This free online course offers learners the opportunity to
explore the work of four writers or groups of writers from the Romantic
& Victorian era with strong links to Bristol and the South West.
The course covers Bristol’s Romantic poets (Samuel Taylor
Coleridge, Robert Lovell, Robert Southey), Mary Shelley, Jane Austen,
and Thomas Hardy, and addresses the following two overarching questions:
- What has been the importance of place to writers in the South West?
- What is the importance of writers to places in the South West today?
The course invites learners to consider how the
featured writers were inspired by the landscapes and cityscapes
of Bristol, Bath, and the West of England and how they engaged in a local or
regional context with social and political issues of national
importance. Learners will also consider how these same writers are
remembered today and how they contribute to the cultural economy of the
region; here in particular there will be scope for learners to share
their own knowledge and experiences in an interactive learning
This course is about the importance of places and landscapes in the west of England to some major English writers, and also the importance of those writers to the region’s culture and economy today. This week we are looking at three poets who got to know each other here in Bristol in the 1790s, and made this city the base for launching their literary careers. Bristol had long had a reputation as a city dominated by trade and industry and concerned only with making money. The floating harbour today is used mainly for recreational purposes, but two hundred years ago the docks, which then extended right into the heart of the city, were very much a place of work, busy with the colonial trade; they were the cause and symbol of Bristol’s prosperity.
Along with its reputation as a commercial centre went the idea that Bristol was hostile to the arts and the life of the mind. Yet by the end of the eighteenth century Bristol also had the public libraries, book societies, theatres, publishing houses and assembly rooms that made it a centre of provincial culture, and was associated with writers and artists of a quality and celebrity that led the city’s more enthusiastic defenders to make comparisons with classical Rome. The poets we’re studying this week – one very well known, one you may have heard of, and one you most likely haven’t heard of – are part of that alternative history of Bristol.
On the last day of 1796, in one of the coldest winters of the century, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and his wife Sara moved into this cottage in Nether Stowey, on the edge of the Quantock Hills in north Somerset. The cottage was in poor condition and Coleridge took it only as a last resort. It was renovated in 1800, after he’d left, and enlarged in the nineteenth century, but the core of the original seventeenth-century building still remains. The cottage was acquired by the National Trust in 1909 and underwent a major refurbishment in 2011. It brings many visitors to the area every year, which helps account for the presence of amenities – shops, a post office, three pubs – which wouldn’t normally be found in a village with a population of little more than 1000. The fact that the pub over the road is called the “Ancient Mariner” shows that the village is not shy of trading on Coleridge’s reputation. That’s somewhat ironic, given that many residents were deeply suspicious of their new neighbour at the time. Coleridge was in retreat from public life when he arrived in Nether Stowey, having become notorious as a political lecturer in Bristol in 1795 and having seen his attempt to edit a radical weekly journal collapse in financial disaster. He had little idea how he was going to earn a living. However, the eighteen months or so that he spent in Nether Stowey were the last period in which he enjoyed real happiness in his personal life, and were also the period in which he wrote most of the poetry by which he’s still remembered today. One good thing about the cottage in Nether Stowey was the garden, which Coleridge described as very pretty and “large enough to find us vegetables and employment”. Beyond the garden was an orchard, and at the bottom of the orchard was a gate which led into the garden of his new friend Tom Poole, who had played a large part in luring Coleridge to Nether Stowey and finding him the cottage. In Poole’s garden was an arbour (a kind of trellis structure) covered in jasmine and sheltered by a large lime tree. This was on land which has subsequently been built on, but in its recent refurbishment of the Cottage the National Trust created this modern version of the arbour, to provide a more immersive experience of one of