Monkshaven

Sorry there’s been such a massive posting-gap!

I’ve just been on a camping trip to Whitby, a seaside town in Yorkshire which used to be an important whaling-port – the setting for Elizabeth Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers. The heroine, Sylvia Robson, lives in Whitby (renamed ‘Monkshaven’ in the novel) in the time of the Napoleonic Wars, when ‘Monkshaven’ (at the peak of its whaling success) was under threat from press gangs.

Sylvia is courted by her sober cousin, Phillip Hepburn. But his love isn’t returned. Sylvia meets and falls in love in love with the romantic whaler, Charley Kinraid, and they become engaged – just before Kinraid is pressed and taken to sea. Everyone, including Sylvia, believes he is drowned. Only Phillip knows what really happened. He was the only witness to the scene on the beach when Kinraid was ambushed and forced to enlist. Lying bound in the bottom of the boat, he gave Phillip a message for Sylvia. “Tell her what you’ve seen. Tell her I’ll come back to her. Bid her not forget the great oath we took together; she’s as much my wife as if we’d gone to church; – I’ll come back and marry her before long.”

Instead of giving Sylvia message, Phillip lets her believe that Charley is dead. Meanwhile, Sylvia’s father is hanged for being involved in a riot against the press-gang. Miserable and desperate, Sylvia finally agrees to marry Phillip.

They have a daughter – but not long after Kinraid returns to claim Sylvia and she discovers Phillip’s deception. She swears never to forgive Phillip, but refuses to live with Kinraid because of her child.

Despairing of ever winning Sylvia, Kinraid marries another woman. Meanwhile, Phillip enlists in the army, heartbroken at Sylvia’s anger against him, and ends up saving Kinraid’s life in a battle against Napoleon. Wounded, Phillip returns to Monkshaven and saves Sylvia’s child from drowning. His is fatally injured during the rescue, and Sylvia forgives him before he dies.


 

 I read Sylvia’s Lovers before coming to Whitby and the book and the place combined have laid a hold on me.

Having visited all the places mentioned in the story I was impressed by the way Gaskell conveys the atmosphere of them in Sylvia’s Lovers. Her descriptions are really accurate in a practical way, too. Here’s a passage about Whitby taken from the first chapter:

Monkshaven was a name not unknown in the history of England, and traditions of its having been the landing-place of a throneless queen were current in the town. At that time there had been a fortified castle on the heights above it, the site of which was now occupied by a deserted manor-house; and at an even earlier date than the arrival of the queen and coeval with the most ancient remains of the castle, a great monastery had stood on those cliffs, overlooking the vast ocean that blended with the distant sky. Monkshaven itself was built by the side of the Dee, just where the river falls into the German Ocean. The principal street of the town ran parallel to the stream, and smaller lanes branched out of this, and straggled up the sides of the steep hill, between which and the river the houses were pent in. There was a bridge across the Dee, and consequently a Bridge Street running at right angles to the High Street; and on the south side of the stream there were a few houses of more pretension, around which lay gardens and fields.

Whitby today is still Gaskell’s Monskhaven, even to the ‘bridge-street running at right angles to the High Street’ and the lanes ‘straggling up the sides of the steep hill’. The monastery ‘overlooking the vast ocean that blended with the distant sky’ still stands today.

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Whitby Abbey, taken by me

I visited Whitby Abbey, and saw that same vast ocean blending with that same distant sky through the ruined arches. It’s wonderful to think of Elizabeth Gaskell standing there and feeling the same rush of excitement as me. It’s easy to see why she wanted to write about Whitby.

One of the most memorable scenes of the book is at the beginning when the first whaler comes home, and all the women and children are waiting to see their sons and sweethearts.

The whalers went out into the Greenland seas full of strong, hopeful men; but the whalers never returned as they sailed forth. Whose bones had been left to blacken on the gray and terrible icebergs? Who lay still until the sea should give up its dead? Who were those who should come back to Monkshaven never, no, never more?

“To think o’ yon ship come in at last!” says Sylvia, “And if yo’d been down seeing all t’ folk looking and looking their eyes out, as if they feared they should die afore she came in and brought home the lads they loved, yo’d ha’ shaken hands wi’ that lass too.” 

