As soon as I picked up Susan Spray I was struck by the pastoral theme of the cover image. VMC cover art doesn't always seem to tie in with content, but it does on this occasion. Sheila Kaye-Smith, who I first encountered in her wonderful novel Joanna Godden, last year had a reputation for writing novels strongly influenced by her love of the countryside, in particular her native Sussex, and Susan Spray reflects that. Susan Spray reflects Kaye-Smith's other interest, aside from writing, being religion. According to the information in the front of the book, Kaye-Smith had quite a strong religious life - brought up as an Anglican, she later converted to the Roman Catholic Church. And religion is a strong element in Susan Spray; as the introduction states "it is a success story, with a twist - the twist being religion". I was absolutely fascinated by this novel, having never read anything with quite the same sort of themes.
"Susan Spray was born at Copthorne on the Surrey and Sussex borders, in the year 1834.", begins the book. But she is born into a family who belong to the Colgate Brethren, an obscure religious sect. At the age of six, she has a vision of the Lord and seems set on a religious future. Unfortunately, very early on, she and her siblings are orphaned, and after a spell in the Poor House in Horsham, she and her sister end up working on a farm in Sussex. The rest of the book details how Susan goes on to become a preacher for the Colgate Brethren, but at the same time it deals with her personal life - marriage, widowhood, marriage, separation, love...and a final astonishing twist that I really wasn't expecting. The book is well paced and was difficult to put down, hence I got through it quickly despite it being 375p.
This book has only been published once with an original green cover. And although it was on my TBR pile I was motivated to get on and read it partly by Virago Reading Week, but also because I came across the name Susan Kaye-Smith in connection with Noel Streatfeild whose biography I was rereading having picked up two of her books at the Oxford bookfair at the weekend (isn't it wonderful where trails can lead us?). There are only two books by Kaye-Smith on the Virago list but I would seek her other novels out too.