Tag Archives: de Quincey

Wetheral Covid Christmas

We always go home to Arizona for Christmas, eat all the wonderful things my mother and I (but mostly my mother) bake, enjoy sun and home and Mexican food and friends and family. This year my brother Dan married the most lovely Jessica the day after Christmas. I have two nieces I have not met yet, nephews I no longer know, yet we could not see family of any kind, spend any time at all with friends or strangers. I feel so very lucky that the rules, as far as they can be understood, allowed us some time in self-catering accommodation in Cumbria, where we could actually go for lovely walks and see things and be outside. Alone, but outside. We cannot tell you anything of pubs or food. So strange. Yet I feel lucky we could afford to go, we had time from work, we could stay safe.

We ended up in Wetheral, which was beautiful. There is an extensive early description of it in The Stranger’s Grave, published anonymously in 1823 but finally attributed with some confidence to Thomas de Quincey. It seems fairly convincing he lived here briefly with his brother Richard de Quincey in 1814-5, if this is the correct de Quincy who bought Eden Croft and lived there for a few years. This very house just opposite the church:

The stranger stays at the Wheel, which must be based on what was the Fish Inn. You can see the building at the end of the road there. Closed in 1906 due to ‘ill conduct, drunkenness and bad situation concealed by the churchyard’, it was repurposed as a residence called the Ferry Hill House in 1907 (94). I read about a third of it. I rather loved the awkward framing of it as submitted manuscript, and this final paragraph of the ‘advertisement’ that tells of its sexegenarian author in particular:

…old age has at length damped his ardour for travelling, by depriving him of sufficient strength of body to endure its fatigues. But his mind is still active. If, therefore, the following specimen of his discoveries be favourably received by the public, he will not fail, provided life be spared to him, to lay others, from time to time, before it. If otherwise, his papers shall be committed to the flames and he and they shall perish together, leaving no trace behind them that they ever existed.
– London, Oct. 1823.

I think they were better off left to the flames. So long as the stranger remains mysterious it remains interesting, but I was reminded just how little I care for de Quincey once the annoying incestuous love affair between two horribly spoiled children really gets going. I stopped reading, a rare thing for me but almost 200 more pages of such nonsense seemed too great a sacrifice.

Still, there is a brilliant description of the village in the early 1800s, before the railway, the arrival of Carlisle’s industrial magnates and their large mansions, the building of Corby Castle’s grand folly down the hillside. I quote at length, unable to do much better.

THERE are few situations, even in the romantic county of Cumberland, more strikingly picturesque and beautiful than that in which the village of Wetheral stands. It is built along the side of a hill, from the summit of which a fine and extensive prospect of hill and valley, wood and water, meets the eye; but being itself somewhat beneath the ridge, he who looks forth from amidst its white-washed and unassuming cottages, finds his gaze is compressed within much narrower limits. At the base of this hill, along a channel which seems as if it had been formed by some sudden convulsion of nature, runs the river Eden; not smoothly and quietly like the rivers of the south, but chafing and roaring from pool to pool, or dashing over the broken ledges of rock, which at innumerable intervals arise to interrupt its progress. The bank upon which Wetheral hangs, is comparatively bare of foliage. Somewhat higher up the stream, indeed, the woods thicken on this side as well as on the other; but it is upon the opposite bank, overshadowed with the tall trees for which the grounds of Corby Castle are remarkable, that the eye of the spectator is irresistibly enchained.

The bank upon which Corby Castle stands, rises, like that of Wetheral, to a considerable height above the stream. Here art and nature seem to have done their · utmost to produce a scene of unrivalled beauty, and it must be confessed that they have not laboured in vain. The whole face of the hill is covered with the most luxuriant wood, through which are cut narrow winding footpaths,
intercepted ever and anon by some tall red rock, or ending in the. mouth of a cave hewn out in the side of the cliff…

Like other mountain streams, the river Eden is winding in its course. At this place the curve is such as to place the lowermost cottages of Wetheral within a perfect amphitheatre of hills; the high banks closing in both to the right and left, so rapidly as to reduce the whole compass of the prospect within the space of perhaps a mile in length, and little more than a bowshot in breadth. But to the real lover of nature, a scene like this can hardly be too confined.