Then the press-gang turns up and carries away the whalers before they can greet the watchers on shore.

…Molly Corney joined them, hastily bursting into the shop.

‘Hech!’ said she. ‘Hearken! how they’re crying and shouting down on t’ quay. T’ gang’s among ’em like t’ day of judgment. Hark!’

No one spoke, no one breathed, I had almost said no heart beat for listening. Not long; in an instant there rose the sharp simultaneous cry of many people in rage and despair. Inarticulate at that distance, it was yet an intelligible curse, and the roll, and the roar, and the irregular tramp came nearer and nearer.

‘They’re taking ’em to t’ Randyvowse,’ said Molly. ‘Eh! I wish I’d King George here just to tell him my mind.’

The girl clenched her hands, and set her teeth.

‘It’s terrible hard!’ said Hester; ‘there’s mothers, and wives, looking out for ’em, as if they were stars dropt out o’ t’ lift.’

 


Looking out on the houses past which the whaler sailed in that memorable scene I took a few photos. A rainbow framed the curve of the town, above the water, lying slate-coloured and quiet in the early morning sun. The red-rooves of the old houses were tightly packed, the steep streets like the steps of a ladder up the hillside.

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Under the modern-day quietness, snap shots of view bring back the dramatic past of the place about which Gaskell wrote. The masts of the boats, clustering close together against the pale morning sky. The cobbles over which crowds of desperate people must have run,

…anxious to defy and annoy the gang by insults, and curses half choked with their indignant passion, doubling their fists in the very faces of the gang who came on with measured movement, armed to the teeth, their faces showing white with repressed and determined energy against the bronzed countenances of the half-dozen sailors, who were all they had thought it wise to pick out of the whaler’s crew..

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Painting of the Press-Gang, by Robert Morley


 

After exploring the narrow, cobbled streets of the town (Georgian for the most part, with a few older houses scattered here and there and and a Regency and Victorian resort area across the river), we went up to the church.

 

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Me with my Mum and my little brother Cormac, exploring ‘Monskhaven’

The Monkshaven church is also described in detail in Sylvia’s Lovers – a sailor who has been killed by the press-gang, Darley, is buried there, and Sylvia and her friend Molly Corney go up to see the burial.

…on the Sunday afternoon to which Sylvia had been so looking forward, to scale the long flights of stone steps – worn by the feet of many generations – which led up to the parish church, placed on a height above the town, on a great green area at the summit of the cliff, which was the angle where the river and the sea met, and so overlooking both the busy crowded little town, the port, the shipping, and the bar on the one hand, and the wide illimitable tranquil sea on the other – types of life and eternity. It was a good situation for that church. Homeward-bound sailors caught sight of the tower of St Nicholas, the first land object of all. They who went forth upon the great deep might carry solemn thoughts with them of the words they had heard there; not conscious thoughts, perhaps – rather a distinct if dim conviction that buying and selling, eating and marrying, even life and death, were not all the realities in existence.

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The church today

There, too, lay the dead of many generations; for St. Nicholas had been the parish church ever since Monkshaven was a town, and the large churchyard was rich in the dead. Masters, mariners, ship-owners, seamen: it seemed strange how few other trades were represented in that great plain so full of upright gravestones. Here and there was a memorial stone, placed by some survivor of a large family, most of whom perished at sea: – ‘Supposed to have perished in the Greenland seas,’ ‘Shipwrecked in the Baltic,’ ‘Drowned off the coast of Iceland.’ There was a strange sensation, as if the cold sea-winds must bring with them the dim phantoms of those lost sailors, who had died far from their homes, and from the hallowed ground where their fathers lay.

These ‘upright gravestones’ and memorial stones can still be seen today, though the sentences engraved upon them have faded and grown ghostly and illegible since Mrs. Gaskell’s time, let alone since Sylvia’s — worn by the ‘cold sea-winds’ which still come keenly whistling over the tops of the gravestones.

And inside the church, the high box pews are still lined with green-baize, as Gaskell describes. Curious how some things remain the same, and other things change.

