Dark and dreary

Mist in the Black Mountains

Be still, sad heart, and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.

Every age must feel, at some time, that sense that the days are not only dark and dreary but that they will stretch on for ever. So it must seem in much of the world as 2017 draws to a close, seasonal warmth and cheer notwithstanding. Longfellow in ‘The Rainy Day’ tried to lighten the sad heart by telling us that the sun still shines behind the clouds but it’s hard to summon any optimism in these days of depressing rolling news and indignant instant media.

Emily Brontë’s ‘To Imagination’ has pre-echoes of some of our own despair — “so hopeless is the world without” with its “guile, and hate, and doubt, and cold suspicion” — but holds within it seeds to lighten the heart a little more than the promise of future sunnier weather: seeds of friendship and imagination:

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Modest and accomplished

The Cobb, Lyme Regis 1892

Jane Austen: Persuasion
Introduction and notes by Elaine Jordan 2000
Wordsworth Classics 2007 (1993)

William Walter Elliot of his cousin Anne, after she modestly claimed minimal understanding of Italian: “one who is too modest for the world in general to be aware of half her accomplishments, and too highly accomplished for modesty to be natural in any other woman.” — Persuasion: Volume II Chapter 8

Persuasion was the last completed novel by Austen, published posthumously in December 1817 in tandem with Northanger Abbey, one of her earliest completed novels. It’s likely that neither of these novels appeared with the titles Austen gave them (Northanger Abbey was provisionally called Catherine, and in an earlier draft Susan) but I wonder how the public would have viewed Persuasion if it had in fact been published as The Elliots, a handle which Austen family tradition asserted was her original choice of working title.

You might assume then that this is a story of a family from the landed gentry when in fact our focus is almost entirely on just one member of that family, Anne Elliot. Unusually for Austen novels there is a substantial backstory, which is that eight years before Anne was ‘persuaded’ to refuse young Captain Wentworth’s offer of marriage on the grounds that he had few prospects ahead of him. She has since bitterly regretted her decision but, in common with many of women of her supposedly advanced age (she is 27 when this story opens), it’s more than just due the fear that she will never get another offer: it’s that she continues to have feelings for Frederick. On top of that, her father’s poor management of the Somerset estate has necessitated the letting out of the property so that the family can live in more straitened circumstances in Bath.

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Gawain and the jolly green giant

Winter's journey
Winter’s journey (Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, some years back)

Bernard O’Donoghue transl
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Penguin 2006

Simon Armitage transl
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Faber and Faber 2007

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is one of the most magical of Arthurian tales: a jolly green giant who intrudes into King Arthur’s Christmas court at Camelot invites Gawain to chop off his head on condition that Gawain allows the return blow one year hence; the year up, Gawain then travels through Wales to northwest England to face his doom. Has he bitten off more than he can chew or will he acquit himself well and bring honour to king and court? Continue reading “Gawain and the jolly green giant”

Malign presences and others

The entrance to Raglan Castle, Monmouthshire

When the Whispering Mountain shall scream aloud
And the castle of Malyn ride on a cloud […]
Then Fig-hat Ben shall wear a shroud …

A further post on the personages in Joan Aiken’s 1968 fantasy The Whispering Mountain, this time focusing on incomers, visitors and others.

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Jane and Charlotte

The doorway at High Sunderland Hall, Halifax in 1913, known to the Brontës (image public domain)

Juliet Gardiner’s illustrated biography The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth (Collins & Brown 1992) is a kind of companion to Penelope Hughes-Hallett’s ‘My Dear Cassandra’: Illustrated Letters of Jane Austen (1990) issued by the same publishers a year or two before. The two titles to me recall Charlotte’s reported antipathy to Austen.  It’s clear that Charlotte may have overreacted to gauche comments on the passion in her novels, but it’s nevertheless possible to identify in some of Charlotte’s more considered (if still lukewarm) assessments a sneaking admiration for her older contemporary, who died when Charlotte was only one year old.

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Darkly shaded lives

Anne, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, painted around 1834 by Branwell (who has erased his own image). National Portrait Gallery

Juliet Gardiner: The World Within: the Brontës at Haworth.
A Life in Letters, Diaries and Writings 

Collins & Brown 1992

We wove a web in childhood,
A web of sunny air;
We dug a spring in infancy
Of water pure and fair […]

For life is darkly shaded
And its joys fleet fast away!

