The Last September: Elizabeth Bowen

‘[The Last September] is a novel nearest to my heart, and it had a deep, unclouded, spontaneous source…It is a work of instinct, rather than knowledge…a recall book.’  — Elizabeth Bowen

There is a green-ness to this novel from Elizabeth Bowen—the damp green-ness of mists upon an Irish landscape, a green-ness of youth, and the eery greenish tints of sunless glades.

The Last September (written 1929, covers events of around 1919) is considered a modernist novel. It is abstruse in parts and requires a thoughtful perusal, but the reader is well-rewarded.

Bowen’s comment, quoted above, makes this story of interest to me. I didn’t fall in love with the characters of the novel, or particularly relate to them, but with this second reading of it I was much more in tune with the plight of young Lois. And, as ever, one loves the beautiful prose of Elizabeth Bowen.

There are many facets to this novel, many approaches to writing an overview of it, so with an attempt at brevity….yes, attempt…this post will highlight a few things that resonated particularly with me. There are some lovely reviews on other blogs, and if you’re interested in the political aspect, the romantic, coming of age aspect, etc. there are links to further reading provided at the end of the post.

Lois Farquar is the young girl around whom the story is centered; merely eighteen when we meet her, lovely, innocent, hesitant, full of self-doubt. To feel her sense of loss and loneliness throughout the novel, is to empathize with, to some extent, the absolute desolation of bereavement Elizabeth Bowen felt in her own youth.

‘Lois stood at the top of the steps, looking cool and fresh; she knew how fresh she must look, like other young girls, and clasping her elbows tightly behind her back tried hard to conceal her embarrassment.’

Her mother died when she was twelve, there is no father in the picture, and for years Lois has been living at the family home in Ireland with her Anglo-Irish relations, Sir Richard Naylor and his wife, Lady Myra. The older couple are rather stereotypical British gentry, remote and tradition bound, passionate about nothing. Sir Richard comes alive for a moment when worried about his corn crop or guns being planted on the grounds, Lady Myra has her say at brief points in the book, but for the most part they exist as backdrop.

‘Sir Richard was very much worried about visitors who came down early for dinner.’

There is a cousin Lawrence, a bloodless young man, who also shares the austere Danielstown roof. He is a scholarly type, isolated unto his dislikes, with his self-confessed ‘no emotional life’. This house with sightless eyes has also given refuge to the Montmorencys; a drifting pair of no hope and no ambition, content to feed from the hospitality of others. Occasionally the Montmorencys talk of what might have been, they talk of getting their stuff out of storage and living in their own place, but nothing comes of it.

The art of John Piper evokes an atmosphere similar to that of Bowen's novels

The art of John Piper evokes an atmosphere similar to that of Bowen’s novels

All maintain a casual disinterest or vague disbelief in the changing political climate around them, and the growing evidence that their fragile hold on a caste system is crumbling around them. It’s that, or they just don’t want to talk about it.

Marda: “How far do you think this war is going to go? Will there ever be anything we can all do about it except not notice?”

Hugo: “A few more hundred deaths, I suppose, on our side—which is no side—rather scared, rather isolated, not expressing anything except tenacity to something that isn’t there—that never was there.”

Meanwhile, in addition to the callous indifference to the ‘few hundred deaths’ who are dying to protect a vague idea, the vague idea continues on in the form of tennis parties, a jazz band, tea in stuffy rooms, and visits from other gentry who are equally blasé. There are handsome soldiers in uniform—from this soil springs the love interest for Lois—and a few comic episodes given by the young British wives of some of the soldiers. If you are looking for a Jane Austen moment or two, you will find it in the superbly done inane chatter of Mrs. Vermont, a possible candidate for another Lydia Bennet. Her dialogue is given special treatment, with such words as ‘nummy-nummy, hoity-toity, and piggy-wig’.