We passed from the sharp sea-wind that billowed round the tombstones, sending a flush into my cheeks, into the warmth of the church’s gift-shop. Stands and racks were everywhere, covered with little gift cards and and cheap jewellery.

Instinctively I thought back to that scene in the beginning of the book when Sylvia is in Phillip’s shop, hearing the noise of the press-gang outside. Entering into the down-to-earth of this very different shop gave me a feeling not unlike the feeling I have reading Sylvia’s Lovers whenever Phillip Hepburn turns up on the page.

The shop seemed confident, ordinary, and full of itself just like Phillip. It came in contrast with the romance of the churchyard. Gaskell unconsciously thought of this herself when she made Phillip the owner of ‘Fosters Shop’.

Fully within the church, things grew better. It was stepping into a bubble of romance that hung between the stone pillars, only allowing some to enter it, and shutting out others. In that early scene of Darley’s burial Sylvia was allowed into the romance – Molly Corney (thinking about what was the most fashionable pattern for a cloak) was shut out.

The unwonted sternness and solemnity visible on the countenances of all whom she met awed and affected (Sylvia). She did not speak in reply to Molly’s remarks on the dress or appearance of those who struck her. She felt as if these speeches jarred on her, and annoyed her almost to irritation…

The love between Kinraid and Sylvia grows naturally out of the instinctive passion of the town and countryside – of the great sea stretching away behind all. When Sylvia returns from Darley’s burial her head is full of Kinraid, who she has just seen for the first time, wounded from an encounter with the press-gang.

Attracted by Sylvia, Kinraid begins to call on her father, Daniel Robson. Sitting in the warm, fire-licked parlour that Sylvia would often recall in her memory he tells stories of whaling-voages.

All night long Sylvia dreamed of burning volcanoes springing out of icy southern seas. But, as in the specksioneer’s tale the flames were peopled with demons, there was no human interest for her in the wondrous scene in which she was no actor, only a spectator. With daylight came wakening and little homely every-day wonders. Did Kinraid mean that he was going away really and entirely, or did he not? Was he Molly Corney’s sweetheart, or was he not? When she had argued herself into certainty on one side, she suddenly wheeled about, and was just of the opposite opinion. At length she settled that it could not be settled until she saw Molly again; so, by a strong gulping effort, she resolutely determined to think no more about him, only about the marvels he had told. She might think a little about them when she sat at night, spinning in silence by the household fire, or when she went out in the gloaming to call the cattle home to be milked, and sauntered back behind the patient, slow-gaited creatures; and at times on future summer days, when, as in the past, she took her knitting out for the sake of the freshness of the faint sea-breeze, and dropping down from ledge to ledge of the rocks that faced the blue ocean, established herself in a perilous nook that had been her haunt ever since her parents had come to Haytersbank Farm. From thence she had often seen the distant ships pass to and fro, with a certain sort of lazy pleasure in watching their swift tranquillity of motion, but no thought as to where they were bound to, or what strange places they would penetrate to before they turned again, homeward bound.

Sylvia does not know herself in that passage. She does not know that her love for Kinraid is made of those ‘marvels that he told’. Kinraid and his whaling-stories are one and the same, in Sylvia’s mind and in the mind of the reader. They can’t be separated. Take away the whaling-romance, take away icebergs and press-gangs and Whitby, and there’s nothing left.

Several critics have complained that Kinraid has no real character -— that he’s only a surface with nothing underneath. That’s certainly a point of view — but given that his surface reflects whales and dazzling icebergs like the surface of Greenland waters, I think he’s in fact an exceptionally vivid and somehow living figure.

Phillip Hepburn arguably has more character than Kinraid – certainly we’re given more isight into his thoughts – but Gaskell has utterly failed in making him him sympathetic. Described at the beginning as having ‘a long face, with a slightly aquiline nose, dark eyes, and a long upper lip, which gave a disagreeable aspect to a face that might otherwise have been good-looking’, he comes across as arrogant and selfish, and incredibly boring.

His character is fixed from the very beginning – the scene in the shop when he stops Sylvia from joining in the riot against the press gang.

‘Let us go into t’ thick of it and do a bit of help; I can’t stand quiet and see ‘t!’ Half crying, she pushed forwards to the door; but Philip held her back.

