A gripping, poetic coming-of-age tale, which considers issues as relevant to 21st century teenage experience as they were in Pell’s time; relationships, duty, love and abuse by Meg Rosoff.
Meg Rosoff is a wonderful, captivating writer – her evocation of place and time are pitch perfect. 5 *****”
A poetically charged romance, full of thorny emotional dilemmas… Meg Rosoff has created a feisty 19th-century heroine whose troubles and travails are strikingly salient in the world of modern romance.”
—Marie Claire Magazine
Meg Rosoff writes harrowing, psychologically complex crossover novels. An international bestseller, How I Live Now, was shortlisted for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and took the Printz Award and the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. Just in Case and What I Was are intense enough to galvanize teens and adults. The same holds true for her compulsively readable new novel The Bride’s Farewell. Rosoff’s prose is strong and muscular, its cadence that of a horse’s canter, its chiming tone ballad-like. Teens will be enthralled by Pell and her archetypal quest; adults will revel in the novel’s canny wit, lyricism and piercing insights.”
As exhilarating as a ride across the moors, Rosoff’s fourth novel is rich in the emotional landscape of the untamed female heart. The Bride’s Farewell has elements of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn, Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and a good number of Flambards books, yet Rosoff’s vivid, pared-down style brings it closer to a kind of western… every sentence is crafted and weighted with beauty, but it’s the intelligence and shaping sensibility with which the story is told that make it something special.”
—The Times (London)
Rosoff never patronises her readership or succumbs to the desire to make goodness seem simple: her world is as morally ambiguous as it is deftly realised, and all the better for it.”
Another shift in emphasis for this always revelatory author as she illuminates the lives of the rural poor in the world of Hardy’s Wessex… it is not necessary to love horses, but you probably will after reading it.”
An engaging, impeccably-written novel, it tells a feminist story of feisty independence, set against a rural, patriarchal background.”
—Independent on Sunday
Pell’s tale is slim yet rich, like a flourless chocolate cake. The lyrical passages and the strange and wonderful characters will linger with you long after the covers are closed. You’ll be tempted to devour the book in one gulp, to read it in one sitting, when really, it should be savored.”
—Tampa/St Petersburg Times
On the morning of August the twelfth, eighteen hundred and fifty something, on the day she was to be married, Pell Ridley crept up from her bed in the dark, kissed her sisters goodbye, fetched Jack in from the wind and rain on the heath, and told him they were leaving. Not that he was likely to offer any objections, being a horse.
There wasn’t much to take. Bread and cheese and a bottle of ale, a clean apron, a rope for Jack, and a book belonging to mam with pictures of birds drawn in soft pencil, which no one ever looked at but her.
The dress in which she was to be married she left untouched, spread over a dusty chair. Then she felt carefully inside the best teapot for the coins put away for her dowry, slipped the rope around Jack’s neck and turned to go.
Head down, squinting into the rain, she stopped short at the sight of a ghostly figure in the path. It had as little substance as a moth, but its eyes burnt a hole in the dark.
“Go back to bed, Bean.”
It didn’t budge.
She sighed, noticing how the pale oval of a face remained stubbornly set.
“Please, Bean. Go home.” Oh God, she thought, no. But it was no use appealing to God about something already decided.
Without waiting to be invited, the boy scrambled up onto Jack, and with no other option she pulled herself up behind him, feeling the warmth of his thin body against her own. And so it was, with a resigned chirrup to Jack and no tear in her eye, that they set off down the hill, heading north, which at that moment appeared to be the exact direction in which lay the rest of the world.
“I’m sorry, Birdie,” whispered the girl, with a final thought for the husband that should have been. Perhaps at the last minute he would find another bride. Perhaps he would marry Lou. Anyone will do, she thought. As long as it isn’t me.
Bean and Pell had been on the road barely an hour when the night began to thin, and they came to a village identical to the one they had just left — one road in, one road out, and one longer, less-trodden path that circled round. Every soul in that place knew her well enough to know she shouldn’t be up and riding away from home at dawn on her wedding day, so she steered Jack away from the main road, and from dawn till dusk they took the long way around each village until the names grew strange and the people they passed on the road began to look unfamiliar. And then, to be certain, they kept on. Bean rode even when Pell got off to walk, but weighed so little she doubted the horse noticed him at all. When she felt overcome by gloom and doubt and astonishment at what she’d done, he smiled encouragement at her, but most of the time he sat silent, looking straight ahead.
For a destination, Pell chose the horse fair at Salisbury. It was less a plan than a starting point, but it led her into the great anonymous bulk of England where an infinite number of possible lives beckoned. Away from Nomansland, her home and family, and away from Birdie Finch.
“He’ll make a good husband,” her sister Lou had always said. “And you like him well enough already.”
“But I can ride and shoe a horse better than he can.”
“Is that your best objection?” Lou wished someone would look at her the way Birdie Finch looked at Pell.
“It will have to do,” Pell laughed, and wheeled her horse off across the heath.
Lou watched them go, pressing her lips together with disapproval.
Pell and Birdie had been betrothed practically from birth, or at least from the first time she’d ridden a horse, which was just after she’d learned to walk, set up behind Birdie and holding on for dear life. That pony had no time for children, but Birdie stuck to him, and Pell stuck to Birdie, first like brother and sister, and later with her head buried in his shoulder and her arms around his waist.
