When we were still young children, my brother and I spent our holidays in Yorkshire, where my parents would rent a holiday cottage and take us on long walks in the countryside. As most childhood memories are, my recollections of the time are hazy, fail to take shape, devoid of characters other than my immediate family. Specific events are hard to recall but the atmosphere and the feeling lingers still. Though we would have been on summer holidays, Yorkshire comes back to me as a dark, dank and brooding landscape where I could play freely in the mud, spot horses battered by the wind in fields and see the occasional sheep carcass caught and abandoned in barbed wire along hedgerows. I was still small enough to believe in magic and watched the weather change with care, as though I could read the woodlands and the wildlife around. Yorkshire’s landscape is one where it’s easy to imagine England’s heritage, long before Empire, industrialism, Elizabethan poesy, even Tudor excess. This was the country of Robin Hood, Merlin, Boudicca, where our Celtic ancestors reigned and pagans left bodies dead and punished in the peat. Deep England, West Riding: the stage for Arthurian legends and the lustre of gold torques, so long ago it becomes hard to fathom chronology or timelines.
Yorkshire still cuts a peat-black figure across the national consciousness, as close to any wilderness we ever possessed, a direct line back to myth and legend, heavy and anchoring compared to the sparkling, heaving, glitching capital of stock markets, multiculturalism and twenty-four-hour news channels. Yorkshire is lore: the dead sheep and the cowpats, the ferns and stone walls, thick accents and ales, wax jackets and wellies, the damp and the cold, the mulch of wet leaves across seasons and secrets buried in mud. Yorkshire is a myth and an atmosphere in the English mind – one mined by Fiona Mozley to devastating effect in her haunting Booker Prize-shortlisted debut Elmet:
And if the hare was made of myths then so too was the land at which she scratched… The soil was alive with ruptured stories that cascaded and rotted then found form once more and pushed up through the undergrowth and back into our lives. Tales of green men peering from thickets with foliate faces and legs of gnarled timer.
Elmet charts the demise of a fringe family who build a house on land they cultivate but do not legally own. Daddy, Cathy and Danny live off the woodland surrounding their house, brewing their own cider, catching their own small game and whittling their own tools. Daddy makes his money from bare knuckle boxing matches across the country with gypsies and working class men. He leaves Danny and Cathy’s education in the hands of Vivien, a single woman who schools them from her home nearby. But the isolation and peace of their “strange, sylvan otherworld” is threatened by the landlord of the land on which they have built their home. Mr. Price and his sons descend in Land Rovers and Barbour jackets, demanding rent or payment of another sort: illicit work intimidating tenants or fighting for bets, as Daddy used to do for him years ago. Daddy objects and the family try to mount a resistance, gathering together support from other local tenants sick of rent hikes, from illegal labourers who demand higher pay. The unionising appears to hold promise for resolution, but the strife between Price and Daddy is personal and is what ultimately drives Elmet to its bloody conclusion, leading to the dissolution of the family’s brittle realm.
‘Elmet’ was the name of the last Celtic kingdom of Britain, whose territory roughly comprised what is now known as the West Riding of Yorkshire. The title serves as a mainline into the Yorkshire lore Mozley so heavily relies upon, also referencing the work of Yorkshire poet Ted Hughes – an extract of his Remains of Elmet appears as the novel’s epigraph. Mozley’s skill lies in the consistency of her vision of this land and kingdom – allusions to the modern world are vanishingly rare – evoking the atmospheric landscape with minute geographical detail and long descriptions of Danny and his family’s handiwork: whittling, washing, plucking and coppicing. It sounds dry, perhaps, but rarely does the narrative lose pace, nor does the telling feel laboured; instead, in the family’s toil, the spectres of paganism and erstwhile societies loom large, suggesting Daddy, Cathy and Danny as descendants, vestiges of legendary, ancient kin – the last of an embattled kind.
The evocation of Elmet also foretells the central tragedy of the novel – of loss and injustice – the eventual defeat of a kingdom by newer, more modern, more bloodthirsty threats. The fall of a kingdom is not just the loss of the right to reign but also the loss of a culture, a tradition, of lifestyles and skills, of claims to land that are more physical than the abstractions of land deeds and legal challenges. The family cultivate the land they live on, build a relationship with the surrounding landscape, care for the area of woodland with skills that have long been lost to the majority of the population. Yet Price, the landlord, still demands his money. He still intimidates. Comes with his boys who intimidate Danny and badger Cathy. He comes out of his own greed for control, through his disdain for the working class Daddy and his children, for the dirty work he can make a man he considers inferior do for him, for the profit and the sway. Because to Price, Daddy and his children are not simply unworthy of compassion, their lower class is physically repulsive to him. He terrorises the family from their home like hounds hunt foxes from their dens.
