On Timeless Novels

I recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird in preparation for teaching it to a class this half term. I last read it when I was a teenager, and remember being enchanted by the beautiful descriptions of the faded small town of Maycomb, the closeness between Jem, Scout and the wonderful Atticus and the childish games of Jem, Scout and Dill and their obsession with the mysterious figure of Boo Radley. I was fascinated and appalled in equal measure by the terrible events of the novel; the awful treatment of Tom Robinson, the casual racism of the characters and the frightening behaviour of the Ewells. This was a world that was both a children’s paradise and the stuff of nightmares; the innocence of the young is so cleverly juxtaposed with the often disturbing and upsetting realities of adult life. As Jem and Scout grow up and understand with increasing maturity the actions and decisions of the adults around them, their interests and habits change as they realise life is not a playground, and things are not always fair. The success of this novel is not just in its unflinching and – for its time – daring portrayal of the prejudice and cruelty that many adults show towards others who are different to themselves, but also in its timeless portrayal of childhood and the way innocence is slowly stripped away as we age, the realities of the adult world gradually encroaching upon the boundaries of the playground until they can no longer be ignored.

To Kill a Mockingbird is often described as ‘timeless’, despite its very specific historical and cultural setting, and reading it has also made me think of what other novels can truly be called timeless, and whether there are hidden treasures that deserve this title and have unjustly fallen out of favour. For example, I am currently reading Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance. Before Persephone republished Whipple, she had been out of print for half a century, totally forgotten and doomed to languish as a mere footnote in 20th century literary history. And yet, when you read her books, you are transported into a world that is both wonderfully antiquated and startlingly familiar. Ellen in Someone at a Distance is forever rushing around, with never enough time in the day to get things done. She is cook, cleaner, mother and wife; if she’s not driving someone somewhere, she’s at the shops; if she’s not cooking the dinner, she’s doing the washing up. Perpetually busy, perpetually the lowest priority; married, single, mother or childless, all women can relate to this role of constant frenetic activity to fit it all in.

Louise Lanier is a femme fatale, and her cold and somewhat calculating personality certainly leaves something to be desired. However, her boredom with small town life, her longing for something more, her love of beautiful things and her desire to be noticed and appreciated are aspects of character and situation that are completely universal. Reading how she feels about being trapped in her home town, living with her parents while watching her friends marry and build successful adult lives struck a loud chord with me; so many young adults go through the fear of being left behind and the frustration of feeling stifled in a life they have outgrown. And what of Avery, tempted and flattered by the attention received from a younger woman? Can we really blame him for a lack of willpower, when we all fall down in this respect from time to time? Someone at a Distance‘s sensitively and beautifully written portrayal of relationships and desires is astounding and timeless in its understanding of human nature, and yet it has not, and never will, reach the heights of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s fame. Why not? Is it, perhaps, too class conscious? Too domestic in its focus? Lacking a wider societal view? Perhaps, but these descriptions could all be applied to Jane Austen’s novels too, and hers are certainly considered to be timeless. So what is the criteria for a timeless novel, I wonder?

When I think of the timeless classic I most often turn to for entertainment and inspiration, Jane Eyre comes most vividly to mind. I love the character of Jane; plain, penniless, with no relations and no one to care for her, she makes her own way in the world out of sheer self discipline, will power and faith that something better is to come. A lack of love does not stop her from loving; a lack of compassion does not stop her from extending compassion and forgiveness to others. She does not seek revenge for the wrongs done to her, nor does she sink under the repeated difficulties of her circumstances. She stands for what is greatest in the human spirit: resilience. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre gives us a model of what it is to be human, and reminds us of the tremendous force for good that is within all of us. It might be written in a didactic style, with a fair few dodgy coincidences and a good deal of gothic melodrama, but the story transcends the conventions of its period through its ability to capture an essential truth and inspire and encourage its readers to fulfil their potential, no matter what hurdles they may face.

Perhaps this is it, then; timelessness is not just about being able to relate to the experiences of the characters, but by being moved, encouraged and inspired by their fates. A timeless novel is not one that merely explores the human condition, but that leaves us with a desire to become better people, to grow in self discipline, in courage, in kindness, and in understanding. Timeless stories are those that stay with us because they mean something vital. They inspire us to be more than we are, and remind us of all we could be. I think the novel I have read most recently that is a truly neglected timeless classic has to be Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. In its magnificent and ambitious exploration of the trials and tribulations of the inhabitants of a corner of pre war Yorkshire, it reveals the essential goodness of humanity, and the need for each and every one of us to live our lives with passion, courage and hope. It moved me to tears, and the night I finished reading it was the night I finally decided to face my fears and apply for teacher training. It showed me what I could be capable of, and made me dare to believe that I too had the potential to make a difference to other people’s lives. The power of the written word is not something to be underestimated, and those words that are truly timeless are those that give us a vision of the greatness that is within our reach, if only we would rise up and grab for it.

