19th century

The Wry Romanticism of Kenneth Grahame

I did not set out to reread Kenneth Grahame’s essays this morning, but simply to find a quote. However, as always happens when I get anywhere near his writing, I was drawn in and ended up going through them all again in a single sitting.

Pagan Papers was the first book of Grahame’s to be published, a collection of essays and stories, written originally for London periodicals (including The Yellow Book.) It came out in 1893, fifteen years before The Wind in the Willows, and while his style matures over that time, you can certainly find the wistfulness of Mole and Ratty, Toad’s mischievous humour and Badger’s curmudgeonly disregard for society in these early essays.

The first edition of Pagan Papers also included some of the stories that were later removed and published separately as The Golden Age and Dream Days, they are are vaguely autobiographical and beautifully written adventures that demonstrate Grahame’s unparalleled ability to see the world through a child’s eyes. The essays stand apart from these and fit in more with the style of Jerome K. Jerome, whose Three Men in a Boat was almost certainly an influence on Willows.

Several of the essays are ironic pieces, poking gentle fun at his subjects which include book-buying (Non Libri Sed Liberi), public libraries (Cheap Knowledge) and familial relations (Justifiable Homicide). You get the impression that he is deliberately provoking the reader by giving absurd opinions on things, only to change tack at the last minute. It is amusing to be forced to see things like lending libraries and railways, not as romantic old-world institutions, but as highly suspicious intrusions onto Grahame’s nostalgic world view.

This nostalgia is an undercurrent in everything Grahame writes, and he is always aware of it and indulges in his romanticism without any attempt to hide it. He uses childlike playfulness to get away with sentimentality, in much the same way Toad’s adventures distract the reader from Ratty’s yearnings. The more romantic essays express a deep connection to the landscape. Grahame always fell in love with places and saw in them the layers of history. In The Romance of the Road, he takes us on a walk along the Ridgeway of the North Berkshire Downs where “the Roman, sore beset, may have gazed down this very road for relief, praying for night or the succouring legion. This child that swings on a gate and peeps at you from under her sun-bonnet — so may some girl-ancestress of hers have watched with beating heart the Wessex levies hurry along to clash with the heathen and break them on the down where the ash trees grew.” If this sounds unfashionably quaint, I must point out Robert Macfarlane, who follows the same path in The Old Ways (2012)with an almost equal affection for the land.

The Romance of the Rail is nearly prescient in predicting our romantic attitudes towards railways (and particularly steam trains), which he derides, like Ruskin before him, for destroying  the “steadfast mystery of the horizon.” It is clear that he is already succumbing to their charms, however, when he confesses to “a sentimental weakness for the night-piercing whistle.” His description of night trains, ghostly passengers and imaginary journeys brought to mind Blackwood’s A Prisoner in Fairyland (1913). So it seems the Edwardian prose writers were far from immune to the railway’s magic, even if, “The poet, however, seems hard to convince hereof.”

This feeling is expressed most explicitly in A Bohemian Exile, which mourns not only changes to the land, but the people who inhabit it.

…there were two Englands existing together, the one fringing the great iron highways wherever they might go — the England under the eyes of most of us. The other, unguessed at by many, in whatever places were still vacant of shriek and rattle, drowsed on as of old: the England of heath and common and windy sheep down, of by-lanes and village-greens…

If you think this sentiment is dead, you need look no further than Icons of England (2008), a collection of essays for which this could almost be the blurb. Grahame’s nostalgia has, at least, that quality of self awareness.

My favourite of the essays, The Fairy Wicket is more mischievous. It is a musing on disenchantment (Weber again) and the loss of both a child’s power of imagination, and perhaps the imagination of Grahame’s contemporaries, children of the industrial revolution; that “material generation that so deliberately turned its back on the gap into Elf-Land.” Grahame was, after all, an employee of the Bank of England, and perhaps no one has greater need of fairyland than a bank clerk.

Pagan Papers is both a plaintive mourning for the loss of an idyllic England (a mourning that has been going on for centuries I might add) and a humorous poke at the English themselves. Grahame is capable of rescuing his romanticism from sentimentality, as he does in Willows, by the judicious injection of humour.

Skye M. W.

Illustration – Aubrey Beardsley, for The Yellow Book, source



Outside of Time: Play in Nature

The second concept I wish to reflect on from the CHE collaboratory is more nebulous; the relationship between play, nature and time. I was interested, in particular, with the idea of a separation between children and adults signified by both their relationship to nature, and their natural inclination towards play.

Ros King’s paper on Play and National Identity in Renaissance England encompassed, in its broad scope, play as an evolutionary trait in humans and animals. She suggested that play was a means for experiencing the environment and building a familiarity with it that gave a survival advantage. In physical play both children and animals test and explore the limits and capabilities of their bodies and the material world around them, increasing their spacial awareness. Ros discussed the connection between physical sensations and memory, which evokes nostalgia for childhood experiences.