‘Mrs. Vermont ate more hot cakes than she cared to remember because they were so good and nobody seemed to notice. She went on to chocolate cake, then to orange layer cake, to which she returned again and again. An idea she had had that one should not eat very much when invited out languished; she finished up with a plate of raspberries. She put all thought of her figure resolutely behind her. Mother, of course, had filled out terribly, but oneself mightn’t.’

Beyond a few brief flurries of delightful humor, (usually at the expense of the encamped British) the emotional power of this novel lies in the sense of looming tragedy. It smothers like wool felt, it encrusts like old stone, it wafts through rooms like peat smoke, it flutters at gauze curtains ruffled by inner sighs. The scene setting is superbly done. Elizabeth Bowen was a keen observer of the outer world; she could communicate feelings more effectively through objects and landscapes than through people. For her, the best way to reveal inner dynamic was by indirect means.

‘The room smelt…of ten days’ emptiness; curtains in a draft by the door made a pale movement.’

Or, in the drawing room—that great iconic emblem of stately living—this brilliant description sets a tone for the entire novel:

‘Mrs. Montmorency and Laurence were in the drawing room. They looked anxious, nothing showed the trend of the conversation. The pale room rose to a height only mirrors followed above the level of occupation; this disproportionate zone of emptiness dwarfed at all times figures and furniture. The distant ceiling imposed on consciousness its blank white oblong, and a pellucid silence, distilled from a hundred and fifty years of society, waited under the ceiling. Into this silence voices went up in stately attenuation. Now there were no voices: Mrs. Montmorency and Laurence sat looking away from each other.’

‘Pale’ is one of Bowen’s favorite descriptions; it is used in many applications throughout the book, as though life itself has been bleached of color; sterility has crept in with the damp. She makes many evocative references to the age of the house, and the lives that have come before; alluding, of course, to the current set of occupants being its last.thelastseptember

The dialogue is often awkward, elliptical and obscure; characters have a difficult time finishing sentences, or saying what they really mean.

‘The style of her works is highly wrought and owes much to literary modernism’. (wikipedia)

The scene in the ruined mill is one of the places where this ‘highly wrought’ style leads to some frustration for the reader. There is finally a bit of action, actual face to face conflict with the unrest of the land, and it is strangely dealt with. It would appear to be fraught with implication, and there is even a brief flash of real menace. The violence is quickly passed over—it happens off-site, (usually a no-no for writers) and the fact that Marda, a character with great presence of mind, faces down a foe, a gun goes off, she is grazed in the hand by a bullet; all of these key events are blown about like confetti for the reader to piece together.

There is more to this scene than meets the eye…it is just left murky in the reader’s mind. The episode finishes with:

“Shan’t we be late for dinner?”

And off they go…feeling strangely ‘splendid’, Mr. Montmorency now ‘looking pleasant’, whereas moments earlier he had been—impotently—terrified and angry.

A crushed snail on the path, later in the book, is given much more emotional significance. These are intrigues that perhaps might be explained by Bowen’s own reference to Antoine Watteau, as the episode in the ruins begins to unfold.

‘But the [ruins] scene seemed strangely set for a Watteau interlude.’

Artist Antoine Watteau was known for creating what was called a ‘fragile, elegant world dominated by a lyrical mood with just a touch of elegiac melancholy’.

watteauruins

Antoine Watteau painting of ruins, via wiki commons

This description fits that enigmatic scene rather well.

“I should like to go over there,” [Marda] said, looking across the water to where trees began on a skyline and went down steeply, powdered yellow with light on their tops.

“We can’t,” he said, triumphant, “the stepping-stones are covered.” He showed her a line of faint scars, a hesitation across the current.

“I never thought of there being stepping-stones. I only wanted to cross because we couldn’t. Why does one always seem to be on the wrong side?”

“I should have thought you never were—don’t you even make rather a point of that?”

She was exasperated past caution. “Mr. Montmorency, what is the matter?”

Seeing that he had over-reached himself, been absurd, he raised his eyebrows in courteous mystification (“Matter?), did not reply but began talking about his travels—the greenest river he knew was the Aine, he said…’

Conversations such as this almost always trail away into nothing…The landscape, however, goes on communicating.