Coleridge’s best-known poems. In a letter to Robert Southey in July 1797, Coleridge tells of how Sara spilt a pan of boiling milk on his foot, which prevented him joining the Wordsworths and his house-guest, Charles Lamb, on one of his favourite walks. He describes sitting down in Poole’s arbour in the early evening and writing the poem which he later called “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison”. The poem begins and ends in his leafy “prison”, but in between he goes on a mental walk with his friends, imagining what they will be seeing. Let’s see if we can follow him in that walk. [For the next shoot we move a few miles west to Holford. A narrow footbridge crosses Holford Glen just below the meeting place of two streams. This is the location of the “roaring dell” described in Coleridge’s poem. ] The first place Coleridge imagines his friends coming to is a “still roaring dell”: “o’erwooded, narrow, deep, / And only speckled by the mid-day sun”. He describes a branchless ash tree “flinging” its slim trunk from rock to rock like a bridge; also some “long lank weeds”, identified in a footnote as a fern called hart’s tongue, nodding and dripping by the edge of a waterfall. It all sounds very specific, and very alive. There’s little doubt that this place near Holford where two streams meet, a favourite spot for Coleridge and the Wordsworths on their regular walks in the area, is the dell that Coleridge has in mind. The waterfall is less impressive than it was in Coleridge’s time, but everything else fits. When he describes this place as “unsunned and damp” and talks of a “few poor yellow leaves” trembling by the waterfall, we may feel that he’s projecting some of his own emotions at being left behind in Nether Stowey onto the landscape – an example of what literary critics call a “pathetic fallacy”. But there’s excitement too: he wants his friends to enjoy this “fantastic sight”. In the last quarter of the eighteenth century there was a vogue for so-called “picturesque nature” – natural landscapes characterised not by smooth curves and soft colours but by irregularity and complexity – landscapes that were more visually involving. This roaring dell (especially when sunlight filters through the trees, as Coleridge describes) is a classic example of the picturesque as the eighteenth century understood it. In his mind’s eye, Coleridge now sees his friends walking up onto the Quantocks, onto higher ground where they can take in a much wider prospect of “hilly fields and meadows” and, beyond those, the sea, the Bristol Channel, where he imagines a small ship sailing on the “smooth clear blue betwixt two isles / Of purple shadow”. Those two isles are Steepholm and Flatholm, easily visible from any high point in the Quantocks on a clear day; indeed much of the view from here must be pretty much as Coleridge saw it 200 years ago; and at this time of year the “purple heath flowers” that he mentions in the poem are particularly eye-catching. He then describes his friends contemplating the sunset, with everything on land and sea, and in the sky, glowing in the “slant beams of the sinking orb”. He imagines them standing still, gazing silently “with swimming sense”, connecting to nature as a “living thing” – not only through the eye but with the mind or spirit. This is a very different experience of landscape from the picturesque nature of the previous section: this view of nature as something vast and overwhelming, placing the spectator on the threshold between the natural and supernatural, is what the eighteenth century called the Sublime. At this point in the poem the speaker reminds us that he’s still sitting in his lime-tree bower, but his mood has changed completely since he began his soliloquy. Sharing imaginatively in his friend’s pleasure in natural beauty has given him a new perspective on his so-called “prison” in Tom Poole’s garden. Looking around him, he can see much to enjoy in his natural surroundings, however confined – the sunset creates effects just as stunning as those he imagined his friends were witness to. Coleridge draws moral and philosophical lessons from this, as we might expect if we’ve got to know him and his poetry. But the force of the poem’s argument would be lost if the speaker had never left his back garden. This is a poem which goes from place to place without, in a sense, going anywhere at all; but whether sitting still or mentally wandering, it’s a poem very much rooted in a local, intimately known landscape.
Before we move on to take a look at another West Country Romantic poet,
Robert Southey, you might like to test your knowledge of Coleridge. This
is just for fun: you won’t be prevented from moving to the next step,
whatever your score!
