I AM ENGLAND
By Patricia Wright
St. Martin's. 398 pp. $18.95
Furnace Green is a little village in Sussex, about 40 miles out of London, still slightly off the beaten track but slowly, a bit reluctantly, accepting a new role as a commuters' community. Look at it casually, and you might think nothing had ever happened here, and in the cosmic sense, for the sort of events that take up space in history books, Furnace Green is not worth even a footnote.
But spend a few hours with the narrator of "I Am England," an octogenarian named John whom the author calls "The Witness," and you begin to get a sense of how this small spot of ground has lived on the margin of cataclysmic events. In bygone centuries, it might have taken months for news to reach the village, particularly in the seasons when the roads became a sea of mud. But from its distance, which was sometimes too close for comfort, it witnessed invasions, kings overthrown, civil unrest and religious upheaval. Through the ages, Furnace Green has done its share to form the complex phenomenon we call England.
Over John's 500-year-old fireplace there is an oak beam, and in that oak, buried by centuries of growth, is an arrowhead, embedded there in 1068 when Lulla, the Saxon wife of the Norman soldier Robert Fawkner, shot at a hare and missed. But this arrowhead did not date back merely to the Conqueror. It had been found by Robert and refitted to an arrow a millennium after it was originally fashioned in 70 A.D. by Brac of the Hill People, who worked the ridge's iron ore deposits and traded with the Roman legions a few days' march to the east. The same deposits of iron ore were used 15 centuries later by Francis Wyse the ironmaster to cast cannon that helped defeat the Spanish Armada.
The basic subject of "I Am England" is this kind of historic continuity and thematic resonance, sometimes accidental in origin but often based on permanent elements in the topography of a place or in human nature. There are numberless themes besides oak beams and arrowheads -- for example, the recurring social tension between the people who live near the pool and those who live near the church and feel superior. There are the frequently revived battles between the clergy and the craftsmen who live at the place that finally comes to be known as Edenham Mill. And there are the chronic struggles of the yeomen of Furnace Green to preserve their identity and independence against marauding Vikings and victorious Normans, robber barons and predatory clergymen.
"I Am England," which won the 1987 Georgette Heyer Prize for historical fiction, has a curiously ambitious but also modest scope. Chronologically, it spans a millennium and a half; spatially, it focuses on one tiny village: a ridge, a pool, a small clearing in the forest that grows slowly larger as the centuries march by. "The barns, byres and homes of the ridge carry the stamp of their previous owners: the feel of them is everywhere," the Witness says, and proceeds to prove it.
Later, he takes us into one of the village's houses for a sort of X-ray look at the kitchen: "Should you dig straight down below the eye-level microwave," he says, "you would come first to Victorian flagstones, then to Georgian brick and, below again, to a beaten earth floor. But dig again and reach four flat stones." These, he explains, were used as a hearth by the woman who cooked there in the time of King Aelfred, "and because she chose to cook exactly there ... every family from then to now has cooked in the same place."
The book does not try to tell the whole story of the village through the 1,500 years leading up to the defeat of the Spanish Armada -- that could hardly fit in one volume. Instead, we are given five stories, scattered through the centuries: from A.D. 70; from the time of King Aelfred; in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest; the troubled reign of Henry VI; and a long stretch that begins with Henry VIII's closing of the monasteries and runs into Elizabeth's reign and England's emergence as a world power. The stories become more elaborate and absorbing in the later eras, and that makes the narrator's half-promise of a sequel all the more welcome.
We are told that the Witness heard these stories, beginning in 1918, from Granny Paley, who was then in her eighties and his predecessor as custodian of the town's legends. A skeptical listener might wonder how Granny could know some of the things told in this book -- who murdered whom, five or six centuries ago, and where the bodies were buried -- information never written down anywhere and certainly never given to the authorities of church or state. But one can easily imagine a subterranean oral tradition going back that far, even going back 1,000 years to the story of Edred, the survivor of a Viking massacre, and the Danish slave Roda whom he took as his wife.
The story of Brac the ironworker and his wife Dymar, who reminded him of a deer in her strange, wild grace, dates back to 70 A.D. and causes the worst strain on our willingness to suspend disbelief -- not the story but its transmission through the ages. Evidently Granny and her predecessors in the long chain of witnesses were gifted with imagination as well as the memory to keep the past of their village vividly alive. Author Wright also has imagination, and fortunately she uses it well to reinforce her honors degree in history from London University.
The reviewer writes about music, books, chess and computer software for The Washington Post.