Wednesday, 26 June 2013

Thomas Hardy's bird's-eye view

Q: In which novel by Thomas Hardy does the heroine climb to the very pinnacle of what was (for a short time, until 1880) the world’s tallest building?
A: The Hand of Ethelberta (1875-1876). She climbs Rouen Cathedral’s iron spire (495ft – 90ft. taller than Salisbury Cathedral).

I have just spent two days in Rouen where, staying in a delightful chambre d’hôte perched high above the city, I had a spectacular bird’s-eye view down towards the cathedral. Thomas Hardy, who came to Rouen on his honeymoon in 1874, would have approved: he had a head for heights. His eponymous heroine Ethelberta assures the ardent Lord Mountclere that in Rouen climbing to the top of the spire is de rigeur: ‘Everybody with the least artistic feeling in the direction of bird’s-eye views makes the ascent every time of coming here.’ She makes it sound like a well-established tradition. Mountclere, not to be outdone, claims to have climbed it once himself. Neither statement should be taken literally (as I’ll explain) but certainly Hardy likes to send his characters and his readers to high places, for a bird’s-eye view of what’s below.

The best-known example comes in Jude the Obscure (1895).  Just before sunset, eleven-year-old Jude climbs a ladder onto the roof of an old barn high on the downs of North Wessex, hoping to catch a glimpse of distant Christminster (sc. Oxford), which he thinks must be ‘the heavenly Jerusalem … the city of light’. It is a misty evening, and at first he can see nothing, but soon the haze dissolves:

Some way within the limits of the stretch of landscape, points of light like the topaz gleamed. The air increased in transparency with the lapse of minutes, till the topaz points showed themselves to be the vanes, windows, wet roof slates, and other shining spots upon the spires, domes, freestone-work, and varied outlines that were faintly revealed. It was Christminster, unquestionably; either directly seen, or miraged in the peculiar atmosphere.

This ambiguous epiphany is characteristic of Hardy’s use of the high vantage point. Here is the novelist is describing for his adult readers the scene as he and they can envision it, but in terms well beyond Jude’s capacity. Identifying freestone-work, for instance, is not something the child could have done, but the trained architect- turned-author could.

A similar thing happens early on in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886) when Hardy notes that

To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts.

He then switches back to the bird’s-eye view, in terms which could equally have described Jude’s vision of Christminster: ‘The mass became gradually dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys, and casements, the highest glazings shining bleared and bloodshot with the coppery fire they caught from the coppery belt of sunlit cloud in the west.’ High windows will play an important part in the story to follow.

Hardy would return to this same idea – still more effectively – in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).  The last chapter opens with a distant view of Wintonchester, which ‘lay amidst its convex and concave downlands in all the brightness and warmth of a July morning.’ Once again, Hardy summons up 'the gabled brick, tile and freestone houses’ before introducing two figures – Angel Clare and Tess’s younger sister ’Liza-Lu – who are climbing to the summit of the great West Hill above the city. When they reach the top, Hardy’s architect’s eye once more takes over, just as it had in The Mayor of Casterbridge and would again in Jude the Obscure:

The prospect from this summit was almost unlimited. In the valley beneath lay the city they had just left, its more prominent buildings showing as in an isometric drawing …. Behind the city swept the rotund upland of St. Catherine’s Hill; further off, landscape beyond landscape, till the horizon was lost in the radiance of the sun hanging above it. (Ch.61)

It is the moment of Tess’s execution; they have come to see the black flag raised aloft above the prison, ‘the one blot on the city’s beauty’. But Hardy’s final bird’s- eye prospect of ‘landscape beyond landscape’ is visionary. It suggests a future of continuity and promise beckoning Angel and his companion. The black flag doesn’t eclipse the radiance of the sun for long: the President of the Immortals might have finished his sport with Tess, but ‘As soon as they had strength they arose, joined hands again, and went on.’

I think all these peregrine perspectives have their origin in The Hand of Ethelberta. As a novel it was an experiment: Hardy wanted to show he could write fiction that wasn’t confined to Wessex, so he took his heroine and her suitors abroad, to Rouen. His readers didn’t like it, and the editors of the Cornhill magazine, in which it had been serialized, never asked Hardy to write for them again. But you sense how much Hardy enjoyed himself, imagining Ethelberta leading Lord Mountclere first to the parapet of the tower, and then right to the pinnacle of the extraordinary iron spire, ‘pacing’ up the narrow spiral staircase (no mean feat by a woman dressed for mid-Victorian travelling) with the panting peer trailing behind her. When he finally reaches the summit, Lord Mountclere collapses onto the top step, unable to do more than mutter, ‘Dear me! Dear me!’