I’m standing in the Avon Gorge, a mighty chasm which winds from the very heart of Bristol out into the Bristol Channel. It’s as spectacular a place now as it was 200 years ago, when it thrilled visitors and fired the imaginations of the poets we’re studying this week. As you know from our earlier discussion of Coleridge, Bristol had quite a negative image in the eighteenth century. Many people saw it as a place where the interests of trade and industry outweighed all others – a place where the residents were concerned only with making money and had no time or inclination for the arts or culture, a place where finer souls such as Chatterton were likely to be crushed by indifference at best, if not outright hostility. This perception of Bristol didn’t go unchallenged, however. The authors of local travelogues and guidebooks did their best to offer a more flattering picture. One strategy was to list all the cultural institutions that Bristol had to offer as well as the factories, docks and warehouses: things like public libraries, book societies and private art collections. It was also possible to highlight some of the eminent literary figures that the city had produced, especially in recent times. Coleridge’s publisher Joseph Cottle was to refer to the 1790s as the “Augustan Age of Bristol”, using the prestige of classical Rome to exaggerate Bristol’s cultural status. In doing so he was merely taking to an extreme a line of argument that Bristol’s defenders had been using for decades. Indeed, by the 1810s Coleridge and Southey were themselves included in the roll call of local heroes used to bolster Bristol’s reputation. Another way of celebrating Bristol was to show what it had to offer to the picturesque tourist – the kind of person who went in search of aesthetically pleasing natural landscapes. That’s where this place - the Avon Gorge – came in. The Gorge was a compulsory part of all tourist itineraries involving Bristol in the Romantic period, and was talked up as a grand spectacle of nature. However, it was also a place where tensions between Bristol’s status as a mercantile city and the desire to promote its attractions to a cultivated tourist class came to the surface in very visible and dramatic ways. We’ve already seen how one of the poets we’re focusing on, Robert Southey, was fascinated and inspired by the Avon Gorge. In one of his notebooks Southey ponders the idea of writing a much longer poem about the Gorge and all the history, legends and famous people associated with it. He talks there of “my cavern” as one of the ingredients of what he calls a “fine local poem”, implying not only that the cave he describes in his “Inscription” is real and specific but that he took quite a proprietorial interest in it. It would, of course, be interesting to know exactly where the cave Southey regarded as his cavern is. Unfortunately there are lots of caves in the Avon Gorge and it’s impossible to say for sure which one Southey had in mind. It seems very unlikely that it was the modern so-called “Giant’s Cave”, once a tiny chapel but now a major tourist attraction. It was only in 1837 that a tunnel was blasted down to it from the Observatory and Southey would have needed ropes and climbing skills to get to it in the 1790s. Another possibility is a cave near the top of the cliffs further downstream, accessible via the garden of a block of flats. Turner did a painting looking out from the mouth of that cave in the early 1790s, showing three men climbing into the lookout. Wherever the true location was, it seems that somewhere in the cliffs opposite there really was a place where Southey liked to sit and contemplate and perhaps compose poetry. He wasn’t the only poet drawn to this spectacular site in the Romantic period. A local woman poet called Melesina Bowen, now largely forgotten, published a poem in 1808 describing a walk along the Avon, mixing together elements of topography, history, folklore, botany and personal associations in much the same way as Southey had planned to do. And Coleridge, although he didn’t write much about Bristol itself, was inspired after arriving in the city in 1794 to revise a poem about Chatterton that he’d first drafted in his schooldays. Now, having seen Bristol, he could imagine Chatterton roving the woods and caverns of the Gorge where the “screaming sea-gulls soar”, and pausing sometimes on some “rough rock’s fearful brow” to “gaze upon the waves below”. But the wild natural scene that Coleridge and Southey conjure up in their poems was undergoing big changes in the Romantic period. Tourists and residents alike were getting increasingly worried about the way in which the natural beauty of the Avon Gorge was threatened by human activity. This was evident in different ways. To begin with, there were all the new residential developments – the Georgian terraces and crescents spreading across the hillside as Bristol’s affluent commercial classes abandoned the overcrowded centre of the city to colonise the high ground of Clifton. To make matters worse, there was a building slump following the outbreak of war with France in 1793, so many of these new developments remained incomplete for years. On one side of this magnificent Gorge, it seemed like there was a permanent building site encroaching on one of Nature’s great spectacles. There was another problem too – and this we can appreciate better from the other side of the Gorge. Quarrying. Limestone quarrying had been