We stayed at Geltsdale, from long after de Quincey’s time there. Originally called Wansdales, it was built for Christopher Ling, corn merchant and one-time mayor of Carlisle. The house was requisitioned by the RAF in WWII and briefly housed a duplicate communications centre for the delivery of aircraft from maintenance to operational units. Before the end of the war, this work was transferred elsewhere and the house became a hostel for the Women’s Land Army. There are some lovely pictures from this time, and how some lives remained intertwined with those in the village. After the war, it was briefly the County Council orphanage, then West Cumberland Farmers took over, and then private developers to return it to a private residence. We were left the local history of Wetheral and Great Corby by Perriam and Ramshaw — all page numbers here reference quotes from this. My favourite might just have been the one below:

‘The emininent architectural historian, Howard Colvin (later knighted) was on a visit to Wetheral about 1965 when he noticed amongst the rubble of the monuments cleared from the churchyard the sculptured arm of an early cross. Anglo-Saxon lettering was inscribed on the reverse of the stone. He realised the importance of the find but for some reason took it back to Oxford and did not make the find generally known. (5)

I think there are other words for taking things home with you without saying anything about it. I found a little more about the Roman history of the area but nothing much further about the Anglo-Saxon. There is a well here, St Cuthbert’s well, whose sign informs you that

According to legend, St Cuthbert’s Well was built long before Norman times when Wetheral Priory was founded. The exact date is not known, but St Cuthbert is thought to have visited Carlisle in 683 and 687.

The most extensive information comes from just after the Norman conquest, but I might add that to another post. The village, though, is lovely as is Great Corby across the viaduct, which is splendid. You can walk alongside it on a walkway that once required a toll.

With a splendid view along the Eden and down over the mill.

And a few more views from these frosty frosty days.

Walking the Victorian Streets

1396370Walking the Victorian Streets: Women, Representation, and the City
Deborah Epstein Nord
1995, Cornell University Press

It opens: ‘In the literature of the nineteenth-century city, the figure of the observer–the rambler, the stroller, the spectator, the flaneur–is a man’ (1). This is a study of how Victorian women, particularly literary women who were themselves observers,  walked the streets. They did so not as prostitutes, yet always their gender ensures that they are  more observed than observer and their presence in public spaces alone links them in the mind with the ‘streetwalker’ as prostitute. Nord writes:

If the rambler was a man, and if one of the primary tropes of his urban description was the women of the streets, could there have been a female spectator or a vision of the urban panorama crafted by a female imagination? And if such a vision were possible, under what conditions and with what distinctive features might it have been created? These are questions of history, about who was on the street in which urban neighborhoods and at what times of day and night, and questions of representation, about the cultural meanings ascribed to men and women in the context of urban literature and analysis (3).

What a great question, and one hard to answer, particularly going back to the 1840s through the 1880s. It’s memoirs or fiction to get any understanding at all, but as Nord continues ‘We have the overwhelming sense, however, that women alone on the street in the mid-nineteenth-century city were considered to be, as one American historian [Ryan – Women in Public Places] has put it, “either endangered or dangerous” (3).

In the introduction she captures some of the discomfort I have with the ideal of the rambler, with de Quincey and Baudelaire and similar others, so common now in psychogeography:

Whether by the anonymous and transitory act of sex itself or by the suddenness of her appearance from and evaporation into the crowd, the sexually tainted woman (or the woman found and lost) serves to represent the experience of the masculine spectator. These women themselves gaze at the crowd, Baudelaire remarks [in ‘The Painter of Modern Life’], “as at a river which reflects their own image. In truth, they exist every much more for the pleasure of the observer than for their own.” The poet, exemplifying so much of the literature of urban spectatorship, cancels out the subjectivity of the woman of the streets. Paradoxically, by suggesting that she is a Narcissus who can see the streets only as a reflection of herself, he makes her into the spectator’s mirror and the masculine observer’s spectacle (6).

