Wednesday, 30 July 2014

And The White Horse Looked On

Before the gods that made the gods
Had seen their sunrise pass,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was cut out of the grass.

...about three thousand years ago, according to radiocarbon dating, making it the oldest known hillfigure in the country. Its abstract, curving lines are typical of Celtic artwork, and it may be associated with the tribe that used the Uffington Castle hillfort close by. It rests high on the scarp, not easily seen in its entirety unless from the air or from the railway line that snakes through the Vale on its way to the West. It is the most famous of our chalky White Horses.

Assuming, of course, that it is a horse.

And here we are again, in this familiar place, Team Vulpine today consisting of my sons, daughter, and daughter's boyfriend - the latter on his first visit to the site. I seem to make my way to this hallowed spot every couple of years, and wandering this landscape of shadow and legend, it always feels like that first time two decades ago.

Polite National Trust signage asks visitors not to stand on the Horse, to lessen the dangers of erosion. On our bellies we writhe like earthworms, shuffling abdominally toward the stark ivory outline, reaching forth tentatively to touch an ear, caress a curve, lay featherlight fingers upon the tip of an ancient tail. Its single eye gazes impassively across the broad Vale, taking in the expanse of Oxfordshire, the Chilterns smouldering in the haze to the East, the Cotswolds rising on the Northern horizon, the doomed cooling towers of Didcot scarring part of the view like a pustule on the landscape. In a few weeks they will be gone, brought down in a flash of explosive, a rising cloud of dust and a rumble of destruction, and the Horse will once more keep watch over Arcadian purity.

(c) Emily McManus

Before the gods that made the gods
Had drunk at dawn their fill,
The White Horse of the White Horse Vale
Was hoary on the hill.

Bees and butterflies whirl above the figure, crows and kites ride the thermals. Below the Horse, in the sheep-speckled undulating slopes known as The Manger, a small hill sits squatly, looking like a miniature Silbury. Its crown gleams white, the feet of thousands having scoured it down to the chalk. This is Dragon Hill, according to local legend the spot where St George slew his serpentine foe. Unlikely, I muse, that our patron saint walked these hills. Or killed a flying, pyromaniacal, maiden-devouring dinosaur. Or existed. It is, however, fuel for the posited notion that the Horse, equine lines obscured by its abstraction, is actually a dragon.

Dragon Hill

On previous visits we have clambered down the slope to stand upon the Dragon Hill, but that is not the route we desire this afternoon. Above the Horse lies the hillfort Uffington Castle, a pre-Roman stronghold with an impressive ditch and rampart, and we will venture into its interior on our way to the timeworn trackway that crosses the peak of the Downs, the popular footpath known as the Ridgeway, linking the hills beyond Dunstable to the great stone circles of Avebury.

In the grass of the great enclosure that predates Jesus, is a curious attempt at Christianisation; someone has poured a cruciform shape onto a patch of short verdure, a cross formed of cremated remains. Someone must have loved this place a great deal to have their ashes deposited here. The shape will likely not last, blown by the winds of the high Downs and disturbed by the bumbling passage of sheep and tourists, and all that will remain is a human spirit, adding to the ghosts that haunt and protect the Horse.

We have arrived in the late afternoon and most visitors are wandering away from the site. The Ridgeway is quiet and warm, a dusty route along which we strike west.

Age beyond age on British land,
Aeons on aeons gone,
Was peace and war in western hills,
And the White Horse looked on.

Fields of ripening wheat surround us, the sun illuminates and heats our old green track, an owl twits unseen from a canopy of tall trees. If we walk and walk, we will pass the great Iron Age enclosure of Liddington Castle* and strike south to the mighty prehistoric landscape around Avebury... but we have no intention of going so far. Our destination, after a slog of about twenty-five minutes, is another monument of legend. It lies, slumbering in a glade, to the right of the track.

Wayland's Smithy Long Barrow is a Neolithic burial chamber of the group known as 'Cotswold-Severn', which also includes such popular sites such as West Kennet in Wiltshire and Belas Knap in Gloucestershire. They are trapezoidal in shape and represent a fairly localised form of prehistoric funerary architecture. Like its colossal sibling at West Kennet, the Smithy has chambers which have been vacated by their long-skeletal inhabitants and are now accessible to all. It is at its best on a Summer day such as this, the June trees bathing it in dappled light, abandoned by the public and, at this moment, belonging entirely to us. Its atmosphere, thoughtful and peceful, is amost tangible. Such stuff as legends are built on, and the legend of Wayland's Smithy is a doozy.