going on in the Avon Gorge for centuries, but by the end of the eighteenth century it was on a completely different scale and the noise and dramatic alterations to the landscape couldn’t be ignored. The huge indentations made by quarrying on both sides of the Gorge have by now been largely reclaimed by nature, but at that time the scars were massive, raw and ugly. Everyone who commented on the scene struggled to reconcile this industrial activity with their landscape ideals. Picturesque theory valued qualities like variety and intricacy, and a few labourers or beggars were often thought to be useful additions to a picturesque scene. But what about quarrymen setting up tables on the towpath to sell minerals to passers-by? Were they picturesque? A Sublime landscape was one that overwhelmed the spectator with impressions of great scale and power, but many visitors to the Gorge clearly preferred to see a manifestation of the power of nature rather than the power of explosives. In the eyes of many, too much damage was being inflicted on the natural beauty of the Gorge in pursuit of economic gain. Southey summed it up best in his travelogue, Letters from England, when he said that the people of Bristol were “selling the sublime and beautiful by the boatload”. So Bristol had an image problem in the Romantic period. But it was fighting back. There were many who were anxious to portray it as a city where culture as well as commerce could thrive. But it was here in the Avon Gorge that the argument that Bristolians cared for more than just making money, cared for beauty as much as their bank balances, came under most severe strain. Despite a major road on one side of the Avon and a freight railway on the other, the Avon Gorge can once again be admired largely for its scenic beauty. Brunel’s suspension bridge, which has straddled the Gorge since 1864, provides a perfect viewpoint. The Bridge is also an iconic image of Bristol and a tourist attraction in its own right, bringing in visitors from across the world. The quarries have long gone, but Bristol is still in the business of selling the Sublime and Beautiful.
Before you complete this week’s learning, here’s a quick quiz on Bristol’s Romantic Poets. Don’t worry, it’s just for fun!
Before we move on to consider how Bath features in Persuasion, you have the opportunity to test your knowledge of Northanger Abbey based upon what you have heard and read so far. This is just for fun, so do not worry about what score you get!
Before we move on to consider Bath and Austen now, you have the opportunity to test your knowledge of Persuasion based upon what you have heard and read about it. This is just for fun, so do not worry about what score you get!
Before we move on to consider science and Frankenstein, you have the chance to test your knowledge of Mary Shelley based on what you have seen, heard and read up to now. This is just for fun and your score will make no difference to you going on to the next step!
Before you reach the end of this week’s learning, have a go at this quick quiz on Mary Shelley, Frankenstein and science just for fun!
Week 4 Section 1
In ‘Domicilium’ we can hear that Hardy’s sense of home is both a rescue from but also a witness to the power of uncultivated nature: there is a powerful sense that the shaping presence of the natural world is felt as strongly as the human. From an early age Hardy was immersed in the influences of this natural world around him in the woods and lanes of Upper Bockhampton in Dorset. And here, inside ‘Hardy’s Cottage’, now owned and maintained by The National Trust, we can understand why.
It was in this cottage in the parish of Stinsford and the hamlet of Higher Bockhampton (just three miles from the centre of Dorchester) that Hardy was born in 1840. It had been built by Hardy’s great grandfather in 1801 and passed down to Hardy’s own father. That continuity of family ownership helped to ensure the survival of family traditions.
Several of Hardy’s family had belonged to a local string choir which played in the west gallery of Stinsford Church until, through the offices of a modernising vicar, it was replaced by a barrel organ, which was an event recorded in Hardy’s early novel set in this area, Under the Greenwood Tree. At home Hardy listened to his father playing the violin and accompanied him to the country dances in the locality at which he played. Dancing and singing were all part of Hardy’s childhood experience.
Hardy’s father, Thomas, was a stonemason and small builder who enjoyed a modest prosperity, employing six men by the early 1860s. Hardy’s mother had been employed in domestic service, partly in Maiden Newton, a few miles to the north west of Bockhampton.
The Hardy family culture had strong historical and geographical roots. Through Hardy’s grandmother, in particular, there were strong family connections to the period of the Napoleonic wars with the constant threat of invasion and the activities of smugglers – his grandfather colluded with their activities, for a time.
From his travels on foot (from the age of nine he had to walk three miles there and back to school in Dorchester) Hardy got to know his area with great intimacy. To the east of here was the wild heathland, so formative in the development of his picture of Egdon Heath which is described so vividly in his novel, The Return of the Native, and to the south, the lush Frome valley which was to feature so centrally in Tess of the d’Urbervilles.
