‘Yonder a meadow down whose length a flock of sheep were folded on successive days; against the horizon line stretched the free downs, owned by none, belonging to all; here sheep might feed, cattle might browse, but no man must fence them in, or if he did the poorest wayfarer might break it down.’ – Wilsam, 1913.1

Susie Colyer Nethersole, author of rural fiction, was born on the 14 May 1869 at Goodnestone. She was the eldest daughter of Michael and Susannah Nethersole née Colyer and lived at Rowling Court where her father farmed 220 acres.2 This area was known for its good sheep-grazing. Hasted wrote: “In the easternmost parts of Kent, and on the high chalk cliffs and hills on the coast, there are, however, several tracts of downs, viz. from Barham-down to Deal, and from thence to Dover, and so on to Folkestone and Hith, and in some other places on the summit of these hills; but they are in general well covered with grass, and afford good pasture for sheep, &c.”3 In 1871, one of her father’s shepherds won a prize of 15 shillings at the Nonington, Wingham, Ash and Eastry Agricultural Association show for breeding 127 lambs from 102 ewes.4

Nethersole keenly observed life on the farm, particularly the conversations around her. In her 1913 book Wilsam, Mr Hassock describes driving sheep to market:

'The slowest job I know of; why, a funeral could give you half an hour's start an' come in first. Recklect when I was a young man bein' in the middle of three hundred of 'em, pushin' an' urgin' of 'em along. There was th' screamin' of seagulls overhead, an' th' maa, maa, maaing of these blessed sheep all round. 'Twas all right for th' hind man, he had but to foller. By th' time we got to th' medder where th' sale was held, we were that hoarse wi' shoutin' at th' sheep, we couldn't hear each other speak.'5

By the time Nethersole was eleven, her parents had moved to Crixhall Court near Staple, which Hasted described as “once a gentleman's seat, but now diminished to the common size of a farm-house”.6 It was at Staple that she received her education. Nethersole describes village education in her 1913 novel Wilsam:

'Numparel and me are doing French verbs,' up and spoke Mercy in her soft, serious voice, 'and we say them over to Hannah, and she says them to us, and then we remember them better... Oh, I're a fine scholard now I're larnin’ Bonyparty's talk'.7

When Mercy is sent to school in Sibert’s Wood (Sibertswold also known as Shepherdswell) she feels sad that she will no longer receive lessons at home:

'Just then life stretched before me as one day I had watched the sea when the rain fell slantingly on it, and all the sky was purple-gray and all the sea was green-gray, and sulky and sullen, with never a smile on the waves, never a light in the clouds. I looked at the gray of it then, I lived in the gray of it now.'8

Although Sibertswold had a national school, it is more likely that Nethersole (unlike her character Mercy) attended the national school at Staple, which had 90 pupils on is registers in 1882.9

It is uncertain when Nethersole began writing, but in 1897 she entered the Hearth and Home Literary Guild competition to write a story suitable for factory girls. The secretary Frances H. Low was disappointed with the contributions, a good half of which 'dealt with the hackneyed motive of a girl of the humbler classes jilting an honest lover in favour of a worthless one' and she did not award a prize that month, but gave a certificate to Nethersole and one other girl as encouragement.10 However, it was not until 1909 that Nethersole’s first book Mary up at Gaffries and Letitia her Friend, was published by the recently established fiction publisher Mills and Boon, who keen to make their name, had commissioned 123 novels in their first year.11

Mary up at Gaffries and Letitia her Friend, was described as 'an exquisite story of Kent'12 and compared in subject matter to Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford and George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss although it was 'drawn out to an inordinate length' at 540 pages.13 It was set in ‘Pye’ near Canterbury (presumably Wye) and centred on the lives of two women. Although the book was criticised for its weak plot, its description of life around an English farm 'makes the book worth reading',14 and it was her knowledge of rural life that brought colour to her writing. She was one of Mills and Boon’s early authors, along with Hugh Walpole and later P.G. Wodehouse and she went on to write at least another seven books.