— from ‘Retrospection’ by Charlotte Brontë (1835)

2017 marks the bicentenary of the birth of the least celebrated of the Brontë siblings, Branwell. As with the group portrait he painted of his surviving sisters and himself he appears as a ghostly figure, barely mentioned and then only with sadness. He left some poetry, youthful writings, a handful of paintings (on the evidence we have mostly of mediocre merit) and a record of a life wasted, an existence which brought him and those who knew him pain and distress.

But Branwell — for all his likely hidden talents — is not the gifted individual who springs to mind when the name Brontë is mentioned; more likely it will be Charlotte, Emily or Anne who commands our immediate attention. The World Within recounts the family history, from Patrick Brunty’s birth in County Down in 1777 to Charlotte Brontë’s death in 1855. There will be little I suspect to surprise Brontë fans so rather than give a synopsis of their lives and accomplishments I will merely point out what makes this title worth more than a brief look.

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Winterlude

In case you were wondering I’ve not gone away.

(Of course, you may not have noticed.)

Life has been a bit hectic. If I ever was in any doubt, being retired is no holiday — not if I want to live a little. Well, live a lot.

In no particular order, here are some of the things I’ve been involved in over the last few weeks.

1. Playing the keyboard part in a Haydn Mass for a Sunday service in a local medieval church. (PS: it boasts a hollow yew tree said to be two millennia old.)
2. Accompanying the local choral society for rehearsals, leading to a concert in Brecon Cathedral where I sang in the tenor section. (This featured the Mass in D by Dvorak, Haydn’s Te Deum and choruses from Handel’s Israel in Egypt.)
3. Attending Cardiff Philharmonic Orchestra rehearsals, playing the piano part, and performing in two concerts. (Film music by John Williams — 85 this year — was the theme, including items from The Cowboys, Warhorse, Jurassic Park: The Lost World and E.T., plus selections from Episodes IV, V and VII of Star Wars.)
4. Accompanying a student performing for the opening of a Confucius Classroom in a local school. (The goal of this UCL Institute of Education initiative is to help local schools to start or strengthen the teaching of Chinese language and culture.)
5. Accompanying students for instrumental exams. (Cello, violin and euphonium, since you ask.)
6. Conducting the local choral society performing a capella carols around the town. (And if it wasn’t for a recent heavy dump of snow which led to cancellation, I’d’ve today been singing with another choir a concert of Advent music by Praetorius,  Gabrieli and other contemporaries, all accompanied by sackbuts and a cornett.)
7. Not all activities have been musical: I’ve been clearing a wild patch of ground of vegetation and rubbish so we can do something with it in the coming year, and we’ve attended a couple of events in Hay Festival’s Winter Weekend. (Hay-on-Wye is one of the globe’s Town of Books, running a famous literary festival every summer.)

There we have it: a busy few weeks which has precluded much blogging. I can’t guarantee there’ll be much literary blogging this side of Christmas, or anything but random following of fellow bloggers’ posts.

But I’ll try. 🙂

Irony and Ingenuousness

Blaise Castle
Blaise Castle folly, Henbury, Bristol

Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey, Lady Susan, The Watsons, Sanditon
Oxford World’s Classics 2008

“Blaize Castle!” cried Catherine; “what is that?”
“The finest place in England – worth going fifty miles at any time to see.”
“What, is it really a castle, an old castle?”
“The oldest in the kingdom.”
“But is it like what one reads of?”
“Exactly – the very same.”
“But now really – are there towers and long galleries?”
“By dozens.”

The irony of this dialogue between the imaginative young ingénue Catherine and her would-be suitor, the boorish John Thorpe, is that Blaise Castle is neither the oldest castle in the kingdom (it was only built in 1766) nor are there dozens of towers and galleries (the three-cornered folly has only three towers and two floors). To these two themes of irony and ingenuousness are added the twin essences of parody and pastiche to furnish the reader of this Austen novel with gothic contrasts and dualities galore.

Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto: a Gothic story is regarded as the original ‘gothick’ horror tale; first published in 1764, it now seems rather tame and rambling with its over-the-top supernatural happenings (particularly the appearance of a giant flying helmet), its convoluted über-melodramatic plot and its unengaging characters. But it set off a trend for similar novels featuring creepy castles, hidden chambers, darkened passages, villainous father figures, fainting heroines and secrets waiting to be revealed; in fact, precisely the kind of novels that were eventually to be lovingly sent up by Northanger Abbey. Continue reading “Irony and Ingenuousness”