But their reward is to be the first of Hardy’s characters to receive a bird’s-eye epiphany – not that the 
initial signs are propitious:

They formed as it were a little world to themselves, being completely ensphered by the fog, which here was dense as a sea of milk.  Below was neither town, country, nor cathedral—simply whiteness, into which the iron legs of their gigantic perch faded to nothing.

‘Iron legs’ sounds odd here. Hardy’s guidebook (he had a copy of Théodore Licquet’s Rouen; its History, Monuments and Environs, 1871) repeatedly describes the spire as a pyramid, sitting squarely on the tower. On the other hand ‘their giant perch’ is a good description of the viewing platform capping the spire. Licquet describes this as ‘a small lantern surrounded by a gallery for the purpose of meterological observation’ – i.e. looking up; not down, as in a bird’s-eye view – and even includes a copperplate engraving showing the elevation of the completed spire and the two western towers. But back to Ethelberta:

Out of the plain of fog beneath, a stone tooth seemed to be upheaving itself: then another showed forth.  These were the summits of the St. Romain and the Butter Towers—at the western end of the building.  As the fog stratum collapsed other summits manifested their presence further off—among them the two spires and lantern of St. Ouen’s; when to the left the dome of St. Madeline’s caught a first ray from the peering sun, under which its scaly surface glittered like a fish.  Then the mist rolled off in earnest, and revealed far beneath them a whole city, its red, blue, and grey roofs forming a variegated pattern, small and subdued as that of a pavement in mosaic.

Did Hardy himself climb the spire? You might think he must have done to be so impressed by this view from the pinnacle of Rouen Cathedral: he can’t resist recycling the various images – the emerging shapes of buildings, the rooftops, the glittering sunlight, the colours (reds, blues, browns, greys) and the inevitable mosaic motif – in passages such as those I’ve quoted above from novels later than The Hand of Ethelberta. But I don’t think he can have done what his heroine did, for the simple reason that the spire wasn’t finished when Hardy visited Rouen with his new wife; nor would it be until after he’d actually started publishing Ethelberta in 1875. To the scandal of all France, Rouen’s iron spire had remained half-built and wholly unloved for fifty years: Flaubert famously denounced it in Madame Bovary (1856) as an attentive extravagante de quelque chaudronnier fantasiste – the absurdly ambitious folly of some madcap metalworker. It was not topped out until September 1876, proving that the engraving in Hardy’s 1871 guidebook was only an artist’s impression of what might be (were the job ever to be completed), rather than what was – fiction, in fact.  But such a thing is fiction, that Hardy was able to send Ethelberta and Lord Mountclere anachronistically to the pinnacle of the world’s tallest building, giving them a view that would inspire him, if not them, for the rest of his fiction-writing life.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: (i) the spire of Rouen Cathedral, seen from rue Carnot, Bihorel,  25 June 2013;
(ii) copperplate engraving of the W front of Rouen Cathedral, published in Licquet’s Rouen (1871), anticipating the completion of the spire in 1876.

Hardy footnote: I wrote about Thomas Hardy, bird’s-eye views and Strasbourg, this time last year, in Strasbourg: stained glass and storks. And shortly before then, I had written Short Measures (ii): Time and Thomas Hardy.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Trollope adrift on Salisbury Plain

A front-page picture in Sunday’s Sunday Times prompts me to mention a talk I gave in Oxford last week. The photograph, headed ‘The Bride of Longleat’, was a wedding portrait of Viscount Weymouth and his new wife. The pretext for its appearing on the front page alongside the latest sleaze story (‘Top Tory in new Lobbygate row’) seems to have been that the bride is now Britain’s first black viscountess.

My talk was to members of the Trollope Society, meeting on Thursday afternoon in the Old Library of St. Edmund Hall. It was a very enjoyable, very civilized (very Oxford) occasion, though I was rather nervous when I entered the Old Library, a narrow galleried room whose floor space is almost entirely taken up by a long table. At the far end of the table sat the Trollope Society, already enjoying the excellent tea provided by the College. I had a moment’s vision of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party: the Trollopians guarding their cakes and shooing me away with cries of  “No room!” and I replying indignantly, “There’s PLENTY of room!”  But all was well, and everyone treated me very kindly.

I was talking about Trollope’s novel The Vicar of Bullhampton, which he began writing in 1868 either in Washington, the day after finishing He Knew he Was Right (according to Trollope himself, in his Autobiography) or in New York, three days later, according to Victoria Glendinning, in her 1994 biography of the writer. It’s a book of well over 200,000 words, but he completed it within six months, and only a year after the last and greatest of the Barchester novels, The Last Chronicle of Barset, had been published. Indeed, the topic of my paper can be summed up in one trite sentence: ‘Bullhampton is not Barchester’. I wanted to reflect on ways in which this novel distances itself from the Barchester novels that preceded it, and one of the most striking ways was, quite simply, a matter of location.

