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Ebenezer Transom of Compton Burrows farm is a widower with one remaining son, William Transom, who joined the army following a refusal of marriage by Elizabeth Rundle, Ebenezer’s niece and housekeeper. Ebenezer disinherits William in favour of Elizabeth. William returns with a wife on the night of Ebenezer’s death, discovers the will and accuses Elizabeth of stealing the property. She burns the will and retires to the nearby farm of John Hooper. On the death of Maria Transom, William approaches Elizabeth for a second time, but is again refused. According to Mrs. Hooper it is theconsequence of a lack of passion.
There is only one definite date but from this it is possible to a chronology. The story pertains to an eight year period between Elizabeth Rundle’s first and last refusal of marriage to William Transom. Within this period, Ebenezer Transom, the father and owner of the farm, makes a will dated to September 17, 1856. At the time of dating Ebenezer’s two sons, Samuel and Jim are dead, with the third, William, in the 32nd Regiment of Foot. His years of service are five, as he eventually buys himself out. It is Elizabeth’s first refusal which caused him to sign up. At the time of the refusal Elizabeth, the daughter of Ebenezer’s sister, was living at the farm as the housekeeper, with the two other sons already dead. With William’s departure, Ebenezer and Elizabeth are the sole occupants of the property, the farm hands living elsewhere.
William returns with a wife on the day of Ebenezer’s death, which is in Christmas week. William’s wife lives at the farm for just over one year, dying in January (299). Elizabeth is residing at the Hooper’s farm. William Transom’s second proposal, which takes place at the Hooper’s farm, comes five months later in June (300). The second refusal closes the story.
|1667||Probable date for the construction of the farmhouse.|
|1850||The arrival of Elizabeth Rundle as housekeeper. The deaths of Jim and Samuel Transom come either side of this.|
|1854||William Transom is refused by his cousin Elizabeth Rundle.|
|William Transom leaves Compton Burrows to join the 32nd Regiment of Foot.|
|Ebenezer Transom and Elizabeth Rundle are the sole occupants of the farm.|
|1856||September 17: Ebenezer Transom of Compton Burrows makes his will, leaving the farm to his niece Elizabeth Rundle.|
|William Transom marries Maria ?, an actress. He is promoted to sergeant and then demoted back to private.|
|1860||December: William and Maria Transom arrive at Compton Burrows to find Ebenezer Transom dead.|
|Elizabeth Rundle burns the will of 1856 and takes service with John Hooper.|
|1862||January: Maria Transom dies.|
|June: William Transom is refused for a second time by Elizabeth Rundle.|
The story is set on a farm called Compton Burrows in the parish of Compton in about the 1850s. The farm appears to have been built in 1667, remaining in the same family throughout. The farm house resides in a declivity backed by steep woods, from which a spring erupts and flows into a trout stream below. The details should make the actual farm identifiable. The nearest neighbour, farmer John Hooper, lives a mile downstream, on a road leading to the Compton Arms.
The place names, with the exception of Herodsfoot, are fictitious and not Cornish. The former mining hamlet of Herodsfoot lies in the upper reaches of the partly wooded West Looe River. The village of Compton is probably Pelynt, with the Jubilee Arms as the Compton Arms. At the time of the story it was called the Axe Inn.
The Cornwall and Devon Mining Directory for 1862 gives North Herodsfoot and South Herodsfoot as silver-lead mines, although their most profitable time came twenty years later. The surrounding powder mills, one of which was functioned at Churchbridge, served the local mines and quarries. Jim Transom lost his life in an explosion at a powder mill, probably around 1850.
The geographical and historical setting, along with the nature of the dialect, suggests the middle valley of the West Looe River.
In English the stress in a word inevitably falls on the first strong syllable. In Celtic languages, such as Cornish, the stress falls on the penultimate syllable and in certain words the final syllable. In Herodsfoot the stress in local speech falls on -foot. As the area preserves the syllable structure and stress of the former language in its place names, which is often not so further west, the intonation of the local dialects must also reflect Celtic.
