Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Triggering Article 50

Dreaming of Heathcliff's dogs chasing Michael Gove

In the week that the (unelected) Prime Minister of the UK intends to trigger Article 50 that begins the country’s negotiations to separate from the European Union, I’m going to type whatever comes out in a stream of consciousness. My past few blogs have been about writing, Emily Brontë and Wuthering Heights in particular. I wonder whether Heathcliff looking through the windows of Thrushcross Grange and despising the spoilt lives of privilege is a common experience. Is that why 52% (of the voters who bothered to vote) voted to Brexit? Would Heathcliff have voted to leave the European Union? (In truth, I don’t think he would have voted; he might have set his dogs on Michael Gove…. Or set fire to the polling booth….)
Do we want a return to the feudal system?
In the past it was easier to understand Britain’s/England’s/the UK’s social system:
  • Before the Norman Conquest in 1066 there were serfs (slaves), cottars (cottagers), ceorls (freemen), thanes (landowners), earls and other nobles, royalty and the king
  • In medieval times the feudal system dominated: serfs now had villeins below and peasants above; freemen came after yeomen came after servants; then came knights and vassals before the nobles and the king
  • Both pre-1066 and post-1066 there was a parallel hierarchy in the Church too with the Monks after the Priests after the Dean after the Prior after the Abbot and then the ArchDeacon, Archbishop, Bishop, Cardinal and Pope (and then Henry VIII complicated everything by divorcing and beheading his spouses and inventing the Church of England)
It must have been comforting living in a feudal society. Do Brexiters want to return to this period of our history?

Knowing your place

The four seismic shifts since Medieval Times that have affected the UK’s class system are the Industrial Revolution, World War One, World War Two and Globalisation. Before the Industrial Revolution it was easy to know your place: your goods and lands were your own as long as you gave up a portion to the level above you (a portion either in cash, goods or a willingness to supply male bodies to fight in wars.) Apart from in times of famine – or catastrophic upheavals like the Black Death – people lived lives “sufficient unto themselves.” The sons of blacksmiths generally became blacksmiths; the youngest sons of nobles generally went into the church; the lives of non-religious women generally focused on giving birth. Occupation, social status and political influence were the anchors of society. You only broke the mould if someone on a higher plane of the structure conferred some favour upon you in terms of land or status. Do Brexiters want to return to this period of our history?

The Age of Reason

The Industrial Revolution brought wealth to unexpected people in unexpected ways. Suddenly ordinary people could make swift profits through inventions and hard word. Mass migration of people to factories in cities disrupted the equilibrium in the towns and villages. Ideas from the French and American revolutions trickled through the brains of thinkers and agitators and God was on trial for His/Her/Its very existence as the Church began to lose its influence over society. The Age of “Reason” or “Enlightenment” had arrived. The old ways were being disrupted. But the peasants/working class were still labouring in filthy conditions, underpaid, underfed, uncared for in terms of health, safety and welfare and likely to die from dysentery or diphtheria or cholera. Do Brexiters want to return to this period of our history?

The Années Folles

The Middle Classes (old cottagers and freemen) began to find political voices and by the time of the First World War the demand for women’s equality was a clarion call. There was no turning back and universal suffrage and meritocracy meant it was possible to use the capitalist system in most of the world (or, clandestinely, a corrupted version of the communist system in the USSR; or, strangely, a smoke and mirrors version of communism in China) to beat the system and rise to the top from wherever you started. You just needed to know how to play the system. So – just after the First World War – that seemed like a good time to be alive – the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties, the French called it the Crazy Years (Années Folles).I could understand if Brexiters wanted to return to this period of our history (as long as what came next could be avoided.)

Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart

The 1930s, tragically, brought the financial crash (sound familiar?) that led to The Great Depression that led to the rise of Fascism that led to The Second World War, the holocaust and the atomic bomb. The peace at the end of World War One had clearly been an attempt to impose outdated terms on political systems in countries whose societies were going through convulsions. The Roaring Twenties may have been the period, after all, of the greatest ostrich-head-in-the-sand national-delusion. And after World War Two all the certainties about “isms” became uncertainties and the world had faced, as Ralph weeps at the end of Golding’s 1954 Lord of the Flies:
the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart
Surely Brexiters don’t want to return to the 1950s, or do they?
James Aubrey as Ralph in Peter Brook's 1963 film of Lord of the Flies with images of the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart

Taking back control or business as usual….?

