Heft is a word used in North British highlands, such as the Cumbrian fells or Lake District where this novel is set, to describe an area of pasture to which a flock or herd of animals like sheep have become accustomed (‘ hefted’). In another meaning in English it also refers to weightiness; its use as a noun or verb now largely archaic, but it survives more commonly in use as the adjective often euphemistically employed to describe an obese person: hefty.
Towards Mellbreak is the first novel by Marie-Elsa Bragg, who is an Anglican priest and therapist as well as a writer. She identifies as half French and half Cumbrian, and brought up in London. Avid BBC Radio 4 listeners and alumni of Leeds University will recognise her surname as that of the eminent broadcaster and former University Chancellor Melvyn Bragg, the author’s father. Her mother, Marie-Elisabeth Roche, committed suicide when she was 6 years old.
I discovered this writer, and her novel, through a profile piece about her in the new arts magazine Monk; which takes a spirituality perspective on contemporary creativity. I chose to read Towards Mellbreak because of my own intense relationship with the Lake District in the years 1968 – 1977, as a frequent visitor and fell- walker.
The word ‘heft’ in both its senses sums up the book for me. It is the story of a hill-farming family struggling to retain hope of a future life in the land to which its members, as much as the sheep they love, have become hefted. It is a book with hefty themes; exploring the resilience and springs of hope to be found in the often hidden traditional resources of family memories, lifelong friendships and religious practices. These are sources of enduring strength which are invisible, to the governmental advisors and their ever-evolving policies. But ultimately remembering proves no defence against the perils of ignorance.