When the Dorset poet and autodidact William Barnes died in 1886, his obituary in the Saturday Review, read: “There is no doubt that he is the best pastoral poet we possess, the most sincere, the most genuine, the most theocritan; and that the dialect is but a very thin veil hiding from us some of the most delicate and finished verse written in our time.”
Barnes was not just a poet able to spin beautiful verses, but a man whose commitment and love of the Dorset dialect went against the literary establishment’s fashion for ‘Standard English’ (which itself took off apace following the publication of Adam Smith’s ‘Lectures of Rhetoric and Belle Lettres’ a century or so earlier). In putting together his invaluable Glossary of Dorset Dialect, he demonstrated that he was that rare thing among 19th – and even most 20th – century writers; one who understood that the language and dialect of a place, of where a person comes from, plays such an important part in shaping a human life.
Author Andy Charman makes no secret of the fact that Barnes’s Glossary… helped in the creation of his debut novel Crow Court (Unbound). This episodic collection of interconnected tales brings to life the small community of Wimborne Minster – a village nestled in the heart of Victorian Dorset.
Through these tales, Charman transports us back to the past, as we see the people of Wimborne Minster react to the aftermath of a choirboy’s suicide and the violent death of the choirmaster. While some of the language is modern, the book is drenched in Dorset life, and frequently enriched by the authentic dialogue and dialect in which the book’s characters converse. This helps make for a genuine sense that the novel we are reading is absolutely real and believable, as Charman brings to life those invisible moments and experiences that are lost to all but those who experience them directly.
That the novel is episodic could mean those looking for a traditionally plotted novel might find themselves confused – lost in the intricacies of different characters and their stories. Yet we are at all times centred and grounded on two things: the pull of the Dorset countryside (and the village of Wimborne Minster itself), and our author’s charming presence leading us forward through the stories. Indeed, more often than not, Charman’s writing instincts lead in the right direction. He transforms revelations into cliffhangers – picks out characters for further exploration who allow us to more fully appreciate what it means to be a part of this 19th century village community. In a way, he is the prime village gossip – weaving together the private tales of the villagers and drawing you close to reveal their secrets to you (perhaps over a pint at The World’s End).
Indeed, this sense of gossip and secrets means that the pages of Crow Court deliver tender, close-up intimacy. But they also deliver a great sweep of history. The book does so, not through the backdrop of great historic battles or by trotting around the then-swollen British Empire, but by focusing on the small moments that take place in a small village (and occasionally on board a ship out at sea). Through the prism of Wimborne Minster, we see the drastic changes caused by industrialisation – perfectly captured in the reaction of a character seeing a steam train arrive in the village for the first time. And the reaches of the Empire and colonialism are felt in the conversations and ideas characters share; for instance, the thought of fleeing the reach of the law by joining the British army in India (we’ve all been there).
Charman has a gift for nimble interior monologues and a superb ear for the varieties and vagaries of human speech. It’s often the interior questions that his characters ask themselves that stand out most strongly; “What does God owe you now?” one asks as Crow Court moves to its conclusion. It’s a question that hangs in the air, as well as on the pages of the novel, as though we had asked it ourselves.
- Crow Court is published by Unbound https://unbound.com/books/crow-court/ and is available to buy through all good bookstores now