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Susan Spray (1931)

by Sheila Kaye-Smith

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The eldest child of a Sussex farm labourer and his wife, from an early age Susan Spray is sent to earn her keep in the fields, her parents' dreams of an education for this strangely pretty and graceful daughter shattered by the brutal exigencies of life under the Corn Laws. At the age of six, Susan is caught in a terrifying thunderstorm while working in the fields, and commits the unforgiveable sin of deserting her post to run home. Confronted by her furious parents and imminent punishment, Susan blurts out that she has had a vision of God... The pleasant notoriety that Susan's experience earns her amongst the members of her parents' sect, the Colgate Brethren, is soon no more than a distant memory. Orphaned, the Spray children become inmates of a workhouse, finally separated when the two oldest girls, Susan and Tamar, are sent to labour on a farm. As Susan grows, so does her desire to escape "the common lot of women"; to be different, special; and, armed with tales of her visions and prophetic dreams, she pursues her ambition of being not just a member of the Colgate congregation, but its leader - a preacher...

Sheila Kaye-Smith is an author best known for her heartfelt tales of the Sussex countryside, and her love of her native soil pervades the early stages of her 1931 novel, Susan Spray, where the beauties of the natural world and the simple comfort of the soil itself acts as a balm even against the desperate, killing poverty of agricultural life in the 1830s. Indeed, a love of country life may ultimately be the one thing that this work's author and main character have in common. Susan Spray is a very interesting novel, but also a very uncomfortable one. There is a strange but unmistakable sense in this book that Sheila Kaye-Smith and her creation were at war with one another - and an even stranger sense that, in the end, Susan was the stronger of the two.

Although Kaye-Smith understands and depicts her title character with devastating acuteness, it does not seem that she is much in sympathy with Susan or her ambitions. And in fact, Susan is not an easy person to like: with her vanity, her egotism, her capacity for self-delusion and her paper-tiger jealousy of her sister Tamar, it would be easy enough for the reader to hope for and take pleasure in the various falls from grace that punctuate Susan's pursuit of leadership amongst her small religious community.

It is the man who will become Susan's second husband, Charles Clarabut, who provides the touchstone of Susan's character, finding it by accident during their first quarrel and separation, then returning to it deliberately, as a weapon, during the final meltdown of their marriage and their brutal, mutual deconstruction. I forgot how I first met you, travelling first class with a third-class ticket, which is what you've been going ever since, Susan throws at Charles, who retorts with the single word that above all others, cuts Susan to her very soul: humbug. And clearly, Susan is a humbug. Her religiously-tinged dreams are real enough, but her interpretation of them is entirely self-serving; the "visions" with which she impresses and frightens the Brethren are always wonderfully convenient; and her goal of leadership in her community is far more about her own aggrandisement than about serving God.

But time has been curiously kind to Susan Spray. We get the impression, in reading, that Sheila Kaye-Smith disapproved of Susan's dogged determination to avoid "the common lot of women", or perhaps considered it an impossible dream: she depicts sexuality here as a negative force that must inevitably drag a woman down to earth. But Susan herself won't accept this - and her furious cry to an uncomprehending world, why should it matter that she is woman and not a man, resonates today in a way that Kaye-Smith can hardly have anticipated. Consequently, modern readers may well be inclined to look more kindly than they were intended to upon Susan's "unwomanly" ambitions, and even the ruthless, sometimes dishonest means that she adopts to achieve them. Whatever else we doubt about Susan, we cannot doubt her perception: though a woman, low-born and incompletely educated, she unerringly identifies the one path in life that will allow her to escape her alternative fate - and clings to it. There is, as I have said, a strange sense in this novel of an ongoing battle for dominance between author and character; and while Sheila Kaye-Smith does deliver one final, stunning blow, it is unlikely that the reader will be sorry that Susan nevertheless gets her moment in the sun.
5 vote lyzard | Jan 27, 2012 |
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Susan Spray was born at Copthorne on the Surrey and Sussex borders, in the year 1834.
Susan Spray is a remarkable novel by a writer who deserves resurrection: Sheila Kaye-Smith, once celebrated as the "Sussex novelist", and now almost forgotten. (Introduction)
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"Susan dreamed a strange dream. . . She had a curious sensation of being mistress of the world and of the suns, and she seemed to hear herself saying over and over again triumphantly, 'I am my own--I am my own.'"

Born in 1834, Susan is the eldest daughter of a poor Sussex field labourer, Adam Spray, and his wife Ruth. Her large family belongs to the Colgate Brethren, an obscure religious sect which takes Susan to its bosom the day she declares, at the age of six, that she's seen the Lord. But the Spray children are soon orphaned; thrown helpless upon the world Susan and her younger sister, Tamara, find themselves working on a Sussex farm. Tamara spends her time in dalliance with young men, while for Susan, destined to become a preacher, the Ten Commandments, the Burning Bush and Ezekiel's temple are her daily--and nightly--fare. Yet Susan can sin and fall in love like any mortal; and when she does it is as glorious as a vision of God and his cherubim, and as consuming as the fires of hell.
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