A Journey Through Rural England

As promised in a previous post, July has been reserved for old friends, and my first three books for the month are all very familiar friends indeed.  Let me take you on a little trip through time and space, from the south of England to the north.  It’ll be a slow journey, but, I promise you, it will be well worth it…
*****

Our journey starts off down in Wessex, the ancient English kingdom appropriated by the wonderful Thomas Hardy as the setting for his Victorian novels.  Far From the Madding Crowd is a typically bucolic tale, describing a few years in the life of the young and beautiful Bathsheba Everdene.  This headstrong woman, who has decided to take on the running of her uncle’s farm alone after his death, is pursued by three very different men: surly Farmer Boldwood; dashing soldier Frank Troy; and the honest, reliable shepherd Gabriel Oak.  While this early novel has a little more cheer than Hardy’s later tragedies, there’s still a lot that goes wrong for Bathsheba, and plenty of obstacles to overcome before she can settle down in peace.

I first read this at secondary school – and got an almighty telling-off from my English teacher when I did a surprise test in class on the book without having bothered to read any of it (I think it was the question where I said Bathsheba was a farmer with a beard that gave things away…).  Now, I love this book, with its luscious descriptions of the English countryside and its long, leisurely conversations between locals in ramshackle pubs.  Admittedly, Hardy never uses a short word when he can dig up (or invent) a horribly long and complicated one instead, but this minor fault is far outweighed by his elegant storytelling – which is why, on finishing this novel, I went straight to the Book Depository and ordered three more of his works 🙂

*****

Now let’s (reluctantly) leave Wessex and move northwards, over the undulating southern hills, across the pleasant fields of Warwickshire, and onto the tranquil village of Hayslope in the (fictional) hilly county of Loamshire, for here we will encounter a fine example of the turn-of-the-(19th) century workman, Adam Bede.

George Eliot’s admirable carpenter is one of the principal figures of her first novel, and throughout its 540 pages, he must learn to use his broad shoulders to support others in their time of need – and to bear the crushing disappointment he encounters in his own affairs.  Adam, a cut above the average English country-dweller (both mentally and physically), is in love with Hetty Sorrel, a beautiful (and empty-headed) young dairymaid.  However, when the heir to the local estates, Arthur Donnithorne, sees the pretty girl, events take an unfortunate and fateful turn (reminiscent of a certain Hardy novel), tainting the lives of all involved.

This novel, which I bought at a second-hand shop while I was living in Japan (and read to death!), has many similarities with Far From the Madding Crowd, and I constantly compare and confuse Adam and Gabriel (in my mind, they both look like an actor I saw in an ITV production of Hardy’s novel!).  I’d have to say though that Eliot’s story is the better of the two.  It has all of the wonderful depiction of how people in the country really lived, with less of the stark contrast between the language of the story and the philosophising.  Middlemarch is probably a better book, but Adam Bede is definitely my favourite Eliot novel.

*****

Alas, we must keep moving, and the way is becoming less pleasant now.  We pass through the bare, coal-stained hills of Eliot’s Stonyshire, skirt the big industrial cities of the north, and venture out onto the wet, wild and windy Yorkshire moors – until we stumble, on completion of our journey, upon a pair of houses isolated on the moors: Thrushcross Grange and Wuthering Heights

The novel is actually a story within a story (within a story) as a large part of the tale is told third-(and occasionally fourth-) hand by the feisty, and perhaps not all that trustworthy, maidservant Nelly Dean.  Through her long fireside stories to the convalescing tenant of Thrushcross Grange, Mr. Lockwood, we learn about the strange events that unfolded in recent years.  All begins when Hareton Earnshaw, the owner of Wuthering Heights, returns from a trip to Liverpool bearing a rather unwelcome sort of gift – a dirty, dark stray who soon comes to be known by the name of Heathcliff.  While Earnshaw’s two children are initially repulsed by the intruder, his daughter, Cathy, quickly becomes the best of friends with Heathcliff, a tie which will endure lifelong… and perhaps beyond.

Emily Brontë’s classic story is nothing if not divisive (as recent Twitter conversations have shown!), but I love this book.  Melodramatic?  Definitely.  Exaggerated?  Of course.  Stretching reality of behaviour to its limits?  Without doubt.  That’s not the point though.  In the self-centred and slightly deranged Cathy, Brontë created one of the most fascinating heroines of the Victorian age (with the best theme tune too!), and as for Heathcliff… well, any character who bangs his head against a tree until it’s covered in blood has to be worth engaging with.

This was probably the first piece of serious literature that I ever read (voluntarily anyway), back in those wonderful days when Penguin brought out their one-pound popular classics and widened general access to the literary greats.  I still remember struggling through the book, all the time trying to work out who Cathy/Catherine/Linton/Hareton actually was.  By the end of the novel, despite this difficulty, I was hooked on reading ‘proper’ books 🙂

*****
Alas, we must now turn our backs on the world of fiction; our time here is done.  And so, with our journey at an end, it’s time to leave 19th-century England behind and return to the realities of 21st-century Melbourne: a large amount of planning to do for next term, a mountain of bills to pay and two noisy (but lovely) daughters to pay attention to.

Until next time 🙂

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7 thoughts on “A Journey Through Rural England

  1. I LOVE Wuthering Heights, but no one else seems to- I think that the second half of the book possibly ruins the beginning for some people, because things go off the boil a bit, but I still love it! I re-read it for Valentines Day on my blog, which was, admittedly, a bit of a mistake… hehe

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  2. Glad you enjoyed re-reading Wuthering Heights. Some people say it was based on real events that EB heard about when she was away teaching. EB was the most interesting Bronte, I think. A shame we don't know more about her. Do you speed read? I'm hard pressed to finish a book a week (or a fortnight) these days.

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  3. Hareton Earnshaw is the son of Hindley, Hindley being the son of 'Mr Earnshaw' who was the one which travelled to Liverpool at the start. Hareton is part of the second generation characters. wrong character name ;D

    just finished a 2 year english lit course involving the book.

    -cousin Andrew

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  4. Laura – I think it's a very polarising novel – people are very firm in both their love and hate for this book! I agree though that it does tail away a little towards the end.

    Violet – I agree that Emily is more interesting. See my Twitter comments for what I think about Charlotte 😉 And I don't really speed read (although I do read fairly quickly); I probably just spend far too much time reading…

    Everybookandcranny – One of my faves is 'Return of the Native'. 'Tess' is very good (possibly better than FFTMC), but I prefer the earlier, slightly more positive novels in many ways.

    Andrew – Slight artistic (blogger) licence 😉 I knew that Hareton was the grandson and Hindley the son, but I could have sworn that the grandfather (i.e. the man who found Heathcliff) was also called Hareton. Since it appears that his first name is not actually given in the novel, I think Hareton is as likely a name as any!

    If anyone knows a good medium, could you please get them on to Emily Brontë to clarify this please? Thanks 🙂

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  5. Ah, Wuthering Heights. The first time I read WH, I didn't get it. In fact, I didn't understand most of it. The second time, I fell in love with it. I also really like Hardy, although I read most of his novels while at school. And Eliot, I have yet to try so I'm looking forward to her novels.

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