‘A shrubbery path was solid with darkness, she pressed down on it. Laurels breathed coldly and close: on her bare arms the tips of the leaves were timid and dank, like the tongues of dead animals. Her fear of the shrubberies tugged at its chain, fear beyond reason…In her life, deprived as she saw it, there was no occasion for courage, which like an unused muscle slackened and slept.’

There is, as well, the strong presence of another character. She is not typically included as one of the characters, yet in a sense, she dominates the book; a character more real than those moving passively through the narrative, living their congealed lives.

It is Lois’ mother—Laura—who died when she was only twelve.

And since this novel is the book of Bowen’s heart, ‘a deep, unclouded, spontaneous source’, this would make the references to Lois’ mother in the book a key to understanding Bowen’s own mother, and help understand her own sense of loss.

Find the fictional Laura in the narrative, and you find Bowen’s mother. Perhaps not exactly, but surely there, in ‘something like recall’.

This, to me, is the core of the tragic mood in The Last September, this poetic transmutation of remembrance. Bowen’s own mother died of cancer when she was thirteen; according to her biographers, she never wanted to talk of her childhood, or the pain of those years. Directly after her mother died she developed a controlled stammer, but one word she could never say was the word ‘mother’ without a pronounced stutter.

This realization of the author’s own experience brings sympathetic, aching life to the reading of this novel.elizabethbowenphoto

A hint of this appears in the references to portraits of dead ancestors who are ‘a crowd’ staring down on the living. There is a fabulous, lengthy paragraph describing how these ‘immutable figures’ dominate the room, making everyone else at the table—the living—seem ‘over-bright, unconvincingly painted, startled, transitory.’

A stirring contrast, and one that reminds us of the drawing room description, where ‘figures and furniture were at all time dwarfed’ by the imposing mirrors. Such references that diminish the living prepare us for the symbolic entry of Laura Farquar.

I began to realize that Laura Farquar is everywhere—she crops up continually in the narrative; in people’s memories, their conversation, she is one of those portraits on the wall, she is there in Hugo Montmorency’s lost love and sense of injury, she is dreamed of by Laurence, who stares out the ‘flawed panes’ of windows where Laura had once scratched her name with a diamond. And Hugo’s wife wistfully thinks of her as:

‘The ever-living Laura.’

Most strikingly, Laura appears in the character of Marda Norton.

Marda Norton is yet another houseguest at Danielstown. She is an intriguing young woman who pops in, unaccountably, to stay just a few days. A free-spirited sophisticate of about thirty, unmarried, but regularly engaged, disengaged, and engaged again. You’re not quite sure what she is doing there, what she really wants, or how she fits in to the family. She seems rootless, but there is something vital about her. She has the most life of anyone in the novel, and her very presence is like an inoculation of freshness.

‘Miss Norton herself had only just arrived. The hall was full of suitcases, a fur coat sprawled on a chair, there was a tennis racquet, a bag of golf clubs.’

Though much older, Marda is riveting to the impressionable Lois, and indeed, even the remote Laurence is affected by her. Her fur coats, her manicures, her sophistication, her wit, her hair brushes, her ornate picture frames, her dresses…everything Marda says and does fascinates Lois, who is soon following her about like an adoring puppy.

‘Marda sat on the writing-table, engaged in manicure. Little pots, pads and bottles paraded; a chamois leather spread on her knee. A sweet smell of varnish, like peardrops, was in the air.

“The most I can do,” said Lois, intent, “is to keep mine clean.”
“Quite enough. It’s just this habit of making up every part of one that’s exposed at all—Lois, have a cigarette?”
“Oh….thanks. You don’t mind my coming?”
“My dear, why?”
“What lovely brushes! What a…what an uncommon photo frame!”

And on…Lois exclaims over her dresses…touches them, shows her, shyly, her drawing books, asks in a fit of anxiety…

Am I pawing things?”