You’ll remember that in the first paragraph of The Warden, Trollope introduces Barchester by explicitly stating where it is not: ‘Were we,’ he says, ‘to name Wells or Salisbury, Exeter, Hereford or Gloucester, it might be presumed that something personal was intended; and as this tale will refer mainly to the cathedral dignitaries of the town in question, we are anxious that no personality may be suspected. ‘Let us presume,’ he goes on, ‘that Barchester is a quiet town in the west of England, more remarkable for the beauty of its cathedral and the antiquity of its monuments, than for any commercial prosperity’.

By contrast Trollope begins The Vicar of Bullhampton with a flurry of topographical evidence: Bullhampton, he says at once, is in Wiltshire. He gives its co-ordinates: ‘seventeen miles from Salisbury, eleven from Marlborough, nine from Westbury, seven from Heytesbury, and five from the nearest railroad station, which is called Bullhampton Road, and lies on the line from Salisbury to Yeovil’. The trouble, of course, is that these co-ordinates are incompatible: it’s impossible to be only five miles from the Salisbury –Yeovil railway line (which still exists, running WSW towards Somerset) and only eleven miles from Marlborough at the same time. Indeed, during the course of the novel, Bullhampton seems to float around Salisbury Plain. Trollope compares the fine tower of Bullhampton Church with the spire of what he calls ‘its neighbour the cathedral at Salisbury’. However, when Carry Brattle (the unhappy ‘castaway’ of the story) runs away from Salisbury she walks north on the Devizes road for fifteen miles and stops near a turning which she knows will lead her to Bullhampton, six miles distant. Next morning, she decides to keep on towards Devizes, only changing her mind and her direction when she reaches a signpost pointing west to ‘Bullhampton and Imber’.

Trollope has already told us that Bullhampton is ‘not quite on Salisbury Plain’ but Imber is right in the middle: it is today a deserted village, located within the prohibited military training area. There is no other village anywhere near it, and no river either. However, Trollope is explicit that the river Avon runs past the Vicarage garden. When he describes how it later divides itself into ‘many streamlets, and there is a district called the Water Meads, in which bridges are more frequent than trustworthy,’ he is actually describing the area immediately to the west of Salisbury, specifically the area containing the village of Quidhampton, which contained a corn mill.

Clearly Bullhampton cannot be in all these different places at once. But we should not have been surprised. By a masterly piece of indirection, Trollope warns us, in the novel’s opening sentence, that he is

… disposed to believe that no novel reader in England has seen the little town of Bullhampton, in Wiltshire, except such novel readers as live there, and those others, very few in number, who visit it perhaps four times a year for the purposes of trade, and are known as commercial gentlemen.

In fact the bulk of the evidence points to the village’s being some distance north west of Salisbury. For me, the most conclusive proof is also the most entertaining. We are told that Turnover Park, the aptly-named seat of that overbearing landowner the Marquis* of Trowbridge, is not less than ten miles away from Bullhampton; later on, it is described as ‘near Westbury’. Now there is a real Marquis whose seat is still today near Westbury: the Marquis of Bath, at Longleat, the new father-in-law of Britain’s first black viscountess.

I am confident Trollope had Longleat in mind as the location for Turnover Park. Why? Because the family name of the Marquis of Trowbridge is, appropriately for someone who enjoys living off the fat of the land, Stowte (his unmarried daughters are always referred to as the Misses Stowte). And, as everyone now knows from reading the Sunday Times, the ancestral name of the Marquis of Bath is, well, Thynne.

Adrian Barlow

*Modern English usage appears to favour ‘Marquess’; Trollope, however, keeps to ‘Marquis’ and I have followed him in this.

I have written about Trollope before, in World and time: Archbishop Ramsay’s Treasure, and about ‘Trollope and Religious Controversy’ in my latest book, Extramural (Lutterworth Press 2012)

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Noddy and the Coronation

On 2nd June, 1953, I went to my first fancy-dress party. I was three, and very proud of the Noddy costume my mother had made. I remember even now shaking my head to get the bell ringing on the tip of my blue Noddy hat. Alas, or luckily, no photographic record survives, although this was possibly the most photographed day in British history up to that moment; it was, of course, Coronation Day. At the party, we ate red jelly out of waxed paper bowls, using special commemorative coronation spoons, which we were allowed to keep as souvenirs. Perhaps every child in the country was given such a spoon: they are plentifully available today on e-Bay.