Hardy was a talented student, leaving school at 16 and then for the next six years working in an architect’s office in Dorchester. During this period he developed his skills as a draughtsman ‒ all the time keeping up his study of Latin and Greek.
In 1862 at the age of 22 he moved to London to work for another architect’s practice. His widening of cultural knowledge while he was there included access to texts which convinced him to embrace a more secular, free-thinking vision of life, involving a turning-away from the Christianity of his family. All this time he was studying shorthand, learning about art history, and experimenting with prosody – the groundwork for the poems which he began to write at this period, even if they didn’t appear in print until much later, when he was in his fifties. But London didn’t really agree with his health and Hardy returned to Dorchester in 1867 to work for another architect who gave him more responsibility than he enjoyed before for the drawing of plans for church restoration projects.
Then in 1870 at the age of thirty, dispatched to North Cornwall on such a restoration project, he met Emma Gifford, the sister-in-law of the Rector of the church at St Juliot, near Boscastle. He fell in love with this high-spirited and attractive woman, returning to Cornwall later that year where the two become engaged, eventually marrying in 1874. Hardy now decided to abandon architecture for novel writing: his first novel ‘The Poor Man and the Lady’ was rejected but his next novel, a sensation fiction, Desperate Remedies, was published in 1871, with Under the Greenwood Tree following in 1872.
Forty years later it was to Cornwall and his romantic days with Emma that Hardy returned in his elegies, his ‘Poems of 1912-13’, written immediately after her death. Emma’s death brought to an end a 37-year old marriage which had declined from its joyful beginnings to a sour union: ‘my life is intensely sad to me now without her’, Hardy wrote to a friend.
But within a few weeks Hardy initiated an extraordinary process of imaginative re-creation of their joyful early months together, which resulted in some of the finest elegies in British poetry, such as ‘The Voice’, ‘After a Journey’ and ‘Beeny Cliff’.
Beeny Cliff. Photo: Tony Atkin, via Wikimedia Commons
These poems possess a level of emotional appeal and honesty of expression which continue to move readers and critics of Hardy’s work and which, for some, constitute Hardy’s finest body of writing.
I’m standing by Riverside Villa outside Sturminster Newton where Hardy and Emma lived for 21 months from 1876-1878, two years after their marriage. Before that they were living in rented houses in a variety of locations in London, Swanage and Yeovil.
The house they chose was one of a semi-detached pair of properties which overlooks the river Stour (now obscured by trees) as it winds its way through meadow land down to a mill and then under the medieval bridge at the foot of the town.
So this is the home of a young married couple, settling down together. They were near to the Dorset of Hardy’s relatives but perhaps wisely not too near the area of his parents and relations centred on Bockhampton. It also gave Hardy and Emma some society (although perhaps not enough for Emma) and it was close to Hardy’s friend, the poet and cleric William Barnes, who lived in the nearby village of Bagben.
The move to Sturminster Newton seems to have given Hardy the stability he needed at an important phase of his professional life. Having produced five novels in the previous six years he now needed to re-discover new sources of creative energy with a view to broadening the scope of his writing. So this relatively peaceful, pastoral setting gave him the time to think and research. The immediate outcome would be a new novel, The Return of the Native (1878), generally regarded as his most philosophically and aesthetically ambitious to date.
Much of the extensive reading in literature and philosophy he conducted at this time is recorded in his own Literary Notebooks. Emma contributed a great deal to this enterprise: she would enter in her own hand, at Hardy’s direction, passages which might be valuable to him in the future shaping of the content of his novels and poems. So one reason why Hardy regarded this 21-month period as something of an ‘idyll’ was that he and Emma (in contrast to their later difficulties) worked effectively as a ‘team’ at the common project which was Hardy’s still developing career.
Outside the recreation of Hardy’s study in the Dorset County Museum and in the Museum Reading Room.
We’re now outside ‘Max Gate’, the house which Hardy designed and had built on the outskirts of Dorchester which was, in the mid-1880s, an unbuilt-on spot. It was here that he spent the rest of his life with Emma until her death in 1912 and then, later, with his second wife, Florence, until Hardy’s own death in 1928. The house, now owned and maintained by The National Trust, exerts a complex influence on anyone who knows the story of Hardy and Emma’s marriage: it bears witness to the progressive deterioration in their married relationship, exemplified by their retreating into separate quarters of the house (subsequent additions to the building in the mid-1890s making this more possible).