‘Marda laughed and began screwing on the lids of her little pots. In the light of her brilliant life, her deftness seemed to Lois inimitable. One would have had to have lived twenty-nine years as fast, as surely and wildly, to screw pink celluloid caps on to small white pots with just that lightness of fingertip, just that degree of amusement, just that detachment of smile and absorption in attitude. And the pink smell of nail varnish, dresses trickling over a chair, flash of swinging shoe-buckle, cloud of powder over the glass, the very room with its level stare over the tree-tops, took on awareness, smiled with secrecy, had the polish and depth of experience. The very birds on the frieze flew round in cognizant agitation.’

That description is palpably brilliant…and how clear it is that Bowen wrote directly from her sense memory. How often, surely, had she sat and watched her mother perform this feminine ritual. This is one of the most touching scenes in the book.thelastseptemberart

It has been suggested that Lois was nursing a schoolgirl crush on Marda, and certainly one can see a kind of infatuation. But the longing, in this case, was the simple longing for a mother figure. The affection-starved Lois craved, not sexual attention, but acceptance, advice and approval. The kind of warm hugs and solace only a mother figure could give. Someone with whom she could be her gauche and silly self—adolescent merging into adult—and still be loved.

Marda was beautifully non-judgmental, and encouraged Lois to talk, to open up. She enjoyed her company, and the reality of that gave Lois confidence. When Marda left, our hearts broke for Lois.

It is from the exceedingly negative Mr. Montmorency that we get a description of Lois’ late mother, Laura, and thus realize the purpose of Mr. Montmorency in the book. He is a conduit for remembrance of the beautiful Laura.

“She was always lovely. But she was never happy at all, even here. She never knew what she wanted, she was very vital.”

How else would we know of the wild, romantic element that had been a part of this dead woman’s life? Montmorency had been terribly in love with Laura; there had been talk of an engagement. But Laura had suddenly, unaccountably, married someone else.

‘She never knew what she wanted….’

Montmorency, still half in love with Laura, cannot look at Lois without thinking of what he lost.

‘Laura’s response had been irradiation, a quiver of personality. She was indefinite definitely, like a tree shining, shaking away outlines; a bay, a poplar in wind and sunshine. Her impulses—those incalculable springings-out of mind through the body—had had, like movements of branches, a wild kind of certainty.’

Shades of Marda. In fact, when Marda arrives, Montmorency quickly forgets the dead Laura and falls in love with the living Marda.

Once again, Marda and Laura are linked by suggestion. And to make this an even more convoluted menage a trois, Lois imagines, briefly, foolishly, that she is in love with Hugo Montmorency. It is the emotional connection he had had with her mother that makes her feel a curious closeness to him. It is he, looking at her, and seeing her mother’s likeness, that makes her feel strangely alive.

There are many conundrums….and many beautiful passages. It is a novel that, though not always understood, can be enjoyed as Walter Pater once wrote about the observer’s perception of beauty:

“A sudden light transforms some trivial thing, a weather-vane, a windmill, a winnowing fan, the dust in the barn-door. A moment—and the thing has vanished, because it was pure effect; but it leaves a relish behind it, a longing that the accident may happen again.”

***********

Another John Piper painting of ruins

Another John Piper painting of ruins

This is an excellent review if you want more of the political back story.

The house and estate in the novel is called Danielstown, and it is modeled very closely after Elizabeth Bowen’s own beloved family home, Bowen’s Court. This, to her great grief, was torn down almost directly after she was forced to sell it, in 1959.

Some interesting notes and pictures regarding Bowen’s Court here: And here:

A lovely scholarly review here; she mentions ‘the readerly pleasure’ we get from Bowen’s writing



 

Quicksilver Droplets

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My reading for the last week or so–continually interrupted, like a picnic upstaged by intermittent splashes of rainfall–has been The Last September, by Elizabeth Bowen. As I live in the Pacific Northwest, where rain can feel like an ever-present inundation, there is a familiar fascination in Bowen’s well-crafted, liberally moistened atmosphere. I find in her use of the rain and all its manifestations, scene to scene, almost a tone poem, both dreamy and dreary, that underpins this Anglo-Irish novel. 

