Monday, 21 April 2008

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

It was my turn to choose what we would read for our book group: I'm usually the one who chooses a classic so by popular demand I did so again. Last time I chose Wilkie Collins', A Woman in White: a resounding success. Before that, George Elliot, Elizabeth Gaskell and Charles Dickens had all gone down well. But this time, Charlotte Bronte's Villette, was not such a wow. In fact it was a resounding thumbs down.

The story begins when 14 year old Lucy Snowe is staying with her godmother, Mrs Bretton, and her son, Graham. A widower's little daughter, Paulina, also comes to stay. Lucy returns to her family – we are told nothing of them but there are hints at sadness and loss – and eight years later has to earn her own living. This eventually leads to her becoming a teacher for a manipulative character, Madame Beck, at Pensionnat de Demoiselles in Villette.

Here she meets a strong minded but inspirational professor, M.Paul Emmanuel, with whom she has a difficult relationship. When ill she is befriended by the school doctor, who takes her to his mother's house to recover. The mother is Mrs Bretton, the doctor, her son, Graham, whom Lucy has loved since a child. The grown Paulina turns up in Brussels and she and the doctor fall in love. Resigned to this, Lucy begins to appreciate M.Paul, firstly for his intellect, secondly for his kindness to her. Finally she falls in love with him.

Villette was written as three volumes when Charlotte, lonely and dispirited, was still heartbroken at the recent deaths of her brother and two sisters, Emily and Anne; she was also suffering from debilitating illness. Encouraged by her editor – whom she was very fond of and used as the inspiration for the doctor - she finished the third volume in record time, and it was published in 1853.

It's impossible to read this novel and not draw parallels between the lives of Lucy Snowe and Charlotte Bronte. In 1842 Charlotte, mourning the loss of her beloved aunt, went to teach at a school in Brussles run by M. and Mme.Heger. She admired M.Heger for his intellect and his kind encouragement of her writing and she eventually fell passionately in love with him.

Everyone in our book group thought the first few chapters of Villette were fine, the last few the best of the book. It was the thirty odd chapters in between that were the problem. They trudged through them, they struggled, they gritted their teeth. But they didn't enjoy.

Unfortunately, they all found it simply too wordy: I have to give them that it is far too long. Bronte pads out the story and, like other authors of the time – more so than Austen, as much as Hardy – goes into long descriptions of character, place or opinion that modern authors don’t, can't do. Then the reader was trying to fill time, revel in introspection and search for stimulation. Whereas now we squeeze reading into the little time we have available.

And the groupies didn't like Lucy Snowe. Certainly she isn't a character one warms to: I have to give them that as well. She is stubborn, contrary, contained, perverse and parsimonious. But, come on guys, the novel slowly shows us that she is also passionate, rebellious, sensitive, observant and intelligent. Yes, she's a complex character: real people are difficult to pigeonhole, they are complex. Who said characters in a book can't be complicated too. But I guess that the reaction of the groupies shows that it's a difficult trick to pull off.

It's well documented that the perceived flaw of this novel is that Bronte fails to give the reason for Lucy Snowe's sadness, her hinted loss and quite apparent loneliness; whereas in Jane Eyre the reader is acquainted with Jane's background. Certainly the groupies thought it a major flaw: they felt cheated because they expected to find out the reason at some stage in the novel.

Too many co-incidences; not much of a story; unbelievable characters; obvious devices; a rushed ending – oh, dear, one criticism after another. But, surely, they could see some merit in the novel. No? But in Villette there are flashes of brilliant observation, a rich and powerful use of language, amazing character studies, wit and wry humour and truly wonderful descriptions of passion and pain.

Lucy Snowe is a character as strong as any modern heroine, one who will not "exist in another's existence", one who fights to be independent, who feels that no matter how unimportant a person, everyone deserves to be loved and to love. I grant it's twenty years since I last read Villette, and it may be another twenty till I read it again, but, read it again I will.


Sunday, 13 April 2008

Ancient Trees: part of our heritage

Kent and East Sussex – the region of South East England known as The Weald - are still amongst the most wooded counties in England. Although the wildwood which once covered the counties vanished centuries ago it left in its place woods of hornbeam and oak, areas of wood-pasture and small coppice woodlands (See my blog archive,Coppicing, 5 August, 2007).

Traditionally livestock would have grazed within this woodland – an historic land practice since medieval times – which eventually resulted in much of it wood-pasture. The legacy of this practice is the historic park of the type that can still be seen at Knole, a favourite hunting park of Henry VIII and later home of the Sackville-West's.

