SPIRIT OF PLACE

On the morning of a fine June day, my first bonny nursling, and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock, was born.

We were busy with the hay in a far away field, when the girl that usually brought our breakfasts came running an hour too soon, across the meadow and up the lane, calling me as she ran.

“Oh, such a grand bairn!” she panted out. The finest lad that ever breathed! But the doctor says missis must go; he says she’s been in consumption these many months. I heard him tell Mr Hindley-and now she has nothing to keep her, and she’ll be dead before winter. You must come home directly. You’re to nurse it Nelly- to feed it with sugar and milk, and take care of it, day and night-I wish I were you, because it will be all yours when there is no missis!”

“But is she very ill?” I asked, flinging down my rake, and tying my bonnet.

“I guess she is; yet she looks bravely, “replied the girl, “and she talks as if she thought of living to see it grow a man. She’s out of her head for joy, it’s such a beauty! If I were her I’m certain I should not die. I should get better at the bare sight of it, in spite of Kenneth. I was fairly mad at him. Dame Archer brought the cherub down to master, in the house, and his face just began to light up, then the old croaker steps forward, and, says he:- “Earnshaw it’s a blessing your wife has been spared to leave you this son. When she came, I felt convinced we shouldn’t keep her long; and now, I must tell you, the wintere will probably finish her. Don’t take on, and fret about it too much, it can’t be helped. And besides you should have known better than to choose such a rush of a lass.

Wuthering Heights Vol 1 Ch.8

D. H. Lawrence uses the phrase “spirit of place” to point to the writer’s gift of rendering the essence of his particular setting. I love this particular passage of Emily Bronte’s great novel because it gives an immediate insight into a society and way of life on the Yorkshire moors around her chosen setting of Wuthering Heights. It also gives a sense of the rich power of the language of the book reflecting the community life of the folk which I shall seek to underline with a comparison of her language with Jane Austen’s.

The narrator is Nelly, a live-in servant whose main employment at this stage of the novel is indoors but who is clearly employed to help as needed with the ongoing life of the farm . Note the rhythm of the opening sentence with its balance of the words “first” and “last” : ” my first bonny nursling and the last of the ancient Earnshaw stock” suggests her pride in the association with the family with their long history, her delight in the birth of the new heir and her sorrow at his being the last. The prose renders the excitement of the breathless servant girl pouring out her joy at the the beauty of the new born and the energy of Nelly’s response “Flinging down my rake and tying my bonnet”. But vigour is an element sadly lacking in the condition of the mother. The doctor’s testimony of the mother’s inadequacy brings us to the specifics of place: “the winter will probably finish her……you should have known better than to choose such a rush of a lass”. The doctor’s brutal realism (rejected as he is by the phrase “old croaker” of the young servant girl) on the physical limitations of the not local wife acts in the passage as a kind of counterpoise to the apparent vigour of the “grand bairn” and the energy of the young Nelly ready to take on her first “nursling”. You do not survive in this kind of place without rude vigour and strength. The breakfast girl’s implicit joy in the beauty of the boy, the pride in the survival of the Earnshaw “stock” is of the celebration of the physical qualities of strength and endurance that make possible survival over generations in a harsh landscape.

In the rhythm of speech we note the strong physical words of common life that stand out : “bonny”, “ancient,” ” stock,” “bairn,” “flinging,””bravely” “beauty,” blessing,” “croaker” “spared””fret” “rush of a lass”. This is language unlike that of Jane Austen. Compare the start of Sense and Sensibility :

The family of Dashwood had long been settled in Sussex. Their estate was large, and their residence was at Norland Park, in the centre of their property, where for many generations, they had lived in so respectable a manner as to engage the general good opinion of their surrounding acquaintance”.

The language here belongs to a different class of gentility -“family, ” long settled” (as against “ancient stock”), “residence”, “respectable” “general good opinion”; gentility which is securely settled, not struggling for survival. We notice the preponderance of longer more Latinate, anglo-Norman vocabulary. The short blunt physicality of the language of Wuthering Heights is absent. It is a contrasting England with a quite different spirit of place.

It is worth noting how the Wuthering Heights passage continues. The doctor’s prophecy is accurate. Yet the wife shows the kind of spirit that shows us why the Yorkshireman was drawn to her. When Nelly approached “She spoke merrily” and in the face of death “that gay heart never failed her”. The language, the merriness and gaiety, reflects a resilience of spirit that can take her so far but not further. It is a resilience of spirit lacking in her husband Hindley. Earlier Nelly had noted “I was very sad for Hindley’s sake; he had room in his heart for only two idols-his wife and himself- he doted on both, and adored one, and I couldn’t conceive how he would bear the loss”. The effect indeed is catastrophic for himself and for his family:

“For himself he grew desperate; his sorrow was of that kind that will not lament; he neither wept nor prayed-he cursed and defied-execrated God and man, and gave himself up to reckless dissipation”.

Again we note the powerful rhythm of reinforcing doubles ( “wept nor prayed”, “cursed and defied” “God and man ” with the force of “execrated”).

Hindley with all his physical strength and his unruly character has none of his wife’s spiritual resilience”. He lacks the moral force to complement his physical powers. His “idol” gone his only recourse is defiant recklessness bringing ruin.

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

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