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06 June 2008

A Walk on the Wild Side of the Regency: From Dorothy Wordsworth to Emily Bronte

In an earlier post to this blog, I wrote a little about some of the great literary walkers of the eighteenth and nineteen centuries -- authors and characters both. And about the wonderful ways in which the human figure moving through nature can become part and parcel of story, biography, observation, consciousness.

Particularly in the period romance readers will call the Regency (and which -- ironically -- more scholarly types will call the Romantic period), a turn through fine prospects or a tour through sublime wildness was considered a necessary prop and aid to the cultivation of taste and sensibility.

But although the words "taste and sensibility" seem to suggest these qualities were cultivated at a slow, contemplative, rather decorative pace, the truth is that in those days people made tracks.

Without the aid of Ecco or Mephisto or whichever twenty-first century wizard of the walking shoe you prefer, the poet William Wordsworth crossed the alps at the impressive rate of 30 miles a day.

According to William St. Clair's The Godwins and the Shelleys, the philosopher William Godwin's normal pace from London to its environs was a strong, steady four miles an hour.

And in Wuthering Heights, Cathy Earnshaw's father walked from Yorkshire to Liverpool and back in three days, when he brought home the infant Heathcliff.

Of course Wuthering Heights is a work of wildly romantic Victorian fiction (by a novelist who had a Regency childhood).

But Emily Bronte's mastery of fact, law, and chronology are tight and supple, and her reverence for the physical landscape of the North of England is rock-solid. And anyway, I've done the math; it would have been possible for Mr. Earnshaw to get to Liverpool and back in the space Bronte allotted him. It's true that it wouldn't have left him much time to do his "business" in the city. But what was that business anyway? Suppose...

But I'll return to that later.

Meanwhile, what of women walkers during this period?

We all know about Lizzy Bennet's three miles to Netherfield, "crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise," the "brilliancy" of her complexion not lost upon Mr. Darcy.

The dirty stockings are a nice touch, and as I remember it, the Ely/Firth Pride and Prejudice spatters a little mud on Lizzy's white skirts as well.

But the image is still more or less of a piece with those long shots of white dresses against sunlit green rolling fields so beloved by Jane Austen movie-makers. And it's miles away from this description: "with mud-encrusted skirts banging against her sturdy legs, her flimsy shoes, her neck and face often wet and cold, her eyes and ears alert to the beauty of every sight" -- from a new biography of Dorothy Wordsworth, the poet's sister and extraordinary nature diarist. The book, by Frances Wilson, is called The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth.

You can read Margaret Drabble's wonderful, thoughtful review here, but you won't find any white skirts aflutter against sun-dappled English verdancy. In their pursuit of romantic sublimity and what much later we might call authenticity, the Wordsworths hiked through rain and darkness and hail. On a journey with William's wife Mary, Drabble cites Wilson, citing Dorothy, telling us that "the threesome... lost its way on the slippery darkening road several times, and Dorothy writes laconically 'I was often obliged to crawl upon all fours, and Mary fell many a time.'"

Of course, there's a great deal more to the journals than sloshing around in the mud. Like Dorothy's 1802 view of those famous yellow daffodils. Because no, William wasn't "lonely as a cloud" when he came across them, and before he wrote the poem (not my favorite) he consulted this journal entry (which I much prefer):

We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up -- But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stone about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed & reeled & danced...

And there's a great deal more to Dorothy's story as well, though it's not a happy one. Living out her life in close quarters with William and his family, she took on huge burdens of housework, childcare, and secretarial duties for her increasingly famous brother. Physical and emotional stress overtook her; there's been speculation for the last half-century about her love for her brother (and his for her). It's impossible to know what shape any of that took. Still, you don't have to believe in a physical passion to imagine a brilliant woman's passion for life and achievement, for another possible self in a time of such limited possibility for women -- originating in a brother and sister's never-forgotten shared childhood and youth.

In her later years she had a serious emotional breakdown. She ended her days as an invalid and the only picture of her that survives is this one -- the girl with the muddy skirts and what (in a 1839 journal article) Thomas De Quincey described as her "gipsy tan," quite faded from that sad strained face, closed mouth hiding bad teeth, beneath the hideous Victorian cap.

Gone. But (perhaps) not quite disappeared from literary imagination. For Frances Wilson speculates that it's quite possible that a young Emily Bronte read that 1839 journal article, perhaps to think of a wild, nature-loving girl with a wild, all-encompassing love for a brother figure.

And (this is my speculation), that Mr. Earnshaw knew exactly why he was walking to Liverpool. To bring home that brother -- that wonderful tragic other self -- to Cathy. And to us.

Anybody else out there as fascinated as I am by that wild, romantic sensibility that runs like a hidden stream through our witty, happy-ever-after Regency period?

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7 Comments:

Blogger Elizabeth Kerri Mahon said...

Wonderful post Pam. I confess to a fondness for the poetry of Wordsworth. There's a wonderful scene in the play Some Americans Abroad where they all stand on Westminster Bridge and read Wordsworth's poem.

I think its sometimes easy to forget that the Regency is also the time of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Thomas de Quincey when so many books focus on London and the ton. I love the vision of William and Dorothy Wordsworth walking everywhere. Some of my favorite books set in the Regency period are those that take place outside of London. Mary Balogh has written wonderful books that give a sense of the landscape in England during the Regency period.

11:21 AM  
Blogger Kalen Hughes said...

Oh, Pam, you know I am! The wild, straining, yearning spirit that underlies so much of the thought and art of the era fascinates me. I love reading about real people who lived very much outside of the rather stayed box that so many of us imagine (because these are the kinds of people I want to write about).

12:19 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I don't know Some Americans Abroad, Elizabeth, but from googling it, it sounds like I'd love it. As a gemini, I always love the doubleness of the Regency period -- the sense AND the sensibility of it.

And as an unreconstructed old hippie, Kalen, but one who's always also wanted the good, secure life (gemini again?) I find the roots of my own doubleness in the romantics of the late 18th/early 19th century.

1:21 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Great post, Pam! The romantic sensibility (Byron, Shelley, Keats, Beethoven) is one of the many layers that makes the Regency era so fascinating.

4:41 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I think what's going on, Tracy, is some strong, painful birth of a democratic psychology we recognize as our own, at the end of a long (and glamorous) wave of European absolutism. The conflict is very hot, fraught, romantic -- or is it... Romantic?

9:53 PM  
Blogger Amanda Elyot said...

Wonderful post, Pam!

I think for every Yin there's a Yang, and every bright room has corners shrouded in chiaroscuro, which is what draws me not just to the Regency but to history and by extension, historical fiction. The flowering of chivalry was juxtaposed with the immense brutality of the medieval world; Victorian repression spawned some extremely salacious subcultures.

Dorothy Wordsworth has always fascinated me, as much for what she did as for what she might have given up, or compromised on, in the process.

Emily Bronte and the Romantic poets drew such glorious pictures of their worlds that their works become tremendously valuable primary sources for those of us who yearn to depict history and truly "get it right." I love to find the still relatively unspoiled landscapes and walk them, unimpeded by modern views and imagine whose footsteps I follow, what they were wearing, thinking, and feeling

7:10 AM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

I agree with so much of what you're saying, Amanda. Wuthering Heights has been a lodestar for me for years now -- changing what it says to me as I change.

I must admit, though, that it confused and shocked me when I first read it at 18. Where's the romance, I wondered, amid all that fury, ego, and infantile selfishness?

Ah, but (as another genius Romantic put it) I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now.

10:02 AM  

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