The party was held in the Dame Elizabeth Hall, Stechford. I was born in Birmingham, my father being at that time Vicar of Stechford, an unlovely outer suburb that had grown up around the railway. Later that June, he took me to the city centre, to a news cinema in Station Street, to see the Pathé film of the Coronation. This cinema – still active today and called by its original name, the Electric Theatre – is the oldest working cinema in the country. Next door is the original Birmingham Repertory Theatre (now the Old Rep), founded in 1913 by Sir Barry Jackson, who was still its managing director in 1954 when my father took me there to see my first play, The Silver Curlew by Eleanor Farjeon. So I saw both my first film and my first play in Station Street.

The Birmingham Rep has an important history: it was the first purpose-built repertory theatre in England, and celebrates its centenary this year. During the First World War, its manager and resident dramaturge was John Drinkwater, and the Rep’s early links with the Georgian poets are clearly reflected in the plays Drinkwater commissioned and produced there. One writer who had good reason to be grateful was the poet John Masefield, several of whose plays had their first performances in Station Street.

I suppose Masefield is most often remembered today as the author of poems we used to recite at school: ‘Sea Fever’ and ‘Cargoes’, for example. We also learned to sing John Ireland’s setting of ‘I must down to the seas again’ (carefully omitting the word ‘go’). Although I no longer possess my coronation spoon, I have recently come by a copy of the Approved Souvenir Programme for the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (price 2/6d), and find in it ‘Lines on the Coronation of Our Gracious Sovereign’, written by the then Poet Laureate, Masefield himself.

The poem begins rather in the style of a village pageant -

This Lady whom we crown was born
When buds were green upon the thorn

- but I’m afraid it doesn’t improve: ‘The promise was on all fields sowed [sic]/ Of Earth’s beginning Spring’ is simply awful: ‘sowed’ rhymes with the previous, sub-AE Housman, line: ‘Nought but the cherry-blossom snowed’. But I do not want to be unfair to Masefield, a modest man who apparently always enclosed a stamped addressed envelope when submitting a poem to a newspaper, in case the editor thought it not worth publishing. So I am happy to agree with Professor Andrew McRae of Exeter University who, in an interesting blog on ‘The importance of Poetry’, describes this poem as ‘polite and stylised’, suggesting that those two epithets could equally be applied to the age, and the occasion, in and for which Masefield’s ‘Lines’ were written.

Actually, my Approved Souvenir Programme is full of poetry and drama, for it contains the full text of the Coronation Service itself, including stage directions. I’m not exaggerating. A dais erected in the area in front of Westminster Abbey’s High Altar is, for ritual purposes, described formally as ‘the Theatre’. The rubric for the service itself describes the Coronation almost in the language of Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, including stage directions whose amplitude Shakespeare never matched:

The Archbishop, together with the Lord Chancellor, Lord Great Chamberlain, Lord High Constable, and Earl Marshal (Garter King of Arms preceding them), shall go to the East side of the Theatre, and after shall go to the other three sides in this order, South, West and North, and at every of the four sides the Archbishop shall with a loud voice speak to the People: and the Queen in the meanwhile, standing up by King Edward’s Chair, shall turn and show herself unto the People at every of the four sides of the Theatre as the Archbishop is at every of them, the Archbishop saying:

SIRS, I here present unto you Queen ELIZABETH, your undoubted Queen: Wherefore all you who are come this day to do your homage and service, Are you willing to do the same?

The People signify their willingness and joy, by loud and repeated acclamations, all with one voice crying out,


Then the trumpets shall sound.

At the end of the Coronation itself, there are further alarums and excursions, which prompt a closing reflection on immortality:

When the Homage is ended, the drums shall beat, and the trumpets sound, and all the people shout, crying out:

God save Queen ELIZABETH.
Long live Queen ELIZABETH.
   May the Queen live forever.

Of course, the Choir had just sung ‘May the King live forever’ in Handel’s anthem Zadok the Priest. Sixty years on, however, does the Queen sometimes ponder the last of these fervent prayers? The literary precedents are not encouraging. The Cumaean Sibyl bitterly regretted asking to be made immortal, having omitted to ask for eternal youth at the same time (TS Eliot includes her anguished cry ‘I want to die’ in the epigraph to The Waste Land). And there is surely no Parthian shot more lethal in all fiction than Trollope’s leave-taking of the termagant wife of the Bishop of Barchester: “As for Mrs Proudie,” concludes the narrator, “our prayers for her are that she may live forever.”  (Barchester Towers, Ch.52)

Adrian Barlow