Some thirty years ago, when I had little money but a great urge to discover all the writers not then known to me, I would scour the second-hand bookshops and would hope to pay 20p for some battered paperback, 40p if it looked to be of special interest. One day, while browsing through the few books on the shelf of a bric-a-brac store in Herne Bay I came across an attractive-looking hardback volume with a dusty orange jacket, issued by Oxford University Press in the 1930s. The publisher had clearly considered the work to be something worthy of the best treatment. Yet I had heard of neither writer nor novel, though I thought myself (young as I was) to be quite the expert in English literature. It was The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane, by Mark Rutherford, first published in 1887. It had some astronomical price – it may have been as much as 80p – but intrigue outweighed impecuniosity, and I bought it. I have it with me still, and were some disaster to strike and I was forced to part with all of my books, bar a dozen, it would be one of those I would have to keep.
The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is a novel quite unlike anything else in English literature, save the other works of ‘Mark Rutherford’, who is himself different to anyone else in the literary canon. The name was a pseudonym, as was that of the supposed editor of the novel, ‘Reuben Shapcott’, both being names used by the British novelist, journalist and civil servant William Hale White (1831-1913). White wrote a great deal under his own name (non-fiction books and journalism) but his six novels were composed by an invented author and edited by another invention, whose editorial comments shape our understanding of both the texts and their supposed creator. It is an ingenious, mysterious device, and leaves one not knowing whether to call White the author of the books, or Rutherford, and if the latter then it is hard to say exactly who Mark Rutherford is, since he is not exactly White but an oblique reflection of him. I will settle for White, and think of Rutherford as a character, which he is in White’s first two novels, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford (1881) and Mark Rutherford’s Deliverance (1885).
White’s chief subject was the decline in religious faith, not an uncommon theme for a Victorian, but his precise concentration on religious Dissent or Non-conformity (Methodists, Presbyterians, Baptists and other Christian sects at odds with the established Church of England) and his focus on humble lives lived in undistinguished small towns give his works their particular flavour. He writes of how great changes are wrought almost imperceptibly by degrees in small places – and this is precisely the theme of The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane.
It was his third novel after the two pseudo-autobiographies of Mark Rutherford (whom Reuben Shapcott reports as having died at the end of the second, so that the subsequent novels are effectively posthumous publications, needing Shapcott’s intervention to bring them into print). The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is more obviously a novel in form than its predecessors, though its central character (it would be misleading to call him its hero), Zachariah Coleman, a printer, political radical and “moderate Calvinist”, shares much of Mark Rutherford’s Dissenting background and growing scepticism towards received ideas.
The first half of the novel is set in the mid-1810s, at a time when a repressive British political establishment under Lord Liverpool sought to crush any attempts at reform. It opens with the visit paid to England by the newly-crowned King Louis XVIII of France, representing the destruction of the hopes many had in the French revolution. Coleman is rescued from a brawl by the dashing Major Maitland, and joins him and others in a secret group dedicated to political revolution of some kind. However this is no exciting narrative of daring deeds performed in the dark shadows of the reactionary and oppressive regime of the early 1800s. Coleman and his fellow conspirators seemed doomed to failure, never achieving anything, pushed to the margins of history. They become involved in the march of the Blanketeers, the ill-advised plan in March 1817 for Lancashire weavers to march to London to petition the Prince Regent on their desperate state, which was broken up violently by troops before most had left Manchester, but not in the more famous Peterloo Massacre of two years later.
The crux of the matter is expressed in a speech given by Pauline Caillaud, daughter of one of Coleman’s fellow reformers, when Zachariah complains of the futility of their efforts.
Stop, stop, Mr. Coleman. Here is the mistake you make. Grant it all – grant your achievement is ridiculously small – is it not worth the sacrifice of two or three like you and me to accomplish it? That is our error. We think ourselves of such mighty importance. The question is, whether we are of such importance, and whether the progress of the world one inch will not be cheaply purchased by the annihilation of a score of us. You believe in what you call salvation! You would struggle and die to save a soul; but in reality you can never save a man; you must be content to struggle and die to save a little bit of him – to prevent one habit from descending to his children. You won’t save him wholly, but you may arrest the propagation of an evil trick, and so improve a trifle – just a trifle – whole generations to come.