For others of a different morality, such as Wordsworth, women of the street represent an alien distance, an unsettling encounter. I’ve never liked Wordsworth, but I find both of these accounts frustrating, stripping women of agency, equality and a right to freely encounter others in public space. In the late 18th century, Nord argues, the discourse shifts again to women as source of disease and contamination, and one capable of reaching the most respectable home, through Blake, Dickens and others. The main argument of the book looks at both women as writers and women as they observe the city:

the particular urban vision of the female observer, novelist, or investigator derives from her consciousness of transgression and trespassing, from the vexed sexuality her position implies, and from her struggle to escape the status of spectacle and become a spectator. The ‘respectable’ middle-class woman creating her own city spectacle had to come to terms with women’s place in a well-established literary tradition of urban description as well as with her relationship to the poor women, the female beggars, the factory workers, and the prostitutes she observed on her own very tentative rambles. Associated by gender with the very emblems of poverty, disease, and fallenness in urban panoramas created by novelists and social reformers, women writers had to contend with split identifications: they wrote with the cultural (and class) authority of the writer and with the taint of their sex’s role in the urban drama  (12).

The main sections:

  1. ‘Stroller into Novelist’: as awareness of city space shifts from the sense of stage or panorama to a social web and the city of crisis and subject of investigation
  2. ‘Fallen Women’: Focus on Flora Tristan and Elizabeth Gaskell and women as spectacle and spectator
  3. ‘New Women’: End of 1800s, rise of new possibilities for women and new social questions on their relationship to the city

So a few of the points I particularly liked, they are more or less in chronological order so here is the 1820s, city as theater:

What distinguishes the rambler’s or the flaneur’s stance from that of the social investigator or reform-minded novelist is this identification with and delight in the privileges of the poor. The flaneur sees the poor and the prostitute not as victims or objects of pity but as urban actors free from the constraints of bourgeois life (43).

Precisely what makes me most angry about some of these accounts is their inability to see structural constraints, but this is a reminder that the power of these accounts is perhaps in how they recognise agency, which is more respectful in the end than the reformer’s views. But I like too, this reminder of the ways these earlier texts did not impose narrative structure, how they employed a different set of tools in the depiction of the city that gets at some insights but clearly fails to uncover others:

De Quincey declines to tell or invent the story of what he sees, to give to urban experience or to his own narrative what one critic has called its own ‘discursive interpretation’. He does not “read” the city as we try to read his narrative (46)…For all these shapers and observers of the London scene regarded the social reality of the city as part of a natural order, a system of social relations that was fundamentally organic and not to be challenged or radically transformed (47)…the people of the street are signs to be read only for the edification of the spectator, or left unread as part of the unraveled urban mystery…(48).

On to the 1830s, and a look at early Dickens to a sense of the growing middle-classes and their urban sensibilities:

focus on two crucial elements of the literary creation of a middle-class city: first, the continuing sense of distance from the “lower orders,” now juxtaposed with a new awareness of possibilities for sympathizing, if not identifying, with the poor; and second, the development of a middle-class discourse about the presence on the streets of the sexually tainted and victimized woman (50).

I like thinking through this idea about the nature of the city and our understanding of it (via Dickens):

Writing about the Sketches, F.S. Schwarzbach notes that Dickens’s unique contribution consists in the “unifying vision…of the urban milieu as an eternal here and now.” Invoking Carl Schorske’s notion that the modern city’s essential characteristic is a permanent sense of transience, Schwarzbach writes that in Dickens we find an early version of this distinctly modern sensibility, and that unlike Hunt, for example, Dickens embraces the contemporary city and ignores or belittles the past (58).

