Ronald George Blythe CBE (born 6 November 1922)[1] is an English writer, essayist and editor, best known for his work Akenfield (1969), an account of agricultural life in Suffolk from the turn of the century to the 1960s. He wrote a long-running and considerably praised weekly column in the Church Times entitled "Word from Wormingford".[2][3]

Family background and early life

Blythe was born in Acton, Suffolk; he was to be the eldest of six children. His father, who had seen action in the First World War at Gallipoli and in Palestine, came from generations of East Anglian farmers and farm workers. His mother was from London and had worked as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse during the war.[4][5] Blythe can remember as a child seeing the sugar beet being farmed by men in army greatcoats and puttees.[4]

He was educated at St Peter's and St Gregory's school in Sudbury, Suffolk,[6] and grew up exploring churches, architecture, plants and books.[4] He was, he said, "a chronic reader",[5] immersing himself in French literature and writing poetry.[7]

Early cultural connections

Blythe briefly served during the Second World War[8] and spent the ten years up to 1954 working as a reference librarian in Colchester, where he founded the Colchester Literary Society.[1][6] Through his work at the library he met Christine Nash; she was looking for the score of Idomeneo. Christine Nash introduced Blythe to her husband, the artist John Nash, inviting him to their house, Bottengoms Farm near Wormingford on the border of Essex and Suffolk; he visited first in 1947. She later encouraged his ambitions to be a writer, finding him a small house on the Suffolk coast near Aldeburgh.[4][5][9]

For three years in the late 1950s Blythe worked for Benjamin Britten at the Aldeburgh Festival, editing programmes and doing pieces of translation.[4][5] He met E. M. Forster,[7][8] was briefly involved with Patricia Highsmith,[7][8] spent time with the Nashes, and was part of the Bohemian world associated with the artists of the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Benton End near Hadleigh, run by Cedric Morris and Arthur Lett-Haines.[5] "I was a poet but I longed to be a painter like the rest of them," Blythe told The Guardian. "What I basically am is a listener and a watcher. I absorb, without asking questions, but I don't forget things, and I was inspired by a lot of these people because they worked so hard and didn't make a fuss. They just lived their lives in a very independent and disciplined way."[7]

Career as a writer

In 1960 Blythe published his first book, A Treasonable Growth, a novel set in the Suffolk countryside. The Age of Illusion, a collection of essays exploring the social history of life in England between the wars, appeared in 1963. That book led to his being asked to edit a series of classics for the Penguin English Library, beginning with Jane Austen's Emma and continuing with work by William Hazlitt, Thomas Hardy and Henry James.[7][10] There were short stories and book reviews, and Blythe later prepared a number of anthologies, including The Pleasure of Diaries (1989) and Private Words: Letters and Diaries from the Second World War (1991).[10]

In 1969 he published Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village, a fictionalised account of life in a Suffolk village from 1880 to 1966. Blythe had spent the winter of 1966–7 listening to three generations of his neighbours in the Suffolk villages of Charsfield and Debach, recording their views on education, class, welfare, religion, farming and death.[5][11][12] 'Akenfield' is a made-up placename based partly upon Akenham (a small village just north of Ipswich) and probably partly on Charsfield.[13] "When I wrote Akenfield," Blythe said, "I had no idea that anything particular was happening, but it was the last days of the old traditional rural life in Britain. And it vanished."[5] The book is regarded as a classic of its type[2][14] and was made into a film, Akenfield, by Peter Hall in 1974.[2][15] When the film was aired it attracted fifteen million viewers;[7] Blythe made an appearance as the vicar.[15] "I actually haven't worked on this land but I've seen the land ploughed by horses," Blythe told The Guardian in 2011. "So I have a feeling and understanding in that respect – of its glory and bitterness."[7]

In the 1970s Blythe nursed John Nash in ill health. His book The View in Winter is a consideration of old age.[7][14] In 1977 Blythe inherited Bottengoms Farm from Nash, who had bought the Elizabethan yeoman's house in 1944.[5][16] He later published a book, First Friends (1999), based on a trunk of letters he found in the house that recorded the friendship between the Nash brothers, John's future wife, Christine Külenthal, and the artist Dora Carrington.[17][18]