So, perhaps there are two types of timeless novels; those that have a universality of experience, such as those of the unjustly neglected Dorothy Whipple, and Jane Austen; and those that inspire and move us in their portrayal of the potentiality of the human spirit, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Eyre. The character of Atticus Finch has to be one of the greatest in literature; his compassion, understanding and courage are heart melting as well as inspirational. What makes him resonate so strongly with so many people is because he is an everyman; he is not wealthy, he is not overly handsome, and he doesn’t have a particularly charmed or interesting life. He lives in a rural backwater, alone with his children in a town where nothing happens. His days are uneventful, filled with the petty arguments of his uneducated neighbours and the trials and tribulations of parenting two lively children. What elevates Atticus into the extraordinary is simply his strength of character; he makes a stand against what he knows to be wrong, daring to fly in the face of the accepted social norms of his town. He is prepared to risk everything in order to do the right thing. Atticus requires nothing to do this but the resources he has inside of himself. Reading his story, we can believe that we too could be capable of doing the same thing, should we be called upon to do so; we don’t need any material trappings or heaps of brain cells to be able to emulate Atticus’ example. All we need to do is summon our courage, and raise our heads above the parapet. If Atticus, a thoroughly ordinary man, can do it, so can we. It’s the same with Jane Eyre; she has nothing that we don’t have; in fact, in many cases, she has a good deal less. Nothing but our own fear can prevent us from demonstrating her bravery, and if someone with as few opportunities and options as Jane can overcome her fears to leave everything she knows behind to strike out on her own, then we certainly can.

I’d love to hear other people’s views on timeless novels, and to know what books you turn to time and time again. My recent run of disappointing reading has made me hanker for books that are truly special, and that will leave me feeling moved and inspired. I am adoring my re-read of Someone at a Distance, and I want to follow it up with something of an equal quality, so any reading inspiration that can be offered would be much appreciated!

Return to Bronte Country

A couple of weeks ago, I was asked to go to Bradford for a work meeting. Not a problem, said I, ever keen to spend a day out of the office. I google mapped the location of said meeting; it was a stone’s throw from Haworth, home of the Brontes. I haven’t been in a few years and I’ve been itching to go back, but the train fare is exorbitant and there never seems to be the opportunity. So, I hatched a plan; if work would pay for the train, I would pay to stay in Haworth overnight and therefore could conveniently mix business with pleasure. They agreed, and I was over the moon! A whole two days to myself to roam the Yorkshire countryside that I adore so much! What bliss! And, as it happened, the day I went was the day after I found out about my teaching course as well, so it was a perfectly timed little celebration trip!

I boarded the train to Leeds with high spirits; I love train journeys. As tired as I was, I marvelled at how quickly the ugly straggle of London suburbs is left behind and the countryside unfolds before you, richly green and seemingly endless. The London-Leeds line runs via Peterborough and Doncaster, so the train goes through several counties, from Hertfordshire to Cambridgeshire, Lincolnshire and then into West Yorkshire. The make up of the countryside alters dramatically, going from predominantly flat to very hilly, and as you get more northerly, the industrial nature of many of the towns gives the landscape a much more gritty, smoky aspect. Seeing England flash by through a train window is fascinating, and I always find myself glued to the glass as the scenery goes by, musing about how different life is for people living just a few miles apart. By the time we were an hour outside of London, the accents of people boarding the train had changed, their vowels flattening the further north we travelled. It’s amazing how diverse we are for such a tiny island!

So, I got to Bradford, met my colleague Jo, who drove me around the city – more in another post – and then took me to our meeting. Afterwards she drove me to my Youth Hostel in Haworth, via the scenic route so that I could see more of the delicious countryside and the house in the village of Thornton where the Brontes were born. I so enjoyed being able to see the surrounding villages, with their soot and age blackened stone houses, disused mills and steep, cobbled streets, all set amidst the scrubby moorland that stretches as far as the eye can see. This was the landscape the Brontes would have known; wild, rugged, and hauntingly beautiful, it is unsurprising that it inspired them to such heights of passion. In Haworth itself, much has changed; it is a bigger town now, and the many disused mills would not have all been there in their time. However, the main street is largely the same, and so are the views; once you are beyond the Bronte’s parsonage there is nothing to see but the moors and you do feel a little as though you are on the edge of civilisation, and that the realities of village life are far away.