The WP photo challenge for the week was to capture H2O in various interpretations. I love to take photos of water droplets, poised and quivering….to capture that one moment of translucent shimmer.

Elizabeth Bowen, in masterful prose, creates some ethereal moments throughout the novel by the use of water in shaping atmosphere. Rain is used as a character, a mood setter, a scene stealer, and often, in the dappled, shifting light when sun changes to racing clouds, a subtle harbinger of coming despair.

‘Down the walk, brightening air slipped like gauze round the beech trunks; great pewter limbs went turning, straining up with the sheen of muscles. Drops, infrequent and startling, loudly fell on his hat-brim, icily on her shoulders through the mesh of her dress. The path’s perspective was a tunnel of glass…’

In a scene that is, perhaps, more about climate than climactic, we have the eager soldier, vigorous in love, bestowing his first display of affection on a young, confused Lois. And in this scene, of course…there is rain.

OriginalPhoto-471651698.252391

‘He stepped…to the drawing room door. The five tall windows stood open on rain and the sound of leaves, rain stuttered along the sills, the grey of the mirrors shivered. Polished tables were cold little lakes of light.’

Then he stepped forward, and kissed her, his hands on her wet shoulders.
“Oh, but look here—“ cried Lois.
She was his lovely woman: kissed. He shone at her, she helpless. She looked out at the hopeless rain.
“I love—“
“Oh but look here—“
“But I love—“
“What are you doing in the drawing room?”
“I’ve come to lunch.”

She walked away from him, around the room…So that was being kissed; just an impact, with inside blankness….’

Did I mention this was a coming of age novel? More of this enigmatic story, and spurts of abbreviated dialogue… coming soon.

H2O

Pause: Fade In Train Noises

trainOaksBottom2

‘Having timed her by her only possible train, he locked the door about mid-day, and crossed the hollow field to the verge of the upland by the Brown House, where he stood and looked over the vast prospect northwards, and over the nearer landscape in which Alfredston stood. Two miles behind it a jet of white steam was travelling from the left to the right of the picture.’ 
Jude the Obscure

My brave ‘little iPhone that could’ was poised and ready. The scene that unfolded below me was like something out of a dream and I wanted to capture it. In the valley, a steam locomotive chuffs and puffs into view; churning streamers of billowing white. The still waterway beneath the land bridge, darkened by dusk, silvered by frost, reflects the curling steam and plays it back as airy clouds. A flock of geese, startled by the roar of the approaching train, erupt in a scatter of pepper-like patterns against the horizon, then subside again on the water.

Where are we? When are we? Are we really in a Thomas Hardy novel?

Is this 1869 London, in a scene that would become part of Henrietta Creswell’s Victorian memoir Winchmore Hill, Memories of a Lost Village…?

Or perhaps, chugging up the steep hill in NightMail, we have found ourselves in the year of 1936; watching the plucky 6115 Scots Guardsman steam locomotive make its way to Glasgow…

Have we lost ourselves in a radio play of 1945, dreaming on a train like young William did…and waking up to find Anthony Trollope staring at him?

Are we on the Orient Express with Hercule Poirot, heading into a large snowdrift with murder afoot…?

None of the above. We are in the present; the delightful present. This is Portland, and we are watching the old Southern Pacific 4449 steam across the Oaks Bottom wetland.

trainlettering

In this city, we are privileged to have a working society devoted to bringing back the thrill of steam engine trains. Portland boasts a premium selection of ‘rolling stock’ as it is called (differing from static display, which is a fully retired locomotive).

The Oregon Rail Heritage Facility oversees the preservation of three city-owned steam locomotives:

Southern Pacific 4449 (SP 4449),

Spokane, Portland & Seattle 700 (SP&S 700), and

Oregon Railroad & Navigation 197 (OR&N 197).

