Hobberdy Dick

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by KM Briggs

Reviewed by Simon Frame

Pub: Penguin (my version anyway) 1955 and onwards

208 pages

Hobberdy Dick was recommended by the good Dr Kightly as a good novel with insights into the folklore of the C17th. With the Oakwell events and my growing interest in the social aspect of the ECW I thought I'd give it a go. Hey, if Dr K recommends it it can't be bad, and I got my copy for a snip on Amazon! (Angela got the cheapest one).

It is, so far as I know, aimed at children, but I think that adult readers would like it, especially if they like the fantasy genre and folklore. KM Briggs (1898-1980), I have discovered since reading this book was a distinguished folklorist and literary historian. You know that the elements and traditions presented within the book give it an air of authenticity (if that word has a place in folklore) and the countryside as it may have appeared to C17th people is well evoked.

The main plot is seen mostly from the viewpoint of the title character, a household spirit, or "hob" who lives in and around a country house in 1652. He has a physical form, but with the ability to not be seen should he desire it. Dick is essentially a spirit who protects a place, (though he also idles about, is nosey, and eats the food) the animals who live there and its human inhabitants, helping those who are willing to work and tormenting the lazy until they get their act together. Apparently 'hobs' can also be called 'lobs', or even 'brownies' - but not the latter as D&D and the like portray them. The more interested hobs may intervene in human life if they want to aid somebody they have taken a shine to; and Hobberdy Dick likes to support those he likes.

In 1652, Dick's home, complete with resident ghost, is taken over by 'Puritans' from London, who don't believe in, or know about the 'old' ways of the country. They bought the estate when the last known (male) heir died. Dick had already been living in the house and farm after the previous owners had left it, had resisted the temptation to leave with them, and then gradually warmed to the new family, the Widdisons. Dick's basic loyalties are to the house and farm and to the children to whom he quickly becomes attached. A side-plot, which emerges as the book progresses, is a will-they-won't-they romance with the familiar ECW spin off set in the aftermath of the English Civil War; the female romantic interest is from a dispossessed royalist family, the Seckars (cousins to the previous owners of the house) and the man is the heir of the new owner.

Hobberdy Dick himself knows lots of other spirits, most of them friendly, others maybe less so, all with a folklore grounding. The farm and country seasons and the related customs all feature and provide the timescale to the story, with the bigger C17th history and other occurrences appearing as 'news' from afar.

From this it still sounds like a children's book, but I think that any re-enactor who wants to understand living in the countryside in the C17th wouldn't be wasting their time in reading this. Incidentally, Dr K has also written many books on the folklore and customs of England.