Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Landscapes in Emily Bronte, Lawrence and Mansfield


Tonight, I am thinking a lot about landscapes.

It has come about because I have recently read the ultimate landscape novel ‘Wuthering Heights’. The landscape, or the setting, is of course the moors surrounding the Bronte Parsonage near Haworth, in Lancashire. I don’t have the book with me, but some of the vocabulary I am left with in my memory is craggy, rocky, heather, black frost, fleecy cloud, abundant rain, temporary brooks, shadows and sunshine, transient mist, wintry drifts, primroses & crocuses, impassable roads, and so on. It is a tough environment which suited only the toughest of people. And Emily Bronte must have been one of the toughest young women who ever lived. The novel is extraordinary for its power, cruelty, violence and menace. It paints a visceral world of loneliness, imprisonment, and despair, as well as other gothic elements like madness, imprisonment, the supernatural and mysticism.

 It must have been thrilling for EJB to apply her imaginative world to such a ‘fantastic’ and surreal story, dark and foreboding, although in the case of Heathcliff and Cathy, and younger Cathy and Edgar, her father, full of romantic love and filial bonding as well. My impression of EJB is that of someone who could be ruthless like her characters, hard-nosed and wilfully independent and determined and capable of cruelty. Filled from top to toe with the ‘romantic imagination’ but understanding of the uncompromising tenor of her times and the people who inhabited remote areas of the wild countryside in the nineteenth century.

The landscape of D H Lawrence’s childhood never left him. He grew up in Eastwood, Nottingham, semi-rural with a fairly short distance to town (Nottingham) but also enclosed by woods and country paths and farms and wild nature. His landscape crept into novels his whole life, from the beginnings with ‘The White Peacock’ and ‘Sons & Lovers’, to latter works such as ‘The Rainbow’ and ‘’The Lost Girl’. Despite the fact that he spent a good deal of his fertile writing career living abroad in places like Australia, New Mexico and Italy, Lawrence also came back to the world of his childhood in his latter books like ‘The Virgin & The Gypsy’ and ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Just like a venture into Bronte territory is manna from heaven for me, it is similar with the Lawrence world of Eastwood, Moorgreen Reservoir, Cossal (Cossethay in ‘The Rainbow’).
Lawrence’s favourite place of his childhood was Hagg’s Farm, where he would walk several miles to visit the Chambers family, all of the Chambers family who were a second family, and in particular the love of his youth, Jessie Chambers (Miriam in ‘Sons & Lovers’) who he might have married but for the fact as he later said ‘she would have destroyed (my) genius’ (not a feminist-friendly afterthought). Lawrence wrote Jessie’s brother a letter near the end of his life about the joy of visiting The Haggs, which never left him. He called it ‘the countryside of my heart’. The closest, perhaps, to experiencing these feelings of joy and comfort and landscape again were probably whilst living in New Mexico with his wife and friends, baking bread, writing novels, riding horses, visiting ancient places like Guadalajara…

Katherine Mansfield came to hate New Zealand, her birthplace, as enclosed, smothering, provincial. As an adolescent she had a taste of life in London, and on return she had a miserable period in Wellington with her parents where she felt listless and angry. She was the archetypal bored young adult in her restlessness and feelings of confinement and restlessness. On her return to Queens College London, she blossomed in an environment more conducive to her study of music, imagination and literature, in particular Oscar Wilde and other so-called ‘decadents’.

 This is not to say that NZ did not feature in her writing as she grew to become a highly talented and revered writer of short stories. We see Wellington and its environs crop up in stories like ‘The Voyage’ and ‘At The Bay’ and ‘Prelude’ and ‘The Garden Party’. These are some of her best stories. It is just that when we think of Katherine Mansfield, we sometimes forget she is from New Zealand because she embraced Europe and everything it had to offer in the 1920’s so wholeheartedly, and never seemed to entertain thoughts of ever going back there.
Landscapes feed writers’ imaginations. I doubt that Virginia Woolf would ever have said that Katherine Mansfield was the only writer she was jealous of if KM had have stayed in NZ all her life. Lawrence’s books and stories and poems and plays are much more vivid and varied for having the thirst to travel and experience life in some of its extremities on his so-called ‘savage pilgrimage’ to far flung places in Europe, America and Australia. As for EJB, who lived until only 30, what might she have created had she travelled more, and lived on the continent or the US or some island for a period of time. When she died it is said that she was busy with a second novel. It is difficult to imagine Emily Bronte attached to anywhere other than her beloved moors that seem such an intrinsic part of her psyche and her life. And I want to go back there and search for Cathy and Heathcliff.

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