Why this author was Suffolk’s answer to Thomas Hardy

Suffolk novelist Harold 'Jack' Freeman, pictured in 1936.

Suffolk novelist Harold 'Jack' Freeman, pictured in 1936. - Credit: Archant

Lin Bensley tells the story of one of East Anglia's greatest novelists - Harold W 'Jack' Freeman - and why we should rediscover his work.

Joseph and his Brethren: 'Jack' Freeman's 1928 debut novel which was an instant success on both side

Joseph and his Brethren: 'Jack' Freeman's 1928 debut novel which was an instant success on both sides of the Atlantic. - Credit: Archant

Harold Webber Freeman - known as 'Jack' - was destined to become one of the most significant East Anglian novelists in the first half of the twentieth century. R H Mottram declared him an equal of Thomas Hardy, and in his best work, he could on occasion surpass him.

Born in Ilford in 1899, the son of a schoolmaster, Freeman was educated at the City of London School and won a scholarship to Christchurch College, Oxford, where he read Classics. After serving with the Somerset Light Infantry during the latter stages of the First World War, he returned home disillusioned like many of his generation, and found it difficult to accept the immense changes society was then undergoing.

Though his academic achievements and his skill as a linguist ably qualified him to enter teaching, it was never a profession he desired to pursue on a full-time basis. Freeman became a man who eschewed convention, and after leaving Oxford he never again displayed an interest in the world of academia, though he always regarded himself as an Oxford man.

It was not until his father retired from teaching and bought a poultry farm in Carlton near Saxmundham that Freeman realised his passion for working the land and the peasant's life. Herein lies the conflict at the heart of Freeman's complex character; his desire to be as one with those who earned their living from the soil who desired to be accepted by their company in the tap room, and yet still retain his middle-class status and the deference he felt the position deserved.

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It was at this time that he also discovered a yearning to travel abroad, especially to Italy where he enjoyed a vagabond lifestyle that suited his adventurous nature. It is highly probable that Freeman, who always had an eye for a pretty girl, indulged in several affairs during this period.

Love might have sustained him for a while, but it would not pay the rent, and his financial shortcomings must have forced him to consider earning a regular income. And so it was, that whilste residing in a Florence garret he sat down to turn a short story he had written some years earlier into a full-length novel, which ultimately became Joseph and his Brethren.

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Published in 1928, the book became an instant success both here and across the Atlantic where the American Book Society selected it as their Book of the Month, a rare honour indeed for a newly-published author. Set in the village of Bruisyard, the story begins with the cheap purchase by Benjamin Geaiter of a run-down farm called Crakenhill Hall. Soon Benjamin, his wife Emily, and their five sons set to the task of returning the abandoned farm's hundred acres into prime arable land and pristine pasture. It is a life of harsh and arduous labour, working from first light to nightfall, with all their thoughts and efforts concentrated upon their subservience to the soil.

The farm's boundaries are the limits of their world, where the cold-hearted Benjamin Geaiter governs with an unbending will, and treats his own flesh and blood with almost as much contempt as he treats outsiders. When Ben's wife collapses and dies while hand-weeding a field, a chain of events are set in motion that threatens to destroys their insular existence.

Freeman's second novel, Down in the Valley (1930), was set in the village of Kersey, and while peopled with a number of authentic characters and several remarkable scenes, the whole is marred by a weakly-constructed plot. His next novel, Fathers of their People (1932), and its sequel, Pond Hall's Progress (1934), saw a marked return to form.

The story charts the life of Adam Brundish and his family who have owned and worked Pond Hall farm since the 1630s. Through the pages of the two novels we follow the whole community of Thirling Priors (a fictitious village set ten miles outside Halesworth) charting their years of prosperity through to the decade of depression immediately after the First World War. The hard facts rendered here in Freeman's calculating style dispel any notions of a rural idyll.

Running to 528 pages, Hester and her Family (1935) is by far Freeman's longest novel. Set in two parts, the first follows Hester Arbourn who is orphaned at birth and raised in the workhouse. At 14 she becomes a maid-of-all-work at Dogkennel Farm under the harsh authority of Mrs Mewett. Soon Hester escapes to find employment at Thurstead rectory where she is seduced by the rector's son, Hubert, and soon discovers she is pregnant. To save the family from disgrace she marries Jesse Raven the local thatcher with whom she has been conducting a lukewarm courtship.

