Friday, January 30, 2009

Death-white realms

Ethan Frome cover:
Figures in the Snow by Pamela Scott Wilkie (2005)

'The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations...'

Thus begins Ethan Frome (1911), a novel in which the snowy winter landscape plays a central role both in the framing narrative and the tragic story itself. I was listening to it recently in a good reading by Elizabeth Klett for It was a strange thing walking along to work and hearing descriptions of freezing weather while feeling pretty cold myself. The iPod allows you to overlay your own sensory experiences with those described in the book. And of course in theory it offers the opportunity to listen to stories in situ, experiencing Ethan Frome for example whilst literally walking through the snowy New England landscape (rather than, in my case, plodding through the cold streets of North London).

Still, the ideal is probably to read books like Ethan Frome whilst sitting snug and warm inside (and as I write this it is freezing out there...) Which reminds me of another classic novel Elizabeth Klett has read for LibriVox, Jane Eyre, in which Jane journeys in imagination to the cold seas of the far north:

'Folds of scarlet drapery shut in my view to the right hand; to the left were the clear panes of glass, protecting, but not separating me from the drear November day. At intervals, while turning over the leaves of my book, I studied the aspect of that winter afternoon. Afar, it offered a pale blank of mist and cloud; near, a scene of wet lawn and storm-beat shrub, with ceaseless rain sweeping away wildly before a long and lamentable blast.

I returned to my book—Bewick's “History of British Birds:” the letter-press thereof I cared little for, generally speaking; and yet there were certain introductory pages that, child as I was, I could not pass quite as a blank. They were those which treat of the haunts of sea-fowl; of “the solitary rocks and promontories” by them only inhabited; of the coast of Norway, studded with isles from its southern extremity, the Lindeness, or Naze, to the North Cape—

“Where the Northern Ocean, in vast whirls,
Boils round the naked, melancholy isles
Of farthest Thule; and the Atlantic surge
Pours in among the stormy Hebrides,”

Nor could I pass unnoticed the suggestion of the bleak shores of Lapland, Siberia, Spitzbergen, Nova Zembla, Iceland, Greenland, with “the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space—that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulations, of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concenter the multiplied rigors of extreme cold.” Of these death-white realms I formed an idea of my own; shadowy, like all the half-comprehended notions that float dim through children's brains, but strangely impressive.'

The original passages from Thomas Bewick can be read at the Brontë Sources site. The lines of verse are from Thomson's The Seasons (the enjoyment of which will demonstrate how it is possible to enjoy that long poem in small doses, pace Michael Schmidt). Jenny Uglow, biographer of Thomas Bewick, has described Charlotte Brontës enthusiasm for Bewick. When he died in 1828 (long before Jane Eyre), she wrote a poem 'imagining his traveller on the dreary moor and his chill picture of the surf crashing at sea:

There rises some lone rock all wet with surge
And dashing billows glimmering in the light
Of a wan moon, whose silent rays emerge
From clouds that veil their lustre, cold and bright.'

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