The Bronte Parsonage Museum is wonderful, and unlike many similar ‘author’s house’ museums, the majority of what is on show did genuinely belong to the Brontes, so you do get a very good idea of what the house would actually have been like for them to live in. It is not a large house, and though it was well furnished, it is clear the Brontes were not overly prosperous. It is easy to see how close the siblings must have been, living on top of one another, sharing bedrooms, using the same parlour to write in and sharing the same circle of friends and acquaintances. It is also easy to appreciate how devastated Charlotte must have been to lose Emily and Anne so quickly in succession, and return home to the house that was once so lively with voices, so full of women rushing around, writing, working, talking, now silent and empty.

Having been before, I knew all this, so I focused my attentions on exploring the church and the churchyard for more clues as to life in Haworth. Many of the graves date to the time the Brontes lived there, and I was amazed at how young so many of the people were when they died. Some headstones marked baby after baby, child after child, lost before the age of 10; many adults seemed to barely reach their 35th birthdays. Hardly anyone made it to what we would consider an old age, and I was intrigued as to why. A display in the Parsonage Museum explained that a board of health report in 1850 revealed the shocking sanitary conditions of Haworth at the time. Due to the hilly nature of the town, many houses had poor drainage and were damp. There were open drains leaking sewage, only 4 1/2 toilets per house and a highly polluted water supply. With several thousand people buried in the overcrowded churchyard and no drainage, decomposing bodies added even more to the pollution of the water. Nearly half of all children died before the age of 6 and the average life expectancy was 24. Tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera and smallpox were rife. In this environment, the Brontes would have been used to death. Their house overlooked the graveyard; with the life expectancy being what it was, there must have been a burial most days. We consider it to be a tragedy that Emily and Anne died so young, but they actually lived to a good age compared to many of their fellow villagers. With death ever present and a long life hardly to be expected, it sheds more light on the extraordinarily passionate, intense, almost desperate prose of the Bronte sisters; they knew from experience that life was short, and that there may be no tomorrow. Why waste time on writing about quiet courtships and balls when wild romance on the moors and passionate embraces were all they had time for?!

The Yorkshire countryside is breathtaking, but much of the once majestic, optimistic Victorian architecture in its towns and cities is now crumbling due to the poverty that set in after the closure of the manufacturing industries that once made this corner of England so prosperous. The Youth Hostel in Haworth is a huge Victorian mansion once owned by a Victorian industrial magnate who owned several mills in the area; the interior is breathtaking, with handpainted stained glass, huge marble fireplaces,  intricate mosaic tiled floors and elaborately carved railings and banisters. I saw many magnificent homes like this, now derelict, as I travelled around, and it made me so sad that for a place with so much natural beauty, and so much history, that there is so little opportunity and hope for so many of its inhabitants. I wonder whether, from this environment, a new generation of Brontes will arise, giving a voice to the spirit of this beautiful but bleak landscape once again.

Walking in the Footsteps of Giants

Well I have had just the most marvellous few days in Yorkshire. I am one of those Londoners who never goes North of the Watford Gap so it was quite an experience for me to see ‘The North’ as all the roadsigns on the M1 kept saying, and I absolutely loved it. I will definitely be going back.

Our first stop was in Whitby, which is reached by driving through the most incredible moorland scenery you could wish for; I was gasping at every corner as amazing cliffs, expanses of wild, empty moorland and deep valleys emerged from the distance and as far as the eye could see there were just the most breathtaking views. I was in my absolute element. Then, you get to the end of the moors and suddenly, the sea is before you, and the ruins of Whitby Abbey rise majestically from the horizon, and I was just so overwhelmed with the beauty of it all. I can see how this town inspired Bram Stoker to write Dracula.

Whitby isn’t just famous for the Dracula connection though; far from it! This little town was the place from where Captain Cook left for his famous round the world voyages, and it is also where the finest jet in the world can be found, and the jet jewellery trade is still alive and well, though nowhere near at the level it was when Queen Victoria made it famous through her mourning jewellery. Whitby has also been famed for the exceptionally well preserved fossils found in its cliffs, and a visit to the delightfully old fashioned and haphazard museum is very highly recommended as amongst the myriad of exhibits is the world’s best example of a fossilised crocodile. Quite a sight!

