Monday, 12 January 2015

Penguin no. 112: Children of the Earth
by Ethel Mannin

Life gave and it took away, and whatever it did to you or failed to do you had to carry on....The lobster and the crab and mackerel fishing, the potato and tomato seasons, the rising up with the sun to go to market, the toiling long after the sun had gone down, and the dark dreamless sleeps that linked day to day; the Spring tides coming with their May flowers and that aching sweetness on the air; the long hot summers, the sadness of autumn, and the long hard winters, year in and year out, the seasons going on, relentlessly, and one with them.

I took this Penguin down from my shelf after I received an email from John Enock, a fellow reader of old Penguins, expressing amazement that something of this quality should have left such a faint online trace. And faint it certainly is - a Google search turned up not one review on Goodreads or Librarything, and only a single contemporary description, and this despite the fact that Ethel Mannin was clearly a prolific and popular author in her day. It is a heart-rending tale:  I cannot recall another Penguin which left me feeling as sad.

Children of the Earth is a family saga telling of the lives of Jean le Camillion and his wife Marie, and of their five children, who live a primitive existence on the island of Jersey. Ethel Mannin uses their story to reflect at least partly on what she seems to consider the smug and self-regarding attitudes of her contemporaries living an urban life, implying that their arrogance is ill-founded. She contends that they have insulated themselves from life, so that while they might preen themselves on account of their possessions and their refinements, and look down upon all those who lack such things, it is all a delusion: those they disdain are more fully alive than they are themselves.

Jean le Camillion's father was an indolent man, and his mother was worn out early by the burden she was thereby forced to carry. His two brothers escaped the island as soon as they could and nothing more is heard of them. And so it is Jean at the age of eighteen who inherits the lease on the family farm, along with the house, but he also inherits the care of a mother invalided by years of hard work. He neglects the farm while he cares for her, and on her death he feels bereft rather than free: by the age of twenty-five he has known nothing but struggle, and this is how he conceives of life, expecting nothing else.

The story begin with him espying Marie Dauvigny in St. Helier one May morning, and it is a day on which he considers himself reborn. Her bright clothing and gaudy jewellery mark her as having come from Brittany to help with the potato digging. Although Jean is twenty-five, and very attractive to women, he has never given them a thought until the day he sees Marie. He never doubts that she is meant for him, just as he never doubts that she will take the initiative in seeking him out.

Jean knows he has little to offer her other than his strength and his good looks; the farm is rented from a landlord and the house is a humble affair which had been erected by his father. But Marie is ambitious and she has plans: they will work and they will save, and eventually they will have their own land, a two-storey house, and a family for which to care. She works tirelessly with this aim in mind.

And she bears Jean five children. She always loves him, but she isn't always happy, and the children remain afterwards as a record of their life together, their personalities capturing the tempo of their lives at the time of each of the births. The eldest reflects their early life together, the following two their restlessness, and the final one their fragility. Marie dies within hours of the final child's birth, when she is only twenty-five, and Jean, with five children to support by himself, returns to his life of struggle. The story tells of the lives of Jean and his children after Marie has gone.

Children of the Earth is a story about hardship and about resilience, and about continuing on when life seems to offer nothing other than an ongoing struggle to get by and continuing on is the only option there is. The life described is one constrained by seasons and by markets, and therefore beyond any possible control, so that the Jersey islanders must adapt their existence to rhythms imposed by the growing seasons of tomatoes and potatoes, and the tides which allow for the setting and checking of nets, and the prices paid by far-off markets in England and France, which are never enough. The life is hard: ongoing work without rest, and ambition unmatched by realisation. It is therefore no surprise that the children think only of getting away.

 Ethel Mannin succeeds in telling an interesting tale, but it is always clear that her tale is conditioned on a particular world view; she was clearly someone who questioned the direction society was taking.

First published 1930. Published in Penguin Books 1937.


  1. It sounds as if it was one of the targets of Cold Comfort Farm.

  2. You've sold me. I'll find the book. It has a very interesting premise and plot.

  3. Usually I read crime fiction only.

  4. I read one book by her - Proud Heaven - and did not like it at all. I do remember trying to find out more about her. That one had a funny disclaimer at the front, something like 'none of the characters are based on real people, and any attempt to see them otherwise will be seen as a gross libel on the imagainative powers of the author.' I did like that....

  5. I looked in Goodreads for her and they have quite a bit of information - she seems to have been quite amazing! II think it would be worth your while to check her out! See

    1. That was very interesting and informative, thank you!

  6. I really appreciate your professional approach. These are pieces of very useful information that will be of great use for me in future.



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