Under his real name, Charles James Stranks, the author of this little masterpiece wrote on a number of ecclesiastical subjects: the Venerable Bede, Jeremy Taylor, Durham cathedral, where he was a canon. He died in 1980.
Country Boy was originally published in 1966. It is a memoir of the author’s childhood, and there is no reason to doubt the truth of its salient events. However, using a pseudonym, and changing the name of the Buckinghamshire village in which he grew up from Hardwick to Byfield (even giving us the proper pronunciation — ‘Biffield’) and presumably the names of the people characterised so brilliantly, perhaps accounts for the book’s coherence and heft. It reads like a novel.
There are moments of Proust-like detailed description of walks, of Tolstoyan evocation of farm labour, and his mother (charitably pitied by the loving son) is an almost Lawrentian figure, intelligent, no longer aspiring, trapped by class and poverty, ‘always sharp when doing someone a kindness’.
There is craft here, but not that artfulness that turns the real into a convenient lie. This is an utterly unsentimental portrait, full of the contradictoriness of the ordinary. Its subject is not the author himself, but the society, hermetically sealed from the rest of the world in a way that anyone born after the advent of the motor car and telephone would not recognise, in which he grew up. This is a memoir, not an autobiography.
The ‘immemorial rhythms’ of agricultural life are the beat of an almost feudal drum. There are the labourers (Hillyer’s father is one), there is the gentry (the farmers, the Rector, Mr Du Cane of the manor) and the owner of the lot, Lord Postern. For the labourers the life is frugal drudgery. Hillyer’s saintly father takes it as it comes, giving all his wages to his wife, satisfied with very little.
Hillyer regards the poor as ‘stinted of freedom’ and prison is a recurring metaphor. There are two characters in particular who feel the trap: a kind of village idiot called Barky, and the author himself.
Hillyer discovers that he likes books and learning, but sees no way of avoiding life as a farm labourer. One of the motors of the narrative is the story of his self-education: by the age of 16 he is reading Virgil in Latin. Another is the story of Barky, for whom Hillyer has great compassion (and whose mother is the only human Barky trusts), but who stands as the author’s own intellectual polar opposite.
The book is full of these dichotomies: the industrial north and the agricultural south, the rich and the poor, the ‘important’ (another oft-repeated word) and the marginal, the picturesque and the ugly (often the same thing seen from different places), the church and the chapel.
It is nowadays easy to forget that religion was not only about what God you believed in. It ‘supplied the literature, philosophy, music and drama of a population the bulk of which could hardly read’ and it ‘held back despair’. The Rector, Mr Driffield, is the only member of the gentry with whom the villagers have regular contact. He is conscientious and kind but ‘the general opinion was that [he] ought to have stayed in a town parish, where he could have curates, and married some of [his daughters] off to them’. He is, however, a bridge to the wider world.
The contrast that is the reason for the book is the change that time brings. By 1918, the year in which Country Boy ends, Hillyard’s ‘quiet world’ has been ‘swept away’ by ‘the Kaiser’s war’ and landgirls and buses and Lloyd George.
The presiding spirit in what is a work to set beside Akenfield, Gilbert White’s and Kilvert’s diaries and other such rural masterpieces, is John Clare, who wrote that ‘words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away’. But some receipts tell much more than others, and Country Boy is one such.