I’m not so sure I agree with any of that, but it’s interesting, and things I haven’t really thought through before. As is this, both in possibly disagreeing and wanting to think through:

Whereas the urban observers of the 1820s converted the everyday scene to theater, Boz transforms theater into the ordinary and unremarkable. Spectacle itself is demystified and the distance between spectator and the city diminished (63).

There follows a chapter on Dombey and Sons — which I have not yet read — and Bleak House, which I have. This is much more focused on female sexuality, and I didn’t get as much from this. This is my own failing I think, I am not as interested in more psychoanalytic approaches or sexuality and sexualisation as subjects. Though this book has convinced me (though I didn’t really need convincing) of their importance — particularly in this focus on a sexuality foisted upon women or internalised by them. I thought it possibly slightly unfair to strip any eroticism or romance from Gaskell’s writing, but I did love thinking through these intersections between gender and the city and writing.  I think Nord is right on ‘how powerful, how unavoidable, was the sexualization of woman’s entry into urban space and into the social conflicts that circulate within that space’ (176).

Both Tristan and Gaskell as subjects of the following chapters are fascinating — and finally we get to women writers! Tristan is sitting on my shelf right now, will I agree that ‘The tension between Tristan’s intrepid, defiant nature and her horror of social ostracism pervades her written work and gives particular force to her London journal (116)’? [You can read the answer here]. It is definitely curious, though to see how Nord explores the tension between writers and other women on the street.

The female social investigator or reformer finds the prostitute a particular challenge to her sympathetic eye. This is especially true for the urban spectator, the female rambler, whose street walking cannot necessarily be distinguished from that of other “public” women (123).

On Gaskell, who again, I haven’t yet read apart from a collection of short stories:

Gaskell’s was a double labour: she set out to claim as a woman the authority of urban spectatorship and interpretation and to work through the taint of exposure that was traditionally and powerfully associated with woman’s public role (138).

Gaskell took up issues of women’s labor that were a matter of public controversy and made them the subjects of her urban fiction. Responding to the sexual ideologies that inform Faucher’s and Engels’s accounts, she used her novels to ruminate on the linked potential for danger and power inherent in women’s participation in the public domain of industrial life (142).

Manchester’s streets made her a novelist not only because of what they taught her about the working people she encountered but also because of what they suggested to her about herself, her potential cultural authority, and her sexual vulnerability (144).

From the 1880s there were a host of texts I was unfamiliar with — just one of the beauties of this book!

As Woolf understood, the decade of the eighties was a pivotal time in the public lives of women, and the work they produced reflects a certain precariousness or tentativeness in their social positions and, as a consequence, in their own notions of themselves (182).

There is a fascinating period where a network of women living on their own, many of them writers, established itself. Eleanor Marx was tangentially part of it, they were connected to the Socialists and social reformers like Octavia Hill, all of whom I am still exploring. But while I knew of Beatrice Potter Webb, I had no idea of her cousin Margaret Harkness, poet and novelist Amy Levy, or novelist Olive Schreiner. I like how their works are contrasted with those by women engaged in social investigation, Helen Bosanquet, Florence Bell, Maud Pember Reeves (hey ho Lambeth!) and Mary Higgs‘s fascinating account of going on the tramp and its comparison with books by Orwell or London. A woman taking on the clothing of another class makes her more visible rather than less in a crowd, more vulnerable, more at risk…this may be first on my enormous to-read list inspired by Nord.

There is a lot more here, but I think I will end there. I am still new to thinking about this and reading these texts, but I loved this book as an introduction. This is hardly a criticism, but one thing that struck me was the presence of amazing illustrations without much critique, Dore for example, from his illustrations of his travels in London, and Cruikshank, who drew brilliant cartoons for both Pierce Egan and Dickens, as well as many well-read magazines and journals. It would be great to think through how pictorial depictions of women (and by women?) fit into all of this, working together with, and independent of, text. But that would undoubtedly be a whole new book, and possibly one already written.