A fictional review of Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton

This book review is intended as a homage to Thorpe’s inspirational historical novel, and is offered in a spirit of experimentation and playfulness.

Laura Sangha

16 June, windy. Email quiet. This day began Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton (1992). Have heard v good things from M. Hailwood, and Hilary Mantel ‘Sometimes you forget that it is a novel, and believe for a moment that you are really hearing the voice of the dead’. Is historical fiction: social history of West Country English village across 300 yrs, each chapter different style and set in different yrs chronologically.

19 June, rain, windy, cat sick all over blue rug. Discovered original meaning of word ‘broadcasting’ from Ulver (pre-radio, telly and Wi-Fi) – OED has: to scatter (seed, etc.) abroad with the hand; examples are (romantically) ‘They sow the barley, spraining the first half, and broad-casting the second.’ [1807 A. Young Gen. View Agric. Essex I. vii. 333] or (sniggeringly) ‘It is preferable to broadcast the guano’. [1846 Jrnl. Royal Agric. Soc. 7 ii. 591]. Wonder when that would ever be preferable.

25 June, dry, but slugs have taken over garden: all pansies eaten. 1689 chapter of Ulver is styled as sermon, interesting but bit ‘busman’s holiday’. Excellently researched so far, am completely convinced, but not that enthralled.

30 June, dry. Arthur from next door gave me some rhubarb: roasted with sugar. Ulver continues good, diary-style chapter exploring continuity/change, fertility of land/women: mix of dull impenetrable (to me) agriculture and imaginative rendering of rural life, relationships, folklore etc. Gender v strong theme (exclt research again!), reminds me: excited to see new ‘all women’ Ghostbusters movie.

4 July, sun came out and noticed how deep cat scratches are in floorboards. Finished neat chap. in Ulver, ‘lady’ writing to ‘pleb’ lover, lots of nice detail. Remarkable way Thorpe can conjure characters through use of genre/style: is like all early modern diaries, sermons and advice manuals I read raised from the dead – boring bits beginning to make more sense.

6 July, dry. This day began Ruth Scurr’s John Aubrey: My Own Life (2015). V much liked: ‘instead of forcing lives into conventional books, it is possible to find a form – or invent one – to suit the life in question’.

7 July, in Sheffield for brilliant ‘Creative Histories’ event, part of #storypast. This = brainchild of Matt Houlbrook, Will Pooley, Helen Rogers and Alison Twells – virtual reading group devoted to creative and innovative approaches to writing history. Such a great idea to escape imaginative/stylistic straight-jacket of ‘academic’ history. Liked Sheffield’s hills.

8 July, dry. ‘Creative Histories’ fabulous, wonderful mix of presenters put together by Alison Twells and co. Told people to read Ulver. Questions: what is the relationship between content and form? Can you write in a way that conveys your argument (Houlbrook)? Is fiction better at accessing ‘lived experience’? Do readers actually want us to obviously insert ourselves into our histories? How can we make our research travel to our audience? How far should we take creative liberties with the past? How might I incorporate innovation into my writing?

9 July, dry, overcast. England’s new opening bowler called ‘Jake Ball’. Latest chap. in Ulverton a revelation, doubleplus clever – definitely warming up to it. Twist at end of story dramatically problematises the rest/confronts us with difficulty of ever really knowing anything about ordinary folk in distant past. Question: should our historic ‘mediators’ (scribes, clerks, ministers…) actually be called ‘translators’? Deeply well informed about ‘content’ of history but methodology is also interlaced into what is written and way is written. Not many achieve this so well. Or at all.

12 July, Brexit fallout continues: suggest doodle poll to elect new PM to cut down on hysteria. ‘Rise: 1803’ absolutely stunning in Ulver. – easily my fave so far: is old carpenter chatting over pint in the pub. Question: why? Well, old guy so likeable, so well-drawn: his gentle dialect, his outlook on the world. Effortless interweaving of the religious with the everyday sweet smell of sawdust. The turn of the phrase (‘Heels touching workhouse, me’). The way you learn acres about a highly skilled, deeply knowledgeable craft whilst also feeling what was like to make sense of the world though wood.

14 July, dry, overheard neighbours referring to cat as ‘The Red Devil’ in sort of friendly way. Love the layers Thorpe is creating in Ulver: as time progresses we can see the creation of myth and collective memory.