These three beauties also give Portland ‘the distinction of being the only city in the United States to own operating mainline steam locomotives.’

Vintage steam locomotives instantly transport you to another time. Their appeal continues to affect a broad range of enthusiasts, from toddlers to hipsters to grizzled old softies. The sound of a steam whistle gives a thrill in my heart that is somewhat akin to listening to a Rachmaninov piano concerto performed live. It’s what we like to call A Moment.

As a little girl, I was generally supposed to like dolls. I certainly received enough. My interest in dolls was extremely limited, however. For one thing, they were made of plastic and never altered their stare.

I had four brothers and, as fate would have it, none of them were interested in trains. But oh how I wanted a train set. The substantial metal kind. I loved the black engines and I loved the red cabooses. And pretty much everything that fit between. I wanted it to run into every room of the house on a track that was built over our heads. This dream was never realized for a number of reasons—likely expense was one, but the fact that it would be difficult to dust was a deal breaker.

trainbolts

The whistle of a steam engine is unlike anything else. It is terrifying at close range, evocative and moody when heard from a distance. At night the sound carries farther, and you no longer listen as though from a distance, you hear an echo that seems to resound from within your own DNA. Somehow, like my sweet tooth, my petite frame, my nerdy wordsmithing tendencies, I also inherited this crazy love for trains.

these wheels are taller than me

these wheels are taller than me

Since the steam engine came to birth in Britain, and it is so intimately connected with some of our favorite English literature, we tend to pair it with other aspects of English culture that are iconic. (Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, besides taking place in Europe, and starring a Belgian detective, still manages to be very British in tone!).

The allure of Angela Thirkell’s villages of Barsetshire, for example, are chiefly powered by the chuffing, perky trains which regularly decanted new romantic prospects at the station and into each book—enough to guarantee a bit of a romantic kerfuffle and at least two weddings by the end of the story.

In August Folly, written in 1936, Thirkell describes your approach by train into the sleepy village of Worsted:

‘When your train comes backwards into the station, often assisted for the last few yards by a large grey horse and its friends and hangers-on, you may take your seat in a carriage which has never known the hand of change since it left the railway shops in 1887….As your train pulls out on the single line which joins Winter Overcotes to Shearings, a small junction fifteen miles away, you are back in the late Victorian era. Engines and carriages are a striking relic of our earlier railways, and under their skimpy coats of paint may be read the names of long defunct systems…The line meanders, in the way that makes an old railway so much more romantic than a new motor highway, among meadows, between hills, over level crossings.’ 

(More about August Folly)

Thus we see that the idea of steam trains being romantic and nostalgic is certainly not new. Barsetshire, this fictional county lovingly endowed with warm and woolly names like Winter Overcotes, Shearings, Woolram, Lambton, Worsted, Fleece and Skeynes, was not invented by Angela Thirkell. She just made it her own, and famous in its own right.

The honor of Barsetshire’s creation goes to Anthony Trollope, who, as it is known, did much of his novel writing while riding, in what? A train, of course.

Writer Elizabeth Bowen not only loved trains; admitting ‘an enthusiastic naiveté’—she also championed the work of Anthony Trollope in a time when his novels had fallen out of popularity as too stuffy, too Victorian.

Elizabeth Bowen via wiki

She chose to use an old steam train as the setting for her 1945 radio play Anthony Trollope: A New Judgement. The directions for styling the opening scene to the play are as follows:

‘Pause: fade in train noises…rather accentuated, as of train taking up-gradient. Gradually fade in, on top of these noises and in their rhythm, voice saying ‘A picture book, a picture book, a picture book’….the words should gain slowly, more with each time of speaking, over train noises.’

