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The Waters under the Earth

by John Moore
Persephone book no:

144 145 146

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781910263358

The Waters under the Earth, Persephone Book no. 145, is one of those novels which did spectacularly well when it was published in 1965, was indeed a bestseller, but then, despite the timelessness, and the timeliness, of its theme, disappeared from view. Sadly, there are some reasons why this happened: the book is very long; the author died not long after it was published; the title is unmemorable and meaningless until you have read the book; and the main theme of the novel – that the approaching 1960s would mean ‘the end of the age of deference’ (James Naughtie) – was less interesting when it was actually being lived.

Waters ‘is a story of class conflict, social mobility in both directions, and the state of the nation in the 1950s’ writes Amanda Craig in her Persephone Preface. Thus it is a panoramic novel in that it does not just describe a tiny segment of life or one family or one event, but tries to tell the reader about the bigger picture, about a particular era and about the changes just over the horizon. As the Sunday Times reviewer said, ‘the book is less a pure novel of the countryside than a kind of rural ‘Cavalcade of 1950-56. The Korean War, the Festival of Britain, Mau-Mau, the death of George VI, the New Elizabethans, the fiasco of Suez – all this does not merely serve as a background but is felt and endured by the characters.’ ‘In essence, Waters is a novel about a changing Britain on the cusp of seismic social and political change’ (Amanda Craig).

It begins in 1950. The war still casts its shadow and there is an atmosphere familiar to Persephone readers of the English middle-class being forced to adapt: just like the people in Mollie Panter-Downes’s 1950s short stories, Ferdo and Janet in Waters are learning, painfully, to give up polishing (inherited) silver, having three course meals, changing for dinner, expecting the fire to be lit by someone else, all symbols of course of much larger changes.

The main character in the book, Ferdo, whose family has lived at Doddington Manor for generations, fought in the war and as a result is more realistic about the future than his wife Janet, who simply wants everything to remain as it always had been. Their daughter Susan is 18 when the novel begins. Nothing is expected of her except to get married. And the choices she makes by the end of the book symbolise the future.

The other main theme of the book is change in the landscape and the environment. John Moore was a conservationist long before the term was in general use and indeed ‘there was something of the Rachel Carson (born the same year, 1907) and the Jane Jacobs (born ten years later) about him. His biographer David Cole wrote: ‘John Moore conducted a long campaign against despoilment of the countryside by those motivated by profit margins and a careless disregard for ecological structures. Eventual achievements included sympathetic management of rural roadside vegetation, controls in the use of harmful pesticides, preservation of hedgerows, trees, wetland and wildlife habitats, and prevention of stubble burning.’ and Waters, his last book, incapsulates all his most deeply-held beliefs. He, almost alone, tried to alert media attention to the effect of technological change on the countryside, especially the use of pesticides and, presciently, the end of natural pollination. (How tragic that, 66 years after John Moore’s death some of his deepest forebodings are coming true before our very eyes.)

He also worked towards the preservation of historic architecture: ‘the campaign spearheaded by Moore saved many of Tewkesbury’s unique characteristics’ (David Cole again). Moore even, with his long description of the Queen’s coronation in 1953, wonders, by implication rather than aloud, whether the monarchy should survive in the new Britain. Through it all the house where the waters lie under the earth, Doddington Manor, symbolises English continuity and tradition in the same way that Howards End did in Forster’s novel fifty-five years before. As Amanda Craig says, ‘the abiding spirit of the novel is one of melancholy hope.’ And as Moore’s friend Eric Linklater wrote after his untimely death: ‘His territory was England, an England which has vanished, or is vanishing, but deserves a loving remembrance.’ We are extremely proud to be publishing this very fine book as a Persephone book.


 ‘Leaf and Line’, a 1952 printed linen furnishing fabric designed for Heal’s by Michael O’Connell.

Read What Readers Say

A Persephone reader by email

This novel so vividly captures the atmosphere of the 1950s, in particular the political atmosphere, but what I wasn’t expecting was how utterly gripped I was by Susan’s story: I stayed up reading really late two nights in a row because I was so desperate to find out who, if anyone, she ended up marrying.

Categories: Architecture Country Life House and Garden Men (books by)

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