OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADropped through my letter box Friday the beautifully produced ‘Weep Not My Wanton, selected short stories’ of A.E.Coppard, due for publication on October 4th by Turnpike Books.

This is a welcome revival for Coppard fans, for it is forty years since the title story – to my mind one of the genre-defining examples of the English short story – has been in print. Amazingly, Coppard left this little gem out of his 1948 US Collected Tales, but Doris Lessing’s 1970s selection included it.

There are seven tales in Turnpike’s offering, all of them from Coppard’s early period, which pundits generally consider to be his best. There’s no doubt he hit his stride early on, after a late start at forty years of age, and the density of better stories is higher in the early collections, but there are gems among his later tales too.

This selection promotes the rural tales, with The Higgler, The Watercress Girl, and The Field of Mustard included. Of these three, The first is probably the most well known, the second, one of the most pungent, and the third seemingly the most loved by academics. The first two were made into TV adaptations in the seventies, which are worth watching and available on dvd from the States under the title ‘Country Matters’. Underlying all three tales, however, is a theme more universal than that of ‘rural England’: they are tales of love, passion even, frustrated and sated.

Another inclusion, Dusky Ruth, though set in a country inn, is also more to do with sexual attraction than anything else. Adam & Eve & Pinch Me, again, pushes the rural boundaries into other territory, this time into the fantastical, which became another strand in Coppard’s web of tales.

A lesser known story, The Wife of Ted Wickham combines several of Coppard’s interests. The love interest is here, and so is the rural, and, being set in a country pub, it reminds me that the rural ale-house is a recurring setting for Coppard.

Back to that title story though. Of the seven this is perhaps the purest examination of the rural decline that Coppard must have witnessed throughout his life, and especially in those few years he spent on the hard edge of rural poverty at Sparrow Pit Cottage in Oxfordshire. It is one of the simplest and shortest of short stories that you will find; a mere four pages. Yet it packs a punch more powerful, and unexpected than many a more elaborate tale. It is set in a landscape that is misunderstood, but not by the narrator, and hints at explanations and situations in both past and future that question the significance and causes of the events portrayed. It is finely wrought tale, as most Coppards are: see how he manipulates our perception of the man, by simply switching from an ‘a’ to a ‘the’.

Ford Maddox Ford famously observed that Coppard had given to the genre ‘the quality of English verse’ and it is a poet-like love of language that gives the tales their unique appeal as much as the sharp eyed observations, and the wry humour. Coppard is a ‘narrator present’ writer in the main. He does not follow the Joycean path of ‘refining himself out of existence’. The Watercress Girl’ in fact, ends with a Coppardly comment that at least one commentator has deprecated. Coppard’s narrator is nearer to Fielding, engaging directly with his readers, as the oral tale-tellers on which he modelled himself would have done, of necessity, with their listeners. The Ted Wickham story is a good example, for here even a simple first person narrative gets a twist at the beginning, and that narrator has quite an axe to grind!

If you’ve not read any Coppard, this is fine starting place, and if you enjoy it, there are another 200 or so tales to go at, if you’re prepared to search the used book market. If we were to recognise an ‘English’ school of short story writers, in the way there are Scottish, Irish, French American, Russian and so on, Coppard would be a contender for not only its pre-eminent member, but perhaps also its originator.

The cover art for this attractive volume is by Eric Ravilious, who went missing on active service as a War Artist, in World War Two.

Published on Amazon:    English of the English, responses to the tales of A.E.Coppard by Mike Smith:
http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00UEONRV6

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