“When we’re grown,” he’d say, “you’ll be married to the best farrier in two counties.”
“You ought to marry Lou,” Pell said. “She’s the one wants a husband.”
“I’ve nothing to say to your sister, and you know it.”
She wouldn’t contradict him, for it was true that Lou hated mud and horses equally, was the least likely person to attend a difficult birth or grab hold of a pony’s mane and swing up onto its back.
It’s worth noting that there was a time, an early time, when the thought of marrying Birdie had made Pell proud, not least for besting Lou, whom everyone knew would make the better wife. In those days, Pell and Birdie spent every spare moment together, from first dawn till last light, and there wasn’t a horse they couldn’t ride or a thought they didn’t share. Before she was old enough to know what kissing was, he’d kissed her and said, “There, now, that means we’ll be married someday.” And at first she believed him because she wanted to and later because she couldn’t think of anything else to believe.
“On that spot,” he said one day, pointing to the empty space beyond his parents’ house. “That’s where we’ll build our house, and fill it to bursting with children.” He held his arms out wide, to indicate multitudes.
A house full of children? Pell had only to look at her mother — worn and shapeless, with a leaking bladder, great knotted blue veins, and breasts flat as old wineskins — to reject that plan. Worse than the physical toll, even, was her mother’s grinding disappointment: with the weak and domineering husband who was never at home, the relentless work required to feed her family, the tiredness, the lack of hope, the pain in her bones.
Toil and hardship and a clamour of mouths to feed? Not now, Pell thought. Not ever.
Throughout the countryside farms stood empty, their inhabitants lured to the city with promises of well-paid jobs in factories and railway yards. The exodus had begun long before she was born, and continued in a steady stream throughout her childhood, as the promise of new and easier lives glittered from every city and town like fool’s gold. At one of these abandoned places, in an empty barn, the travellers set down for the night in perfect isolation.
Bean slid off Jack and stood watching, while Pell opened her bag for the old woven blanket she meant to have as a bed, and discovered folded within it a beautiful knitted shawl, large and warm and charcoal brown from the wool of new black lambs. The shawl was as good as a message from her sister, saying she should use it instead of a husband to keep warm in the world.
Pell wondered how Lou had known her secret. Such was the way with sisters, the knowledge of the other that bound them up in love and hate. Lou could marry Birdie now that her sister had run away, which would have been for mam a source of deep and lasting satisfaction. It would prove to her that the fates shared her taste for Louisa over Pell, though in fact the fates did not.
Birdie wouldn’t mind which of the sisters he married, despite them being as unlike as fire and clay. His need of a wife was the same as his need of a new suit of clothing, or an acre of maize. So she told herself.
“Come along, Bean,” Pell called. And then she wrapped him up tenderly in the beautiful woollen shawl on a deep bed of straw. He nestled down like a calf, falling instantly asleep. Pell watched him and thought of Lou knitting, her quick fingers carding and spinning and looping the soft brown wool. It had been made for her wedding, that much Pell guessed, and she was grateful for it now. The boy shivered in his sleep, and there was nothing for it but to cover him with more straw and add the other blanket for warmth. He would present no problem, she knew, would demand nothing and express no dissatisfaction with whatever came his way. He had come away for the same reason she had, there being nothing left for him at home.
She tethered Jack, and wriggled down into the deep straw beside Bean so that the shawl enveloped them both. The little boy and the soft wool smelled of everything she longed to escape: home, Lou, mam and pa, and Birdie, with his wide-open face and earnest plans for her future.
They were lucky. It was a good place to sleep, and though she cried for a time and held Bean close, before long it was morning and the first night had passed not much less comfortably than usual, and somewhat more so without six other souls attending her every move.
The light came early at this time of year, and they awoke in the soft gold of dawn, breakfasted on bread and began to walk again, cheered by the road curling up towards Salisbury. It was little travelled, too narrow for a horse and cart and loud with birdsong. Through the shade of ancient oaks and dappled beech groves they walked, Pell leading, ducking her head to avoid the long arms of flowering bramble. Sudden patches of sunlight trembled beneath her feet, warming the crumbly soil. At unfamiliar sounds she started, and looked behind them down the path, though she doubted anyone would think to follow them here.
Mostly they travelled in silence. Occasionally she talked to Bean and Jack, but the conversations were necessarily short because her plans were limited. Salisbury fair filled her entire horizon, with nothing beyond.
The sound of her horse’s feet on the earth soothed her, the regular thud-ump of it, familiar as the beat of her own heart. She walked barefoot beside him to save boot leather, with the sun on her face. Bean walked behind her for a way, but fell back almost immediately. She stopped and lifted him up onto Jack, and next time she looked he was asleep, hands tangled in Jack’s mane, head laid on his shoulder. They passed almost no one.
She stopped now and then for a rest, filled her empty bottle when she could, and once sat with her feet in the icy water of a stream while Jack dozed on the bank, one hind leg slack, muzzle dripping. A little later they passed a farmer she recognized slightly, but it had been seven years since they’d last met, and the woman shape of her was a perfect disguise. He said “hallo, nice day,” and she did too, and maybe he peered at her and the little boy and wondered for an instant, but that was all. The freedom of being nobody after all those years of everyone knowing exactly who she was made the blood in her veins run a little wild.