Much good followed the Second World War – attempts to build global organisations to end poverty and improve health on an international scale. There was an upsurge in cultural sharing and tourism that improved understanding between nations. Great strides were made in treating all citizens equally with reforming legislation about gender, race, disability, sexuality, age and religion. It once again seemed possible that, with the age of the internet, we might all be able to work more efficiently for fewer hours and enjoy more leisure time. If everyone worked fewer hours more people could be employed. As computers and mechanization became more sophisticated the work could become less stressful. Why didn’t it happen? Greed for profits…. leading to the 2008 financial crash in not-dissimilar circumstances to the crash of the 1930s. And then a skillfully-managed Establishment and Media campaign managed to deflect the blame for the consequent political decisions to impose AUSTERITY and blame OTHERS in order to help the financial institutions return to business as usual.
Staring through the windows
I have some sympathy with the cries of Fake News these days, but I’m worried that the wrong news is being called fake news. In my opinion the last five years have seen a dreadful polarisation of stances in all the Media and our brains have not yet caught up with the bombardment of manipulation that comes our way in ever-increasingly sinister bits of brainwashing. The arguments on both sides of the EU referendum were not presented clearly or honestly and the claims of the “victors” (ie the Brexiters) are the ones that are now being strained. I blogged earlier that Time Will Tell but between that blog and now I am still waiting for the government to present certainty about what the post-Brexit world will be like. I hope clarity will start to emerge in the following weeks. What I am sure about is that much of what I think people thought they were voting for will not have changed. The rich will remain rich and will continue to get richer. The establishment will still protect itself and bolster itself. The only control that has been taken back will be the Haves controlling the Have-Nots. The disempowered and disenfranchised will still be staring through the windows of Thrushcross Grange wondering how it came to this.
Fake News has been with us longer than The Donald....

Saturday, 25 March 2017

Wuthering Heights

Images from Andrea Arnold's 2011 film with Solomon Glave and James Howson as Heathcliff and Shannon Beer and Kaya Scodelario as Catherine

It’s NOT ONLY about Heathcliff and Cathy….

Having blogged about Emily Brontë’s life (here) and my favourite Emily poem (here) I can’t stop myself blogging a few thoughts on Wuthering Heights. I’ve read it for pleasure three times in my life (so far) and taught it to A Level classes twice. Each time I plummet into its amoral freakery I learn something new, though what struck me when I first read it is that the novel’s heart lies in the character arcs of Hareton and young Cathy and I’ve never changed my mind about that. Most dramatisations fall short by focusing on the relationship between Catherine and Heathcliff and diminishing all else; whereas, I think, Emily Brontë has a more profound story to tell about young people yearning to make the world a better place. Heathcliff, Catherine, Hindley, Frances, Edgar and Isabella represent an old-fashioned world of primitive attitudes and Hareton and Cathy are the next generation, redeemed and able to break free from the sins and weaknesses of their parents. Linton is a necessary (and eventually welcome!) sacrifice that enables the promise of peace to reign.
Breaking free from the sins of the previous generation....

Storm and Calm

Some critics interpret the book as portraying the oppositional forces of storm and calm as represented by the two houses of the Earnshaws and Lintons: Wuthering Heights versus Thrushcross Grange. But careful reading reveals an underlying primitive beauty in the descriptions of the physical objects at the remote farm and a disturbingly aggressive tension at the posh house.

Contrasts do riddle the narrative: young and old, children and parents, female and male, powerful and weak, outdoor and indoor, tenderness and savagery, wealth and poverty, education and ignorance, love and hate – all these contrasts play alongside and amongst the calm and storm.
And symbols also play a subconscious role in worming into the reader’s imagination: doors and windows, plants and rocks, the elements (air, earth, fire and water), nature and weather, landscapes and horizons, the flesh and the spirit, the living and the dead, dreams and the supernatural. Like all great novels, no single interpretation is possible because Wuthering Heights has a bottomless pit of variables depending on the reader’s context.

Can it be categorised?

People who have only seen the 1939 William Wyler film with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon as Heathcliff and Catherine think the novel is a Romance. Readers know different. The explicit violence and unbearable cruelty are more extreme than you would expect in a conventional romantic novel.
  • Is Wuthering Heights therefore a novel of male revenge?
  • Or a deeply-subversive feminist text about the futility of male revenge?
  • A Marxist novel about the oppression of the rich?
  • A Psychoanalytic novel about the battle between the id (Heathcliff), the ego (Catherine) and the superego (Edgar)?
  • A Formalist novel where everything is taken at face value and everything happens because it happens because that’s how it is (and how it was written)?
  • Or a Structuralist novel where the the patterns of repetition, destruction and resurrection are meant to be taken as a whole so Catherine’s dealings with Heathcliff and Edgar are meant to be seen in relation to young Cathy’s dealings with Linton and Hareton?
  • Or is it all these things? Unique in itself? Like nothing else?
  • Just a story, for heaven’s sake!?