It was important for Hardy that his home was within walking distance of the centre of Dorchester, but it was also significantly situated within minutes of the railway station for London (now Dorchester South) which allowed him to make frequent and reasonably speedy journeys to the capital where he could stay either at one of the two clubs of which he was a member (The Athenæum and The Savile) or at reliable Temperance hotels in Bloomsbury.
By this period Hardy had necessarily positioned himself as both a countryman and a metropolitan literary figure. His contact with London, of course, has been crucial. London had given him access to social contacts – scientists, writers and artists ‒ whose work Hardy had become acquainted with through his reading, for Hardy was well up in the burgeoning periodical literature of the period, such as The Fortnightly Review or The Nineteenth Century. In fact, as Hardy’s biographer Michael Millgate suggests, it was Hardy’s contact with London which, paradoxically, ‘made him a regionalist’.
Overall, Hardy’s return to Dorchester, for good, marked a new development in his representation of what Raymond Williams has called ‘tradition’. ‘To see tradition in both ways,’ says Williams, was ‘Hardy’s special gift: the native place and the experience but also the education, the conscious enquiry’. This double impetus fed into his major, final, great novels ‒ all composed, here, at Max Gate.
Week 4 Section 2: Landscape and Social Geography
Hardy’s attraction to ‘out of the way places’ is also shaped by his love over many years of views from locations on high ground which the Wessex countryside offered in relative abundance. In his 1896 poem, ‘Wessex Heights’, the poet’s experience of personal rejection (by Florence Henniker), his feelings of alienation, despair and loneliness, is associated with the ‘lowlands’ where he ‘has no comrade’ and where he is ‘tracked by phantoms having weird detective ways’. But at the poem’s conclusion, in a re-assertion of selfhood, he can celebrate the ‘heights of Wessex’ with these lines:
So I am found on Ingpen Beacon, or on Wylls-Neck to the west,
Or else on lonely Bulbarrow, or little Pildson Crest,
Where men have never ceased to haunt, nor women have walked with me,
And ghosts then keep their distance; and I know some liberty.
Hardy enjoyed many favourite views from the ‘heights of Wessex’. The view from Toller Down, to Wynyard’s Gap, between Maiden Newton and Crewkerne, was one of his favourites.
View from Toller Down
Toller Down was the site of an ancient fair and we’re now standing on another of these hill-top sites with which Hardy was familiar. It’s called Lambert’s Castle, which is situated above Lyme Regis.
Hardy knew about many of the hill-top fairs, scattered around Dorset and beyond, which he noted from incidents reported in the old local newspapers. These fairs were sited on local landmarks and ancient gathering places. They were not excessively difficult to access, but they were detached enough from towns or villages to allow some escape from the eyes of the local constabulary. They also offered the sense of freedom that comes with great views.
Sea Mark fair, high up on Horn Hill, above Beaminster, looked to the sea ten miles off. Weyhill, the ‘Weydon Priors’ of The Mayor of Casterbridge, at which Henchard sells his wife, is up on the Hampshire Downs, near the Wiltshire border and commanded uninterrupted views in all directions.
Still of Weyhill Fair
And it was the relative remoteness of these old fair sites in the West of England which made such an imaginative appeal to Hardy. Their remoteness, of course, removed from centres of conformity and surveillance, offered many pleasures and distractions. Sea Mark Fair for instance advertised ‘diversions’ in handbills, along with the usual livestock. Here, up at Lambert’s Castle (now preserved by the National Trust) Hardy noted that there was ‘cudgelling, wrestling, &c, at Lambert’s Castle fair as usual’. A report from Priddy fair, on another hill-top, in the Mendips in Somerset, offers evidence of illicit activity:
Desperate Assaults & robberies: gangs of gipsies from Bristol: women related to them are employed in the conduct of E.O tables … [‘Evens and Odds’, an illegal form of roulette] … or other low species of gambling. After nightfall respectable people who had been dining in booths could not go outside. Obliged to remain – &c.
