Thursday 28 July 2011

Welcome to the North

Well, you may (or may not) be surprised to hear that my return from 19th-Century England didn't last too long; to be precise, about as long as it took me to eat my dinner and pick up the next chapter in my Victorian odyssey.  So, without further ado, here are Tony's further adventures in the world of V-Lit :)

With barely a pause for sustenance, I dashed straight from Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights to the slightly less melodramatic, but equally wonderful, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, written by her sister Anne.  It is (like Wuthering Heights) a story within a story, a recount within a recount, as Gilbert Markham, a jovial middle-aged man, writes to his brother-in-law about events which happened earlier in his life.  He writes a letter in which he describes his encounters with a woman called Helen Graham, a widow who appeared one day in his village with her son in tow.  As Gilbert gets closer to the prickly Ms. Graham, he gradually becomes aware that she harbours a secret - and eventually we, the readers, are told it.

Markham's narrative is interrupted by Helen's diary, in which she relates exactly what happened in her married life to cause her to move to the relative obscurity of this northern village.  Once we are privy to her secret, Markham takes over again to tell us how the story ends.  Grim up north?  Not half as grim as it was down south, if Helen's marriage is anything to go by...

Anne is the least read of the three Brontës, a fact due both to limited output and sister Charlotte's oversensitive handling of Anne's book after her death.  While The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is a wonderful exposé of the inequality of marriage in Victorian England, for many at the time it was simply too close to the bone - hypocrisy often trumped truth back in the 19th Century.

Ironically, in the 20th Century, it was criticised again by feminist theorists, who attacked it for its inherent support of male superiority.  The structure of the novel, with Markham's letter surrounding Helen Graham's diary extracts (which he has included in his letters) is said to perpetuate female submissiveness.  I'm sure Anne Brontë would have been amused to hear that her book was both too radical and too conventional at the same time... Whichever theory you subscribe to, one thing's for sure - this is a very good, and often overlooked, piece of writing.

We'll remain, if you please, in the north of England for our second book today, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South.  This staple of English literature classes follows devout southern belle Margaret Hale as family circumstances conspire to send her off to the smoky skies of Milton-Northern (AKA Manchester), where she encounters the rough but courteous Mr. Thornton.  As our heroine struggles to adapt to the ways of the industrial north, and their slightly confusing language, she and Mr. Thornton (Mr. Darcy with an accent) find that when it comes to behaviour they really do come from different countries.

The title though is slightly misleading; it's not that Thornton comes from the North as such that makes him so exotic (Gilbert Markham, for example is also a Northerner), it's his role as a member of the manufacturing mercantile class which renders him so foreign in Margaret's eyes (and probably in the eyes of many of Gaskell's readers too).  Throughout the novel, our two protagonists are simply unable to understand what the other is doing, let alone thinking, and neither has a real inkling of the respect they inspire in the other.

The last unit in my long-forgotten Master's course was in Intercultural Communication, and it was difficult to overlook the cultural differences dotted throughout the book.  One good example is the two main families' respective drawing rooms, seen through the eyes of the others on a visit.  The Thorntons regard the Hale drawing room as cluttered and unnecessary (and probably a nightmare to clean).  On the return visit, however, Margaret is appalled by the sterility of the Hale drawing room, a place to look at but not to sit in.

Even when Margaret and Thornton do decide to talk to each other, the cultural differences are evident.  Thornton is continually angered by Margaret's refusal to shake his hand, an offer she is unaware she is supposed to make, and their discussions on the conditions of the working class in the north generally deteriorate into point scoring and arguments.  As Margaret's father notes:
"One had need to learn a different language, and measure by a different standard, up here in Milton." (p.149), Wordsworth Classics Edition (1994)
The north really is a different country...

As an anthropological insight, North and South is a wonderful book, and it's not bad as a novel either.  However, the longer the book went on, the less interesting it became, and whatever the introduction in my edition claims, several of the plot strands (especially the one involving her brother's exile from Britain) seemed extremely contrived and convenient.  When the rather rushed and predictable ending arrives, you are left feeling that there was an opportunity missed.  If they had only stayed in the north and continued the story in Milton, the book would have been a lot better for it...

So, is that all for V-Lit this month?  Pfft - as if.  Stay tuned for more antics in 19th-century England...