Youngest son explores a monument

Previous visitors have left votice offerings on the baked stones that protect the cool chambers, offerings of copper pennies. They too, know the legend of Wayland the Smith. He was an Anglo-Norse deity, and it was probably those settlers back in the Dark Ages that gave the monument its enduring name. The legend tells that a horse, if deposited at the Smithy with a small coin as payment (probably a groat, although clearly modern visitors have taken inflation into account), the horse would be mysteriously shod by the unseen god. Some of our great writers have included this legend in their works, Sir Walter Scott in Kenilworth and Rudyard Kipling in Puck Of Pook's Hill


The sun continues its descent, and we undertake the return stroll to White Horse Hill. The unseen owl continues to whistle down from the trees that line the track. Insects hum and bustle in the Summer breeze that accompanies us. A concealed pheasant barks out its raspy cough from a neighbouring field.

"There," my daughter helpfully gestures towards a shape trying to hide itself in the stubble. I gaze appraisingly at the prospective fowl.

"Hmm," I muse, "Looks more like a hare to me."

As the words leave my lips, the magnificent creature springs to life, tearing across the field away from us and as we stare admiringly at its sprinting form we finally notice the others, scattered across the field, at least half a dozen hares browsing the stubble. My daughter's boyfriend stares entranced; this is the first time he has seen one of these superb animals.

(c)Emily McManus

Our walk ends back at the car, and off we go. Leaving a land of legend and natural beauty behind us, we drive down into the Vale and strike east. Our tents await us near Watlington, England's smallest town, where we have camped below the Chilterns and in the shadow of another hillfigure, the pyramidal Watlington White Mark. We will sleep below the wheeling red kites and the starry Oxfordshire skies, and the sun will bid adieu as shadows fall across the Vale. And the White Horse, as always, will look on.

 For the White Horse knew England
When there was none to know;
He saw the first oar break or bend,
He saw heaven fall and the world end,
O God, how long ago.
                                  GK Chesterton, Ballad Of The White Horse (1911)

* Liddington Castle was discussed in more detail in my previous article, In The Footsteps Of Arthur: Badon Hill

Friday, 11 July 2014

Germinal, Madame Bovary, and Family

In this essay I would like to discuss Gustave Flaubert's approach to family life in Madame Bovary, in particular how he uses familial scenes to explore questions of identity. I would then like to move on to Emile Zola's depiction of bourgeois life in Germinal, and discuss how he creates symbolic contrasts between this class and the family lives of the working-class miners.

  Emma Bovary's search for personal identity arises from dissatisfaction at her humdrum provincial existence, an existence in which she is subordinated to a man whom she considers mediocre, a man who fulfils few of the romantic notions she has absorbed through childhood readings of authors such as Walter Scott. Her subordination is reflected by the very structure of the novel: the life of her husband Charles 'frames the story of his wife' as a possible 'gesture of enclosure and control' (Madame Bovary [Introduction], Wall, 1992); the novel does not reveal any insights into Emma's history and psychology until she is married and her disillusionment has begun.

  Before Emma's adulterous and ultimately suicidal quest for fulfilment begins, however, Flaubert presents a chapter - almost like a short story - which tells us of the Bovary household as Charles grows from baby to man. His father is presented as a drunken wastrel, his mother an overbearing neurotic, their marriage a sham which reverses, in gender terms, the future marriage of their son - 'she had loved him with a servility that had turned him against her all the more' (Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p.4). They pamper their son, cushioning his progress until he emerges as a mediocre but respectable doctor. His mother even arranges his first marriage, to a clinging hypochondriac. Flaubert tells this story with a rich vein of irony to highlight the hypocrisies and cliches of a bourgeois upbringing, his mother being described as 'accomplishing a plan', his passing medical exams described as 'a great day for his mother' (Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p.8). When the elder Bovarys turn on their daughter-in-law upon their discovering that her apparent wealth is a facade, the novel's English translator amusingly uses alliteration of the letter 'h' to portray their indignant huffing and puffing: 'hitching... up to that harridan, whose harness wasn't worth her hide' (Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p.15).

