Rector James Coyte

(creator: R E Dugdall)

Ruth Dugdall
Rector James Coyte (he is called Rector throughout) had just graduated from Cambridge with a second-class degree in Theology, when, in 1851, he was sent to become Rector of Polstead, a small Suffolk village with only 20 households. It was notorious as the scene of the (real life) Red Barn Murder, that had involved a frenzied attack on, and murder of, a young woman, Maria Marten, back in 1828.

Coyte is 27 years old, and finds the parish an unwelcoming place that he would be only too glad to escape from. He cannot keep the attention of his small congregation during sermons, and decides that "this results from their lack of education". But he feels "inexperienced and clumsy" and lacks the spiritual resources with which to cope: "I have never considered the study of religion as an exploration into the mystical or spiritual, but as a practical understanding of the word of God."

He decides to keep a journal about his experiences to be called The James Version which, he hopes, would so impress his Bishop that he would be moved to "a more congenial location".

R(uth) E Dugdall (1971 - ) has a BA honours degree in English Literature from Warwick University and an MA in Social Work from the University of East Anglia. She went on to work as a Probation Officer and spent part of her career working with prison inmates who had committed very serious crimes. She also works as a presenter on her local community TV station, Felixstowe TV. She has written prizewinning short stories, but The James Version is her first novel. She has recently given up work to write full-time and has just completed her third novel. She lives in Suffolk with her husband, Andrew and their two children.

The James Version (2005)
The James Version, explains the author, is "an entirely fictional account of the notorious Red Barn Murder. Whilst I have honoured the known significant details of the case, I have taken an author's liberty of creating characters that are entirely fictional even if their names are authentic."

It tells how newly arrived Rector James Coyte becomes involved in long conversations with a very troubled old lady, Mrs Anne Marten ( who had been Maria Marten's step-mother and has terrible secrets to reveal). As a result, Coyte becomes determined to unravel the mystery of Maria's murder. Meanwhile he has to cope with a hostile housekeeper and an unfriendly village ("Closer to hell .... than to anywhere I have set eyes on before").

The narrative is either taken from the Rector's Journal or is contributed by Ann. This turns out to be a strange combination because how Ann's contribution ever found its way into the book is never explained and her style of expression is far from convincing for an old country woman who had grown up illiterate, as when she says things like: "It was a true May day, the tepid sun milked down by random clouds that frothed in the sky .... I became aware of the mardling trees, and the whisper of the leaves, making my breath quicken with fear of their secrets. My way was no longer clear among the briars and I walked on a soft carpet of new growth, enjoying the thrill of being in a strange and undiscovered place. I was not afraid. I felt powerful and bold, and snapped twigs and thin branches from trees as I went. I soon found myself standing in a pool of light. Looking up, I saw sky where trees had parted to make way for the sun." And all this she apparently tells the Rector, combining a remarkably detailed memory of the past with a sophisticated literary style that seems quite inapproriate.

The author is more successful at bringing alive some of the nastier elements of the past, as when she describes how, after executing Maria's murderer, "they took his skin from his back and bound a copy of the trial in it .... Sometimes I imagine what it must be like to peel a man's skin from his body, to lift the thick leather and expose the red, pink and white, which pulls and tightens under the surface. I've peeled many moles in my time (her husband was a mole-catcher), and I dare say that peeling a man isn't so different. When I cut open the skin I'm always surprised how much blood there is. And a man must have a thousand times more. And women - I know that women bleed a great deal ...."

And the author's description of the mental asylum where Coyte's doctor friend works is nothing if not vivid: "It was not the sound (of persistent cries and moaning), although that was terrible, but the smell. The smell was of soiled garments, the stench of sewage. The room was long and each side held twenty or so low cots, most with a huddled figure rocking beneath bedclothes or laying asleep on the bed. Some of the huddled figures were silent but most moved slowly to the chorus of a moan, the sound of wounded animals. My eyes took in the grey of the blankets, the black iron of the beds and the dirty white of the long nightshirts worn by the many women. Most did not even look up as the door opened, their hopelessness too complete to care."

It is this doctor friend who tells him that laudinum is "marvellous for treating headaches, insomnia ... all kinds of ailments. We have a plentiful supply at the asylum, and use it on most of the patients. It's a remarkable remedy ... Your headache will be gone in no time". Equally realistic is Ann's description of her shocked surprise on her wedding night, when she had been 17 and her husband, the mole catcher, a 42 year old widower, and also her account of what happened when she lost her unborn child.

The real problem with the Maria Marten story, though, is that, being told in flashback, there can be little sense of excitement or suspense, and the final description of what had really happened, as revealed by Ann, is melodramatic but not really convincing. The parallel story involving the Rector falling for a married woman is potentially more interesting, but the way he suddenly changes from a smug self-satisfied prig ("Intimate relations with the fair sex have always eluded me") to a passionate lover does not sound very probable. A pity, because at her best, the author really can write, and, given a more promising subject, could well produce something of real interest to a publisher.

The author has her own blog.

Please sign my GUEST BOOK. All comments, contributions (or corrections) welcomed!


The James Version cover
The austere cover does not give much away - although it does make the book, that is otherwise very handsomely produced, look rather self published - as it is.
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