It’s easy to make much of Elmet’s canonical and mythical nods – easy because there are so few recognisable contemporary references. The Land Rovers and train lines suggest the novel takes place at least in the latter half of the twentieth century; only the invocation of the “Adelantes and Pendolinos that streaked from Edinburgh to London” place it in the twenty-first. But many of its concerns come from a very twenty-first century author. Mozley is twenty-nine; she worked on the novel for most of her late twenties while working at a literary agency in London then while pursuing her PhD in York. Widely reported in the press was how the novel came to life, partially tapped out on Mozley’s smartphone during her daily commute. Some of the rage (and there is rage in Elmet) comes from her sense of frustration at the slog of living in the capital. “I was probably quite an angry young woman”, she told The Guardian, for being part of a generation who are “paying all of our salaries to other people for no clear reason.” In the Evening Standard, she recommended Theresa May read the novel. It was just months after May’s anaemic show of compassion for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, whose scorched shadow on the skyline of London has become a symbol for the housing crisis in the capital, where dilapidated mansions lie empty but council houses are packed precariously to the rafters, the assets of the wealthy safeguarded more than the lives of the working class.
Elmet’s pertinence to modern discourse does not end with questions of inequality, land and ownership; Mozley’s exploration of gender and blurring of biological binaries makes Elmet thoroughly contemporary. Without such treatment, the work could easily read as a wholly more traditional narrative – there is, after all, nothing inherently unconventional about the story of a white working class man’s struggle to get by. That man serves as the axis on which the gender of his children is charted and bent. Daddy is archetypal manhood manifest: towering, broad and virile, fighting and hunting and brooding. No one would bet against Daddy, Danny recounts, because Daddy was the best in the land. In stark contrast, Danny, the teenage son who narrates the novel, reads as almost unmistakably female. He occupies the domestic sphere, busies himself with homemaking, horticultural duties, household chores. He does the laundry and the washing. His hair and nails are long. It is Cathy – her name a nod to the unearthly protagonist of Wuthering Heights – who takes after her father. She possesses inexplicable strength, stays as silent as her father, smokes her roll-up cigarettes and skips Vivien’s classes to go walking about in the woods. Mozley moulds the narrative to work the same way as the characters’ physical isolation: we are reminded of Danny and Cathy’s genders only when they interact with figures outside of the family nucleus. Price’s boys direct all their questioning at the brother, while ignoring the sister except when they make advances to her. When a spectator of Daddy’s boxing match eyes up Danny, he remarks on the boy’s queer look, ridiculing his failure to take after his father. When he goes through Vivien’s wardrobe and underwear with the gaze of a girl examining the artefacts of her mother’s femininity, carefully eyeing up the fit of the clothes, Danny attests to his own gender non-conformity: “You have to appreciate that I never thought of myself as a man. I did not even think of myself as a boy. Of course, if you had asked me I would certainly have replied that that was what I was. It is not as if I had ever actively rejected that designation. I just never thought about it.” It’s a somewhat gratuitous observation which betrays the insecurity of a debut writer trying to make sure the point is heard, insuring herself of the message; it is one of Mozley’s rare missteps.
If Daddy acts out the rage of the dispossessed working man and Danny experiences the confusion of gender introspectively, it is Cathy who externalises the wrath of women oppressed and harassed. And it is with Cathy that Mozley’s work to kindle the legends and lore of the wild country pays dividends in a conclusion that is at once more beautiful, more bloody and wholly more radical than the gratuitous bloodbaths of modern pop culture. If Danny questions his gender designation, Cathy does not question hers, only fights the constraints of it. She has inherited the traditionally masculine character traits of Daddy but acknowledges to Danny that she will never be able to use her father’s tactics to the same effect; she struggles against the femininity of her body and the entrapment that comes with it as it grows. She’s aware of the male gaze on her – from Price’s sons, from his men, from boys in her former school – and senses the greed in their entitlement to her attention, her subservience and the danger in her rejection of them. She’s aware that one of them will come for her eventually, inevitably, like Price does for Daddy, and that, when he does, he won’t heed no for an answer. And she is angry in the face of it all – an anger that is familiar to women, is too often repressed, too seldom finds its outlet. In Elmet it finds its outlet. Cathy is the heir to her father’s violence, his legendary strength, and it is she who continues the myth, who holds the rage that drives the tale to an end; she possesses the power to maim and to kill, to fight and to venge, covered in blood and letting the Earth scorch beneath her feet, quite literally. And as the flames dance in her heroine’s eyes, Mozley achieves no small feat with her debut, writing herself into a canon with a tale that is both timely and innately timeless.
Rachel Wilson is a writer and translator currently based in Berlin whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Broadly, i-D, The Lifted Brow, Fusion and more.