  Charles' second marriage, to Emma, is accomplished without interference from his parents, but this leads to a resentment against her, a prejudice which Emma reciprocates, although of course the linguistic facade of good relations is maintained: '...each woman uttering sweet words in a voice trembling with anger'. The elder Madame Bovary views her son's love for his wife as 'an encroachment on what was her property' (p.33). With this description, Flaubert emphasises the materialistic nature of the bourgeoisie, even in terms of their relationships with their children... and Charles' failure to take sides, to take responsibility for familial decisions, shows his continuing weakness and fuels his new wife's discontent.

  When Emma falls pregnant with her own child, she experiences mixed emotions. Projecting her romantic materialism onto the forthcoming event, she finds her wishes financially restricted and, consequently, her affection was 'perhaps... somewhat impaired'. She wishes the child to be a boy, seeing in this a way to redeem her own disappointments. Flaubert uses this wish to reveal Emma's feelings about her unrealised romantic ambitions, to show that the delivery of a son 'was like an anticipated revenge for the powerlessness of her past... a man, at least, is free... a woman is constantly thwarted' (p.70). When the child is born a girl, Emma 'turned aside and passed out' (p.70). While this is a natural enough consequence of the exertions of childbirth, Flaubert highlights the symbolic importance of the sentence by elevating it into a paragraph. Emma is rejecting the child, seeing once again the thwarting of her romantic expectations.

  Flaubert uses the baby to show the contradictions of petit bourgeois parenting; despite the fuss made over choosing a name, and the elaborate christening ceremony, we learn quite matter-of-factly that the child has been put out to a wet-nurse, a slovenly working-class woman who keeps a house where Emma is compelled to wipe her feet as she leaves.

  She is torn between maternal feelings for her child, and rejection of the same due to her frustration. Rejection on one occasion leads to the child receiving an injury, and this is followed by Emma tending to her like a dutiful mother, although Flaubert does not specify whether this later action is caused by guilt, concern or fear. As the baby lies sleeping after its trauma, Emma can only wonder at its ugliness. In this scene of different attitudes and changeable behaviour, the heroine herself is described with multiple titles\; variously Emma, Madame Bovary, the young woman... all contributing to her crisis of identity. The scene is followed by a description of the Homais children, offspring of the Bovarys' pharmacist neighbour, and of how '...these good parents took every sort of precaution' (p.93). Flaubert shows this as a contrast to Emma's carelessness yet also shows it ironically, as the Homais parents are protective to a ridiculous degree.

  At the end of Emma's life, as she lays dying, she believes herself free of her torments and asks to see her daughter, but the child sees her in her weakened state as a fairytale monster: 'Oh, what big eyes you have, Mummy!' (p.261). In her fear, she struggles and draws back from her parent. Emma, who has spent her life rejecting the stale predictability of her family and its petit bourgeois existence, is finally rejected herself.

  While Flaubert portrays the cliched banalities of bourgeois existence, Zola introduces bourgeois families in Germinal which contrast with each other as well as the working-class mining families. The Gregoires consist of two doting parents, their daughter, and a small retaiment of servants, a 'patriarchal regime, a cosy family affair, the small community lived in harmony' (Zola, Germinal, p.76). Their life seems idyllic, they live together in love and happiness, even the servants dote on the pampered but innocent daughter Cecile. We learn that the families fortune is derived from shares in the Montsou mine.

  Two key scenes in Germinal display the nature of the relationship between the Gregoires and the miners. The first details a visit to the Gregoires from La Maheude. The visit takes place shortly after the contrasting descriptions of the Gregoire and Maheu families' morning routines: while the former eat brioche in a house 'snug and warm, and not a sound... to disturb the silence' (p.78), the latter have to contend with 'nothing, not a crust, no leftovers, not a bone to gnaw' and 'coffee so weak it looked like dishwater' (p.87).