Venerable – ancient - trees are as much part of our heritage as the old manor houses and stately homes we treasure. An oak or yew tree starts to become of interest when it is perhaps 500 years old: they could live to well over 1000. But a beech or hornbeam has a shorter life-span: a 200 year old tree is beginning to be interesting and may well live for another 200 years or more, although there are some over 700 years old!

Measuring the girth of trees is often used as a method of calculating their age: generally if it is large for the species it is most probably of considerable age. If in addition the trunk shows signs of hollowing, decay holes, bark loss or bark deeply creviced then the tree is quite likely to be a veteran.

Counting the annual growth rings – the most reliable method of calculating the age of a tree - is obviously only possible once it's felled. But even then the tree may be so hollow with age that it's difficult to do. Another method of deducing the age of a tree is by counting the number of interdependent wildlife species it supports: birds, mammals, a multitude of insects, fruiting bodies and fungi.

Where I live, hornbeams were used to mark parish boundaries hundreds of years ago. These lines of ancient hornbeams are a distinctive landscape feature which gives the parish a special character, a regional identity and sense of place.

And these hornbeam are not only a feature of our parish boundary but also indicate the work and life-style of our ancestors. Since the 9th century 'dens' were used for grazing swine. The pigs were driven along the drove roads to fatten up on the acorns and beech mast in the woods at the dens: such woods that pre-date 1600 are now termed ancient woodland.

Pollarding oak and hornbeam was a traditional form of woodland management since that time, when the trees were regularly lopped (pollarded) in late winter or early spring to above the height of grazing cattle. The leaves and twigs were used as fodder for sheep and cows and the branches saved for firewood. And in the open landscape large single trees were often pollarded too, on a regular cycle, to create an annual supply of fire wood.

We often have an emotional or aesthetic response to ancient trees: romantic, awesome, beautiful. But there's a growing awareness of their historical, cultural and ecological importance too. If we value all this we must care for our ancient trees; nurture and love them. Only in this way will they remain an integral and important part of our heritage. So go on, hug an old tree!


Sunday, 6 April 2008

Lark Rise to Candleford

Sunday night is one of my television nights mainly because I look forward to watching an historical literary adaptation for the small screen. Lark Rise to Candleford fitted the bill, in a gentle, easy to watch, curl up with a cup of cocoa and suspend belief sort of way. But it's finished.

This long series followed on from Cranford which kept those of us who enjoy such stuff making sure we bagged the sofa for Sunday evening. Cranford it was not: see my blog archive 2007, posted on 30th December. In the televised Cranford there was real depth of characterisation, humour and the sense that true social change was taking place as the story unfolded.

Flora Thompson's, Lark Rise to Candleford, is a very different creature from Elizabeth Gaskell's novel. Flora Jane Timms (1876-1947) was born in the small village of Juniper Hill (the fictional Lark Rise) on the Oxfordshire border and left school at fourteen - as was usual - to work in the post office in the village of Fringford (later depicted as Candleford Green). She married in 1903 and moved to Hampshire where she and her husband ran a post office.

Lark Rise to Candleford is a semi autobiographical trilogy based on her Oxfordshire childhood and three communities, a hamlet, a nearby village and a town. The first story, Lark Rise, was published in 1939, followed by Over to Candleford (1941) and finally Candleford Green in 1943. These were re-issued as one volume Lark Rise to Candleford in 1945.

The books all describe village life throughout the year and the events depicted in them mirror much of Flora's experience. The central character is Laura Timmins, and the story starts when she leaves her hamlet of Lark Rise to work in the post office of the larger Candleford. Every television episode had its own little drama and on the whole these stood on their own. In the book the trilogy finishes when Laura leaves to sample life in the outside world, but the TV adaption has the post mistress fulfil this ambition. In fact this is what Flora herself set out to do.

As a record of ordinary rural life her books are an excellent record – do you remember Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady? Well in this respect they are very similar. But, although in Flora's novels we do see characters riding the newfangled bicycle, we are hardly aware how much the railway transformed transport and the relationship between village and town (it’s a shocking event when this occurs in Cranford).

Nor should the reader or viewer look to these novels to portray complete historical accuracy. Although we are very aware how the telegraph impacted on communications, we are little aware of the mass migration of rural workers to the cities. In Gaskell's novels, however, this sort of social change is always apparent and often the basis of the story.

The stories in Lark Rise to Candleford are set in the last years of the nineteenth century and Flora was over 60 years old when she wrote them. She, too, possibly saw that time through rose-tinted spectacles. They are gentle reminiscences of a time and way of life long past. And I, for one, will miss this sentimental, nostalgic series that was so easy on the ear and eye; that and having the sofa to myself.