Jack Tan’s paper on Dickens explored the idea of access to nature as a key element of play. The character of Miss Havisham in Great Expectations refers to herself as a woman who “has never seen the sun” since Pip was born. She further suggests that play is something that belongs to children, and not to the realm of “men and women.” This reflects a change in attitudes to both childhood and the ‘outdoors’ in Victorian mentalities.

As we saw in other papers on medieval and early modern sources; adult play was often something that took place outside, with hunting as a prime example of direct engagement with the natural world. However the Victorians were, more so than their predecessors, ‘indoor people’ as a result of urbanisation and changing forms of work and recreation. Additionally, they had an elevated awareness of childhood as a time both separate and sacred, and this is reflected in Dickens’ many child characters who are often denied this ‘golden age’ of childhood by circumstance, but still retain its inherent innocence.

This idea of childhood play as a state outside of time and connected with idealised nostalgia and immersion in nature reflects the biblical Eden or classical Arcadia. Indeed, the Victorians frequently projected this longing for a state of innocence before sin onto childhood. Concurrently there is a growing romanticism of the ‘countryside’ and rural pastimes as timeless and innocent. Like the literary fairies of the period, nature is attached to the realm of childhood and made innocent, where previously it was wild and dangerous. The childhood golden age of the Victorians exists at once in the distant past of nostalgia and in a realm outside of time, as inaccessible by adults as Barrie’s Neverland.

Bob White mentioned Goldsmith’s The Deserted Village which, although an 18th cent example, evokes this sentiment perfectly:

Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheared the labouring swain,
Where smiling spring its earliest visit paid,
And parting summer’s lingering blooms delayed,
Dear lovely bowers of innocence and ease,
Seats of my youth, when every sport could please,
How often have I loitered o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endeared each scene!

Skye M. W.

St. Cecilia’s Day, 2015

image: A Young Girl in a Field, Ludwig Knaus (1829-1910)

Reflecting on Possession

Think of this – that the writer wrote alone, and the reader read alone,
and they were alone with each other

A.S. Byatt

After semester is over I can enjoy the luxury of reading for pleasure again, and the first book I picked up this month was A.S. Byatt’s Possession. I read The Children’s Book in January last year and had been meaning to follow up with Possession ever since. However I’m glad I waited as it was exactly the right time to read it now, tying in both with the creative writing work I did this semester and the reading I have been pursuing on intellectual friendships.

Possession is the story of literary researchers Roland Mitchell and Maud Bailey, and their discovery of a hidden romance between two Victorian poets. It is epistolary, in part; several chapters are made up of the letters between the poets and the diaries of Victorian women who knew them. Additionally, Byatt includes the poems of these two fictional writers, which display an impressive level of craft on the author’s behalf, as they are beautiful even on their own. I was particularly taken by The Garden of Proserpina (a nod to Swinburne?) and The Fairy Melusine. The alliterative description of The Thirsty Fountain’ is so cold, liquid and green you can almost taste it:

A rounded rock stood low among the curl
Of dim-discerned weeds, whose fronds were stirred
By many little springs that bubbled up
And seeped through coiling strands and stirred the plane
Of the dark water into dimpling life.
The rock was covered with a vivid pelt
Of emerald mosses, maidenhairs and mints
Dabbling dark crowns and sharply-scented stems
Amongst the water’s peaks and freshenings.

I was again overwhelmed by Byatt’s deep familiarity with myth and folklore and her ability to weave both into a text that is entirely realist whilst still satisfying the desire for wonder and magic usually fulfilled by fantasy. She displays her wide reading with name dropping which pleases me, in this instance, because she references obscure writers like Angela Brazil and Walter de la Mare, whose work was once very popular but little known now. Possession is a bookish book, it assumes a familiarity with classical and northern myth, with Victorian literature and art, with Arthurian legend and English folklore. It drops into Latin or French and does not always translate, nor does it explain itself in any way. If it were not set almost entirely within my field of study and interest I would find myself baffled. Fortunately it serves like a chocolate box of all my literary and scholarly pleasures, so I cannot help but enjoy it.

As to the romance, I must admit to some slight disappointment, not owing to tragic conclusions, but because I was deeply interested in the character of Christabel LaMotte. She was written, to begin with, as such an independent, resourceful and determined woman in control of herself and capable of resisting societal and biological pressures, but at the turning point of the narrative she gives in and is drastically weakened for the rest of the book. However, I can acknowledge that Byatt is using Christabel’s ‘fall’ to comment on the place of women in Victorian society, and to parallel the story of Melusine. I do wonder at the choice of title, it could almost have been Obssession instead, for the motivation of almost every character is of that nature.

Possession won the Man Booker Prize in 1990, which I find extraordinary, as it seems such an indulgently esoteric book (and I say this as highest praise.) However I am encouraged by this to read more Booker prize winners, and to to explore mythic allusions within realism in my own work.

Skye M. W.

St. Margaret’s Day, 2015

(image: The Beguiling of Merlin, Edward Burne-Jones)