After four unhappy years of marriage Hester meets Charlie Fulcher, a hawker with a devil-may-care attitude who, like the free-spirited Hester, has a passion for all the sensual pleasures. They soon set up home together and throughout the years Hester weathers many misfortune with Charlie, as much for the sake of sexual gratification as any other motive; it is often the women in Freeman's novels who display a more relaxed approach to sex than their male counterparts. At the close Hester emerges as a Chauceresque heroine, and it is her indomitable nature which makes her one of the most likable of all Freeman's creations.

The second half of the novel is adequate but far less compelling and relates the story of Hester's eldest daughter, Jenny, and her life in Italy and especially in Florence, a city close to Freeman's heart. Regardless of the fascist regime, Freeman, a student of Dante, loved Italy and its people, and in particular the people of Florence, perhaps because he felt they were more attuned to their history and culture than the countryfolk of his adopted Suffolk homeland.

His next novel, Andrew to the Lions (1938), was a considerable disappointment and fails to engage the senses on any level. Thankfully, his next work, Chaffinch's (1941), was as far removed from Andrew and the Lions as it is possible to imagine, so much so that it is difficult to believe the same hand composed both.

Chaffinch's is not only Freeman's most important work, but it is also one of the greatest of East Anglian novels that warrants his inclusion in the pantheon of English literature. No other novelist has been able to capture the miserable lot of farming and the farm-worker between the wars as did Freeman; where the underlying message in the text informs the reader how cruelly government neglected the industry after the First World War. Chaffinch's also affirmed his belief in traditional farming methods that he felt were being eroded by the greed-driven movement towards prairie farming.

In terms of plot and characters it is Freeman's smallest canvas, yet it is perfectly painted. His economy of style aptly carries the story forward without any unnecessary embellishment. The reader empathises readily with the chief protagonists, Joss Elvin, his soul-mate Suzy Rickards, and their close friend, Tod Jordan. Through stubborn determination, Joss is eventually able to buy a derelict cottage called Chaffinch's, and turn the surrounding wilderness of Ditch Wood into a profitable smallholding.

The years of happiness that follow are brought to an end by changes in government policies that force Joss to sell at a loss to his arch-rival, the vindictive Edgar Clary. After Joss and Suzy suffer the worst deprivations, the story terminates with a muted happy ending of sorts. Though Freeman sympathises with the injustices served upon Joss Elvin he never resorts to sentimentality.

By now Freeman was married to Elizabeth Bodecker, a German costume designer who had worked in Berlin, Paris and London. They moved to the small village of Offton near Ipswich, to a former public house called The Shoulder Of Mutton with its large garden and few acres of grazing land.

Here they took great pride in growing their own produce and becoming self-sufficient long before the terminology had been invented. Gardening was a passion they both shared, as well as travelling around Europe whenever time and money allowed. But these were strictly walking or cycling holidays: Freeman had never learnt to drive as the car epitomised the progress he so much despised, much as he despised the mechanisation of agriculture.

One late highpoint in his career came in 1942 when he scripted a short film entitled The Harvest Shall Come. Directed by Max Anderson and starring John Slater, it tells of the hardship endured by the farm labourer in the first half of the 20th century. Freeman's convictions are echoed in the narrator's closing lines when he says the farm labourer was 'the lowest-paid, worst-housed worker in the community.'

After the Second World War, Freeman appears to have struggled to get into print, perhaps due in part to his reluctance to employ a literary agent. For one reason or another several manuscripts were rejected and only two further novels ever saw publication: Blenheim Orange (1949) and The Poor Scholar's Tale (1954).

Though both possess elements to commend as much as deplore, neither can match the splendour of Chaffinch's, and by the time of his death in 1994, H W Freeman had slipped into obscurity.

In recent decades Freeman's reputation has rightly enjoyed something of a revival, due in no small part to a few enthusiasts dedicated to preserving his literary legacy. Joseph and his Brethren, Down in the Valley and Chaffinch's are now back in print and serve as an invaluable record of East Anglian life: of particular interest to those researching local and social history.

That Harold Freeman's best works can enrich our lives is self-evident from reading the first chapter of Joseph and his Brethren, and with these thoughts in mind it is to be hoped that in the not too distant future his finest creations will be accorded the wider acclaim they have long warranted.

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