The idea of putting singsong words to the rhythm of the train is as old as the trains, themselves. In a memoir published in 1912, Winchmore Hill: Memories of a Lost Village, Henrietta Creswell writes of fifty years earlier when the railroad first came to her sleepy village that is now a London suburb. She describes the first steam engines that began to arrive on the newly laid track, and how each one the villagers came to know as ‘a personality’, a separate voice…

Fox informed the world there was ‘such a hurry, such a hurry.” Hunslet, a tank engine, was particularly clear in her enunciation, informing all the world of her huffy temper, though I never heard she was ill to deal with as a worker—“I’m in a huff, I’m in a huff!” she puffed on her way along the line. Progress, who laboured at the Wood Green end, proclaimed continually the name of the chief engineer—‘Mr. Claringbull, Mr. Claringbull,’ she shouted with a strong accent on the last syllable. Ferret seldom left the Enfield portion of roadmaking, perhaps because everything was ‘such a heavy load, such a heavy load’.”…

Obviously, the personification of steam locomotives can be traced back to the early days of the railways–in this case, 1870, when the newly minted tracks, and the newly birthed engines were just beginning to become a familiar feature of the countryside. Just a few years before Elizabeth Bowen wrote her radio play in 1945, the temptation to personalize a locomotive was still well in place.

mahogany interior on the train

Down the mahogany corridors of a sleeper car

In 1936 a film documentary, entitled Nightmail, was commissioned that paired poetry and music to the sounds of a train. The busy London, Midland and Scottish Railway was powered by the beloved engine Royal Scot 6115 Scots Guardsman. The poem begins slowly, imitating the clickety-clack of wheels on the rail, then picks up speed until at the end the narrator is reciting at a breathless pace.

Does this sound like a fun, ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’-esque sort of venture? Not at all. It was a serious endeavor, and is now considered a classic. The poetry for the piece was written by none other than W.H. Auden, the music was scored by Benjamin Britten, and the film was directed by the brilliant Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti. An amazing trifecta of talent commissioned to honor a steam engine…You can see the video here.

‘This is the Night Mail crossing the border
Bringing the cheque and the postal order

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor
The shop at the corner and the girl next door

Pulling up Beattock, a steady climb —

The gradient’s against her, but she’s on time

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shoveling white steam over her shoulder

Snorting noisily as she passes

Silent miles of wind-bent grasses

Birds turn their heads as she approaches

Stare from the bushes at her black-faced coaches

Sheep-dogs cannot turn her course;

They slumber on with paws across

In the farm she passes no one wakes
But a jug in the bedroom gently shakes…’ W.H. Auden

Before I leave the subject of Britain and trains I just have to mention my new dream, slightly more ambitious than my little girl dream of room to room (undusted) train travel. I would love to go to Hampshire, England and ride the Watercress Line….Who wouldn’t want to ride a train called the Watercress Line?? It’s an old steam train that now regularly runs a twenty or so mile route in the beautiful Hampshire countryside. One of the stops is near Chawton, Jane Austen’s home territory. The Watercress Line––though officially named Mid-Hants Railway––is named for the fact that in former days the train was used to take watercress from local farms into London markets, presumably for all those English teas with neatly trimmed cucumber and watercress sandwiches. How Oscar Wilde. (How I suddenly feel like Algernon and want to ‘scoff the lot’ before Lady Bracknell arrives.) Says the website enthusiastically:

‘There is nothing quite like the sound, smell and power of a steam locomotive in full cry!’

I quite agree. But this gets us to the other side—the historical aspect of trains. The charms of a vintage train have not always been so. It has not always been considered charming, it has not always been vintage. At its inception, it was ‘new technology’. It was everything that was new, disruptive, dirty, destructive, and scary loud. Not to mention immorally fast.

‘Quaint’ and ‘adorable’ are adjectives that would not have been employed in any discussion of railroads in Cranford, the fictional village created by Elizabeth Gaskell in 1851. These venerable ladies of Cranford—themselves quaint and adorable—were decidedly against the encroaching railways.

The Cranford ladies; not too happy with the railway…

In part two of ‘Pause: Fade In Train Noises’, we’ll visit Cranford, see how the ladies are getting on, make a few other literary stops, and go chuffing our way through a bit of English fictional countryside.

I hope you’ll join me!