  It is Cecile Gregoire who is entrusted with the charity. The Gregoire philosophy on charity is described in free indirect speech, and they believe 'that their house is God's refuge for the needy' (p.92), although they donate food and clothes rather than money, which they fear will be squandered on drink. The Gregoires are sympathetic, but seem to look upon the condition of the miners as a kind of 'idealised' poverty, and shown in the expression 'Monsieur Gregoire looked dreamily at this pitiful woman and her children' (p.94). As they are sentimental about their daughter, they are sentimental about the workers, ignorant of the desperation of poverty, cradled 'in their contented slumbers'. Cecile's final gift to the young Maheu children is two pieces of brioche wrapped in newspaper. While this gift is made with goodwill and a genuine desire to be charitable, it is also ironic insofar that it echoes the famous Marie Antoinette remark, "Let them eat cake". The blindness of the aristocracy to the plight of the peasants led to the Revolution; the echoes of that history being played out in Cecile's innocent gift foreshadows the miners' strike and its bloody, fatal confrontations.

  The second scene occurs toward the end of the novel, and once again concerns the charitable deeds of the Gregoires. On this occasion they have left their comfortable home to visit the mining village, and Cecile is briefly and fatally left alone with old Bonnemort, whose very name carries connotations of death. Zola contrasts the two, displaying at the same time the differences between these two classes, the girl 'plump and fresh from her life of leisure and generations of comfortable luxury', the old man 'showing the deplorable ugliness of a race of worn-out beasts, destroyed... by a hundred years of toil and starvation' (p.490). Bonnemort's murder of the girl is symbolic, as the lives of her parents have also been destroyed, and the family line of the Gregoires has been ended; the bourgeoisie halted by the working-class.

  Two other middle-class families appear in the novel, the Deneulins and the Hennebeaus. Zola uses these families also to emphasise bourgeois contradictions. Deneulin, father of two daughters, 'is presented as a courageous and hard-working manager, who has lost out to forces larger than himself' (Walder, Realisms, p.397). He too is ultimately portrayed as a victim, a victim of capitalism as represented by the Company.

  The Hennebeaus are the most complex of the bourgeois families in Germinal. They consist of Monsieur Hennebeau, his wife and a nephew Negrel, who is expected to marry Cecile Gregoire. Madame Hennebeau has never attempted 'to understand this race of workers' (p.107); she takes bourgeois friends upon tours of the mining villages, and they seem to wilfully ignore the poverty they see. As one gentleman exclaims, "It's El Dorado! The promised land!" (p.106). Zola portrays wilful bourgeois ignorance here, but with a touch of irony: El Dorado and the Promised Land are aspirations rather than physical realities, and despite her 'talking up' of the miners' living conditions, Mme Hennebeau is quickly 'repelled by the stale odour of poverty' (p.107). She is also the character utilised by Zola to show hypocrisy in bourgeois moral standards, as she is conducting a secret and incestuous affair with her nephew Negrel while also trying to arrange his marriage to Cecile. Her husband, aware of this affair, keeps quiet but is sexually frustrated, and - despite his bourgeois comfort - envies the miners their sexual freedom. However, he too partakes of a calculating and hypocritical nature: although outwardly friendly to Deneulin, he is more than willing to see his friend lose his mine for the benefit of the Company, and he sees an advantage to Cecile's murder in the fact that it will be easier to keep his eye on his wife and Negrel.

  The mining families, represented by the Maheus, are portrayed in a bestial and desperate condition, their principal reason for having children being to increase their meagre income from the mines. When Catherine departs to live with Chaval, her mother's reason for complaint is the drop in income. The lives of the mining families are portrayed as a perpetual grind of poverty, labour and premature death which continues for generations: the implications of the cycle can be seen in the behaviour of the village children, acting as nascent families. When the young playmates Bebert and Lydie are killed when the soldiers open fire, Zola writes that Bebert 'embrace his little wife' as he dies.

Flaubert, Gustave Madame Bovary, ed: Geoffrey Wall, 1992, Penguin, London
Zola, Emile Germinal, trans: Collier, Peter, 1993, Oxford World's Classics, Oxford
Walder, Dennis, Germinal:Zola and the Political Novel in Da Sousa Correa, Delia (ed) The Nineteenth Century Novel: Realisms, 2000, Routledge, London