16 July, a lynx has escaped from Dartmoor zoo. Deposition chap. in Ulver: swing riots. Desperate stuff but not pathetic: parochial pride, festival, organisation. Another quite methodological chapter raising questions about completeness, perspective, ‘progress’.

20 July, hot! sun! So canoed to pub and camped in beer garden (bloody love Exeter). Read Ulver by torchlight: Chap. of photographic essays in Ulver. v ‘Romantic’ vantage point, like if Wordsworth had written it. V fitting as cows mooed, oystercatchers peeped (make extraordinary noise!) and moon rose over estuary.

23 July, gloomy. Had fun twitter exchange w Will Pooley re: Ulver: he also loves it. Pointed me to interview w Thorpe, and this stuck: ‘It came up to me from the earth, it really did. The energy was coming up through my legs.’

24 July, cat sick on red rug. Struggled horribly with latest Ulver chap. which is monologue with no punctuation in virtually incomprehensible dialect. Sort of scanning it without getting much out, then suddenly all fell into place – had to restart but was like finally tuning radio to proper crystal channel. Lots of ‘reveals’ about earlier events – recollection of Captain Swing astonishingly evocative. And especially enjoyed ‘Ladybitch’ and Lordyshits’ (popular politics!).

25 July, our (J. Willis and I) new ed. collection Understanding Early Modern Sources out this day. Great reaction on blog/twitter. Ulver. now reached ‘The Great War’, gorgeous chap. on recruitment, patriotism, empire, conscience/duty. Another stunner. Storyfied (fittingly!) ‘Creative Histories’ tweets, as above.

28 July, grey, this day tried new Ottolenghi (Plenty More, 2014), tasty but much chopping. Ulver: diary chap. set in 1950s, gender, war’s legacy, human condition: terribly melancholic, bit modern for me, but neat idea about time capsule: what to put in, how to categorise, what past do we value? Lynx still roaming on Dartmoor.

29 July, humid, wet wet wet. A sad day all round as finished Ulverton, which is modern masterpiece. Straight to top of my historical fiction reading list. Everyone should be talking about it all the time. Last chap. a documentary script: Thatcher’s England, development, new housing, local historian (chortle) and more. A non-textual history, just as constructed as text? Some final Ulver thoughts: nothing I have read is like this. How can Thorpe master so many different styles/voices? So much more potent than ‘academic’ history, harnessing emotive power of art to assist our comprehension of past. But is playful, is fun. Can historians do this? How?

Have copied out favourite Ulver. passage ‘for posterity’: is 1803, carpenter Samuel Daye chatting to a traveller over pints in the ‘Never Fear’/New Inn. Samuel recalls the summer of 1775 and his gaffer, Abraham Webb [pp. 123-3]. Note: must try to use ‘acause’ in conversation.

“Mint crooked an dark, Squire’s place, though not piddlin, an he wanted it fancy, so we puts up a dog-leg stairs, don’t we? Abraham hums and hahs, gets out his pencil, draws it all out, fiddles his compass, measures and hums and hahs some more, Squire hoppin from one leg t’other, face all blowzy, bustin his britches, acause he likes his nourishment, don’t he? – an Abraham pockets his thoughts and says, ‘I’ll get you up there, Squire, like you be on your way to Heaven. Six-inch by ten-inch pitch-board, seven steps, two foot o’ landin, winder, six steps, same foot lands as took off down bottom’. That were Abraham’s way. Ladder to the Lord he puts it, – knowin, mind, as the Squire was drinkin hisself to it, an have no need of our aid.”


9 thoughts on “A fictional review of Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton

  1. Pingback: Adam Thorpe’s Ulverton | Storying the Past

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  3. Pingback: Historical Fiction and the ‘Pastness’ of the Way People Think, by Mark Hailwood | Storying the Past

  4. Pingback: Historical Fiction and the ‘Pastness’ of the Way People Think | the many-headed monster

  5. Am reading Ulverton presently. Loving it but finding some chapters a bit hard going – e.g. the letters dictated by a woman to her son. Caught by a connection back – something described in earlier chapter now has its echo further on in history / the book. Now worried I might have missed some others. May need to re-read! Like your homage-review. Link for me is that we spent happy holidays as family in Lake District at Ulverston. Different landscape totally. That’s what a letter does!

  6. Pingback: the many-headed monster is 10: looking back | the many-headed monster

  7. Pingback: Creativity and history: tales from the blarchive | the many-headed monster

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