Forgotten favourites - Working-class hero

Dusky Ruth and Other Stories

A E Coppard <em>Penguin (out of print)</em>

ISBN 014003854X

An early 1970s Penguin "best of" selection with a sharp-eyed foreword by Doris Lessing, Dusky Ruth turned up on my undergraduate bookshelf by dint of its mildly salacious cover. Sadly, the raven-haired charmer shaking out her tresses in the candlelight bore almost no relation to the contents, which to a 19-year-old reader all too fond of doom, gloom and unhappy endings seemed to carry on where Hardy had left off.

A(lfred) E(dgar) Coppard (1878-1957) was that very rare thing, a genuinely working-class writer, more or less self-taught, who in the course of a 30-year career somehow managed to resist contamination at the hands of "literary society": one of the best things about his books, it might be said, is that he never makes a literary man his hero. Sent out to work for his family in Lewes, East Sussex at the age of nine, he spent three decades variously employed as a paraffin seller, a clerk and an accountant, before setting himself up as a freelance in the years after the First World War.

Broadly speaking, Coppard wrote two kinds of story: on the one hand, whimsical tales of rural life full of tantalising girls and sagacious pub landlords, in which the shadow of H E Bates looms at the window; on the other, some altogether pitiless vignettes of a world where a threepenny bit can tip the balance between happiness and starvation. "Weep Not My Wanton", for example, is no more than a sketch: six or seven evocative pages describing a country family's dismal transit along a downland track in the late-summer twilight. The drunken father walks in the vanguard, clumsily upbraiding his son for the loss of a sixpence. Eventually, blood streaming from his nose, the child is allowed to return to his mother, who follows behind. Brushing off her attempts at consolation, he matter-of-factly hands over the coin, carefully concealed in his clothing, which can now be spent on supper.

"The Higgler", on the other hand, is perhaps the best thing that Coppard ever wrote. It shows what he could do in the way of symbol and construction. A travelling huckster turns up at a lonely farm run by a vigilant widow and her beautiful, silent daughter. Repeatedly invited to return, he assumes that the mother's match-making is done in defiance of the girl's wishes. Thinking himself unwanted, he decides to marry his buxom fiancee, Sophy. Then, mysteriously drawn back to the farm, he finds the woman dead and the girl alone in the house with her corpse. The marriage, a final conversation reveals, was all the daughter's idea.

However inevitable, the Hardy comparison is misleading. Hardy's determinism is vengeful, a matter of dark, unappeasable natural forces stalking their human prey. Coppard merely describes things as he sees them. There is no tragedy in his work, only a patient acceptance of what he imagines to be the unshiftable processes of life. Thirty years ago, someone adapted half a dozen of his best stories for BBC2. Anyone who wants to kick-start a long overdue revival could begin by disinterring them from the vault.

D J Taylor has written the introduction to Of Love and Hunger by Julian Maclaren-Ross (Penguin Modern Classics edition)