‘Sylvie! you must not. Don’t be silly; it’s the law, and no one can do aught against it, least of all women and lasses.’

Still makes me furious! As my younger brother Tass said: ‘Sylvia should have knocked him down flat and ran out. Serve him right!’ (it is now a favourite game in our house to think of things to ‘do to Phillip’. Tass has thought of some pretty fitting punishments)

The contrast between Phillip and Kinraid is seen at its strongest in the scene where Kinraid is pressed. Phillip sees the press-gang waiting, and, seeing Kinraid as his rival for Sylvia’s affections, doesn’t warn him.

The instant Kinraid turned the corner of the cliff, the ambush was upon him. Four man-of-war’s men sprang on him and strove to pinion him.

‘In the King’s name!’ cried they, with rough, triumphant jeers.

…Although taken by surprise, and attacked by so many, Kinraid did not lose his wits. He wrenched himself free, crying out loud:

‘Avast, I’m a protected whaler. I claim my protection. I’ve my papers to show, I’m bonded specksioneer to the Urania whaler, Donkin captain, North Shields port.’

…. ‘D – n your protection,’ cried the leader of the press-gang; ‘come and serve his Majesty, that’s better than catching whales.’

‘Is it though?’ said the specksioneer, with a motion of his hand, which the swift-eyed sailor opposed to him saw and interpreted rightly.

‘Thou wilt, wilt thou? Close with him, Jack; and ware the cutlass.’

In a minute his cutlass was forced from him, and it became a hand-to-hand struggle, of which, from the difference in numbers, it was not difficult to foretell the result. Yet Kinraid made desperate efforts to free himself; he wasted no breath in words, but fought, as the men said, ‘like a very devil.’

Hepburn heard loud pants of breath, great thuds, the dull struggle of limbs on the sand, the growling curses of those who thought to have managed their affair more easily; the sudden cry of some one wounded, not Kinraid he knew, Kinraid would have borne any pain in silence at such a moment.

There is massive contrast here between the physically brave Kinraid, battling the press-gang, ‘fighting like a very devil’ and ‘although taken by surprise, and attacked by so many, not losing his wits’, and Phillip, crouching awkwardly behind a rock. This contrast is too strong throughout the book – sympathy with Phillip is impossible.


 

We spent the night in the carpark of Sandsend, nearish the beach below Haytersbank Farm (Sylvia’s house), where Kinraid is pressed.

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Taken from Sandsend carpark

Evening. I lay stretched on a wall in the carpark, reading Sylvia’s Lovers. Beneath me was the beach, winding away, and hugged by the line of distant green cliff on the furthest point of which stood Whitby Abbey.

The sky was thundery, the sea coming in, stretching in in an uneven line along the beach. In the distance it was smooth and quiet-looking as silk with a ragged hem. But beneath me the waves crashed over the large, green, agley-draped rocks, sending up a mist of fine spray. Far away along that green headland the lights of Monkshaven began to twinkle, appearing one by one as night fell around me. I was totally pulled into Sylvia’s Lovers. 

…the grass was crisping under their feet with the coming hoar frost; and as they mounted to the higher ground they could see the dark sea stretching away far below them. The night was very still, though now and then crisp sounds in the distant air sounded very near in the silence… The long monotonous roll of the distant waves, as the tide bore them in, the multitudinous rush at last, and then the retreating rattle and trickle, as the baffled waters fell back over the shingle that skirted the sands, and divided them from the cliffs…

Usually when I’m reading something that really grips me I forget where I am. I’m transported to the place I’m reading about.

This time there was no need of transportation. I was here, along with with Sylvia. I could hear what she heard – the sound of the waves ‘as the tide bore them in, the multitudinous rush at last, and then the retreating rattle and trickle, as the baffled waters fell back over the shingle that skirted the sands, and divided them from the cliffs…’ I saw what she saw – the sea ‘sea stretching away far below’ and my night, like her night, was ‘very still’.

Instead of the words pulling me away from the real world as they would normally do, they helped me to trap the whole of the wildness of the view inside me as I read. I think it was at that moment that I realised the uniting force of the book, from which both the faults and the virtues of the characters, and the faults and the virtues of the plot spring.

