat with implements and tools. The clamour deafens us. But that is how we have to live our lives,” the narrator tells us.  The book also shows how easily this world is shattered by a brutal outsider who uses fear and social manipulation to rip apart a community in order to install a new regime of efficiency, progress and personal gain.

The story is narrated by a character named Walter Thirsk – a play on the words “water thirst”? – who has access to most of the players in the drama.  Thirsk tells the reader:

When I first came to these vicinities I thought I’d discovered not quite paradise, but at least a fruitful opportunity – some honest freedom and some scope.  Some fertile soil!  I’d never known such giving land and sky.  I do remember my first week, and – still my master’s serving man – walking through the commons to the forest edge and not daring to go in, but touching everything.  I’d found a treasury.  I know I pushed my nose against a tree and was surprised by the ancient sweetness of the bark.

The author Chace does not prettify this rural commons, which lies a day’s walk away from the nearest town.  With lots of archaic English words, Chace describes the gritty daily lives of commoners as they manage their households, grow crops, make love, drink barley liquor and dispose of animal carcasses and human waste in the Turf and Turd dump. There are celebrated traditions, too, such as the selection of a young girl as “Gleaning Queen” at the end of the harvest.

One day a surveyor mysteriously arrives in town to draw maps of the entire village.  His maps provide an unfamiliar, abstract representation of a place that had previously only been known by experience.  The map is intended to help the new Master Jordan supplant the benign paternalism of Master Kent and convert the farmland commons into parcels of private property.

This is the beginning of a week-long nightmare as the cold-hearted Master Jordan takes possession of the manorial estate and common lands.  But how to evict the villagers from their ancient lands with the least blood spilled?  One strategy is the promise of wealth and leisure.  The narrator tells the reader how the new master promises a new world of capitalist paternalism:

“Now I am required to listen to a lecture on the principles of stewardship.  The province of a hundred people out of every one hundred and one is to take and not provide direction, he says.  He mentions Profit, Progress, Enterprise, as if they are his personal Muses.  Ours has been a village of Enough, but he proposes it will be a settlement of More, when finally he’s fenced and quickthorned all the land and turned everything – our fields, the commons, and ‘the wasted woods’ – into “gallant sheep country.”

The new Master Jordan’s scheme amounts to “a ‘simple quest,’ for a tidier pattern of living hereabouts which would assure a profit for those – he means himself – who have the ‘foresight.’” To Jordan, the whole scheme represents “the organization to all our advantages” and “the chance to start on a spotless sheet of parchment.”  This happy untruth papers over the actual cruelty and death needed to make the enclosure a reality.  It also ignores the loss of a way of life that was deeply satisfying, however “backward.”

The real power of Harvest is precisely in its poetic, immersive storytelling. The book is an artfully rendered account of what it probably felt like to live in a seventeenth century rural English commons, based on Chace’s extensive historical research, very lightly worn.  Harvest is absorbing and persuasive precisely because it so depicts a premodern world in richly human terms — and the plenitude that is stolen through enclosure.