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A Conscious Englishman by Margaret Keeping

'[Margaret Keeping's] inhabitation of Edward, Robert, Helen and their world is tender and subtle...A lovely novel.'  Robert Macfarlane


'[Margaret Keeping's] writing is very assured and she has the necessary eye for place, detail, weather and seasons to write about Edward Thomas...I hope the book will reach the wide audience it deserves and feel sure that many others will enjoy it as much as I have.'  Linda Newbery, author of Set in Stone


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'A Conscious Englishman...turns its subject into a twentieth-century equivalent of the old-fashioned notion of Keats: a poet misvalued by his times and cruelly cut down...'  Peter McDonald, The Times Literary Supplement


'A Conscious Englishman holds its own against other versions of the same story and provides an easier route than academic studies into the contexts of Thomas’s writing. Anyone with a burgeoning interest in Thomas should begin by reading the poems, but A Conscious Englishman is a worthy addition to the expanding secondary literature.'  Gabriel Roberts, The Oxonian Review


'The author’s research on Frost, Farjeon and Thomas is commendable, and her sympathies obviously lie with Edward...'  Janet Williamson, The Historical Novels Review


'A Conscious Englishman offers a unique perspective on the last four years of Edward Thomas, confronting and imagining inner thoughts and feelings, and conversations with those close to him, questioning the unemotional documenting of facts by biographers. It reaches, and allows us to glimpse, important moments in the life of Edward Thomas that non-fiction is not able to.'  James Riding, Friends of the Dymock Poets Newsletter


'An absorbing book...This novel is very good on the influences behind the wonderful poetry.'  Merryn Williams, The Oxford Times


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'Did anyone ever begin to be a poet at thirty-six in the shade?' Edward Thomas asked.


Following the outbreak of the First World War, he began to write the poetry that would live on after his death and to escape the melancholy he had experienced throughout his life.


This poignant novel, told from his viewpoint and that of his loyal wife, Helen, explores their complex relationship and the tensions within it.


Both of them struggle with the changes that the war brings, as well as with Edward's personal sense of patriotism and his close friendship with the charismatic American poet, Robert Frost.


Inspired by Edward and Helen's writings, the novel is set against the beautifully evoked landscapes of Gloucestershire and Hampshire that offer the couple only partial peace.

 

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First Chapter

 

Prologue


February 1917


At dawn the thaw began. Snow slid from the holly hedge, at first in a sprinkling shower, then in heavy tumbling lumps. Clear ice blades that lined the ash twigs fell suddenly, chiming as they struck each other in the silence, then melting into the greying snow.


An hour later a thrush sensed the change and began to sing, but as there was no answering challenge he stopped and the silence returned for a time.


Half-frozen grasses and dead campion umbels showed a drab grey against the lighter snow. A man passed through them, below them, as he walked the trenches, and the scrape and rustle against his tin helmet taught him to keep his head down.


He was walking to the British line looking for possible observation points. Stark poles jutted out of the dingy snow, barbed wire strung between. Through his field glasses he watched intently, anticipating a sight of the enemy. He saw no one, only posts, wire, dead trees and ruined houses. Yet from the enemy lines, every few minutes, shells came, screaming through the air and over his head. As they passed, he felt a sickening sensation in his ears – not so much sound as pressure. The shelling is the enemy, for both our sides, he thought.


Every evening he wrote in his notebook: about trees, splintered, snapped and dead, about filling sand bags to shore up the trenches. About how he’d enjoyed the digging, as he always did in the garden at Steep, the scent of chalky earth as his spade cut through dead leaves and bracken reminding him of home.


He dared not think too much about home. He held on to the natural world, its continuation, its immunity to what was happening. Larks still soared and sang, though it became more and more difficult to hear them over the noise of shelling. They carry on their business in the midst of it all, as I do, he thought.


From his observation post he watched the Engineers swarming over No Man's Land, making a board road between the shell-holes to bring out the wounded, shell-holes full of blood-stained water and beer bottles among the barbed wire. But larks, partridges, hedge sparrows and magpies were busy with their young around his post.


How to describe the effect of the continuous shelling on air? The word 'flap' was the nearest he could get: The air was flapping all night as with great sails in strong gusty wind, he wrote. But appallingly the air also somehow sagged – a sag and flap of air. Was that it? He scribbled two lines that were in his mind:


Where any turn may lead to Heaven,
Or any corner may hide hell.


Every evening he wrote letters too.


'I should like to be a poet, just as I should like to live,' Edward wrote to Robert Frost. 'But I know as much about my chances in either case.'

 

Copyright © Margaret Keeping 2013