Sylvia’s Lovers certainly has some flaws, particularly toward the end, and having Phillip Hepburn as a main character was a really terrible mistake.

But there’s something about the romance of the battle between the press-gangs and the whaling ships that really sweeps one away. It’s because Sylvia is swept up in this romance that she loves Kinraid, the specksioneer (chief harpooner). And it must have been because Mrs. Gaskell was swept up in it that she was able to write such powerful scenes. That’s what’s special about Sylvia’s Lovers. It’s that exhilarating feeling of comradeship. You’re really sympathetic towards Sylvia because you share her infatuation with Kinraid and her bitterness against the press-gangs. She loves the idea of him, and the reader loves the idea of him, too. She falls in love with Charley before she’s even met him, when she hears the story of how he stuck up against the press-gang out at sea.

It is this, too, which creates the great fault of the book – the over drawn contrast between Phillip and Kinraid. Main characters ought to contrast – but the contrast between these two is far too great for sympathy. Unlike the specksioneer, Phillip does not seem part of the romance of Monkshaven and the press-gang. He puts a damper on the flow of excitement we feel reading it.

When Sylvia marries Phillip, she does not cease to feel that he is opposing the romance of Monkshaven and the press-gang – nor does the reader cease to feel it. But the battle with the press-gangs has changed from being a romantic dream (as it seemed in the beginning of the book) to being terribly, frighteningly real. Then later in the book Kinraid himself turns out to be less romantic than we originally though him.

More than the misery of the characters, it is the breaking-up of the romance that makes the ending of the book so sad. The night after I finished reading Sylvia’s Lovers I had feverish dreams.

We were leaving Whitby, never to return again – the red rooves were disappearing into the distance – something indefinable but terrible had happened to Kinraid …

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The ending is painful because, like Sylvia, the reader has been swept into the great, wavy, rippling dream of romance, and then grounded on a sandbank.

We have Whitby to thank for all the passion of Sylvia’s Lovers. The story has grown out of the clustering red-roofs of Whitby and the wide sea beyond. Gaskell’s sea, Sylvia’s sea – my sea.

 

 

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Tess of the d’Urbervilles

 

Note: (The contents of this post is to be traversed only by those that have read the book, lest something of the plot may be given away)

I have just finished Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and so all you who have read it will know what I must be suffering.

The tragedy of the ending is made worse because there is no heaven to believe in. The book was written around the time when Darwin’s theory of Evolution had begun to make people pry deeper into the idea of God, and Thomas Hardy did this by writing Tess of the d’Urbervilles, and the conclusion seems to be in favor of Darwin. The whole story of the book is the tragic life of the heroine, Teresa Durbeyfield, and suggests strongly that God does not really watch lovingly over the lives of all human beings – for Tess is driven by the unfairness of life to commit the crimes most terrible to the Victorian public – she was twice lured into sexual relations with one she was not married to, and is even, in the end (I hope those who have not read the book are following my a advice not to read this post) a murderess. Yet, she is still, after all this, ‘a pure woman’. Were providence a real thing, these misfortunes could not have happened – Christianity suggests that be your soul pure, life will favor you and you will never have to do wrong, and Hardy suggests this idea is incorrect. In other great novels of the Victorian age providence looks after the heroines. In Jane Eyre, for instance, everything is fair and even – Mr Rochester pays for his byronic sins by being blinded, and Jane finds her way to happiness be being always pure and true, always preserving her self-respect, and above all, believing in that great power which ought to lift all worthy heroines out of difficulty. But Tess has no such good fortune – pureness does her no good – there is no God to punish her for her wrong and reward her for her wrights. One paragraph from the book describes this point – when Alec d’Urberville finds the vulnerable Tess asleep under the trees:

Darkness and silence ruled everywhere around. Above them rose the primeval yews and oaks of The Chase, in which there poised gentle roosting birds in their last nap; and about them stole the hopping rabbits and hares. But, might some say, where was Tess’s guardian angel? Where was the providence of her simple faith? Perhaps, like that other god of whom the ironical Tishbite spoke, he was talking, or he was pursuing, or he was in a journey, or he was sleeping and not to be awaked.

