The Broom-Squire (1896)

This dark novel, published by Sabine Baring-Gould in 1896, is set at the Devil’s Punch Bowl near Hindhead. The novel begins with the vicious murder of a sailor, travelling across country to deliver his baby daughter to a relative, after the death of his wife. He sets out from the Thurstley Ship, a wayside inn between Goldaming and Portsmouth with three drunken, dubious characters, who murder and rob him in the middle of the night. Soon captured, the men are hanged in chains on Gibbet Hill, and the sailor’s baby is taken into care by the woman of the Inn, and supported by the charity of the parish. The baby is amusingly lay-christened by a frightened boy called Iver (son of the inn-keeper), who is convinced she will become a ‘wanderer’ and walk the face of the earth if she dies unbaptised. During the baptism he decides on the name Mehetabel, a rather obscure name from the bible, which he recalls from one of his Sunday school lessons.

In their younger days Iver and Mehetabel become great friends, and in her early adult life we find Mehetabel working at the Inn with her adopted mother and father (who also maintains a local farm). Iver now estranged from his folks – due to his artistic inclinations – has left the family home, and during his long absence, Simon the father becomes increasingly fond of Mehetabel and considers leaving her his fortune. The heart-broken and jealous mother feels this is a slight on Iver, and forms a cunning scheme with the bachelor Kink from the Devil’s Punch Bowl. Mehetabel is eventually coaxed into marrying this ‘Broom-Squire’, so called because he is one of a settlement of squatters whose chief skill is broom-making. Unfortunately, their marriage is desperately unhappy, as Kink, self-centred, cruel and obnoxious, thinks only about making money. At this point Iver is back on the scene and flirting with Mehetabel, which not surprisingly sparks Kink’s fury. When Mehetabel goes to Thor’s Stone to ‘wish’ Iver out of her life, Kink mistakenly thinks she means him, and hides in the bushes to shoot Iver. There is an altercation between Mehetabel and Kink, and the Broom-Squire is shot. Iver patches him up with Mehetabel’s dress then heads off to seek medical assistance. On their journey back to the Punch Bowl, Kink strikes Mehetabel and leaves her face down in the swamp. He tells his kinsmen that Mehetabel deliberately shot him. Kink and his sister now believe Mehetabel is dead, and the Broom-squire is worried there will be implications when they find her body. Mehetabel, however, is quite alive, and returns home apparently oblivious to being attacked by her husband.

In due course Mehetabel has a baby with the broom-squire, and she finds comfort in her child. Her repentant adopted mother (now on her deathbed) leaves 100 pounds for Mehetabel’s child, to be held in trust by Iver. Simon adds another 50 pounds. After the broom-squire’s life savings disappear with the collapse of his local bank, he attempts to wangle the baby’s money out of Iver. At this point the baby becomes ill, and it’s here we truly realise Kink’s evil nature when he attempts to kill the baby with poison in the guise of medicine, to get his hands on the funds. Mehetabel aware of her husband’s evil designs, thwarts this first attempt on her baby’s life. She later catches Kink trying to smother the baby with a pillow in the middle of the night. After this, Mehetabel leaves her home at the Punch-Bowl for good, and wanders the countryside seeking refuge. She is turned away by all her old friends and even by Iver (who has formed another attachment), and is advised by the locals to return to her husband ‘if she knows what’s best for her’. She hides in the caves, but is eventually discovered. Her baby dies, and after a brutal argument with her husband, he steps backwards into a disused lime-kiln shaft and plummets to his death. Mehetabel then goes through a humiliating public trial, where she is accused of killing her husband with a blow to the head. Matters are made worse when squatters from the Punch-Bowl give false statements against her. Interestingly, Iver is selected for the jury on her trial, but this is an intense time for the reader, as most of the men of the jury lean towards giving the guilty verdict, to make an example of her sex. Sexist pigs! In the end she doesn’t swing from the gallows (the locals didn’t want the hassle of another trial). Mehetabel, totally defeated, and with no desire to fight for her dead husband’s property (now hijacked by the pikeys from the Bowl), dedicates the rest of her life to working as a ‘dame’ school teacher, where she finds purpose in teaching the rudimentary basics to generations of local children.

 

 

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Author: Descartes Baker

Graduate in English with Creative Writing. Loves Victorian literature, poetry, watching the clouds go by, travelling, numismatics, and reading long forgotten and obscure novels.

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