In The Vale takes us from London to the Vale of Glamorgan and outwards into the social ferment and bloody turmoil of the Napoleonic ers.
By his rushed marriage to Sarah, nurse-governess of the two infant children of the widowed master of Ash Hall, a “big house” in Ystradowen, George, an impecunious curate, is strangely gifted the rectory and living of the ancient church at Llantrithyd. Their life together is intertwined with that of Sarah’s former employer, Richard Aubrey, youngest son of the great landowning family whose grand Tudor mansion neighbours the church.
Life in the Vale, dictated by the vicissitudes of the season and the rhythm of labour on the land, is torn across by sickness and sudden death, while the toll of maimed and dead from battle and disease rises inexorably across Europe and further afield.
When duty calls, Richard becomes commandant of the Glamorgan Militia, tasked with keeping the peace in troubled times and defending the realm under threat of invasion from France. George, driven by loyalty, would join the regiment as chaplain and Richard grudgingly allows him for a time to leave Sarah and their children – but at what cost…
“Much enjoyed reading In the Vale. Beautifully crafted, meticulously researched, elegantly written and humanly compelling.’
– Professor M Wynn Thomas
Here’s a short extract from the novel:
For an entire month, winter was unrelenting. Deep frosts spread a glistening crust on the white surface of the changed world. The lane, filled up with snow, here and there to the full height of the hedges on either side, remained impassable. Movement was easier on some fields sloping down to Ystradowen, where the snow had been blown to hedge margins and piled there in great drifts, leaving shallower accumulations elsewhere that a careful rider could negotiate. Eventually, treacherous icy paths wound their way to Cowbridge and to Llantrithyd. Mr Aubrey set off again for the Plas, saying it was unlikely he would be back that same day, much as he wished it.
Two days and two nights passed and still he had not returned. Sarah hid her anxiety from the children and kept them busy with work and play as best she could while insisting rooms were kept warm for them and food prepared as usual. On the morning of the third day, encouraged by a lull in the gale, a few of the day men braved icy, narrow paths through deep snow to Ash Hall. They stood in a huddle outside the back door, stamping their feet. Finding the master was not at home, ‘What shall we do now?’ they asked. Slither their way back home again, without having earned a penny? The kitchen maid, who had answered their knocking, turned to Sarah, at the head of a small table drawn close to the hearth where the children were finishing their breakfast. Together, the other servants turned and looked at her, and the men in the yard peered in. After a moment’s thought, she told one to lay in more sawn logs for the fires and bring coals nearer to the door, and the other two to clear the stable yard in readiness for the master’s return. ‘And please close the door,’ she added, ‘or we shall freeze inside.’
Just past midday the men working in the yard came to say they had finished their tasks – was there anything else? The kitchen maid ran to fetch Sarah, who came into the kitchen clutching a shawl about her, her breath already visible in the instantly chilled air. She observed their pinched, pale faces and frosted beards, and their relief when she dismissed them. She didn’t wait to see them hurry off.
Unable to leave the confines of the house, or even move more than a few yards from a fire, for all Sarah’s efforts to instruct and amuse them the children were fretful and gripped by lassitude. They had an early supper while warming pans were put into their beds and their bedroom fire made up and, after a last story about Jack and his adventure with an immensely tall beanstalk and a giant who lived in a castle in the sky, which Sarah remembered from her childhood, they went contentedly to sleep. At nightfall the wind rose from the north and snow whirled by the windows, whether fresh or blown from drifts it was impossible to tell. All the servants were once more gathered in the kitchen, where a great fire blazed, and yet the air was chill in the farther corners. With the noise of the wind no one heard approaching hoofbeats on the icy path, and the servants looked fearfully around at a muffled thud against the door. Had hoary old winter himself arrived demanding to be let in?
‘Open the door,’ cried Sarah, ‘for God’s sake, quickly.’
Unlatched, the door swung open with the wind’s blast and a figure wrapped in cloak and scarves crusted with ice fell in over the threshold. Someone screamed. ‘It’s Mr Aubrey – he’s dead.’
The door slammed shut. In the confused hubbub of wailing and shouting that followed, Sarah knelt by the prone figure, pulling at the bundle of frozen clothing until she had turned him on his back, hauling away layered scarves, already dripping with melting ice. The face was deathly pale, the body, corpse-like still, and the eyes open, staring with huge pupils, but there was the faintest sign of breathing – a breath, a breath, a long pause, a breath.
‘He’s alive,’ said Sarah, who had been holding her own breath until she almost fainted away. There’s a fire in his room?’
‘No, Mistress Sally. He didn’t come back this morning and we didn’t think to see him today.’
‘We must get these wet, frozen things off him. You,’ she motioned to the two men hanging back at the fringes of the group, ‘carry him to my room, undress him at once, quickly, and place him in my bed. Someone light the candles, and Mary, tend the fire there – now.’
The servants had been standing, some wringing their hands helplessly, until stirred to action by her urgent cries. Younger women scurried to light the way and the room above and in a moment their dying master had been lifted and carried upstairs, followed by Sarah and Mary with coals for the fire.
‘Lay him on the carpet by the bed. Strip him. Come, come! You must get those wet clothes off to save him.’
She watched as they struggled with boots and stockings, buttons and sleeves until she almost wept for anguish, but at last it was done and the marble form of Richard Aubrey lay still at the bedside.
‘Lift him, lift him, man – into the bed. Now, out. All of you – out.’
The two menservants backed away sheepishly and Mary, rising from the hearth where the fire, replenished, was burning well, called to them, ‘Dewch o fa’ma,’ and pulled them out of the room.
Under the bedclothes, the man lay still as before, staring at nothing, his breath faint. Sarah knelt by the bed, begging God to tell her what to do. And suddenly she knew. She rose, hastily took off her gown, her stays and petticoats and, in her shift and woollen stockings, entered the narrow bed. Clasping the rigid form in her arms, she pressed herself fiercely against its deathly chill and prayed the warmth of her body would bring life. ‘Live,’ she murmured in the frozen ear, ‘live … live for your children … for me … live, live,’ on and on, until at last the turmoil of events and fatigue overwhelmed her and she fell asleep.