The Roadmender by "Michael Fairless" (Margaret Barber) (1902)
Margaret Barber (`1869-1901) was an English woman whose health began to fail in the early 1880s when she came down with a spinal condition. In 1884 she went to London to train as a nurse and did charitable work in that city. As her health deteriorated, she began to lose her sight and was soon in continual need of care. Luckily a wealthy family took her in and cared for her. No longer able to do charitable work, she began to write religious fiction, adopting the pseudonym "Michael Fairless." Her first novel, The Gathering of Brother Hilarius, was published the same year she met her early death. Her second book, The Roadmender, which was basically a book of meditations, was an instant success; it was reprinted 31 times over its first ten years.
The Roadmender is sectioned into three parts (or stories, if you will). In the first eponymous section we meet The Roadmender, a poor man in his forties who spends his days by the side of the road near a hedge hammering stones to be used for repairing roads. He also uses this time to notice and take joy in the things around him. The birds, small animals, and insects are his "little brothers." He glories in the wind and the trees, the soft green grass and the mysterious movements of the sea. Occasionally he sees people travel the quiet road: a woman chasing a chicken that wants a safe place to lay her eggs; Old Gem, the wagon driver who brings sacks of flour from the mill and who refuses to use a whip in his horses; a seventy-year-old grandmother left to raise her four-year-old grandson; an eighty-four-year-old man walking to the workhouse after his son (who is expecting another child) and can no longer afford to keep the old man; a couple hauling a man's father back from the workhouse in a coffin to be reunited with his dead wife; a preacher who feels a roadmender's work is demeaning...
There is no plot here, just quiet observations couched in a Christian framework. I'm not much for organized religion, but the author strikes a chord in me with her love and fascination with nature and with her anti-materialist philosophy.
The second section, "Out of the Shadow," our narrator is no longer a roadmender, and now spends his time observing the city, the river, and the sea. His observations remain interesting but are tinged with a heavily Christian message and the idea that death is nothing to be feared but, in many cases, to be welcomed. The text in this section is more opaque and ethereal. The narrator's reminisces of people and events now turn to a moral bent with a far more involved spirituality, More and more, the gifts of nature are likened (and surpassed) by eternal mysteries.
The final section is titled "At the White Gate." The roadmender has now come home to die and spends much of his time in a beautiful garden near his beloved road. He thinks back on his life to when he and a few others helped a local farmer to reap a ten-acre field of ripe grass by hand. On the third day they were joined by the women who came to harvest the grass. Among them was one woman who was shunned because she had a child out of wedlock. (Interestingly, the community saw nothing wrong if a woman gave birth just a month after marriage.) The shunned woman loved her child and drew happiness from him, but this particular story seems to go nowhere and is followed by some confusion ruminations on faith and God. This is then followed by a few more memories and some loving descriptions of nature. Although this section -- and, indeed, the whole book -- can almost read as a paean to pantheism, it is firmly rooted in modern Christianity but without glossing over some of its flaws.
So what to think of The Roadmender? I decided to read the book because it was listed in Donald H. Tuck's The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, although with no indication of its content. There is little, if any SF&F here. It's a book heavily invested in the wonders of this world and in the quiet acceptance of the next. In linking the two there is a mawkish sentiment, abetted by some confusing passages and (to me) some incomprehensible writing. This is a book you slog through. As I consider the author's brief and tortured life with the threat of death her constant companion, I can clearly see where her gentle acceptance arises. Que sera, sera.
One final note. The edition I read was the expanded edition, first published in 1926, with additional material, namely "Toutseil" (an unfinished -- and promising -- story about a deal with a supernatural creature) and extracts from a series of letters the author wrote from May through October, 1900 (also interesting).