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Coppard’s published short stories ran to thirteen collections – with several duplications in short run special editions, often illustrated by artists including Robert Gibbings – usually of about twelve to fifteen stories. There was a ‘Collected’ edition, published in the USA with around fifty, chosen by Coppard himself, and a British ‘Selected’ with less than half that number. A recent collection of seven tales – Coppard’s preferred descriptor – was produced in 2013 by Turnpike Books, and on Goodreads you will find a ‘Coppard page’, listing other available selections and collections. His current popularity in Britain might be judged by the fact that this morning it had 2 followers!
Out of the two hundred or so stories he published, a handful crop up again and again: The Higgler, Dusky Ruth, and The Field of Mustard are three of the most commonly referred to. All three concern the love lives of women, and the men who fall for them. They also hint at another regular Coppard theme: that of poverty, usually but not exclusively rural. My own favourite tale is Weep Not My Wanton, a four page masterpiece in which a family of itinerant farm labourers pass across a beautifully painted English landscape while playing out the brutal game of their family dynamic – and raising a question of why that should be. In a line I’ve quoted often enough, an American commentator wrote of Coppard’s England as one in which ‘accidents of heredity’ outweighed all other factors in determining the course of the lives that Coppard described.
Coppard himself came from grinding poverty –as a child he worked picking oakum (one of the tasks given to felons in the English penal system of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries) in a Whitechapel sweatshop, having left school at the age of nine. Frank O’Connor accused him of having an ‘issue’ with ‘unearned income’ – surely not an unreasonable one!
I became interested in him a few years ago, while reading about H.E.Bates and V.S.Pritchett, with whom he was often compared, and seemed in some way to hover behind. Writing over the same inter-war decades as them, he was, however, of an earlier generation which was publishing in the 1890s, with writers like Mary Mann, who wrote of poverty in rural Norfolk, and Arthur Morrison, who wrote of poverty in London’s East End. What I discovered was that there is relatively little published about Coppard or his writing, save for the bare bones of biography, and a couple of dozen short-ish press reviews.
English of the English, a collection of 20 essays on Coppard’s tales and their themes, was an attempt to redress the balance. It is available as a paperback, and for Kindle, here.
‘A Conversion ‘ is the penultimate story in Arthur Morrison’s collection ‘Tales of Mean Streets‘ The story’s title, not without irony, is the correct one for the tin. Scuddy Lond is a petty criminal who time after times mitigates his crimes with protestations of repentance, and of having been led astray. I worked in the criminal justice system for a few years – long enough to witness the process that Morrison so forensically describes. It carries people no worse than myself down very different roads.
‘Temptation had prevailed against him.’ ‘…the villainy of older boys had prompted him to sin…’ ‘Betting, he protested, was this time the author of his fall.’ ‘Strong Drink, he declared with deep emotion, had been his ruin.’
Society, in Arthur’s time (of which more later), as now, connives with him in avoiding the truth, and foils the solution, of his actions. ‘because the real cause was always hunger,or thirst, or betting, or a sudden temptation, or something quite exceptional – never anything like real, hardened,unblushing wickedness.’
Scuddy spirals down – or up if you prefer -into greater crimes, and then one day is drawn into an evangelical meeting where he experiences that eponymous conversion. What has interested me about Arthur Morrison’s short stories, which I only recently discovered, is not only the gritty realism of their content, but the spare, simple, and enduring clarity of the form.
The scene in the mission hall is an extended and lightly veiled metaphor:
‘with passion, and pain…’ ‘his throat swelled and convulsed’ ‘with gasps and groans and sobs…’ ‘a tide of grievous sensation…’ ‘a chorus of ejaculations…’ ‘a debauch of emotion…’
Over nearly two pages of description the converts are called to ‘Come-come!’ ‘….Only-only come!’ Scuddy rises and joins in with the other penintents in ‘standing forth who had found grace that night.’ Arthur Morrison leaves us in no doubt as to what we should be imagining:
‘His emotional orgasm was spent, and in its place was a numb calm,’
The ending of the story is delicious,and I’ll leave it for you, if you can find a copy. What surprises me about Morrison’s story is that it was written and first published in the late nineteenth century. The collection was first published in 1901, more than a decade before James Joyce’s Dubliners. I read ‘A Conversion‘ in ‘Tales of Mean Streets‘ by Arthur Morrison, The Boydell Press,1983.