After Whitby we went on to Haworth, home of the Bronte sisters, and this was the highlight of the trip for me. I have loved the Brontes since I was a teenager, and I have read all of their novels. I chose to write my BA dissertation on them and I desperately wanted to visit Haworth at the time when I was writing it, but funds never permitted so it is only now, nearly three years later, that I have been able to finally set eyes upon the home and environs of the women whose writing has affected me so much. It was actually a surprisingly emotional experience.

What has always fascinated me about the Brontes is that they were brought up in the same place, with the same influences, and yet their novels are so very different. Charlotte is passionate and incredibly insightful and emotional, but in a restrained way; her characters never give way or sink into despair. Emily is wildly passionate and completely unrestrained, but her writing is, in my opinion, not as polished as her sisters’, and Wuthering Heights suffers from a lack of convincing characterisation. There is a lot of evil and distress and grief and madness in her novel and I do wonder where that came from…perhaps the pain of the many losses she endured throughout her short life; her mother, sisters, and brother all died before her, and she also witnessed the descent into alcoholism, opium addiction and depression that marked the last years of her beloved brother’s life. All of this pent up grief and loss seems to have been expurgated into the pages of Wuthering Heights without any filter of stoicism and inner strength that you find in Charlotte and Anne’s characters, and perhaps it is because of this that I have always found Emily’s novel such a difficult and depressing read. I do wonder whether Emily found it harder to cope with loss than her sisters, as they all experienced the same events, and their novels all depict similar themes, but Charlotte and Anne seem to have dealt with it in a much more bridled manner. I know that Emily refused to admit she was ill until the day she died; denial of her feelings and fears to those around her, perhaps, is what prompted Wuthering Heights to be her outlet. Conjecture, of course, but I find it endlessly fascinating to muse on the subject. Finally, there is Anne; dismissed as ‘the other one’ in literary criticism well into the 20th and 21st centuries; her books have never reached the echelons of fame that Charlotte and Emily’s have and I have always thought this was a great injustice. It was this topic that I particularly focused on in my dissertation, and it was fascinating to research the history of her critical reception and understand what it was that made people dislike her novels in comparison to her sisters’.

Anne’s more famous novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, (she also wrote a short novel, about the same length as Charlotte’s The Professor, entitled Agnes Grey), was published a year after Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, in 1848, and received a mixed critical reception; some loved it, others admonished it as crude, immoral and not fit to be read, largely because of its subject matter of a woman daring to leave her abusive husband. This was similar to the response her sisters’ books received, and it sold very well regardless of the negative press surrounding it. However, in the late 19th century and into the 20th century, Anne Bronte became increasingly maligned and her skills as a novelist dismissed as inferior. I take great umbrage to this as I personally think Anne was a league apart from Emily in her writing ability and easily on a par with Charlotte, and so I wanted to find out why exactly Anne’s novels were considered ‘bad’. What I discovered was that critics were comparing Anne solely to her sisters and not to the wider context of the literature being produced at the time; Anne has a style that is rather didactic when compared to Charlotte and Emily, but this is by no means unusual of the period; she has a lot of similarities to Elizabeth Gaskell, I think. This was something that I found especially interesting; Anne was a much more conventional novelist than her sisters, and she got attacked for it, though at the time of publication, she was considered so unconventional that some even called for Tenant to be banned. What an about turn in public opinion in the space of just a few years!

So Anne has a special place in my heart, and I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall almost equally to Jane Eyre; if you haven’t read it, I would urge you to do so as it really is excellent. I have gone off at a bit of a tangent so I am going to bring it back more on topic now…another subject that has interested me about the Brontes is the myth that they were poor uneducated heathen girls living wild on the moors near a town of uncultured ruffians and positively quivering with repressed sexual desire. This is so untrue as to be laughable, and while I knew this already, it was so fascinating to actually see the environment they grew up in, which the guide to the Bronte house is keen to emphasise has hardly changed since the Bronte’s time. There have been additions to the Parsonage and the neighbouring church and the town has grown larger so it is not exactly the same but the Brontes would certainly recognise their surroundings if they were to return today. Haworth is a bustling town nestling amongst moorland and dales, with many streets of Victorian houses, several old textile mills, some of which have fallen into disrepair, and a large amount of large Victorian villas, which point to it having been a prosperous town filled with industry and wealthy manufacturers who no doubt would have been cultured and interested in the latest happenings of the era. It is situated in between the large towns of Halifax and Bradford, so it is not in the middle of nowhere and could not possibly be described as isolated. At the time of the Brontes, there were no less than 8 working textile mills and this shows how busy and populous it was. The Parsonage itself is at the top of the main street and is surrounded by the graveyard of the church that their father preached at, is overlooked by several houses, and backs onto the moors. It is beautiful and atmospheric, but hardly isolated, and never was; the shops and pubs on the doorstep of the Parsonage were there in the Bronte’s time and Branwell Bronte was a regular patron of the several pubs down the main street.

