There is an unexplained omission in the Wikipedia entry for the Edwardian writer, Arthur Morrison, most famous for the East End novels, Tales of Mean Streets (1894), A Child of the Jago (1896), and The Hole in the Wall (1902). No mention is made of his fascinating novel, Cunning Murrell (1900), a story of white witchcraft in Hadleigh, Essex, based on an actual person of the novel’s title who lived there in the middle of the 19th century, and whose fame extended across the county. I spent some childhood years in Hadleigh, which is why it has a special appeal, but not so much that it would make me think it a better novel than it is – and it really is very good. Reading it again, some of its descriptive passages of rural fairs, the countryside at night, as well as the dialect speech are as vivid as the best of Thomas Hardy, and its evocation of isolated, superstitious, and benighted rural life equally convincing.
As someone resistant to ghost stories – even those of Joseph Conrad or Henry James – and all the literary malarkey about marsh spirits, hauntings, devil worship and tumbledown cottages located at the crossroads, I’d make an exception for Morrison’s novel. Cunning Murrell is not malarkey. It is about the ways in which gossip, male power and collective mentalités, can gain hold of isolated, closed communities, especially those that have turned on each other. It might be through religious fervor, misogyny or class sentiment, but in this case it is largely about the ‘natural work’ of crime (smuggling and the distribution of contraband), which made up a significant element in the estuary economy of Hadleigh and its neighbor, Leigh-on-Sea. Fear of betrayal is ubiquitous.
Set in 1854, the novel’s setting, Hadleigh, is described as ‘thirty-seven miles from London by road, but a century away in thought and manners’. The names of the pubs in the novel are exactly the same as the pubs still there in Hadleigh today: The Castle and The Crown. And Hadleigh has always been marked by its close proximity to the windswept downs and marshes overlooking the Thames Estuary and the distinctive ruins of the 13th century castle, famously painted by Constable, but in this novel the cellars of which are used for storing contraband. Hadleigh thins out into a couple of unkempt narrow lanes leading down to the castle – and still does – and it is here in this lawless territory that the novel takes place, no more than four hundred yards from the High Street. It was always a strange piece of topography.
Morrison was well read in the folklore of Essex rural life and Cunning Murrell is a complicated character, part benign, part steeped in a long tradition of folk medicine and psychological intuition, equally adept as a horse doctor as a mediator between warring families. Like the real life Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould, author of the Mersea Island novel, Mehalah, Murrell was the father of up to twenty children, most of whom had been ‘lost or forgotten’.
The historian Sarah Wise – whose work I admire enormously – nevertheless gave Morrison a hard time in her book, The Blackest Streets, slightly unfairly so I thought at the time. It is true that his stories about life in the East End often displayed a fear of ‘the underclass’, and over-emphasised the criminality of Bethnal Green to achieve a literary and dramatic effect, but A Child of the Jago, was and is a terrific novel, and one that inspired Alexander Baron to write his fine novel about exactly the same locale, King Dido. In much the same spirit that led J.M.Barrie to donate the royalties of Peter Pan to Great Ormond Street Hospital, Morrison bequeathed all the royalties of Cunning Murrell to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.