The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is about the changes that are gradually wrought in society, but which are beyond that which the individual has the capacity to see. White makes pointed use of the stars as a metaphor – he was a keen astronomer – of the hugeness of time and space and the littleness of the human being in the face of such immensity. And yet the stars move, and eventually, imperceptibly, there is a clearer view of the heavens. This marvellous passage expresses the point, and is typical of White’s finest style:
He was in no mood to rest, and walked on all that night. Amidst all his troubles he could not help being struck with the solemn, silent procession overhead. It was perfectly clear — so clear that the heavens were not a surface, but a depth, and the stars of a lesser magnitude were so numerous and brilliant that they obscured the forms of the greater constellations. Presently the first hint of day appeared in the east. We must remember that this was the year 1817, before, so it is commonly supposed, men knew what it was properly to admire a cloud or a rock. Zachariah was not, therefore, on a level with the most ordinary subscriber to a modern circulating library. Nevertheless he could not help noticing — we will say he did no more — the wonderful, the sacredly beautiful drama which noiselessly displayed itself before him. Over in the east the intense deep blue of the sky softened a little. Then the trees in that quarter began to contrast themselves against the background and reveal their distinguishing shapes. Swiftly, and yet with, such even velocity that in no one minute did there seem to be any progress compared with the minute preceding, the darkness was thinned, and resolved itself overhead into pure sapphire, shaded into yellow below and in front of him, while in the west it was still almost black. The grassy floor of the meadows now showed its colour, grey green, with the dew lying on it, and in the glimmer under the hedge might be discerned a hare or two stirring. Star by star disappeared, until none were left, save Venus, shining like a lamp till the very moment almost when the sun’s disc touched the horizon. Half a dozen larks mounted and poured forth that ecstasy which no bird but the lark can translate. More amazing than the loveliness of scene, sound, and scent around him was the sense of irresistible movement. He stopped to watch it, for it grew so rapid that he could almost detect definite pulsations. Throb followed throb every second with increasing force, and in a moment more a burning speck of gold was visible, and behold it was day! He slowly turned his eyes away and walked onwards.
This belief leads to the controversial second half of the book, when most of the main characters have been killed off and the action moves twenty years on to a small Midlands town with a new set of characters seemingly unconnected to anything that has gone before, beyond the Dissenting religion and its ministers. The setting is Cowfold, based on Bedford, where White grew up, and the focal point is an ill-fated marriage between a forward-thinking workman (whose father turns out to be an old friend of Zachariah Coleman) and the thoughtless daughter of the minister of Tanner’s Lane Chapel. At last we have the reason for the book’s title, with the revolution being a small rebellion against the certainties of the hypocritical minister and his worthless son. The lesson is that change – against a religion which had come to revere dogma for its own sake over any true sense of God – has come about because of the struggles over those from twenty years before.
In truth the point is not made as well as it could be, particularly as the political radicalism is largely absent from the Cowfold section of the book. Walter Allen, in The English Novel, complains that The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane is “broken-backed”, but White is trying to show how some actions and their consequences can take place very far apart, so that it is necessary that the Cowfold incidents are remote from the previous action in London and Manchester. That this is not obvious is perhaps the novel’s weakness, but the very perversity of it makes us think about just what it is that we have been reading. White (or Mark Rutherford) is not much interested in narrative construction or character. Anyone trying to adapt Tanner’s Lane for the screen would give up in despair at a work which wilfully rushes over moments of high drama then focusses obsessively on minutiae. The novel’s extraordinary last words, when we want to know what happens to the two characters we most care about, make this clear – “What became of Zachariah and Pauline? At present I do not know.” We have not been reading a story; it is more of an anti-story. There are no happy endings, indeed there is no ending at all. We have been shown a passage of time, and of how changes come about over time.
Nevertheless there is plenty of historical detail to attract us. White is exceptionally good at illustrating the place of religion in the lives of those in the first half of the nineteenth century. He observes and understands the petty, crucial details of ordinary, overlooked lives – he has an eye for how common homes are decorated, the things that people take pride in, that they take for granted yet which powerfully signify their lives. He paints a sympathetic and well-informed picture of the political radicals of that time, and stirs us with his passion against injustice:
Talk about the atrocities of the Revolution! All the atrocities of the democracy heaped together ever since the world began would not equal, if we had any gauge by which to measure them, the atrocities perpetrated in a week upon the poor, simply because they are poor; and the marvel rather is, not that there is every now and then a September massacre at which all the world shrieks, but that such horrors are so infrequent. Again, I say, let no man judge communist or anarchist till he has asked for leave to work, and a “Damn your eyes!” has rung in his ears.
Above all White writes beautifully. It is the language of someone brought up in the old tradition of the Bible and sermons, from a time when ministers were revered figures in a community and people would travel long distances to hear the finest exponents speak from the pulpit. White, like Mark Rutherford, trained as minister before succumbing to religious doubts, and his language stems from the church, just as its tone is that of one who must hold onto belief even as belief fades. There is not a word wasted, nor a line that is not worth reading twice to get the full measure of it.
White is not much read these days, except among a small coterie of academics, and his books are all out of print (Oxford last published The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane in paperback in 1990). White wrote three further novels – Miriam’s Schooling (1893), Catherine Furze (1893) and Clara Hopgood (1896). Of these I’ve only read Miriam’s Schooling (which is set in Cowfold), and that some years ago, but having just re-read Tanner’s Lane and found myself as entranced as I was thirty years ago, I must visit them all. I hope others may be intrigued enough to do so too.
- The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane, The Autobiography of Mark Rutherford, Mark Rutherford’s Deliverance, Miriam’s Schooling, Clara Hopgood and Catherine Furze can be found on the Internet Archive.
- The Mark Rutherford Resource website, managed by David French, has a bibliography, essays, archival sources, images and more.