A fop at sixes and sevens

The biggest surprise when reading the novel rather than watching a dramatisation are the two main narrators, both of whom are potentially biased and unreliable. In 1801, the foppish Lockwood arrives from the south to pay a call on his neighbour, Mr Heathcliff. Lockwood is instantly muddled, distressed and befuddled about who and what he finds at the lonely farmhouse on the moors and on a second snow-bound visit, horrifically, has a dream in which he confronts a ghost begging to be let in at a (broken) window.

And a gossiping housekeeper

Lockwood’s misunderstandings start to make sense when Mrs Ellen Dean the housekeeper at Thrushcross Grange begins to tell him a tale from about 30 years before when Mr Earnshaw, a previous owner of Wuthering Heights, returned from a trip to Liverpool with a young homeless boy, Heathcliff. Over the next two years (1801–1803) on his return visits to the area, Lockwood recounts more of the story, narrating what he learns from Mrs Dean, or Nelly as we come to know her, and also what he or Nelly learn from Isabella, Heathcliff, Zillah the maid, Dr Kenneth and young Cathy. As a reader we start the story as confused as Lockwood and the questions he asks help us become drawn into the tangled web.

Bold narrative device
It is a story of three generations living in two houses in a small geographical part of Yorkshire. Nelly’s narration eventually dominates our minds almost to the point of forgetting that Lockwood exists and even Nelly sometimes seems to become invisible as the semi-mythic characters take on their own monstrous lives. The narrative structure is audacious, original for its time and, in my opinion, quite quite brilliant.

Questions abound

  • How much of the violence and drunkenness in the novel had Emily Brontë witnessed in life?
  • Was Emily Brontë imagining Tabitha Aykroyd (Tabby), a servant who stayed at the Haworth Parsonage for the best part of 31 years, when she created Nelly Dean?
  • Do we believe everything Lockwood and Nelly tell us?
  • Was Heathcliff based on the “mad, bad and dangerous to know” poet, Lord Byron?
  • Is Heathcliff more sinned against than sinning?
  • Why does Hindley resent Heathcliff so much?
  • Why is Edgar attracted to Catherine, rather than to a more “peaceful” personality?
  • Why does Isabella fall for Heathcliff, given what she knows about him?
  • How much sympathy should the reader have with Catherine?
  • With Heathcliff? Isabella? Edgar? Hindley? Frances?
  • With Linton? Young Cathy? Hareton?
How Byronic is Heathcliff? Devil or Hero? Abuser or victim of abuse?

Shakespeare’s King Lear and Wuthering Heights

Given that Lockwood specifically compares himself to King Lear being imprisoned and maltreated by servants, I’ve wondered how aware Emily Brontë was of the parallels between her novel and Shakespeare’s grim tragedy:
  • the sudden and brutal acts of violence
  • the familial jealousy
  • the accelerating onset of behaviour that could be perceived as insane
  • the suffering of a character named Edgar
  • the wild landscape of the heath/moors
  • the geographical movement between contrasting houses
  • neither Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights nor Edmund in King Lear are accepted as fully-fledged members of their adoptive families and wreak havoc in the stories
Whatever Emily Brontë consciously thought she was creating in writing Wuthering Heights there is no doubt that it has “stood the test of time” and the main characters and their wild setting are imprinted in the common cultural knowledge, not least because of Kate Bush’s famous song. It is 170 years since Wuthering Heights first hit the bookshelves of the UK – and I expect it will be around for a great deal longer.
A text open to interpretation: images from 1939 and 2011 movies

Saturday, 18 March 2017

Too many words?

How long does it take to write a novel?

Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights is a one-off. It is a unique achievement, experimental and audacious, surprising when you take time to read it more than once, and is in my opinion, without doubt, a masterpiece of literary fiction. Being about a third of the way through completing the first draft of my first novel (almost a year in terms of thinking about it and seven months after starting to commit words to paper) it is salutary that Emily Brontë took only nine months from start to finish to create Wuthering Heights (October 1845 to June 1846.) My only excuse is that Emily had fewer options in daily living to distract her, and it is clear from her biography that many elements of Wuthering Heights had their seeds sown earlier in childhood games and popular reading (see my blog about her life here.)

Who should see draft novels?

