Stone Cradle is the second novel that I’ve read by Louise Doughty. The first, Whatever You Love, was an entirely different kind of book: a contemporary novel about child bereavement. Stone Cradle is a historical novel set in the Fens at the turn of the twentieth century, about a Traveller family. I bought it both because I’m interested in the Lincolnshire of that period and because it resonates with me personally, for reasons that I shall explain later, but first I’d like to say that any writer who can produce two such completely different, yet equally compelling, novels ticks several boxes for me straight away.
Stone Cradle is in part about the bleakness of being a working-class woman living in a predominantly farming community of the period. The story is told in the first person, alternately by a female Traveller, Clementina, and her daughter-in-law, Rose, a farmer’s adopted daughter who renounces the harsh life on the farm for the spurious glamour of running away to marry Clementina’s son, Elijah. It is one of the poignant ironies of the book that, although they share a great deal in common (including the fact that Elijah is illegitimate and Rose herself the illegitimate daughter of a mother who, like Clementina, worked hard to keep her), she and Clementina detest each other from the moment that they first meet. This is partly because they are rivals for Elijah’s affections, even though he is more often absent than present from their lives and both know that he is a ne’er-do-well, but even more because the norms and values of each are incomprehensible to the other. The dual first-person narrative captures this cleverly and is the more accomplished for going over the same events twice, through the eyes of each, without being repetitive. As someone who is experimenting with this technique at the moment, I know how difficult it is to pull off!
Rose persuades Elijah to live in a house in Cambridge (where Clementina presents herself as an uninvited guest and never moves out) for several years after their marriage, but Elijah’s fecklessness and their consequent poverty force them eventually to re-join the Travelling community. Rose never fits in. She dies twenty years before Clementina. At the beginning of the novel, Elijah, himself now an old man, is shown burying his aged mother. To save a few shillings, he has Rose’s grave opened and Clementina’s coffin laid on hers. Had they known, both women would have been appalled; the act epitomises both Elijah’s insensitivity and the privation that has followed them throughout their lives.
Two further qualities make this novel exceptional: the brilliant way in which Louise Doughty captures what it was like to be a member of the nineteenth-century Travelling community and her depiction of the period itself. The book has obviously been extensively researched, yet nowhere does the author parade her knowledge. One of the reasons for my being more often than not equivocal about historical novels is that, unless the author is very skilled indeed, the reader is presented with an outside-looking-in narrative: in other words, the author’s fictional take on what s/he has gained from the history books. Worse, this is sometimes accompanied by what I call the costume drama factor, i.e., a stereotypically ‘olde worlde’ way of making the characters think and speak, probably based on watching too many films. It takes a very talented writer not to fall into these traps, but Louise Doughty is such a writer.
Now I come to the personal resonance bit. In her acknowledgments, the author pays tribute to the Romany museum in Spalding (of which I was hitherto unaware) and the Boswell family. She actually gives the most noble of the Romany families in the book the name ‘Boswell’. It is another of the novel’s distinctions that the Traveller characters are not over-sentimentalised. There are rough and feckless Travellers, as well as ‘good’ ones, just as there are good and bad ‘gorjers’ (non-Travellers) living in and around Cambridge. The Boswell family was well-known in the Spalding of my youth. Their patriarch, whose first name I don’t know, because he was always referred to as ‘Bozzie’, had ceased to travel and built up a profitable scrap-metal business just outside the town. By the time I was born, he was reputed to be a millionaire and lived in a very nice house. I went with my father to see him on several occasions. In those days, I think that at least some of his family were still Travellers, and some may be still. Louise Doughty seems to indicate, however, that there is still a permanent Boswell presence in Spalding and evidently the Boswells were the inspiration behind the museum. I am determined to visit it next time I go to Spalding.