Apart from its necessary function as part of the trading economy of the countryside, the fair also was seen to pose a threat to social order and morally-acceptable conduct. Efforts from the late-eighteenth century to eliminate the more violent aspects of ‘wakes’ and of the blood sports of the common people had, as Ronald Hutton suggests, ‘developed into a national campaign of considerable intensity in the early-nineteenth century, culminating in parliamentary legislation in the 1830s … made effective by the newly established police forces’. The neighbourhood fair was caught up in the Evangelical revival of the early-Victorian period which condemned evidence of drunkenness and sexual license, in its effort to establish the values of respectability, education and self-improvement. As part of a wider effort to remoralise the people’s culture, the traditional fair was re-shaped: men were to be segregated from women and the hiring of female domestics was to be carried out indoors.
So Hardy’s choice and use of landscape is shaped by a deep understanding of social geography and by a profound awareness of the dynamics of social change, including the erosion of social custom and tradition. To recover these he turns to his fiction and poems to bring alive the very sites of that absent history, that buried past.
Week 4 Section 3: Landscape and the Self
We’re standing looking over the lush landscape which Hardy called the Valley of the Great Dairies. I can see down to the valley of the river Frome, from beneath the southern tip of the heathland, now heavily wooded – which Hardy called ‘Egdon Heath’. It’s a spot marked out in Hardy’s novel The Return of the Native (1878) where Eustacia Yve pauses on the fringes of the wildness of Egdon Heath: ‘the situation was quite open, commanding the whole length of the valley which reached to the river …’.
Where we are is also where Hardy imagined Tess to be in his later novel, Tess of the D’Urbervilles. In the novel, following the sharp deterioration in her family’s fortunes, her seduction by the faux-aristocrat Alec d’Urberville, the birth of her illegitimate child and its subsequent early death, Tess is now determined to make a new beginning.
Hardy gave names to parts of the novel which capture what he called the ‘phases’ of Tess’s experience. At this point in the novel we have passed through the phases called ‘A Maiden’ and ‘A Maiden No More’ and now we come to ‘The Rally’: it’s the phase in her life in which she is determined to make a new start and put her troubles behind her.
She journeys southward from her family home (located north of this spot at ‘Marlott’ which was Hardy’s name for the village of Marnhull). She is now intent on starting work as a dairymaid at a farm in the Frome valley which in the novel is called Talbothays Dairy in what Hardy calls ‘The Valley of the Great Dairies’. As she emerges from the heath she, like Eustacia, gazes down at the lush fields below. While the scene presented is of a rich farming spectacle, Hardy’s narrator is careful to draw our attention to its particularity, its distinct quality. It’s marked out as forming a marked contrast to the farming lands of the other part of the Dorset landscape in which Tess has grown up, ‘The Valley of the Little Dairies’. The contrast marks a new development, an evolution (rather than an abrupt break) in her experience.
In the passage from Tess which you’ve read you’ll have noticed that we’re given a really quite detailed picture of the farm land down below in the Froom valley – the farmsteads – the groups of cattle, their number and colour. But what really interests Hardy, here, is what feelings this promised land generates in Tess, herself, given her recent painful experiences. As a novelist he will open up the wider possibilities of what he can show us descriptively in his novel. And he will do this through the resources of visual perspective. His formal use of perspective measured via the seeing eye onto landscape can suggest wider meanings. At this precise point of seeing we are inducted into the landscape of a promised land for Tess, a prospect of a return to an Eden after her fall (Hardy’s later allusion to Genesis 3 and Milton’s Paradise Lost will not be lost on the attentive reader).
The landscape of this part of the south west, of the Wessex Hardy knew from boyhood and then helped to establish in the national literary imagination, is crucial to how we read Tess, here; and it’s crucial to how we read her, reading herself. The landscape in front of us, then, is captured in this section of the novel by an intensely visual imagination.
Is the material from Lodge in this next paragraph on camera or not? If not then I need to do this as audio over footage
We can understand this aspect of his imagination a little better by considering just how far Hardy’s visual rendering of landscape lends itself to the visual medium of film. The writer and critic, David Lodge, has written persuasively on this aspect of Hardy’s writing. ‘Like a film maker’, he says, ‘Hardy … conceive[s] his fictions … in visual terms as human-actions-in-setting’, praising the ‘artistry with which [Hardy] controls his readers’ perspective on the relationship between character and environment’. He does ‘through language what the film-maker can do by moving his camera and adjusting his lens’.
