Monday, 11 October 2010

Wave-like hills

 The speaker at this year’s Literary Luncheon, held, appropriately enough, in the Brontë Suite of the Crown Hotel, Harrogate on Saturday, was the biographer and critic Jenny Uglow, who is currently the editorial director of Chatto and Windus. She is much in demand in the world of television when it comes to adaptations of the works of Elizabeth Gaskell for the simple reason that she is one of the world’s leading authorities on the novelist – and of course biographer of Charlotte Brontë. She was eloquently introduced by Patsy Stoneman, who emphasised her deep admiration and listed some of her works, like for example The Lunar Men (which won the James Tait Memorial Prize in 2002), A Life of Thomas Bewick and Elizabeth Gaskell: A Habit of Stories

The title of the address was ‘Wave-like hills’: Elizabeth Gaskell’s Brontë landscapes. The quote is from Chapter One of her Life of Charlotte Brontë:

All round the horizon there is this same line of sinuous wave-like hills; the scoops into which they fall only revealing other hills beyond, of similar colour and shape, crowned with wild, bleak moors--grand, from the ideas of solitude and loneliness which they suggest, or oppressive from the feeling which they give of being pent-up by some monotonous and illimitable barrier, according to the mood of mind in which the spectator may be.

Gaskell “sees herself as a kind of anthropologist”, depicting the people of Yorkshire (largely for the benefit of her readers in the southern counties) as a “cut-off race” descended from Scandinavians, people with a peculiar force of character. She had a strong idea of what the countryside should be, living herself in Knutsford in Cheshire, just a few miles from industrialised Manchester. She saw Knutsford as a place for solitude, grassy and romantic, a place to escape the grim poverty of the big city.

Wild countryside, for Gaskell, “releases something elemental in you”. It “got into the Brontës’ blood”. Gaskell’s experiences of wild countryside included Snowdonia as well as the moors around Haworth. She was concerned with the way that dangerous passions were addressed in Charlotte’s work, anxious to defend her from the charge of coarseness. The first description of Charlotte Brontë in the biography does not come until Chapter Six, when her plain features and tiny hands are mentioned in such a way “that she sounds like a small animal, a bit of a wild thing”. Gaskell tells us that she “seldom went down into the village, preferring the solitude of the moors” which is not entirely true, though it does apply to Emily.

Jane Eyre can be read as myth because “the characters in it are all from this Yorkshire race”. The harsh landscapes have brought out a capacity for self-sacrifice, a fact which interests Gaskell because it links with Christian myth. For her, a harsh rural life could be equivalent to a harsh industrial life in order to serve this. Charlotte is depicted as living in solitude with the sky as a companion. Gaskell saw Charlotte Brontë as a woman of solitude, who has suffered and survived in this landscape.

Below – Sally McDonald (Chair of Brontë Society Council), Jenny Uglow and Patsy Stoneman.


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