Landscape and Language as Character

Reflections on reading The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy

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Thomas Hardy. (Wikimedia)

Reading Thomas Hardy’s lesser known novel The Woodlanders returns me to a lifelong fascination with his writing. Hardy was an early literary touchstone for me in my self education as a writer, and remains my favourite novelist of the Victorian era, if not of all time. Tess of the D’urbervilles was likely the first of his novels I read, and I remember being struck by the way his use of language vividly conjured the Dorset landscape. So vividly, in fact, that when I first saw Roman Polanski’s film Tess (released in 1979), I recall the happy shock of recognition in the scenes he filmed in Dorset—it was exactly as I had pictured it in my mind. To me this is one of the greatest things a prose writer can accomplish, since it can be devilishly difficult to say anything original about landscape. And more of a conjuring feat yet to render the peculiarities of a southwest English landscape with such loving accuracy and detail.

Landscape is thus an essential character in Hardy’s novels. It seems a little surprising that he went to such lengths to disguise actual town and county names in his fiction. But the fact that he devoted so much attention to the beloved landscape of his childhood indicates its importance in his work. In my own recent writing of fiction in Mountain Blues and now the sequel Mountain Showdown, landscape is also an important ‘character,’ only this time my own beloved Kootenay—more specifically, Slocan Lake—landscape. My Dad said recently that when the Dene people of northern British Columbia (in the Finlay River country) were moved from their ancestral village due to the flooding of the Peace River dam system, their community collapsed into the despair of alcoholism, drugs and violence. They were moved by the government to a place that had never been home to them in all the millennia of their occupation of the landscape. “Native people are very attached to their land,” he said, as if this were unique to aboriginal peoples. But in fact, all of us are attached to the land that cultured us from the cradle, unless we’re born into that select tribe of wanderers who seem to feel at home anywhere on Earth.

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The River Stour seen from White Mill bridge, Dorset county, England.

Reading Hardy today, some 130 years after The Woodlanders was published, makes one realize just how drastically the English language has changed in that time. And, I would argue, not for the better. Creative writing schools for decades now have been schooling writers in the ‘less is more’ aesthetic—keep your sentences short and snappy and lose the adjectives. That’s a genuine shame. In my view it has been part and parcel of the impoverishment of the language, another component of the ‘dumbing down’ phenomenon that has accelerated over the past 30 or 40 years. A recent Norwegian study found that IQ levels in their population have been on a steady decline since 1970. This followed a generalized boom period in the 20th century—known as the ‘Flynn effect’—when they were steadily rising by about three IQ points per decade. The ‘dumbing down’ seems to have picked up speed, with an average decline of seven points per decade. This is not a purely Norwegian phenomenon but has been observed in other countries as well. “This is the most convincing evidence yet of a reversal of the Flynn effect,” said psychologist Stuart Ritchie from the University of Edinburgh.[1]

Coming back to reading Hardy some three decades later has required extra effort to parse the long, looping sentences, the ornately detailed descriptions and use of words now largely vanished from our common vocabulary. One such example that springs to mind is Hardy’s use of ‘lucubrations,’ a word I had never heard of. According to my trusty 1980 Merriam Webster dictionary, it means either “study by night, work produced at night,” or “laborious study, meditation,” or even “studied or pretentious expression in speech or writing.” Growing up in a household where reading was encouraged from an early age, I learned quickly not to ask my mother what a word meant. “Look it up yourself,” she’d say. At the time I thought it was brusque and dismissive. Now I realize she was teaching me to teach myself, and it enriched my vocabulary far beyond what I would have learned at school. David Bowie once said as a child he thought of the Oxford dictionary as one long poem. What a lovely idea! No doubt Hardy would have agreed. We had a similarly voluminous dictionary at home—though not the Oxford—and I often sat reading it for entertainment. Rather than pandering to the simplistic or the convenient, we should be encouraging people to expand, not shrink, their vocabularies. Learning new words expands our worldview, adds another shade of colour to the world. As my mother would say: Don’t understand a word? Look it up.

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The eight arches of White Mill bridge, dating to 1175 AD.

There are more personal touchstones for me in Hardy’s writing. As a young man I had no idea why his novels resonated so deeply with me. It was only in my middle age, when I began researching my father’s family history—the Joyces—that I discovered our ancestors had spent nearly 500 years living in Dorset county. I learned that my great-grandfather George Ochiltree Joyce had left the idyllic dales of Dorset for the siren call of London and the possible futures it offered—or seemed to. He soon suffered the fate of so many lower class immigrants in London—the grinding hours of poorly paid work gradually wearing him to a shadow of his former self. His son, my grandfather Cyril William Joyce, was sent to Canada as a British Home Child by his mother after George died or left the family. As far as I can tell he never forgave her for it. Once in Canada, like so many of these immigrant children, he quickly learned to hide his British accent for fear of bullying. The old class prejudices of empire lingered on in the new world, and in British society during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, those at the bottom end of the socio-economic ladder were treated as disposable. Canadian newspapers regularly decried the influx of immigrant children they viewed as the “refuse of the Empire,” “gutter trash,” or little better than stray animals. This was all condemnation sight unseen, based purely on class prejudice. Like the xenophobic backlash we’re seeing now, it’s a reminder: people throughout history have reacted irrationally toward immigrants—even those of their own race. Xenophobia was always with us, it just changes targets.