His life at Bottengoms and the landscape around his home became the subject of Blythe's long-running column, "Word from Wormingford", in the Church Times from 1993 to 2017.[19] These meditative reflections on literature, history, the Church of England, and the natural world were subsequently collected together in a number of books, including A Parish Year (1998) and A Year at Bottengoms Farm (2006).[20] A compilation of his work, Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960–2010, appeared in 2010.[21]

Blythe continues to live and work at Bottengoms. He has never learned to drive and does not use a computer.[7] He turned 100 on 6 November 2022.[22]

Positions and awards

Blythe is a lay reader in the Church of England and a lay canon at St Edmundsbury Cathedral in Bury St Edmunds.[23] He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and has been president of the John Clare Society since its foundation.[6] His book, At Helpston, is a series of essays on the poet John Clare.[11] In 2006 Blythe was awarded a Benson Medal for lifelong achievement by the Royal Society of Literature.[24]

Blythe was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2017 Birthday Honours for services to literature.[25]

Partial bibliography

Works as author

  • A Treasonable Growth (MacGibbon & Kee, 1960) - fiction
  • Immediate Possession and other stories (MacGibbon & Kee, 1961) - fiction
  • The Age of Illusion: England in the Twenties and Thirties, 1919-1940 (Hamish Hamilton, 1963) - republished by The Folio Society, 2015
  • Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (Allen Lane, 1969) - republished by The Folio Society, 2002
  • The View in Winter: Reflections on Old Age (Allen Lane, 1979)
  • From the Headlands (Chatto & Windus, 1982)
  • The Stories of Ronald Blythe (Chatto & Windus/Hogarth Press, 1985)
  • Divine Landscapes: A Pilgrimage through Britain's Sacred Places (Viking, 1986) - with photos by Edwin Smith
  • England: The Four Seasons (Pavilion Books, 1993) - photos by Michael Busselle
  • Word from Wormingford: A Parish Year (Viking, 1997)
  • Going to Meet George and other outings (Long Barn Books, 1999)
  • First Friends: Paul and Bunty, John and Christine - and Carrington (Viking, 1999)
  • Talking About John Clare (Trent Editions, 1999)
  • Out of the Valley: Another Year at Wormingford (Viking, 2000)
  • The Circling Year: Perspectives from a Country Parish (Canterbury Press, 2001) - with Robin Tanner
  • Talking to the Neighbours: Conversations from a Country Church (Canterbury Press, 2002) - illustrated by Mary Newcomb
  • A Country Boy. Seven Short Stories (Tern Press, 2004) - with Nicholas Parry
  • The Assassin (Black Dog Books, 2004) - fiction
  • Borderland: Continuity and Change in the Countryside (Black Dog Books, 2005 & Canterbury Press, 2007)
  • The Writer's Day-Book (Trent Editions, 2006)
  • A Year at Bottengoms Farm (Canterbury Press, 2006)
  • Field Work: Selected Essays (Black Dog Books, 2007)
  • River Diary (Canterbury Press, 2008)
  • Outsiders: A Book of Garden Friends (Black Dog Books, 2008)
  • The Bookman's Tale (Canterbury Press, 2009)
  • Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960-2010 (Black Dog Books, 2010)
  • At Helpston: Meetings with John Clare (Black Dog Books, 2011)
  • At the Yeoman's House (Enitharmon Press, 2011)
  • Village Hours (Canterbury Press, 2012)
  • Under a Broad Sky (Canterbury Press, 2013)
  • The Time by the Sea: Aldeburgh 1955-58 (Faber & Faber, 2013)
  • Decadal (Enitharmon Press, 2014)[26] - poetry
  • In the Artist's Garden: A Journal from Wormingford (Canterbury Press, 2015)
  • Stour Seasons: A Wormingford Book of Days (Canterbury Press, 2016)
  • Forever Wormingford (Canterbury Press, 2017)