Why it was that upon this beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer, and practically blank as snow as yet, there should have been traced such a coarse pattern as it was doomed to receive; why so often the coarse appropriates the finer thus, the wrong man the woman, the wrong woman the man, many thousand years of analytical philosophy have failed to explain to our sense of order. One may, indeed, admit the possibility of a retribution lurking in the present catastrophe. Doubtless some of Tess d’Urberville’s mailed ancestors rollicking home from a fray had dealt the same measure even more ruthlessly towards peasant girls of their time. But though to visit the sins of the fathers upon the children may be a morality good enough for divinities, it is scorned by average human nature; and it therefore does not mend the matter.

The end of the paragraph brings up the idea that Tess might be being punished by having the same done to her that her ancestors had done before her to others, but, ‘it does not mend the matter’, for it is unfair for her to be punished for her ancestors’ sins. This theme is touched on again later in the book, showing at the same time the cruelty of established Christianity, when the church will not give a Christian burial to the little baby that Tess gave birth to illegitimately by d’Urberville. Why should the baby suffer for its mother’s, sins, (if sins they were)?

Ashamed to live any more at home, where all know what befell her, Tess goes to work at Tabothay’s Dairy, where she falls passionately and tragically in love with Mr. Angel Clare, a middle-class gentleman who has decided to be a farmer, instead of taking orders as his father and brothers have done (as is later revealed this is because he once had an affair and does not think it right to preach against what he had done himself). He falls in love with her, and asks her to marry him. She refuses at first, having decided never to marry, for she thinks herself in a certain way married to Alec d’Urberville, the destroyer of her maidenhood. She relents at last, however, and they become engaged to be married, but Tess is troubled in her conscience for she feels she ought to tell him about her affair with Alec d’Urberville. She writes him a letter about it and tries to post it under his door, for she has not the courage to tell him in person, but it slips under the rug.

Here is an example of the sort of frustrating sadness that occurs so often in Thomas Hardy – for later, after they are married she tells him about it, having discovered he did not receive her letter, and because, even after deciding to leave the respectable middle class of his birth, he is still without the courage to defy common custom for the sake of right, he decides it is improper for them to live together, and he goes to make his fortune as a farmer in Brazil, leaving Tess behind, enveloped in agonized misery. But while about to leave for Brazil, he says to himself, ‘Had you only told me sooner, Tess, I should have forgiven you!’ So damn and curse the stupid carpet ten million times!

After making the point about how frustrating the incident of the carpet and letter is, I will now go over the previously talked about part of the book in a little more detail.

I believe it is not completely because of a false sense of delicacy that Clare left Tess – it is also because he had formed a picture of her as a blooming, unsoiled country maiden – a sort of untried, innocent little doll or turtle-dove for him to teach and love, as a romantic book might put it ‘the picture of innocence’. He wished her to be pure as a child, to never have had any experience of the wicked world around her. Such complete innocence is impossible for any human-being – we all have our faults and blemishes, we have all gone through some experience or other of the world, and Tess was, no doubt, as near to what he wanted as he would ever have found on this earth. He wanted her as the ‘beautiful feminine tissue, sensitive as gossamer’ that she had been before she was ‘soiled’ by d’Urberville. Yet even then, she had been only ‘practically blank as snow’. To be completely blank is impossible, and Clare threw away from him the nearest thing to his dream that he would ever find.

Also, she had told him about something that her family had found out – it was speculated that they were of the ancient family of the d’Urbervilles (hence the name, Tess of the d’Urbervilles). It was because of this she had met Alec d’Urberville. She had been sent by her family to tell him and his old mother that she was related to them, but it turned out he was not really of the same ancient d’Urberville family. Anyhow, Clare got an idea that the d’Urbervilles had committed many crimes of the same sort as Tess, and that her being from that ancient family was also a blight on her innocence.

Clare had told Tess she could get money from his father, but she was to proud to do so, and she became very poor and had to work at Flintcombe Ash. But no more of the plot, for I have already asked those who do not already know it not to read this. A few more thoughts on the later parts of the book, and I will close this entry.

It is an odd thing that after murdering Alec, she seemed to see nothing at all wrong with it. She seemed almost to have been driven mad with sorrow.