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Cyril Joyce as a boy in London’s East End prior to being emigrated to Canada in 1926.

So I understand at an innate level the class prejudice that so often takes centre stage in Hardy’s novels. In The Woodlanders, Grace Melbury, the daughter of a country wood merchant, is sent away for higher education. When she returns to her home village of Little Hintock, she is courted avidly by Giles Winterborne, an honest but basically poor orchardist and woodsman. In just the short time she’s been away at school, she has acquired the affected air of a higher social class. Although still fond of Winterborne—they grew up together—she looks down her nose at him as a suitor. Meanwhile, her father has promised her to him in marriage. It’s a vivid illustration of class prejudice: It’s not just those born into a higher social class who look condescendingly upon lower classes. Most of the Canadian kids who taunted British Home Children for being “gutter rats” or “homeboys” were themselves from farm families—not exactly a high social class. Yet the prejudices had seeped down to them from their parents, the news media of the day, and reaching further yet, all the way from the motherland. It’s why I’ve always been acutely conscious of class divisions, whether based on race or economic status, and fought to develop a classless mindset. I’ve made it my mission to become a lifelong learner. That has meant becoming a voracious reader like my father, who with only a high school education is better read than some university grads I know. Yet, if I’m honest, I too have felt the stirrings of class prejudice. Often it’s a kind of reverse prejudice—not against the poor but the rich, the so-called One Percent and their stranglehold on wealth.

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White Mill from the front, facing the mill house. Cottage is to the rear.

I had the great fortune to visit Dorset in 2009 with my partner Anne, to see up close the landscape that had inspired me since first reading Hardy in my 20s. Again—as with the experience of seeing it on film—it appeared very much as I remembered it in Hardy’s novels. The Joyces had been tenant millers and farmers on an estate owned by British aristocracy, at a place known as White Mill on the River Stour. The mill and cottage is reached by an eight-arched bridge that dates to 1,175 AD, built with distinctive ‘refuges,’ triangular nooks for pedestrians to wait in while traffic passes. When we arrived, the remains of a huge elm tree stood in front of the mill and millpond, now sadly truncated and dead. That tree was probably several centuries old. I can just imagine its spreading foliage casting cool shade on the millpond. The river is hardly more than a shallow stream compared to our deep, boisterous Canadian rivers. But its wide flat surface creates a placid atmosphere, the whisper of leafy growth on the riverbanks suggesting that here is rest, calm and safety. The brick mill building with its dovecotes high in the eaves and the cottage, its narrow, winding staircase and cramped rooms, speak of lives writ small and all the better for it. Let the elite live out their self-made dramas and overseas intrigue, it seems to say. Here is warmth and quiet, a place to rejuvenate the soul. Sit down by the fire, smoke a pipeful, read a book. What could be more profoundly satisfying? The adventures of the mind are no less epic for being lived in the imagination.

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The author standing inside White Mill, where generations of Joyces worked.

Another detail of The Woodlanders that immediately spoke to me was Giles Winterborne’s vocation as an apple orchardist. When he takes a sapling to market at the nearby village, he puts a milking pail full of apple cider on the back of his wagon for patrons to enjoy free of charge. It’s a 19th century version of up-marketing: Taste the juice of my wares; if you like it, buy one of my trees. And with contemporary civilization taking a downward plunge into social chaos and deeper economic uncertainty, it speaks to the revival of interest in growing one’s own food. The ‘back to the land’ ethos of the 1960s–70s is back again, more relevant than ever, and we see it nowhere more clearly than here in the Slocan Valley. At our local K-12 school, children can learn and participate in the complete cycle of growth, from sprouting seeds to harvesting fruit and vegetables and making food from them at their annual harvest festival. For about 15 years now I’ve cultivated my own little apple orchard, a gift bequeathed by the former owners of the house I live in. Although I’m a slow learner where gardening is concerned, it gives me a deep sense of satisfaction to eat apples fresh from the tree, with their snap and tart explosion on the tongue. That pleasure is compounded by the applesauce and apple juice we make from those trees. Lately apples have been added to a growing list of so-called ‘miracle foods’ said to maximize one’s health. I wonder sometimes if my innate enjoyment of apples is part of my epigenetic heritage, from ancestors who likely cultivated apple orchards generation after generation, or just enjoyed the sweet product of their neighbours’ labour. Or it may simply be that I like apples.

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The ancient elm at White Mill.

One of the masters of English fiction, Hardy’s novels are known around the world. Not bad for a country boy. Certainly like Grace Melbury he benefited by higher education. As an architect he would have enjoyed a standard of living few of his Dorset county neighbours could claim. Yet—like Dickens—he never seems to have lost his love of the many characters of those people. And he certainly never lost his love of the Dorset landscape. It infuses every page of his stories, like a spring-soaked grassy field or a shady riverbank on the Stour.

My ancestors lived probably within 20 miles of Hardy’s home near Dorchester. Who knows? Maybe one of them bumped into Hardy on the Dorchester high street, on his way in for tea.

[1] ‘IQ Scores Are Falling in “Worrying” Reversal of 20th Century Intelligence Boom,’

Peter Dockrill, Science Alert,13 June 2018, https://www.sciencealert.com/iq-scores-falling-in-worrying-reversal-20th-century-intelligence-boom-flynn-effect-intelligence

 

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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