The Living and the Dead: You Will Reap What You Sow

[This story was published on January 6 on the BAVS Neo-Victorian blog. Read the original story at victorianist.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/neo-victorian-review-the-living-and-the-dead-you-will-reap-what-you-sow.]

In previous posts on The Living and the Dead, I have discussed how tensions between different worlds – old and new, religious and scientific, ‘real’ and ghostly – have been explored by the programme through its characters and themes.

The women of Shepzoy often serve as conduits between these worlds. Charlotte Appleby, as unwitting celestial telegrapher, conjures the past (the ghost of Gabriel) into the Victorian ‘present’ through her technological prowess, whilst Harriet Denning’s skills channelling spirits are utilised by Nathan Appleby to bring forth voices from the spiritual world. She succeeds not only in conjuring the ghost of one Abel North as well as the spirits of Nathan’s mother and son, but she is also capable of calling forth a voice from the future – that of the woman with the iPad who has been haunting Shepzoy. Martha Enderby, village schoolteacher and ‘apparitional lesbian’, enables the programme to explore the social tensions emerging between modernising notions of female homosexuality and emancipation. Further to this, the theme of the rapid modernisation of the Victorian world enables The Living and the Dead to explore the tensions between the worlds of folklore, old religion, magic and tradition, and the worlds of science, technology, industrialisation and the grand narrative of ‘progress’.

Tensions between old worlds and new worlds – past, present, and futures – characterise each of the themes I’ve explored in my blog posts so far. Continuing from this central concept, I am going to examine the idea of Shepzoy as a space in which multiple chronologies exist simultaneously, a conceit which enables The Living and the Dead to develop these explorations of tensions between worlds.

The White Cloud, by Samuel Palmer (1805 – 1881). This picture explores the picturesque possibilities of clouds in a pre-industrial landscape – a time and landscape that Shepzoy is still preoccupied with.

[Image: The White Cloud, by Samuel Palmer (1805 – 1881). This picture explores the picturesque possibilities of clouds in a pre-industrial landscape – a time and landscape that Shepzoy is still preoccupied with.]

The concept of Shepzoy as this ‘multi-time space’ is introduced in The Living and the Dead through reference to the community’s reliance on the continuously renewing natural world. It is interesting to note that the story opens on the Summer Solstice, an occasion marked by Shepzoy’s community with a distinctly pagan celebration. Drums are beaten, the people dance, and Nathan is assured that ‘an Appleby always lights the solstice fire’. For a rural community whose livelihoods depend on the success of the farm, honoured connections to the natural world and its ancient cycles are crucial. The solstice is a time significant on the turning wheel of the year as a celebration associated with fertility, ripening, and regeneration. A cataphoric reference to the programme’s key theme of the cyclical nature of history, the solstice indicates the ‘revolutions’ of time which carry the impact of the past forward. ‘You will reap what you sow’ is a theme which continues to appear throughout the programme, furthering the programme’s exploration of the concept that characters’ actions echo back and forth within Shepzoy’s chronology.

The internal clock of Shepzoy, however, is slightly off kilter with that of the rest of the world. A space seemingly isolated from the rest of the world (London is spoken of but never seen, Vienna is frozen in Nathan’s snow globe), Shepzoy immediately strikes the viewer as a place very much left in the past. A woman is drowned for witchcraft as late as 1861, and the farm’s technology, prior to the arrival of the new Applebys, is completely outmoded. It is implied that those from outside the community misinterpret the natural environment for a world of spirits – ‘city boys’, sighs Gideon, a farmhand, ‘you put them in the woods at night and they’ll tell you they seen Lucifer himself’.  There is a distinct mixing of chronologies thanks to Shepzoy’s isolation from the rest of the world, and as the series develops, it becomes clear that it is a village very much populated by that which has passed.

A Pastoral Scene, by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). This painting combines the pastoral sentiment of Shoreham with the topography of Devon. 1894 Shepzoy’s community customs and farm work harken to an earlier period in the history of rural England.

[Image: A Pastoral Scene, by Samuel Palmer (1805-1881). This painting combines the pastoral sentiment of Shoreham with the topography of Devon. 1894 Shepzoy’s community customs and farm work harken to an earlier period in the history of rural England.]

This operates on two levels. Shepzoy clearly suffers from a preoccupation with the past and that which has been lost: the wax cylinders introduce ghostly voices from the past, tin soldiers are used to recreate the Battle of Balaclava and to retell the story of the Red Boys, and a photograph of the 1861 harvest is shown to still hang inside the Appleby’s house.

In addition to this, however, Shepzoy is literally haunted. The village experiences increasingly impermeable visitations from the spirit world – dead men possess young women, and beloved family members manifest in the background of group photographs. The Red Boys return to the village to exert their anger on a new victim, the murdered farmhand Alice returns to torment her killer and former lover.

When the spectral stampede of Roundhead soldiers descend on the village during Allhallow’s Eve, this literal haunting reflects Shepzoy’s ghoulish preoccupation with its past. The story of the ‘Allhallow’s Eve Massacre’ is repeated every October, manifested repeatedly in the present: “You know the stories about the Allhallows Massacre, we all do. About how the Roundhead army rode on Shepzoy with their swords, slaughtering all before them, killed every man, woman and child […] and those that tried to flee were given the worst death of all, hunted down and strung up in the tree by their neck, gutted like pigs.” On multiple levels, therefore, Shepzoy is haunted by this element of its past and is forced to confront its ‘ghosts’.