Her second novel Ripe Corn (1911) was set once again in Kent in a fictionalised Sandwich. Her third novel, Wilsam which featured on the Mills and Boon Fiction List along with Mary L. Pendered’s pastoral novels Phyllida Flouts me (1913) and Lily Magic (1913), relates the story of six-year-old Mercy who is orphaned in a shipwreck. It is this event which gives the book its title, as wilsam refers to the ‘goods driven ashore when no wreck or ship is visible’15 to which the inhabitants of the Cinque Ports were entitled by charter. The word does not appear in the Oxford English Dictionary and may be an example of Kentish dialect. It can be traced to an ancient charter of Dover which states that “these wrecks were called by the vulgar, Goods of God’s mercy”.16

Nethersole’s stories are set in the rural communities that her family would have known and are rich with local folklore and tradition. In Wilsam, Aunt Milly records: “the men’s wages; the horses’ keep; corn sold; seed bought; dates when cows calved; an outbreak of swine fever; prizes won at the plowing matches; fowls reared; eggs and butter marketed”17 at Lucksboat Farm, revealing the work that women undertook in farming communities. Hop-picking is also described in great detail:

'Old Tappender unwittingly made me shiver again the first day of hop-picking. I was in my place among the long row of pickers, my number painted boldly on the big five-bushel basket. I waited under a penthouse of green leaves till Tappender should bring me a chair and smaller baskets from the house. All round me was a restful, joyous green through which the sun smiled. Binds trained round strings reaching from stout wire a foot from the earth stretched upward across the alley to another wire twelve feet above. They might have been vines; instead, they were branches of Kent hops, lacking the scent of grapes, but holding instead the strong, clean smell such as Kent folks and the folks of other hop counties and countries know, but chiefest we of Kent.'18

Nethersole’s rural idyll would soon be upset by the First World War. Men and horses were deployed on the battlefields of France and farming communities were hit hard. In the village of Staple, seven men lost their lives, of which four were agricultural workers.19 Nethersole wrote The game of the tangled web (1916) during this time however it was set before the war. Her post-war novel, Take Joy Home: a novel of country life (1919) which was described as 'unnecessarily old-fashioned'20 does not mention the war. It was dedicated to her brother who died at the Front.21 Although critics felt the plot and characters were unbelievable, she was praised for her 'rendering of the slow, warm atmosphere of the Kentish fields' which is where she was most at home. Her depictions of nearby towns of Becketsbury (Canterbury) and Stourwich (Sandwich) were considered less well drawn.22

Although farming was in Nethersole’s blood on both sides (her maternal grandfather George Collyer had a 295 acre farm at Denton), Nethersole told an interviewer at the Bookman that she 'has never actually gone out with the hoe herself'.23 Her 1922 book Time o’ lilacs: and other times was a series of sketches and poems from the Garden of England, which was 'just the book to make one forget the noise and bustle of everyday life'.24 For those nostalgic for a time gone by it was perfect, but for those with one foot in the present, there were other Mills and Boon writers who could craft more exciting plots, for example Sophie Cole, whose Passing Footsteps (1922) addresses the consequences of war.25

Nethersole’s last two novels And Pleasant, his wife (1928) and Pounce the Miller (1930) are set in the towns and villages of Nethersole’s childhood, but horizons feel narrowed. Godwinstone (Goodnestone) is a 'standoffish community'26 where Pleasant, feeling the constraints of her rural environment, tries to raise herself up beyond her class through book-learning rather than work behind her grandfather’s counter. Similarly, in Pounce, the Miller, a story of three generations of families in neighbouring farms 'the scent of wet wallflowers cried aloud: where the maze of sweet-briar told of the garden’s boundary.'27 Although Nethersole spent most of her life in Kent, she did live with her aunt in Sydenham in 191128 and visited Canada where she had family in 1931.29

Nethersole’s stories of rural life are not chocolate-boxy, but grittily realistic with descriptions of the devastating impact of foot and mouth disease on farming communities and the narrowness of lives. She was praised for her characterisation: 'here are people who are, bone and flesh, farming folk, in a countryside that is as freshly English as they are'30 Wider social issues such as smuggling are also touched upon. Nethersole’s inspirations can be see in her name choices and descriptions of places in the books. The church organist Stephen Lynch in And Pleasant, his wife was no doubt inspired by the Lynch family whose name was memorialized on tablets in Staple village church. Similarly, Ned Hatcher in Wilsam would have been inspired by the farming family the Hatchers at Clay Pits, Staple.