I’ve reached 55,232 words in Rhenium Tales Book One: Raydan Wakes and my personal target word-count before anyone reads the full story is 85,000. Daughter Emily has given me astute and friendly critical feedback on Chapter One and that experience was valuable but provoked plenty of minor and major revisions so I know there’ll be a lot to do after draft one is complete. I’m also determined to have Book Two and most of Book Three finished before I try to get an agent or a publisher or a self-publisher. If I never get there I will simply see it as an absorbing retirement activity and carry on regardless. Did Emily Brontë ever show Wuthering Heights to anyone other than her sisters? They famously read aloud in the Parsonage lounge whilst walking round the central table.

How long should a novel be?

Emily Brontë’ wrote Wuthering Heights in 107,945 words.
Number of words in selected novels shorter than Wuthering Heights:

Too many notes?

In Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus the Emperor Josef famously (and amusingly) tells Mozart that The Marriage of Figaro has “too many notes.” This apparently was a contemporary complaint about Mozart shared by more than just the Emperor; other quotations from the time reveal many critics thought Mozart was overdoing it: "too strongly spiced"; "impenetrable labyrinths"; "bizarre flights of the soul"; "overloaded and overstuffed". Can a novel have too many words? Yes, indeed. Some novels do indeed have too many words – it’s possible you could direct that accusation at Wuthering Heights but only with a 21st Century lens because tastes for prose have changed. We’re keener on leaner now, so the redrafting and editing process now is usually about taking stuff out, not adding stuff in. I for one, though, am glad that Emily Brontë never had a serious editor because they would have probably done what most film versions of Wuthering Heights do and stop the story at the half way point, missing what I think is the heart of Wuthering Heights…. (the subject of my next blog.)
For me the heart of Wuthering Heights is the oft-neglected Hareton Earnshaw....

Saturday, 11 March 2017

No coward soul is mine

Invading a sister’s privacy….

According to contemporary accounts it was the discovery of her sister Emily’s poems that first prompted Charlotte Brontë to push the girls into sending some of their writing for publication. Charlotte, apparently, “accidentally lighted on a (manuscript) volume of verse, in my sister Emily’s handwriting” and thought them “nor at all like the poetry women generally write. I thought them condensed and terse, vigorous and genuine. To my ear they had also a peculiar music, wild, melancholy and elevating.” Emily was furious and, at first, refused consent but relented after a few days when Anne supplied some of her own verses and a plot was hatched for the sisters to remain anonymous.

Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell

In the biographical notice that Charlotte wrote for the 1850 edition of Wuthering Heights and Agnes Grey she explained:
“Averse to personal publicity we veiled our own names under those of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell; the ambiguous choice being dictated by a sort of conscientious scruple at assuming Christian names positively masculine, while we did not like to declare ourselves women, because – without at the time suspecting that our mode of writing and thinking was not what is called “feminine,” – we had a vague impression that authoresses are liable to be looked on with prejudice….”

Fine quaint spirit

In the first review of the Brontë’s poems, published in the July 4th Athenaeum, the reviewer thinks Ellis (Emily) is the best writer of the “three brothers” being “a fine, quaint spirit” and who possesses “an evident power of wing that may reach heights not here attempted.” The poems of Ellis “convey an impression of originality beyond what his contributions to these volumes embody.” Sadly, several magazines that received copies did not bother to review the volume and only two copies were sold. Less than 10 copies of the original 1846 print-run survive, but a reprinting in 1850 with additional poems curated by Charlotte fared better (cashing-in on the success of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.) Emily’s poetry has certainly stood the test of time.
Emily Dickinson apparently requested that No coward soul is mine be read at her funeral

The steadfast rock of immortality

Emily’s most famous poem is probably the following, published after her death and containing an elemental and mind-expanding account of “universes” (cheeky plural!) that exist inside and outside the imagination. Apparently Emily Dickinson asked for this poem to be read at her funeral. I can understand why – it is technically perfect with its formal patterns and rhymes but it is audacious, too, with its wild use of verbs (shine, arming, anchored, animates, pervades, broods, changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, rears, render) with a glut of verbs in stanza 5. What does it mean? The voice in the poem is courageous at facing the world with a grounded self-defining confidence in the face of life’s uncertainties and trivial concerns. The voice embraces doubt, embraces nature, embraces death, and embraces immortality. God in this poem seems to be inside Emily Brontë, inside in the form of her own self-worth, her mother, her dead sisters, her brother, the Yorkshire landscape. The key phrase in this poem for me is “creates and rears” – the creation and the rearing of life, the actions of a mother; the creation and rearing of works of art that will “never be destroyed.”
Though earth and man were gone / And suns and universes ceased to be....

