The true university these days is a collection of books.
-Thomas Carlyle

Monday, 25 July 2011

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

The old hardback version of this book that I have, not dissimilar to the copy pictured here, is a 1939 edition and it came in a box of old books given to me by a friend. It has a preface written in it by Thomas Hardy himself in April 1912. It is my third Hardy novel, the others being Far from the Madding Crowd (studied twice, read at least 3 times, much loved), and Jude the Obscure (read once which was enough, very good but hard going), although I feel as if I have read more having seen many TV and film versions of his novels. This title is the set Hardy novel for my literary holiday in Dorset in a few weeks.

Set in the deep woods of 19th century England, this story tells of the inhabitants of Little Hintock, their interactions with each other and their essential relationship with the woodland around them. We have Giles Winterbourne, stalwart and loyal, respected by those around him, a worker in the woods with a unique understanding of the trees that he works on. Giles loves Grace Melbury, daughter of George Melbury, who had sent her to an expensive school to learn how to be a lady and better herself. Edred Fitzpiers is the unconventional young doctor from a rich family, Felice Charmond is the rich widow inhabiting the nearby manor house with a taste for young men, and Marty South is the poor young worker, who stays on the sidelines but plays a central part in the plot.

This is a story about relationships, promises, marriage and thwarted love. It is also a contemplation of the beauty of old woodlands and the tiny microcosm of society within them. All of Hardy's novels explore a disappearing way of life, rural traditions practiced away from the towns and cities, but this one seems even more so. It is as if the people in this novel are entirely seperate from any other society, and the trees close up around them, sealing them in.

Hardy's novels are not known for their cheeriness, although to say they are without humour would be misleading, and this story has its fair share of tragedy and heartbreak. Hardy is most memorable when exploring missed love affairs through circumstance or bad timing, and all of the agonies of the 'what ifs?...' that he evokes in the reader, and this one uses all of this to excellent effect.

I really enjoyed inhabiting their woodland haven with them, following their days as they walk among the trees. The woods are a tangible character throughout and form some of the most memorable imagery. The story was easier than Jude with a well rounded feel to it, very moving and beautiful to read. The last few paragraphs touched a nerve and had me gulping back tears. Grace is not like Hardy's stronger females such as Tess or Bathsheba, but I really liked Giles, and I think Marty gets my favourite character award due to the skillful writing as she is not in it very often.

One of the easier Hardy novels, though not without sadness, and a must for English classic fans or those who love rural novels as I do. I look forward to discussing it on holiday.

The Thomas Hardy Society is a good place to call in on for Hardy fans.

There is also an interesting article titled Hardy's Romanticism in The Woodlanders if you wish to read further.

Monday, 18 July 2011

The English Novel in History 1895 - 1920

Time for the next 2 chapters of this literary theory book that I rediscovered unread earlier on this year and hope to comment on each month.

Last month we covered Declension and Frontiers. We now move on to chapters 10 and 11 of Part II on Nation and Society.

Chapter 10 - Englishness

England had a strong sense of itself, its own identity, and it had emerged from its national attributes, 'political, legal and administrative stability, and a widely intelligible vernacular.' (p154) With the expansion of England into Britain and a rapidly growing industrialisation, cultural images and narratives of a sense of nation became more important. It is believed that this emphasis on Englishness was responsible for a decline in 'entrepeneurial spirit' and a rise in literary criticism at the time.

The Boer War was blamed for a change in perceptions away from country born intelligence to city based intelligence. Urban life was destroying the race and only a return to living off the land would reintroduce our identity. In literature, historical depth was needed, and Rudyard Kipling explored this along with a return to ancient dialects and regional language patterns to continue nationality. Language was seen to be degenerating with the loss of Anglo Saxon. William Barnes, Gerard Manley Hopkins and Ezra Pound all championed the return of Anglo Saxon vigour.

Barnes thought that Latin and French words had weakened the English language, and the purest English was in Wessex, the furthest from international influence. Hardy and Kipling embraced the Wessex dialect to authenticate characters.

Along with connections to ancient speech patterns was a fascination for ancient architecture. Stonehenge, Avebury, Silbury Hill and other ancient places enhanced a feeling of understanding of an old, wise knowledge that belonged to England, and authors used them to create an accessible magic.

