I’ve been recently reading (and reading about) a number of novels which increasingly, it seemed to me, to share memes, themes and tropes, though I’m also sure that the authors didn’t set out to consciously borrow from each other, if even they were aware of those shared concepts.
The first thing that had struck me was that they all featured a Yorkshire mansion, whether or not it was explicitly stated that the setting was in one or other of the Ridings that the county was traditionally divided into (North, East and West). But pretty soon it was evident that these novels shared more than setting in common, and I have been mentioning some of these in various posts in the last month or so.
Which are these novels? In chronological order they are — with links to my reviews or discussions — as follows:
Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847), Charles Kingsley’s The Water-Babies (1863), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden (1911), Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (1962) and the same author’s Midnight is a Place (1974).
As we will see, while not all novels include all the themes that the final novel in my list displays, many of the elements recur time and again. Some themes are familiar from legends and fairytales, of course, while others reflect the kind of events and situations that recur throughout history, such as disastrous fires. As today sees the start of the Twitter event #WilloughbyReads it may be a good time to examine the elements that link The Wolves of Willoughby Chase to these other classics.
Let’s take the themes in turn. First is the aforesaid Yorkshire setting. With Jane Eyre it is self-evident that the author — herself from the West Riding and influenced by the legend of a madwoman at Norton Conyers Hall in the North Riding (a story she heard when she visited in 1839) — would set Mr Rochester’s Thornfield in that ancient county. With Hartover Hall in the fictional Vendale of The Water-Babies we might surmise it’s not too far distant from Settle, and Tom the climbing boy later travels through scenery that can only be Malhamdale, also in North Yorkshire.
Misselthwaite Manor in The Secret Garden is described as adjacent to the moors, which can only be the North York moors, as opposed to the Yorkshire Dales further west. Willoughby Chase in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase appears to be situated south of the North York Moors, in the Yorkshire Wolds of the East Riding, as is Midnight is a Place, though in neither case can I recall a mention of Yorkshire. The only clues I can glean are that this area is part of Albion (usually a poetic term for England) and that Grimdale is near to Blastburn, suggesting proximity to the Yorkshire Dales.
We come now to these stately homes. Thornfield (perhaps a nod to Charlotte’s birthplace, Thornton) is six miles from Milcote (maybe Leeds or Bradford, both in West Yorkshire). The first impressions Jane gains of it is at night: after slowly ascending a drive in her one-horse conveyance she sees “the long front of a house; candle-light gleamed from one curtained bow-window; all the rest were dark.” Mrs Fairfax tell her that “Thornfield is a fine old hall, rather neglected of late years perhaps, but still it is a respectable place.” Charles Kingsley’s Hartover Hall is, however, literally topsy-turvy, with Anglo-Saxon attics at the top of the house and the newer styles below; unsurprisingly Tom gets lost in the maze of chimney-flues and by mistake comes down into the bedroom of the young girl Ellie.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Misselthwaite Manor is a five-mile drive across Missel Moor and an enclosed park from Thwaite’s railway station, and when Mary Lomax arrives in the dark all she can see is “an immensely long but low-built house, which seemed to ramble round a stone court.” Sylvia Green’s arrival at Willoughby Chase is also at night, after a similar carriage ride from a railway station. As is common with many stately homes it has enclosed parkland with a lake, as does Midnight Court, of which young Anna-Marie Murgatroyd also sees little when she arrives at night and is hustled up to bed.
When the rightful owner of the mansion is absent from home — for business, from melancholia, for health reasons or because they have become disinherited, dramatic events inevitably unfold: an invalid child gets better or an imposter takes over, fire may even break out. Around the same time an orphan comes to visit or stay: she may only speak French (like Adèle Varens or Anna-Marie Murgatroyd), their parents may have caught a fatal disease (as with Mary Lomax, Sylvia Green and Lucas Bell) or they may not know who their parents were (the case with Tom). There is often a child already in residence for the newcomer to interact with (Ellie, Colin and Bonnie are all offspring of the owners, Lucas’ guardian owns Midnight Court).
In addition, a common element may be a person living within or visiting the grounds but following a more natural existence. While Tom escapes from Hartover to become a kind of nature spirit, Dickon is at home in the countryside communicating with nature, as is Simon the goose-boy who lives in a cave in the Willoughby Chase park. The elderly Lady Murgatroyd lives simply within Midnight Court’s icehouse, coming and going with little or no ceremony.
In nearly every case there is someone who is frail or an invalid, though their characters are rarely similar: Edward Rochester is blinded and maimed by the inferno at Thornfield, Colin is bedridden from a mysterious ailment, Sylvia is never as robust as her cousin Bonnie, while Sir Randolph is lame from a riding accident. There are also cases of derangement: Bertha Mason is the original madwoman in the attic who (spoiler alert) sets fire to Thornfield; Colin is susceptible to fits of screaming hysterically; and Miss Slighcarp and, particularly, Sir Randolph seem to at times be close to the edge of reason, the latter responsible for the final conflagration at the Court.
You will note that while there are common elements none of these may be said to be a retelling or even a pastiche of an earlier title, any more than King Kong is merely Beowulf in another guise or Indiana Jones is another Jason searching for a Golden Fleece. While any one story may inform another, they each have their own tone, their own language, their own focus; some are more fantastical, others realistic; a few are semi-autobiographical while the remainder may simply relish recreating an imaginary world. They reflect ourselves, such stuff as dreams are made on.