The myth of the Bronte girls closeted in a dull and damp house with no outlet for their creativity and no education does them a real disservice. The most interesting thing about this myth is that Charlotte was the one who created it, after her sisters’ deaths; she wanted to portray them as innocents who didn’t know what they were writing about, but instead she created a mythology of sexual repression and backwardness that has permeated until the present day. Elizabeth Gaskell’s saccharine and quite untrue in places biography didn’t help either. Lucasta Miller’s The Bronte Myth unpacks this brilliantly and if you are in any way interested in the Brontes I highly recommend it; it debunks a lot of myths. Another book I love is The Madwoman in the Attic, an absolutely terrific and groundbreaking book of feminist criticism by the critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar first published in the 70s. It has wonderful essays on the Brontes and how sexual repression and female subordination and so on is shown in their work; I’m not sure how much I agree with their extreme feminist approach (they make a very big deal of the subversive meanings behind the red room in Jane Eyre, for example) but their insights are fascinating to read nonetheless.

However, back to the Parsonage; actually seeing just how false the popular perception of the Bronte’s home and upbringing is was truly eye opening and I adored being in their surroundings and seeing their world, that is largely unchanged. Inside the house there is all of their original furniture; their books, possessions, clothes, manuscripts, letters, workboxes and so on, untouched from the day they died; it was incredible. You truly can step into the Parsonage that they inhabited and get a total feel for the life they led. Being able to see Charlotte’s letters was also lovely; in one of them her sardonic humour really came through – it was a letter to a reviewer who had criticised Jane Eyre, and Charlotte wrote ‘I think we need to have a little chat about XYZ’ and I laughed – she was far more modern than I had anticipated. It was also quite touching to see the clothes they wore, the toys they played with as children, to understand the little routines they had; Patrick Bronte used to go past the parlour every night and tell the girls not to go to bed too late before going upstairs to wind the clock and go to bed, and Emily used to bake bread in the kitchen while learning German; they had her book displayed in the kitchen, propped up like she used to have it so that she could see it while mixing dough. It made them so much more real to me, and seeing where they lived and the scenery they had access to also gave me a greater insight into the novels and where they are set and how important nature is in them. I am rereading Jane Eyre at the moment and nature is such a central character; the tree below, which I found whilst taking the Bronte’s favourite walk down to a waterfall on the moors, could be right out of the book.

I’m going to stop now because I should think I’m boring everyone silly with all my Bronte prattle; to sum up, I had an absolutely wonderful time, have fallen in love with Yorkshire, and the Brontes, all over again, and I wish I could go back to university to study them more! By the way, if anyone is interested in reading more about the Brontes and would like to have a look at my dissertation, which I have briefly revisited in this post, do feel free to send me an email as I’m happy to send it out. I can’t promise brilliance though!

Off to Bronte Country

Early tomorrow morning I am off to Yorkshire! I am so excited! Our first stop will be Whitby, home of the famous Abbey and inspiration of Bram Stoker to write Dracula…how we will fare in the wind and rain I do not know, but a bit of extreme weather isn’t enough to put two hardy Englishwomen off and we can’t wait to go for bracing walks along the beach and scare ourselves silly on a Dracula tour.

Next up will be Haworth, home of the Brontes, and a place I have been longing to visit since I wrote my dissertation on them. I am so thrilled to be getting to see the house where the Brontes lived, and the surrounding area that they knew and loved so well. I am also excited to go for a walk on the famous moors and I know I am going to love buying tat from the Bronte House gift shop!

So lots of fun to be had and I will be back on Monday evening to tell the tale of my trip and of course post lots of photos. I am secretly hoping that we may accidentally perhaps on purpose bump into a few second hand bookshops as well…so I will hopefully have some new purchases to show off too, even though I am not supposed to be buying any more books until Christmas!

I hope you all have lovely weekends and I will see you next week!