Works as editor

  • Emma by Jane Austen (Penguin, 1966) - Penguin Classics edition
  • Components of the Scene: Stories, Poems, and Essays of the Second World War (Penguin, 1966) - republished as Writing in a War: Stories, Poems, and Essays of the Second World War (Penguin, 1982)
  • Selected Writings by William Hazlitt (Penguin, 1970) - Penguin Classics edition
  • Aldeburgh Anthology (Snape Maltings Foundation/Faber Music, 1972)
  • Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (Penguin, 1979) - Penguin Classics edition
  • Places: An Anthology of Britain (Oxford University Press, 1981)
  • The Awkward Age by Henry James (Penguin, 1987) - Penguin Classics edition
  • Each Returning Day: The Pleasure of Diaries (Viking, 1989) - published in USA as The Pleasures of Diaries: Four Centuries of Private Writing (Pantheon, 1989)
  • Private Words: Letters and Diaries from the Second World War (Viking, 1991)

Portraits of Blythe

The National Portrait Gallery has two portraits[27] of Ronald Blythe, a 2005 C-type print by Mark Gerson and a 1990 bromide print by Lucinda Douglas-Menzies. A 2014 terracotta head by Jon Edgar is featured in his 2015 collection of poems Decadal.


  1. ^ a b "Dr Ronald Blythe", Debretts. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  2. ^ a b c "In praise of … Ronald Blythe", The Guardian, 5 November 2012. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  3. ^ Doney, Malcolm. "Figure in a landscape" (requires subscription), Church Times, 2 November 2012. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  4. ^ a b c d e "Desert Island Discs: Ronald Blythe", BBC, 15 April 2001. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Mount, Harry. "Rural idol: Ronald Blythe, author of Akenfield, at 90", The Spectator, 13 October 2012. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  6. ^ a b c "Ronald George Blythe, Honorary Doctor of Letters: Bio", Anglia Ruskin University, 2001. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i Barkham, Patrick. "A life in writing: Ronald Blythe", The Guardian, 21 October 2011. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  8. ^ a b c House, Christian. "Ronald Blythe: My not so quiet village life", The Independent, 11 November 2012. Retrieved 24 November 2012.
  9. ^ Lambirth, Andrew. "Bookends: Spirit of place", The Spectator, 5 November 2011. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  10. ^ a b "Ronald George Blythe, Honorary Doctor of Letters: Citation", Anglia Ruskin University, 2001. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  11. ^ a b McCarthy, Michael. "My chance to worship at the feet of the great nature writer Ronald Blythe", The Independent, 24 October 2012. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  12. ^ "Honorary Graduates, Orations and responses: Ronald Blythe", University of Essex, 12 July 2002. Retrieved 6 November 2012.
  13. ^ Hall, Peter (20 November 2004). "My Dirty Weekends". The Guardian. p. 19. Retrieved 11 August 2010.
  14. ^ a b Pritchett, V.S. "Finite Variety" (requires subscription), The New York Review of Books, 8 November 1979. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  15. ^ a b Hall, Peter. "My dirty weekends", The Guardian, 20 November 2004. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  16. ^ Parker, Peter. "At the Yeoman's House and At Helpston by Ronald Blythe: review", The Daily Telegraph, 23 December 2011. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  17. ^ "Dora Carrington: a difficult virus to get out of your system", The Independent, 24 October 1999. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  18. ^ Vincent, David. "Amazon review: First Friends by Ronald Blythe", Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  19. ^ Handley, Paul (12 May 2017). "Last word". Church Times. Retrieved 20 April 2022.
  20. ^ Clee, Nicholas. "Travellers' tales and home thoughts", The Guardian, 16 December 2006. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  21. ^ Taylor, DJ. "Aftermath: Selected Writings 1960–2010", The Independent, 19 November 2010. Retrieved 7 November 2012.
  22. ^ The Guardian, "Ronald Blythe at 100: 'A watchful, curious and gratefully amazed vision of life'", 5 November 2022. Retrieved 18 November 2022.
  23. ^ "East Anglian author appointed lay canon". East Anglian Daily Times. 24 March 2003. Retrieved 12 February 2020.
  24. ^ Blythe, Ronald. A Year at Bottengoms Farm, Norwich: Canterbury Press (2006), author biography.
  25. ^ "No. 61962". The London Gazette (Supplement). 17 June 2017. p. B8.
  26. ^ Enitharmon Press
  27. ^ "Ronald George Blythe (1922-), Writer" at National Portrait Gallery.

External links