The Bride's Farewell
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On the day of her wedding, a young woman slips out of bed and runs away with only her beloved horse and mute brother for company. Fortified by her resolve not to marry—an unlikely decision in rural England in the 1850s—Pell forges her way across the Salisbury Plain, facing prejudice and poverty.
An outcast by choice, Pell has watched her mother raise a brood of children and grow “worn and shapeless” in the process. Observing the unchanging monotony, unending hopelessness, and grinding disappointment, Pell knows she must escape the prospect of “toil and hardship and a clamor of mouths to feed.” She leaves behind an alcoholic father, her sisters, and her fiancé, Birdie, a young man who loves Pell’s spirit as much as her ability to shoe a horse and birth a foal.
Together with Bean, her frail, mute brother, Pell rides her horse, Jack, to the Salisbury Fair, an annual horse-trading event. She hopes to find work but instead she meets a cast of characters, many of whom will heed or hinder her travels. There is Esther, a gypsy with five children whose generosity and kindness belie the prejudices Pell has been taught from her childhood; Harris, a shifty horse trader who strikes a bargain with Pell, only to cheat her; and Dogman, who fascinates her with his glittering eyes and his two shaggy deerhounds who never leave his side.
When Bean and Jack go missing, Pell sets out to find them. She journeys alone across the Salisbury Plain, working itinerant jobs, and is regarded with suspicion by most people she encounters. When she comes across Dogman again, Pell settles into his life for a while, threading her routine around his nocturnal poaching schedule. But the pull to find Bean consumes Pell, and eventually she leaves the comfort of Dogman’s home to continue her search. While Pell begins to lose hope, Bean is in fact still alive, though hungry, neglected, and struggling to survive in a workhouse. The grim conditions he faces offer a glimpse into the bleak lives of the period’s destitute citizens who had no choice but to endure squalor and cruelty.
Eventually, Pell finds her way back to the home that she had rejected. Expecting a hero’s welcome, she is shocked by what she discovers and is forced to face the consequences of her own actions. Throughout the book, Pell feels burdened by the responsibilities of love and attachment. Yet, in the end, it is this love and attachment to her family that pulls Pell forward throughout all her travails until she is able to create happiness for herself.
Meg Rosoff is the author of the internationally bestselling novel How I Live Now, as well as Just in Case, which won the Carnegie Medal, and What I Was. She lives in London, England.
Q. In many ways, this is a book about outcasts. Bean, Dogman, and Pell all make their way through the world alone, whether by choice or circumstance. What attracted you to their itinerant stories?
Aren’t all writers interested in outcasts? In The Bride’s Farewell, Pell rejects the life she has inherited and sets out in search of something better. It’s the start of her journey to find a more suitable fit in the world, a life that accommodates her particular gifts and desires. Of course there’s a reason that the journey is such a classic literary form—it comes with a beginning, middle, and end; it usually starts with a crisis, and if you’re lucky, you get some sort of hopeful resolution at the end. And, of course, it mirrors the psychological journey of growing up, leaving home, establishing an independent identity. To say that I identify with Pell’s journey may be stating the obvious. I think most people struggle over a matter of years to find a satisfying way to live.
Q. What inspired you about the Salisbury Plain in the 1850s? How did the setting and time period affect the development of the main characters and their stories?
During the industrial revolution in England the vast majority of the population shifted from rural (in 1800) to urban (in 1900). One of the images that this shift suggests is a countryside marked by abandoned and empty buildings, generations of rural families and communities broken apart as villagers headed to the cities for factory jobs. This economic and social mobility caused a huge upset in family life and traditional gender roles. Maverick Victorian women are well known as explorers and writers, but they mainly came from the comfortable middle classes. For a semi-educated girl like Pell, life as a farmer’s wife would have been stifling, but there wasn’t much in the way of an acceptable alternative. So she would have been left to forge her own path in life, with very little encouragement (and quite a lot of suspicion) from society.
For any Thomas Hardy fans, Salisbury Plain will ring bells as the setting for Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Tess’s miserable short life always depressed me greatly. I thought I needed to offer a better ending for an intelligent, independent girl.
Q. Many of your novels feature teenage protagonists around the same age as Pell. Yet, in the 1850s, Pell would have been considered an adult. While writing this book, did you think of her more as an adult or teen? How did you balance your modern perceptions of age and maturity with those of the period?
Pell would certainly have been considered a young woman rather than a child. By the time a girl looked like a woman (certainly by fifteen or so), she would have been marriageable, and she would have been expected to contribute to the financial well-being of the family from a much earlier age. Exploring the transition from childhood to adulthood applies as much to Pell as to any of my earlier teen characters, as Pell would have been grappling with all the same issues—love, work, independence, identity, family—albeit with a good deal less financial and social freedom.