Englishness was beginning to enter the realms of fantasy, no more so than in those who adopted the act of being English. A famous example of the time was Ford Madox Ford, author, poet and editor of literary journals. He spoke with a pronounced precision, claimed a connection with the land and the simple life, medievalism, adopted Toryism, became a cricket enthusiast and the ways of the old school tie. Yet his origins were German, his real surname was Hueffer. It was a performance, validating itself in an emphasis on tradition over the new. It shook up perceptions of being English. Hueffer wrote extensively about Englishness but warned about 'the Heart of England' being an illusion developed by people in cities seeking a more traditional source of national identity.

Chapter 11 - Spies

Patriotism continued in the form of the popular spy novels but here the emphasis is on protecting the national identity from outside influences. The genre replaced the imperial adventure stories as anxieties moved from frontiers to Great Power rivalry.

It is not coincidence that spy novels arose at the same time as the British Secret Service, and its leader was convinced of an invasion by the Germans. To reaffirm his suspicions literature came to his aid. Popular caricatures can often be mistaken for real people. These novels also became heavily didactic as the secret agent became a 'symbol of stability' in a world that was quickly changing.

Where the sensation novels of the 1860's emphasised anxieties of bigamy, or wrongful incarciration in lunatic asylums, the 1880's brought terrorism in the form of the Fenian bombings. Terrorism was international and brought to the fore the fact that Britain was part of a big scary world and not an isolated island bubble. Terrorists were secretive and once a member you could not leave. They were driven by ancient grudges and insults, killing for revenge. Any invasion would be impossible without an influx of spies, living among us, ordinary lives waiting for instruction to wreak havoc. Such a situation, emphasising enigma rather than battles, needed a new type of hero, a sleepy Englishman thrown into an extraordinary situation, having to save not just himself but his country too. Luxurious and high up places provided sophisticated settings for these novels. The threat to England widened as paranoia grew, and E Phillips Oppenheim as well as other authors, became interested in secret societies as the spy novel gained influence.

Lord Baden Powell likened spying to scouting, adventure for anyone tired of life. The thrilling occupations of a spy were a national regenerator and John Buchan's character Richard Hannay embodied that. He was 'nomadic, protean, occasionally violent, a symbol of the instability needed to revitalize a complacent, suburbanized society'. (p180)

Contemporary works that illustrate the above points include...

She and Kim by Rudyard Kipling

The Secret Places of the Heart by H G Wells

England, My England by D H Lawrence

The Heart of the Country and The Spirit of the People by Ford Madox Hueffer

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace

The Mysterious Mr Sabin and The Great Impersonation by E Phillips Oppenheim

Just to let you know this post has come out later than planned because after spending 2 hours composing it some days ago, on publishing it something happened and the entire post was wiped with no trace. Gutting!

Please look out for the next 2 chapters some time next month

Monday, 4 July 2011

June Roundup

The famous Liverpool Everyman Theatre closed its doors for a few years while it is being rebuilt and Hope St hosted a whole day of commemorative events on saturday so that the public could say goodbye to the present building, which has played a part in many up and coming careers like Pete Postlethwaite, David Morrissey, Jonathan Pryce, Julie Walters, Bill Nighy among so many others. Slung Low ran the proceedings and gave our present Everyman a good send off. It was a great and very moving day for everyone there.

On to the bookish side of things from June...

Read - 1 and a half books

Completed - Survivor by Chuck Palahniuk

Currently Reading -

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

Watching the English: The hidden rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox

The English Novel in History 1895-1920 by David Trotter

TBR pile - currently at 102 (according to GoodReads) with 3 more added...

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton

Out of the Woods by Will Cohu

The Passage by Justin Cronin

Challenges - summarised chapters 8 and 9 from The English Novel in History 1895 - 1920, the literary theory book I am reading each month.

Wishlist Additions -

The Upright Piano Player by David Abbott

The Astral by Kate Christensen

The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson

Don't Breathe A Word by Jennifer McMahon

The Hardy Tree by Iphigenia Baal

Discoveries - The Taxi of Knowledge initiative that is taking place in Cairo. Read about the taxis that are carrying books in them for passengers to read.

On that note, we move onward through July...

Hay on Wye

Hay on Wye