This postmodern interpretation of ‘haunting’ extends to Shepzoy’s tension with its future – the viewer’s present. This is not only explored through Shepzoy’s resistance to the Victorian ideals of ‘progress’, which is illustrated through the community’s suspicions surrounding the changed apple stock and the new railway line (in turn, this ‘progress’ is hindered by the ‘city boys’’ distrust of Shepzoy’s old world magic). There are echoes of a unnegotiable future manifested both in iron – the beginnings of a railway bridge can be seen going up in the background of one scene – and in spirit, as Nathan is haunted by a girl with an iPad. Interestingly, the ‘literal’ haunting here is that of the ghost, while the figurative, intangible haunting is that of the railway bridge, which serves as a metaphor for the changing nineteenth century world. The technological advances set to impact on the world are indicated by a cataphoric reference dropped in the very first episode – as Nathan and Harriet visit his mother’s grave, a plane contrail is seen overhead. The Appleby’s impending parenthood is a future haunted by an even further future, as a baby – the daughter of the ghostly girl with the iPad – is heard throughout their home.

Inhabitants of Shepzoy, including Denning and the Applebys. Picture credit: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p043cds2/p043ccf4.

[Image: Inhabitants of Shepzoy, including Denning and the Applebys. Picture credit: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p043cds2/p043ccf4.]

The Living and the Dead continually indicates that the present’s tensions with past and future often work in inverted ways. Take, for example, the instance in which the surveyors take gunpowder to the land to create a viaduct for a railway. As they mark out the area, churchman Denning says to Nathan: “Appleby, look at these Neolithic flints […] the last human to touch these has been dead for 7,000 years”. The surveyor’s attempt to progress Shepzoy towards the technological future results in the manifestation of a distant past. Simultaneously, the ancient landscape gives way to a developed future.

Although the landscape of Shepzoy is intrinsically linked with its position as ‘multi-time space’, the microhistories of the inhabitants also illustrate this theme of the inverted tensions of past and future. When Charlotte finds a box of Gabriel’s belongings – shoes, clothes, a teddy bear – this box of memories conjures forth the past. Gwen’s explanation – ‘I used to hear a little boy’s laughter in the house, and then one day – no more laughter’ – cannily confuses this chronology by implying that the boy ‘haunted’ the Appleby’s house in the past. This also works as a cataphoric reference, indicating the different sort of ‘haunting’ Gabriel will bring to the home in the future. The tensions of the past will become tensions of both the present and the future, a factor further indicated by the drawings of a woman with a glowing rectangle that Charlotte discovers in the box.

The final episode deals with this concept of Shepzoy as ‘multi-space time’ by revealing that the ghostly girl with the iPad, Lara, is the great-great-granddaughter of the Applebys, who has been haunted by Gabriel. Her return to the house of her forebears is interpreted by Nathan, who is simultaneously existing in Shepzoy, as a ‘haunting’. The chronology becomes further confused as Lara attempts to prevent Nathan’s suicide attempt, witnessing him through a window, but inadvertently intrudes on the wrong timeline, witnessed by Nathan earlier in this series. This retroactive foreshadowing is reflected in Charlotte’s catching of her dress on metal protruding from the ground. This ‘buried treasure’, when pulled from the earth later in the episode, proves to be Lara’s modern car – revealing that Lara has died in Shepzoy while attempting to maneouver her car away from Nathan, who saw the blinding beams of the headlights move towards him several episodes before. Lara’s legacy, however, will live on in her baby daughter, ‘Lottie’, who escaped the accident wreckage. Chronologies overlap and past and future traumas impact upon an indeterminable ‘present’, but the wheel of time continues turning.

Farm workers celebrate the Summer Solstice in Shepzoy. Picture Credit: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03yjgsy/p03yhpbg.

[Image: Farm workers celebrate the Summer Solstice in Shepzoy. Picture Credit: bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03yjgsy/p03yhpbg.]

I’d also like to suggest that The Living and the Dead furthers this exploration of Shepzoy’s position as ‘multi-time space’ by utilising other factors to indicate its confused chronology. Modern horror tropes are displaced from the twentieth century into the programme’s reimagining of the 1890s, utilising well known tropes such as the ‘virgin in the white dress’, poltergeist activity, sanity slippage or ‘mad doctor goes mad’, and the ‘creepy child’ concept. These (often visual) tropes have been reinforced by the prevalence of contemporary horror’s iconography in modern media, and thus are a slight step out of pace with Victorian Shepzoy. This, of course, continues the theme explored earlier of Shepzoy being unaligned with the ‘modern’ world of the nineteenth century, indicating that the village experiences chronological dissonance both in its past and future. The scoring, as well, further confuses the chronology. The Insects’ music sounds like a collection of local folk music, and is distinctly antiquated in its use of ethereal echoes and religious chants. It is, however, an album developed specifically for the programme by a Bristol based duo of contemporary composers.

The idea of Shepzoy as a ‘multi-time space’, therefore, allows the programme to examine time as in dialogue with itself. As the programme demonstrates, both the past and the future impact so heavily on the present as to create a Gordian Knot of chronology. The ‘present’ as a concrete concept also becomes negotiable – the idea of the ‘present’ becomes slippery, postmodern, and the audience is left without a concrete solution.  Importantly, this ‘dialogue’ of chronology enables The Living and the Dead to bring together disparate worlds – religion and magic, science and folklore, spiritualism and technology, progress and tradition, emancipation and pathologisation – within a single environment. The relationships between these sometimes opposing, occasionally related worlds can be explored fully due to the ‘multi-time space’ of Shepzoy, which allows discourses separated by time, social difference and geography to interact within a single environment. The confused chronology, therefore, serves the double purpose of exploring our relationship with time, and time’s relationship with discourse.

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