Q. Pell’s love of horses is evident and her knowledge of them encyclopedic. Was her passion inspired by your own?
I’m afraid so. I loved horses and horse books as a child. Horses were the only part of the novel I didn’t need to research, having my own built-in encyclopedic knowledge. I have a comparable knowledge of dogs and dog breeds from the reading I did as a frustrated suburban child desperate for a large white horse and a dog or two. Writing this book inspired me to start riding again after a thirty-five year break, and the passion has returned. I spend far too much time on horseback these days—and have discovered a whole secret society of horsey writers (besides Jane Smiley).
Q. The female struggle for equality is present throughout the book, though it is not labeled as feminism. And certainly supporters of the 1850s women’s movement were more widespread among the wealthy. Why was it important for you to examine the unspoken feelings of repression and dissatisfaction among working class women of the period? In your opinion, what similar challenges—if any—are faced by women today?
Men dominated rural life in the nineteenth century. Sons were preferred over daughters, women rarely owned land or ran businesses, they were paid far less for the grueling domestic work they did, and they were vulnerable (along with their children) to economic ruin if a father or husband became ill or died. An intelligent girl with brothers (who would inherit the family farm) would have no choice but to marry as well as possible from a very limited range of local suitors and make the best of a life of hard work and difficult childbearing. To reject this life would have required great strength of character and a good deal of desperation. I suspect strong character and desperation have been prime motivators of maverick women throughout history.
I’d like to think life has improved since 1850, despite the long hours we all seem to spend slaving over hot computers, but the psychological journeys remain the same—the search for love, identity, a meaningful place in the world.
Q. The concept of luck appears several times throughout the book. In the end, Pell decides she is “finished with luck.” Do you believe our lives can be influenced by good or bad luck?
Every life is hugely influenced by luck—over which we have limited influence (you have to be lucky enough not to be struck by lightning, but can’t go through life avoiding the sort of place it might strike). Fate is different—the individual’s power to change his or her fate is where things get really interesting. Whether it’s for the better or worse, you change your fate every time you choose a different path in life or do something unexpected, brave, or absurd. It doesn’t always work out the way you might have hoped, but at least the story changes.
Q. Did you know how the novel would end while writing it? Were you certain that Pell would find contentment with Dogman?
I definitely set out to give Pell a better future than Tess had, but I have a bit of trouble with happily-ever-after. A little ambiguity seems to be the happy medium. Does Pell find contentment with Dogman? I’d like to think she does. When my husband read the book, he wasn’t so sure.
Q. This is your fourth book, but your first historical novel. Was it more or less challenging writing a book set in the past?
Writing this one didn’t feel any different. I had to do a bit more reading and research, but that’s the price you pay if you don’t want your characters to be text messaging each other all the time.
Q. Many of the book’s details—such as the Ridley’s sod house, or Pell sleeping in the hollow, fire-warmed walls of a kitchen garden—are so vivid. How did you research the period?
Although I’ve lived in England for more than twenty years, I still have a foreigner’s passion for all the details of English history and rural life. Every time I visit a Georgian country house or walk through a Victorian village, the historical details are all still there—the walled gardens and thatched cottages, old barns, little houses that are three hundred years old, even the trees and the wild flowers. Very little of this living history is self-consciously preserved. It all exists more or less as it always has, so all you have to do is to keep your eyes open. And read lots of Dickens, George Eliot, and Thomas Hardy of course.
- Pell shrinks from the burdens of attachment. Whether Bean, her family, Dogman, John Kirby, or Birdie, she feels the responsibilities of love clawing at her heart. How do you feel about her perceptions of love?
- Until the 19th century, Salisbury Plain was one of the wealthiest regions of England thanks to its wool and cloth industry. But during the 1850s, it suffered a steep decline, eventually becoming one of the poorest areas in the country. How does this setting affect the story?
- Early on, Pell declares, “I will never ever marry,” and she remains steadfast to this decision throughout the book. Why is she against marriage? Could a young woman today share her reasons? Why or why not?
- Many of the characters have unusual names, but Dogman is the only one without a real moniker—we know him only by the name that Pell gives him. Why do you think the author made this decision? What do the names of people and places signify in the book?
- Pell, Dogman, Esther, and her family all choose to buck societal expectations, yet to our modern eyes their choices don’t seem shocking. What does it mean to be an “outcast” in the 21st century?
- What role do social class and hierarchy play in the book?
- Early in the book, Pell thinks about “everything she loved and longed to escape” before making the decision to leave her home, family, and fiancé. Do you admire her decision? What would her life have been like if she had stayed?
- Does Pell have a greater connection with horses than with people? How does her affinity for animals affect her relationships with humans?
- Why do you think the author decided to make Bean mute? How do you think his experiences in the workhouse affect his ultimate decision to stay with Esmé?
- What qualities do Pell and Dogman share? Why are they drawn to one another?
- Were you surprised by Esther’s connection to Pell’s father? To Bean? Do you think Esther’s decision to start the fire was merited? How do you think Pell would react to the truth about the fire?
- Pell manages to escape “the grinding disappointment, the drudgery, the changelessness” of life in Nomansland. But her path forward is very rocky. Does she ultimately find a better existence?