Hardy ‘adjusting his lens’: it’s a very suggestive analogy for the novelist’s descriptive craft, in this episode. What Hardy gives us, here, is a double perspective of this promising valley below as it feels to Tess: it is both Tess’s perspective but it’s also, at the same time, a perspective that has its own independent reality.
VOICE OVER (Footage of Landscape)
‘The bird’s-eye perspective before her was not so luxuriantly beautiful, perhaps, as that other one which she knew so well; yet it was more cheering. It lacked the intensely blue atmosphere of the rival vale, and its heavy soils and scents; the new air was clear, bracing, ethereal … [The waters of the Frome valley below her] … are ‘clear as the pure River of Life shown to the Evangelist, rapid as the shadow of a cloud, with pebbly shallows that prattled to the sky all day long’.
Here, at this point, is a seeing from a ‘bird’s eye perspective’. It’s both Tess’s perspective and the narrator’s. What Tess sees as she looks down onto the fertile landscape below her from the height at the edge of Egdon Heath, fills her with joy to the extent that she can utter what Hardy calls a ‘half-unconscious’ rhapsody to the beauty of the natural world.
But now there is a shift. Hardy gives us a new perspective, a different camera angle. We will now follow her as ‘in good heart, and full of zest for life’, she descends ‘the Egdon slopes lower and lower towards the dairy of her pilgrimage’.
VOICE OVER (Footage of Landscape)
‘When Tess had accomplished this feat she found herself to be standing on a carpeted level, which stretched to the east and west as far as the eye could reach …
… Not quite sure of her direction Tess stood still upon the hemmed expanse of verdant flatness, like a fly on a billiard-table of indefinite length, and of no more consequence to the surroundings than that fly. The sole effect of her presence upon the placid valley so far had been to excite the mind of a solitary heron, which, after descending to the ground not far from her path, stood with neck erect, looking at her’.
From being at the summit, with the bird’s eye perspective in front of her, Tess has now become quite immersed in that landscape as she descends into what for her now is a flat ‘carpeted level’, a plain with no physical interruption – a perspective which stretched in either direction ‘as far as the eye could see’. That is Tess’s eye. But now there is a final and really striking shift of focus. The perspective shifts from Tess as subject to Tess as object. Hardy’s camera pulls back in a very daring move to reveal the figure of Tess through a remarkable simile: she is ‘like a fly on a billiard-table of indefinite length’. The ‘hemmed expanse’ now is a visual measure of her insignificance, ‘a fly’. Hardy’s visual imagination, using the full resources that this landscape offers him, delivers us the concrete image (the ‘fly’) which only then is followed by the abstract idea to which the novelist was surely heading: that Tess is also ‘of no more consequence to the surroundings than that fly’. What, we are led to ask, is the meaning of Tess, here and now? Certainly, as the narrator puts it, there is no hint ‘of the valley’s consciousness that beautiful Tess had arrived’.
And so the passage raises questions in our mind: what in a Darwinian universe is her own significance as an individual in relation to the world around her, a world which includes flies and will, later in the novel, feature maimed pheasants with which her further damaged self will identify? And, given this perspective of insignificance how do we then measure the significance of that earlier camera angle, that ‘bird’s eye perspective’ which takes its reference point from Tess’s own subjective position, inviting us in to experience with Tess her ‘Rally’, her resurrected spirit of hope for a renovation in her existence? What meaning does her attempt to reconstruct her own life have outside her own subjective view of herself? These are big questions, but they are generated by the aesthetic dimension of Hardy’s descriptive prose, captured in and captured by a deep understanding of the Wessex landscape with which he had made himself so familiar.
Week 4 Section 4: The Idea and Uses of Wessex
Today, Thomas Hardy, his works and the aura of the world of his novels, stories and poems, have been packaged and assimilated to the needs of the tourism and heritage industry and the local business community.
Hardy’s Wessex continues to fascinate and attract literary and other tourists.