Like her contemporary, Petham author Bessie Marchant, Nethersole faithfully reproduced the dialect of farming communities in her novels. Furthermore, her description of customs and traditions reveal how well she knew the county (she lectured to local groups on Kent history).31 This example, in Wilsam of a men’s club meeting at the Fleur de Lis hotel in Sandwich is a wonderful detail of nineteenth century life:

The old Fleur-de-lis at Seatown boasted an upper chamber whose walls were panelled with black and shining wood, whose boarded floor was also black and shining, whose round table was mahogany and shone with much polishing. Here once a fortnight gathered the members of the Birthday club, an institution dating three generations back and respected by reason of its age. Clay churchwarden pipes were laid in a cluster on the shining tabletop; chairs with old respectable backs ranged round it ; spittoons beneath were of Wedgwood and as yet unseen by fanciers of old earthenware ; candles lighted the room ; spirits and liqueurs could be found by the initiated somewhere behind the black panelling — duty-paid now, but if cupboards had wooden tongues, great tales they could have told of smuggling days, when scarce a family in Kent but connived secretly or openly at defrauding their majesties, the former Georges, of their dues.32

Nethersole was living at The Long House, 62, Strand St, Sandwich on the 1939 register,33 but by the 1950s she had moved to Whitstable, and was living at Iden Green, 79, Old Bridge Road. She died on 21 May 1956 at 1, Gloucester Road, Whitstable.34

Her sister Florence married John Lade Worsfold of Sandwich, cousin of Jessie Challacombe, the Dover born author of children’s fiction.

This article was published: 8 January 2023.

References


  1. Wilsam, 1913, p. 122. 

  2. 1871 Census 

  3. Edward Hasted, 'General history: Soil and products', in The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 1 (Canterbury, 1797), pp. 265-271. British History Online, accessed 5 January 2023. 

  4. Stephen Martin,shepherd, under Mr Michael Nethersole of Goodnestone, Kentish Gazette - Tuesday 14 November 1871. 

  5. Wilsam, 1913, p. 90. 

  6. Edward Hasted, 'General history: Soil and products', in The History and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent: Volume 9 (Canterbury, 1800), pp. 185-190. British History Online, accessed 7 January 2023. 

  7. Wilsam, 1913, p. 93. 

  8. Wilsam, 1913, p. 140. 

  9. Kelly's Directory of Kent, 1882. 

  10. Low, Frances H. 'Our literary guild.' Hearth and Home, vol. 12, no. 303, 4 Mar. 1897. [Nineteenth Century UK Periodicals] (link.gale.com/apps/doc/DX1901349664/GDCS?u=ccc_uni&sid=bookmark-GDCS&xid=898126dc). Accessed 4 Jan. 2023. 

  11. Mills and Boon Archive and Library. Accessed: 8 January 2023. 

  12. Truth - Wednesday 28 July 1909. 

  13. Dundee Courier - Saturday 31 July 1909. 

  14. Dundee Courier - Saturday 31 July 1909. 

  15. The Tourist's Complete Guide to the Isle of Thanet and neighbourhood ... By Spectator ... With a map. 1874 p 81. 

  16. Sun (Auckland), Volume 1, Issue 94, 12 July 1927, Page 16. 

  17. Wilsam, 1913, p. 314. 

  18. Wilsam, 1913, p. 436. 

  19. Rollof Honour 

  20. ‘Rustic Fiction’ Daily News - Wednesday 22 October 1919. 

  21. Dixon, Jay. (2016) The romantic fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1995 Routledge. 

  22. ‘Rustic Fiction’ Daily News - Wednesday 22 October 1919. 

  23. The Bookman, 1913. 

  24. Dundee Courier - Thursday 31 August 1922. 

  25. Dixon, Jay. (2016) The romantic fiction of Mills & Boon, 1909-1995 Routledge, p. 69. 

  26. Aberdeen Press and Journal - Monday 19 March 1928. 

  27. Tonbridge Free Press - Friday 31 October 1930. 

  28. 1911 census. 

  29. 'Ship passenger records', Ancestry.com 

  30. Aberdeen Press and Journal - Saturday 08 November 1930. 

  31. 'Women in Kent' Talk given to the Hoath and District WI, Herne Bay Press - Saturday 29 June 1935. 

  32. Wilsam, 1913, p. 436. 

  33. 'The 1939 register', Ancestry.com. 

  34. Whitstable Times and Herne Bay Herald - 2 June 1956.