Compton Burrows farm presents the reader with Sheba farm, from ‘I Saw Three Ships’, 60 years later. A traditional culture, which from the time of the English Civil War had moved down the social scale from the manor to the farm house, has completely disappeared. There is no singing of old carols and ‘geese dancing’; ‘crying-the-neck’ and other ageless practices have fallen into desuetude; and the ‘drolls’ have ceased with the deaths of the last ‘droll tellers’. The world which informed the writings of Jonathan Couch and Robert Hunt has come to an end. There is still a veneer of Anglicanism in the language of Ebenezer Transom’s will of 1856, but it is a shadow of what is found in the 1837 will of Amos Trenoweth from Dead Man’s Rock (Chapter I). As Ebenezer dies it is the doctor he calls for not the priest. Elizabeth Rundle provides no religious consolation as she has none for herself. It is the horse-pistol, not the bible, which she looks to. William Transom knows enough of religion to satirize it. On being informed of his father’s death he turns to alcohol and a search in the bedroom for the will.
The society of Compton belongs to the 30 per cent who in the Census of Religious Worship, 1851 are recorded as unaffiliated. The lives of those at Compton Burrows are determined by land, money, drink and sensuality. Ebenezer bemoans that his death is of little account.
The doctor in the story could well have been Jonathan Couch or his friend Dr. Box of Looe. If it was Jonathan his religious opinions would have been of little interest. Yet at the time the Wesleyan Association, of which Jonathan was a founding member and leading advocate, and the Bible Christians, satirized by Q in The Ship of Stars, were evangelising the area from the rivers Looe to Fowey. Both sects were fiercely democratic, rejecting Church authority and liturgies, and were later to act as the driving force behind the Liberal Party of Gladstone, Lloyd George and Asquith in east Cornwall and west Devon. In the 1851 census the Wesleyan Association boasted 100 chapels and the Bible Christians 328 chapels in Cornwall and Devon. The Methodist sects appear to have been walking into a cultural void. As their worship was more similar to that found today in black churches in South Africa or the southern states of America, rather than the formalised worship of contemporary Methodism, it is easy to see its appeal to the culturally dispossessed. Unsurprisingly, the Bible Christian movement was established in a farm house – Lake Farm in Shebbear, on the Cornwall-Devon border, in 1815, the very period when the traditional culture was in its death throes. Although Q was an Anglican, his political radicalism and his distrust of authority and dogmas clearly stemmed from independent Methodism.
The position of women in society was not totally unconnected to the nature of religious practice and belief. While major denominations had no place for women in clerical or ministerial positions, the Bible Christians permitted women preachers and evangelists. Even the Wesleyans, who as Q states in Sir John Constantine, took over some High Church notions, had women class and band leaders – as we can see from the early Methodist class lists in Polperro. In Cornish society generally, although women were not permitted on boats or under ground, there was little they were barred from doing or in cases of emergency had to do. Carne’s bank in Penzance even had a woman, Elizabeth Carne, on its managing board. At the Herodsfoot mines ‘bal maidens’ dressed ore, while in Polperro they processed fish. Rachel Minards in ‘I Saw Three Ships’ would have worked in one of the ‘fish palaces’, just as Prudy Polwarne ran the ‘Jolly Pilchards’. If Elizabeth Rundle had not found a place at Compton Burrows she might well have ended up at Herodsfoot or in Polperro. With Ebenezer ailing, it was Elizabeth who managed affairs at Compton Burrows, and could have continued running the farm if she had not refused the will. It is Ruby Tresidder who no doubt runs the farmhouse and the milking parlour at Sheba.
In ‘The Haunted Dragoon’, Sarah Noy would have inherited Constantine from her ageing husband, if she had not hastened his death through poisoning, so as to marry her lover, Sergeant Basket. That Sarah Noy was hung for the crime and not Sergeant Basket was because she refused to incriminate him. Her revenge came later.
As many women as men could read and write. Both Ruby Tresidder and Mary Jane, her maid, were literate, probably more so than Farmer Tresidder, who is shown up by the Stranger, and Zeb Minards. However, the Minards family of history would have been literate. All Methodists were taught to read the Bible, Wesley’s hymns and works such as Pilgrim’s Progress – as we see from Dead Man’s Rock. ‘Dame Schools’ were common and women teachers feature centrally in Q’s novel Shining Ferry. Q informs us in Memories and Opinions that he was too precocious for a normal school and had to be sent to an all girls’ school in Bodmin where he was instructed by mistresses in ‘Latin, French and Euclid’ (1944, pp. 11-12). The picture of women in society we receive from Q and authentic sources is somewhat different from the generalized and stereotyped accounts found in standard history books. Q was interested in facts, not in theories and models founded on rationalism, materialism, Marxism, Freudianism, Darwinism, feminism and the like.