The most traumatizing part of the book for me, sadder even than when she dies, is when Clare comes home to her and finds her with Alec d’Urberville, and she stands at the door and talks to him so coolly. It might be, perhaps that she is too sad to be sad – she had stopped even existing in her own head, her existence was so terrible. This may explain another interesting thing, which is that the book leaves Tess’s point of view as she is talking with d’Urberville in the church, and never really ever returns to it. It is lucky – it would be too dreadful indeed if you were looking at the events of the end with Tess’s eyes. It is interesting though, and seems to again suggest the idea that she is not even thinking to herself anymore – that it would be too bad for her to be herself, just as it would be too bad for the reader to be her.

And now, my last thought. The book seems to explore the strange pathos of life – something that is quite beyond science – a mystery far greater than the scientific mysteries of how the world began, and other such things. The book confronts and diminishes one great mystery – that of religion – and introduces another – that of life.

 

Persuasion

 

PERSUASION

Without question the softest, and often said to be the most lonely and melancholic of the Jane Austen novels, Persuasion is nevertheless one of my favourites. Though Anne does not have the lively spirit of Lizzy, she is such a gentle, pensive, good-natured heroine that I like her just as well. I am just like her about not liking cities. I always think though, that if she disliked beautiful old fashioned Bath, where it would be a treat for me to go, what would she think of a modern city? the roaring of cars and the flashing of traffic lights would seem far worse than “the dash of other carriages, the heavy rumble of carts and drays, the bawling of newsmen, muffin-men, and milk-men, and the ceaseless clink of pattens”, and the tall skyscrapers of our cities would be horrid in comparison with ‘extensive buildings, smoking in rain’ which no doubt were some gorgeous regency houses. But had I lived in Anne’s time, I no doubt would have considered Bath as I consider Manchester and London. I wish I did live at Anne’s time – no I don’t – there would be no computer for me to have this blog on.

To continue, I will talk about some of what I consider the highlights of the book.  I am sure everybody who has ever read Persuasion remembers the thrill of horror at the moment when Louisa falls from the Cob in Lime; and still more the softer bitterness of Captain Wentworth’s grief, showing (as we all think) the excessiveness of his attachment to Louisa. But the dramatic, intense parts essential to the plot are not the only highlights. I always have a great pleasure in reading the part about the autumn walk, especially the paragraph describing Anne’s delight in the charm of the countryside in autumn, and the many poems describing that charm –

”Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn –that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness –that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.”

But alas, Anne cannot keep her mind from wandering to sorrow, and “The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by, unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory.”

Wonderful as all of Persuasion is, there is only one more part – the crowning of the whole book – that particularly dwells upon my memory, that I especially think has to be mentioned. One of the many merits of Jane Austen, I think, is the overpowering happiness of her endings – it is impossible not to smile as you read the end . And of all the endings, Persuasion’s is, perhaps, the happiest of all. Oh the indescribable joy of that letter! How our hearts leap at the words! How the joy rushes through body and head! I believe one of the happiest moment in my life was reading that letter.

“I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means
as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony,
half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings
are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart
even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years
and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman,
that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you.
Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been,
but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath.
For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this?
Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even
these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have
penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing
something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can
distinguish the tones of that voice when they would be lost on others.
Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed.
You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men.
Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating, in F. W.’

And before this joy, there is are gentler but just as memorable emotions exited in her conversation with Captain Harville. Never have Jane Austen’s powers of creating conversation been so wonderfully exercised. The story of Anne’s life can be traced in her words.

 

 

A Tale of the Moors

(picture above is of me, standing on Bronte moors in Howarth

 

BRONTES

Wuthering Heights

It is impossible to imagine the impulse that made Emily write such a strange, such a powerful, such a passionate, such an unaccountable – in short such a unearthly book – impossible, that is, until you stand on the Bronte moors by Penistone Crag, and look down on that incredible expanse of wild land, with the wind stirring  the heather and moaning through the hills. Then and only then can you image how such characters as Heathcliff where invented. The moors can stir strange power in you; you might say it is they who had written Wuthering Heights, not Emily.