Coppard, A(lfred) E(dgar)

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COPPARD, A(lfred) E(dgar)

Nationality: English. Born: Folkestone, Kent, 4 January 1878. Education: Lewes Road Boarding School, Brighton, 1883-87; apprenticed to a tailor in Whitechapel, London, 1887-90. Family: Married 1) Lily Annie Richardson in 1905 (died); 2) Winifred May de Kok, one son and one daughter. Career: Paraffin vendor's assistant, auctioneer, cheesemonger, soap-agent, and carrier, Brighton, 1887-98; worked for several years in the offices of an engineering firm; confidential clerk, Eagle Ironworks, 1907-19. Died: 13 January 1957.

Publications

Collections

Selected Stories. 1972.

Short Stories

Adam and Eve and Pinch Me: Tales. 1921.

Clorinda Walks in Heaven: Tales. 1922.

The Black Dog and Other Stories. 1923.

Fishmonger's Fiddle: Tales. 1925.

The Field of Mustard: Tales. 1926.

Silver Circus: Tales. 1928.

Count Stefan. 1928.

The Gollan. 1929.

The Hundredth Story. 1930.

Pink Furniture. A Tale for Lovely Children with Noble Natures. 1930.

Nixeys Harlequin: Tales. 1931.

Crotty Shinkwin, The Beauty Spot. 1932.

Cheefoo. 1932.

Dunky Fitlow: Tales. 1933.

Ring the Bells of Heaven. 1933.

Emergency Exit. 1934.

Polly Oliver: Tales. 1935.

The Ninepenny Flute: Twenty-One Tales. 1937.

Tapster's Tapestry. 1938.

You Never Know, Do You? and Other Tales. 1939.

Ugly Anna and Other Tales. 1944.

Selected Tales. 1946.

Fearful Pleasures. 1946.

Dark-Eyed Lady: Fourteen Tales. 1947.

Collected Tales. 1948.

Lucy in Her Pink Jacket. 1954.

The Higgler and Other Tales. 1994.

Poetry

Hips and Haws. 1922.

Pelagea and Other Poems. 1926.

Yokohama Garland and Other Poems. 1926.

Collected Poems. 1928.

Easter Day. 1931.

Cherry Ripe. 1935.

Simple Day. 1978.

Other

Rummy, The Noble Game, with Robert Gibbings. 1932.

It's Me, O Lord! (autobiography). 1957.

Editor, Songs from Robert Burns. 1925.

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Bibliography:

The Writings of Coppard by Jacob Schwartz, 1931.

Critical Studies:

Coppard: His Life and His Poetry by George Brandon Saul, 1932; Remarks on the Style of Coppard by A. Jehin, 1944; in The Lonely Voice: A Study of the Short Story by Frank O'Connor, 1963.

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The deceptive simplicity of A. E. Coppard's short stories has beguiled many critics into believing that they are little more than country tales with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and an uncomplicated moral message. On one level it is easy to understand this point of view, for Coppard was at his happiest writing about the lives of ordinary people; on another, deeper level many of his stories are complicated allegories that display a profound compassion for the underdog, the poor, and the dispossessed.

He also knew how to write from a woman's perspective. In "The Field of Mustard" three "sere disvirgined women" find a commonality of interest and purpose while gathering kindling in a high wood outside their village. Two of them, Rose and Dinah, are drawn to each other not only through their shared experience of country life and manners, but, as they discover, through their common passion for Rufus Blackthorn, the local gamekeeper.

Far from alienating them, the knowledge that each has had a love affair with the man only serves to strengthen the bond between them. When Dinah tells Rose that she wishes she had been a man, she really means it: the emotion is not in any way prurient but merely a manifestation of their close friendship. As so often happens in a triangle, though, the third woman, Amy Hardwick, is excluded from their circle of intimacy, and the exchanges between Rose and Dinah take place as they rest above a field of mustard with the countryside stretching out beyond it. Here, as in so many stories, Coppard proves to be a master of natural description, his prose the equal of anything written by Hardy.

Although little happens in "The Field of Mustard"—the women return to their quiet domestic ways—the experience has transformed Dinah and Rose: "Clouds were borne frantically across the heavens, as if in a rout of battle, and the lovely earth seemed to sigh in grief as some calamity all unknown to men."

A similar sense of passion shared and love denied lies at the heart of "Dusky Ruth," again set in the Cotswold country Coppard knew so well. A traveler arrives at a country inn where he is captivated by a dark-haired serving girl. Lost in passion, he spends the night with her, only to surrender to some silent sadness that lies at the heart of her being. The following day he leaves, never to return, and the reader is left with the uncomfortable feeling that both the traveler and the girl have been transformed utterly by the experience.

Coppard returned to the theme of love lost in "The Higgler," in which the central character, Harvey Witlow, falls in love with the beautiful and educated daughter of a husbandless farmer. Although the girl never acknowledges his presence—in spite of his repeated visits to buy her mother's produce—Harvey dreams of winning her. However, when her mother offers the girl in marriage, together with a handsome dowry, he panics and after much prevarication, turns his back on the match and marries Sophy, his first love. Only later does he discover that the girl really wanted him and had begged her mother to arrange the match. By then it is too late and Coppard ends the story on a bitter-sweet note with the mother dead and the girl left to run the farm. As the higgler leaves he muses on his fate: "Of course there was Sophy; but still—Sophy!" The same theme is explored in "The Man from the Caravan," in which two sisters, Marion and Rose, vie for the love of a feckless romantic novelist. Although Coppard describes the main characters as silly or vain misfits—a local colonel who is smitten by Marion is described as "an awkward oaf-like maniac"—he never loses sympathy with them and reveals himself as a profound analyst of human behavior.

Coppard's other great strength is the technical skill with which he invokes the background. In stories like "Weep Not My Wanton," "The Wife of Ted Wickham," and "The Truant Heart," the countryside is almost a character in its own right, lovingly depicted, with a life of its own. By his own admission Coppard knew the English countryside so well because he had spent much of his young life tramping over it. As the son of poor parents, he had to work hard, too. Although self-pity is entirely absent from his literary output, there are strong autobiographical echoes of his early life in the tailoring trade in his story "The Presser," which focuses on the sweatshops of London in the early days of the twentieth century.

Although it is possible to see the influence of Chekhov or Maupassant in early collections like Adam and Eve and Pinch Me and The Black Dog, Coppard's voice is very much his own. Moreover, he possesses the ability to create events that occur not so much in the lives of his characters as in his observation of them. For example, the much-anthologized "Mordecai and Cocking" is both a pleasing vignette of rural life and a tart and subtle illustration of the injustices that face both humans and their animals in the real countryside. Not only does Eustace Cocking, the young countryman, lose his job and his living but his dog drops dead while chasing a hare, and the story ends with nemesis approaching in the shape of the menacing gamekeeper. Here, as in every other story, Coppard showed a sure ear for the rhythms and cadences of rural speech.

Above all, and this quality marks Coppard as an outstanding exponent of the short story, in all his fiction he translated the best aspects of the observed rural world into the realms of his own imagination.

—Trevor Royle

See the essays on "The Black Dog" and "The Poor Man."

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Coppard, A(lfred) E(dgar)

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