Unlike ‘The Haunted Dragoon’, which appears to have been constructed from a number of sources, ‘The Disenchantment of ‘Lizabeth’ has a plain and simple line, indicating a single and almost certainly oral source. The place names are fictitious, possibly so as to disguise the identity of the actors, apart from one, Herodsfoot. This suggests a location within the watersheds of the East and West Looe rivers. This does not prevent the plot from having been transferred from another locality, but the personal names and the dialect reflect the valleys named. The detailed description of the farm and its surrounds should make it identifiable.
‘The Disenchantment of ‘Lizabeth’ is a ‘droll’: it recounts what happened and what was said, as with Beroul’s Tristran and Yseut. There is no romanticising or playing for unnecessary effect. The dialect is appropriate, with Thomas Quiller Couch’s contribution to the Courtney and Couch Cornish Glossary covering all the terms. The grammatical structures and the patterns of intonation are also authentic, which is never the case with in-migrant writers. These patterns of intonation almost certainly derive from the former Celtic tongue, more so than intonation patterns further west. In the area place names have retained their original structures and stresses.
In standard English stress falls upon the first strong syllable while in Celtic languages stress is penultimate, although there is evidence that at one time it tended to fall back upon the last syllable. In the parish of Braddock, for instance, which lies between the headwaters of the Lerryn and West Looe rivers, is the place name ‘Penventon’. It comes from ‘pen’, meaning head in English, and ‘fenten’ or spring, with an ‘f’ to ‘v’ mutation. In English the stress falls on ‘pen’, but locally it falls on ‘ven’. The same place name is found in the parish of Madron, of which Penzance was once a part, as ‘Pedn Venton’. The intrusive consonant creates an initial stress on ‘ped’ with a penultimate one falling on ‘ven’. Both the structure and the stress are no longer totally authentic. It appears that Late Cornish adopted the double stress, which then revealed itself in dialect speech. Further east the dialect reflects Middle Cornish. What is remarkable are the number of place names in the Looe area carrying end stress: Herodsfóot, Tremadárt, Hendersíck, Melandréath. When the revivers of the Cornish language thought that the most authentic intonation patterns existed in the parishes of the far west, especially Zennor, they could not have made a greater mistake.
Delayed stress, as it is called, is also evident in the dialect speech of Devon. This often results in quite un-English vowel lengths, as can be seen in the dialect stories of ‘Jan Stewer’ or A.J. Coles. What Hunt (1865, 1871) concluded about the folk culture of Devon is supported by dialect analysis as well as DNA analysis. However, on the basis of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and place name assessment historians have constructed a model of Celtic retreat and Anglo-Saxon advance up to the Tamar. Rowse concluded that Q was Anglo-Cornish because his mother came from Abbotskerswell in South Devon. However, a recently concluded national DNA survey has established that Devon is as Celtic as Cornwall although of a different type. Evidence of Anglo-Saxon DNA was lacking. The whole history of post-Roman society in south-west Britain will now have to be rewritten on the basis of the scientific evidence, although it no more than confirms what Hunt said 150 years ago. Science has called into question the methodologies of the academic historians.
When Francis Parkman produced his histories of North America, upon which Q based his novel Fort Amity, he first went to live with the Indians and then interviewed the descendants of the principal actors. He secured his foundations before confronting the written evidence, moving from the bottom upwards. This is not the process followed by many other academic historians who start at the top and move downwards, if they move at all, selecting their material on the basis of a theory. Q followed Parkman and Hunt, not the academic historians, and did this on the basis of the Couch tradition of respecting facts and treating theories with scepticism. No doubt Dumas would have agreed.
The collection of short stories I Saw Three Ships gives the reader authenticity because it is informed from the lives of authentic individuals. It is neither theory driven nor romanticist. The work challenged the assumptions of his time and even more challenges ours. This will not please everyone. Many will claim that he cannot really mean what he writes or that we have progressed to a more sophisticated understanding of the world. Exactly what that understanding amounts to is a different question.