Ronald Blythe, Scribe of the English Countryside, Dies at 100
Ronald Blythe, an English writer who rarely ventured far from his birthplace in rural Suffolk, but who rose to international literary fame with his 1969 book “Akenfield: Portrait of an English Country Village,” an oral history of the quickly vanishing world he knew so well, died on Jan. 14 at his home near the village of Wormingford, about 75 miles northeast of London. He was 100.
His friend and executor, the art critic Ian Collins, confirmed the death.
Mr. Blythe wrote more than 30 books over his 60-year career, along with reams of reviews, essays and poems. He traversed genres, equally comfortable with novels, verse and conventional history. For 30 years he wrote a weekly column, Word From Wormingford, for The Church Times, an Anglican newspaper.
But it was “Akenfield” that established his reputation as Britain’s greatest chronicler of rural life. The book drew, formally, from a year spent listening to the farmers, gravediggers and retirees of Charsfield and Debach, two small villages that he combined into the fictionalized Akenfield. But it drew just as much from Mr. Blythe’s innate understanding of the rhythms and byways of the English countryside.
Much in the same way that Studs Terkel gave voice to soldiers, factory workers and other everyday Americans in his many oral histories, Mr. Blythe brought to print the lives and opinions of people long ignored by British society, just as the world they and their ancestors had inhabited for hundreds of years was disappearing. He changed the names of his interviewees, but insisted that otherwise he kept their words as he heard them.
“It is as if those country people have looked up for a moment from their plow, lawn mower or kitchen sink, and are talking directly (and disturbingly frankly) to the reader,” Jan Morris wrote in her review of “Akenfield” for The New York Times.
Rural Suffolk County, in Mr. Blythe’s depiction, was a hermetic, semi-feudal society, a place out of time where life was shaped by the cycle of the seasons and modernity had little purchase. At least that was the case until the 1960s, when cars, television and the rise of industrial farming finally came crashing in, upsetting the balance.
He was no apologist for the olden times, though, and neither were his subjects, who spoke about abusive landlords, occasional incest and the disregard of the elderly and the infirm.
“I don’t want to see the old days back,” one farmworker told him. “Every bad thing gets to sound pleasant when enough time has passed.”
The book was an international success, translated into 20 languages, and it has never gone out of print. It captured a moment, in Britain and across the developed world, when many people were stopping to question the rampant material achievements of the postwar era, asking whether they were worth the accompanying social and environmental costs.
“Akenfield” was a book that perhaps only Mr. Blythe could have written. The descendant of tenant farmers, he had little formal schooling and never lived far from his hometown. He read extensively but spent just as much time in the fields and woods of Suffolk.
He felt a deep connection to the land and its history: His daily walk took him past the remnants of successive civilizations reaching back through millenniums to the Iron Age and advancing through Romans, Saxons and Normans.
“The child of a car-less home, I spent half of my boyhood traveling to villages by field paths and what we called gulls, by kissing gates and stiles, and sometimes by stretches of lost roads,” he wrote in The New York Times in 1986.
He modeled himself on the artists who had found similar inspiration in the English countryside, including the poet John Clare, the novelist Thomas Hardy and the painters Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable, both of whom depicted the hills and streams of Suffolk in their landscapes.
His style was informed but conversational, erudite but never pedantic; he displayed none of the typical autodidact’s flaunting of his own hard-won knowledge. In a typical dispatch for The Church Times, about St. Matthew, he wrote:
Ronald George Blythe was born on Nov. 6, 1922, in Acton, a Suffolk village that had about 400 people and today has fewer than 2,000. His father, Albert, served in World War I, in the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, in which nearly 200,000 British soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. His mother, Matilda (Eakins) Blythe, was a homemaker who volunteered as a nurse during the war.
Ronald grew up spending most of his time outdoors, playing and exploring. He was not much for school, and in any case his educational options were limited. But he was a voracious reader, especially of the French literature his mother urged on him.
He served very briefly in the British Army during World War II, but was soon discharged as unfit — his commanding officers said he was simply incapable of violence. He returned to Suffolk, took a job as a reference librarian in Colchester and dreamed of a career as a writer.
Postwar Suffolk was something of a rural retreat for London writers and artists, and Mr. Blythe soon found himself in the orbit of luminaries like the novelists E.M. Forster and Patricia Highsmith and the composer Benjamin Britten.
He was particularly close to the painter John Nash and his wife, the painter Christine Kühlenthal, who lived in an Elizabethan yeoman’s house outside Wormingford. Mr. Nash left the house, called Bottengoms, to Mr. Blythe on his death in 1977, and Mr. Blythe lived there the rest of his life.
Mr. Blythe was reluctant to reveal his own literary ambitions to his esteemed friends, but when he did they encouraged him to find a publisher. His first book, a Forsteresque novel entitled “A Treasonable Growth,” was released in 1960. A history, “The Age of Illusion: England in the Twenties and Thirties, 1919-1940,” followed in 1963, and earned enough critical attention to get him an assignment editing a series of books for the Penguin English Library.
It was in that job, while writing an introduction for Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd,” a book that contrasts the superficial idyll of rural English life with the often harsh realities that accompany it, that Mr. Blythe was first inspired to write “Akenfield.”
He was intensely private and rarely revealed his opinions about religion or politics, though he did write an Op-Ed for The Times supporting George McGovern for president of the United States in 1972. He remained close to the Anglican Church of his youth, serving as a lay member of the clergy for decades.
Mr. Blythe is survived by his sisters, Constance and Eileen.
He continued to write long after many scribes his age had set down their pens, and published the majority of his books after he turned 70. His quiet passion for the English countryside drew him fans from across British society: Both the left-leaning Guardian and the right-leaning Telegraph newspapers published occasional celebrations of his life and lengthy obituaries at his death.
He was less taken with his own mortality.
“I would like to be remembered as a good writer and a good man,” he wrote in The Mail on Sunday in 2004. “Your work is what you are remembered by. Writers are observers. We are natural lookers, watchers. This is what we do with the gifts God gave us. It seems to me quite wonderful that I have so long been able to make a living from something I love so much.”