It proves to be the home of a witch. Her practice is a mixture of practical, down-to-earth folk wisdom and a psychic attunement to certain spiritual currents. Warily, he gets to know her and they become lovers.
And then in one remarkable necromantic scene she visits her previous, dead lover in the churchyard, raises his decaying body and releases him from her influence, since she is now committed to another. We are all set for a novel of dark occult deeds.
This is not exactly how it develops, though there are other glimpses of the supernatural: there are suggestions of thought-reading, precognition and an awareness of vital forces at play on individual fates. However, the novel also concerns itself with the economic and political realities of rural life.
One plot strand concerns a farmer’s eviction of an agricultural worker because of his socialist views: the witch and the artist give him shelter. Another describes the secretive world of the Purbeck marble workers, a trade carried on in the same families for centuries. We see their difficult, risky work.
In another scene, a friend of the
artist, a Communist organiser, incites the village men to take over the pub for
a night, ejecting the landlord, and enjoying free beer. His hope that this will
lead to a broader insurrection does not materialise and he has to go into
hiding to evade the local constable. There is a strange, visionary denouement as he flees
over the cliffs.
Benfield’s writing has a certain plain, rugged integrity to it, though dialogue is not a strong point: conversations are often a bit staged, and not natural-sounding. The novel seems to be aiming to reveal the secret, sinister life of a seemingly pleasant, secluded village, in the manner of T F Powys. The protagonist artist is a bit too passive to hold centre stage, though, and the structure often feels diffuse, as if the author wasn’t sure if he wanted to focus on rural hardship or uncanny folklore.
However, the novel ends with a raw and intense folk magic ritual at an ancient earthwork, the Cuckoo Pound, where the witch draws to her a dark stranger who exudes a black light. This being becomes her supernatural lover. The artist knows he is no longer needed, and departs the village: “He had been allowed to see something of the power of the countryside.” Beyond all the mortal machinations of village life there is a primeval force remorselessly at work.
A 2003 feature on Benfield by Patrick Wright at the Open Democracy website noted that “Benfield had actually started out as a quarrier and stone-worker at Worth Matravers, on the Isle of Purbeck in Dorset. By the late 1920s, the stone trade was dying, squeezed by the war-sped advance of concrete, and Benfield, like other Purbeck quarriers, was reduced to hacking out birdbaths or stone squirrels and owls for suburban gardens and the tourist trade.”
However, as Wright describes, Benfield also turned his hand to modernist sculpture and to writing. He was the creator of an anti-war monument at Woodford Green commissioned by Sylvia Pankhurst, which was controversial in its time.
His other books include a guide to Dorset; a booklet about the Dorset hill fort Maiden Castle (the subject of a novel by John Cowper Powys); Purbeck Shop (1948), about the stoneworkers, and at least one other novel drawing on the Dorset quarrying culture, Saul’s Sons (1938); and some crime fiction. He also wrote an autobiography, Southern English (1942).