If Charlotte is to be believed, this is Emily’s final piece of writing

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life that in me has rest,
As I undying Life have power in thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts: unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds,
Or idle froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates, and rears.

Though earth and man were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And thou were left alone,
Every existence would exist in thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou thou art Being and Breath,
And what thou art may never be destroyed.
Art work by Chrissie Freeth, Tapestry Weaver

Thursday, 2 March 2017

"Her strong imperious will"

Invisible No More

All members of the Brontë family have their supporters and detractors. Around anniversaries or around new TV or film productions, commentators in The Media try to whip readers and viewers into declaring for Team Charlotte or Team Anne in pursuit of some fresh angle. The men at the Haworth Parsonage (father Patrick, brother Branwell and short-time husband of Charlotte, Arthur Bell Nicholls) often receive dismissive attention or downright hostility. One of the things I found impressive about Sally Wainwrights fictional biographical film about the Brontës, To Walk Invisible, was its atmosphere of a busy town with family, servants, neighbours, acquaintances and employers swirling around the talented sisters and influencing them just as much as they influenced each other. Haworth was by no means a backwater in the mid-Victorian period. Prompting this blog is the news that Sally Wainwright is coming to the Ilkley Literature Festival to talk about To Walk Invisible and Sally-partner-wife-friend was quick off the mark to get tickets so I’m looking forward to that.
Sally Wainwright receiving her BAFTA and directing Happy Valley; Branwell's portrait of the Brontë sisters and the actresses from To Walk Invisible

“Team Emily”

It’s no surprise that, if a Hogwarts Sorting Hat were to hover over me, I’d be in Team Emily. I’ve already declared that Charlotte’s Villette is my personal favourite of the Brontë novels and I have family reasons to have a deeply-felt admiration for Anne’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The mythic archetypes and tropes of Charlotte’s Jane Eyre are lodged deep within the DNA of all readers (and writers, for that matter.) But the writer of Wuthering Heights, and indeed Wuthering Heights itself, exercises my imagination and passion above all other facets of Brontëana. (Shirley, The Professor and Agnes Grey are still in my to re-read pile; in fact I think I’ve never read The Professor or Agnes Grey….must put that right!)

The tallest Brontë

Some aspects of Emily Brontë’s biography are agreed upon because of the consistency of the evidence:
  • she always seemed tall – and taller than the other siblings
  • she was the fifth of six children, her two eldest sisters dying in childhood
  • she liked walking
  • she was stubborn and willful
  • she loved her bulldog Keeper who, when Emily died, “followed her funeral to the vault” and, according to Charlotte was “lying in a pew couched at our feet while the burial service was being read"
  • my writer friend, Kerry Madden, reminds me of the story we heard when visiting the Parsonage in May 2014, that, when returning from Anne’s funeral in Scarborough, the Parsonage dogs bounded out to greet the arrivals but Keeper howled when only Charlotte appeared and proceeded to whimper outside Emily’s door for days to come
  • she had only nine months of formal education in two stints aged 6 and 17
  • at Cowan Bridge School (age 6) her report card reads Emily Brontë… reads very prettily and works a little 
  • her father gave her, her brother and surviving sisters a box of toy soldiers in 1826 and this fired their imaginations
  • in childhood she wrote chronicles of Gondal with Anne, whilst Charlotte and Branwell wrote the imaginary history of Angria

Strong imperious will

  • she spent some time (unhappily) in Brussels learning to be a teacher before returning for her Aunt Branwell’s funeral (which she missed)
  • the headmaster of the school in Brussels, Monsieur Heger, wrote of Emily: “She should have been a man – a great navigator. Her powerful reason would have deduced new spheres of discovery from the old; and her strong imperious will would never have been daunted by opposition or difficulty; never have given way but with life.” 
  • she learned some German
  • she liked reading Sir Walter Scott, Shelley and Byron
  • she enjoyed reading the lurid (and often violent) tales in Blackwood’s Magazine
  • her poetry was admired by Charlotte and Anne
  • she put out a fire at the Parsonage after Branwell upset a lighted candle
  • she self-cauterised a wound from a dog bite
  • she attended the funeral of her brother in September 1848
  • she died of TB six days before Christmas Day in 1848.
Charlotte lived just long enough to understand the Brontë novels were gaining some critical acclaim and popularity, but not to appreciate just how phenomenal their popularity would still be in 2017. What would Emily have made of tourists running about the moors shouting “Heathcliff….Cathy….”?

apologies to copyright holder of the photo I had posted at the end of this blog. removed as soon as I saw the notification. please let me know if I need to add credits anywhere I haven't.