It is November. This is a Bronte sort of day. What does that mean? It is windy, it is cold, someone is drinking, and everyone is writing.
November means one thing in blog world: NaBloPoMo, the biggest writing month of the year. As for my neck of the woods, we have just endured what has been described as ‘a dark and stormy night.’
Okay, so almost everyone is writing….Some of us are merely drinking coffee, mulling over hackneyed phrases even as we feel the strange sensation of hair raising at the back of our neck; yes, you guessed it. The dark and stormy gaze of H.W. Fowler has been turned wutheringly upon us. His acerbic, Heathcliffian fury rattles at our windows.
H.W. Fowler has written quite chillingly, in two paragraphs that bulge with authority, about the inadvisability of using hackneyed phrases.
‘…their true use when they come into the writer’s mind is as danger signals; they should take warning that when they suggest themselves it is because what he is writing is bad stuff; or it would not need such help; let him see to the substance of his cake instead of decorating with sugarplums.’
Just thought you’d like to know. So where did these phrases originally come from? Edward Bulwer Lytton is the much abused originator of ‘it was a dark and stormy night‘.
Fowler goes on to list many phrases that—far from being hackneyed in my world, I have never even heard of.
‘The curate’s egg’??
‘Get no forrader’??
Here’s one I would love to use, even if for no other reason than to give my spell check a run for its money: ‘A chartered libertine’. This latter is one that, likely, has run out of steam in today’s world. No, I am pleased to report I have never resorted to these afore-mentioned ‘sugar plums’.
What about ‘howling winds’? Well, yes. This phrase does exert a sort of fascination. Listening to the newly hatched November winds turn tree branches into well-sharpened fingernails at my windows, I wonder what magic Emily Bronte wrought in ever romanticizing the concept of ‘howling winds’. This phrase is certainly not one we would associate with Jane Austen. Nor of Elizabeth Gaskell—who styled her Manchester bleakness so well with fog—‘thick and yellow’—and steely mists. No, this phrase must be Yorkshire-born.
This calls for a little research. Note: This is not writing; this is googling. Google, you see, provides this fantastic place holder for actual writing. You can think you’re ‘writing’, but really, you’re googling. Googling eats up enormous amounts of writing time, and eventually, even motivation. Because, you see…it has all been said…except for this which you are about to read:
The winds never howl in Wuthering Heights. Emily Bronte simply never wrote it.
Dogs howl, Heathcliff howls, but she never makes her winds howl.
‘[Heathcliff] dashed his head against the knotted trunk; and, lifting up his eyes, howled, not like a man, but like a savage beast being goaded to death with knives and spears.’
Call me a ‘snapper-up of unconsidered trifles‘, if you will…and we will avert our gaze from your hastily composed hackneyed phrase, (number forty-one on Fowler’s list) but this is just surprising to me. It shows you how much fiction there is in legend, and legend there is in truth.
At any rate, it was a fun mystery to solve on this windy November morning of…not writing. It feels good to be dangerously skirting the icy perimeters, navigating the murky shoals of disaster, if you will, in the world of hackneyed phrases. I could almost feel a warm glimmer in the briefest glance from the immortal H.W. Fowler! Who then—all beetle-browed and darkened countenance again— suggests I proceed immediately to his comments on ‘Immortal’:
‘Its real use is to make sure that a reader who may or may not be an ignoramus shall realize that the person or book referred to is well known in the literary world, and that without telling him the fact in too patronizing a manner.’
For all his seriousness, Fowler is really quite hilarious as he slaps my hand.
Back to ‘howling winds’; not that we have strayed far. Now scanning Charlotte Bronte on ‘bright, embroider’d wings‘ of Google—the same Bronte who wrote, quite possibly, the most depressing book I have ever attempted to read. (Villette) And there we have it—Jane Eyre.
‘Probably, if I had lately left a good home and kind parents, this would have been the hour when I should most keenly have regretted the separation; that wind would then have saddened my heart; this obscure chaos would have disturbed my peace! as it was, I derived from both a strange excitement, and reckless and feverish, I wished the wind to howl more wildly, the gloom to deepen to darkness, and the confusion to rise to clamour.’ [Jane Eyre[
Charlotte Bronte also went on to write of fateful winds, and reckless winds, perhaps straying more into the world of pathetic fallacy than hackneyed phrases. But what do I know? Fowler gives short shrift to pathetic fallacies–obviously beneath him–except to insert a fiendishly witty phrase to illustrate the possible fate of those who continue to employ it:
‘Callously indifferent the sea may seem to a consciousness addicted to pathetic fallacies.’
The Heathcliff of grammarians, to be sure. But a lovely use of alliteration, so I would have to guess he enjoyed writing it.
So Emily, you are absolved. There is nothing hackneyed about you—you that sweet, bedeviled wild child about whom we know so little. A fragment, here, from one of her startlingly lovely poems:
He comes with western winds, with evening’s wandering airs,
With that clear dusk of heaven that brings the thickest stars;
Winds take a pensive tone, and stars a tender fire, And visions rise and change which kill me with desire–
The winds here, too, have taken on a more pensive tone. The sway of the tree branches now allows flickers of sunlight to pierce through and lay down blinding patterns of dissected brilliance.
The steam from my coffee is transformed. Each curl of vapor releases molecules of shimmering heat, of glowing energy, into the air, where it joins an endless stream of other vaporised energies that have sapped the heat out of millions of lattes—leaving them tepid, I’m afraid—sweet energies bundling themselves into a cosy hyperspace chat room that is heading to Mars in a giant bubble of goodwill, where we hear, on good authority, that a writing event is happening. I hope they enjoy themselves. I know they will.
It is windy on Mars; what sort of wind this might be, we wait to hear.
So while November brings in gusty days, thoughts of those brilliantly productive Brontes, and merry blogs abuzz with NaBloPoMo—the writing here, at this sun-lashed table, is not happening.
I am exuding shadows from former writers, thinking passionately about writing, ‘dashing my head against a knotted trunk’, and styling concepts I thought I knew. Keeping close to the fire; thinking, brooding, building a vehement case for writing.
I can also say the ‘the bending trees are groaning’, and still I am not writing. I am quoting, for there, at least, I am on solid ground. I know what Emily Bronte wrote.
The incomparable Emily Bronte. How silently she sleeps. How powerfully she still thunders.
Silent is the house: all are laid asleep:
One alone looks out o’er the snow-wreaths deep,
Watching every cloud, dreading every breeze
That whirls the wildering drift, and bends the groaning trees.
[excerpt from The Visionary, Emily Bronte]
(H. W. Fowler has left the building.)
It is November, and Emily Bronte is writing. Her subtext, in my mind. Let her tell you about winds.
The title of this blog is taken from the book The English Patient (written by Michael Ondaatje; gorgeous soundtrack composed by Gabriel Yared.)
This is an attempt at recycling a former post–I ended up almost re-writing the entire thing. Must have been that glare of Fowler over my shoulder.