On the Function of the Description of Nature Inside Historical Fiction

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Of Woodbridge and Hedgely takes place in the Regency years of 1820 and 21, firmly planted in the midst of the Romantic Era, which was defined by a constellation of movements inside literature, music, art, natural philosophy, &c., where particular attention was placed on the depth and quickness of man’s emotion, and his interaction with, and the examination of the beauty of nature.   Indeed it was a reactionary phenomenon against the consuming nature of the Industrial Revolution and its resultant rise in human population, no longer at its Medieval steady state:  Appreciation of the natural world spiked in the face of this industrial monster, whose prerogative was to chew it all up and spit it out broken, and do so year by year in an exponential fashion, creating the conceivability of a future where such, decimated, would no longer exist as it did in the early 19th century.  Alas the magnitude of one’s appreciation of an object is partially a function of their contemplation of its failing longevity, be it man, flora, fauna, or otherwise.

Given this connection between man, nature and romance during this period, a historical author setting their story in such would not do wrong in attempting description of the natural world, weather, and climate, especially when romantic notions are being plucked.  Further, with specific regard to Of Woodbridge and Hedgely, as it functions as a historical lens to criticize modern propagandists that seek to downplay the significance of global warming – whose ramifications indeed do converge upon the end game that our Romantic Era predecessors lamented upon – ecosystems destroyed, natural populations in shambles, the diversity of the biosphere significantly contracted; and as the novel also concerns itself with man’s stewardship of the earth, the agrarian countryside, and a romantic subplot involving two main characters, all of such has obliged me, the author, to do just that.  And even further, as the novel is driven mostly by dry literary mechanics, and not by taking great advantages of those found in the genres of suspense, horror, action, or even full-on romance, the characters therein sometimes experience the bliss of nature as a means of momentarily emotionally connecting with the reader.   The audience should also observe that our main character, Thomas Winter, has at the beginning of the novel quit his job as a mechanical engineer, working in the heart of England’s mechanized industry, in order to escape back to the natural countryside, and apply his scientific mind to agrarian science and botany; he is the quintessential romantic.

Here I will harvest select passages from the novel which illustrate its attention to the natural world, and publish a few relevant comments alongside those, with the above sentiments in mind.

Natural Observations in the Novel

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The first chapter, rightly entitled ‘Setting’, allows us several glimpses of the picturesque Cotswold countryside preparing to dress itself for autumn.  On page six of the novel (effectively page two of the prose) we have an introductory taste of the countryside as seen through the eyes of the young curious girl whose main function as a character is indeed to witness the local setting of Mr. Winter’s home:

Momentarily she cranked her neck southward down Mr. Winter’s backyard – a small agrarian field that extended three hundred feet gradually down the hill from his home – open to the possibility of her mother’s voice retrieving her for dinner. Her cottage was one of many King Street homes that lined the field’s southern edge, sitting quite lower than such that but rooftops and shyly peeking second floor windows were to be had from her present vantage. Beyond these rose another hill not quite as tall as Mr. Winter’s which kept a field for a belly and woodland for a ridge, currently in the first stage of autumn dressing. Such a scene was not uncommon to the little girl nor anyone else she knew, for both the town and surrounding farmland existed thusly on rolling hill that defined their particular plot on England’s greatest isle. 

She gives us another little hint at man’s intimate connection with nature during the period in a few places where her cottage garden – an important source of her family’s nutrition – is mentioned.  Here is one:

The next morning found the tailor’s daughter examining the gooseberry bushes outback of her family’s cottage, regretting the end of their fruit, which had been jammed a month before, and the caterpillars, who had quit the plot several months before that; she having encouraged them to do so. It also found – as did the girl – Mr. Winter in a fine stretch of leg, hastily traveling southward down his backyard field with a footman running after him, calling out the necessity of a waistcoat and jacket, these flapping about in the poor man’s hands. She watched as the servant caught up to him and helped him into his fine, dark blue coat over a simple, white riding cravat and a gray-lilac waistcoat. Then, refusing his top hat, he peered further down the field at his original intention – King Street – and then the opposite direction, finally gesturing to the wheezing fellow that they should retrace their paths, back toward his home. The servant, still looking rather ill after having achieved the farmhouse, gave him a nod and disappeared through the kitchen entry, yet he continued northward, until from the vantage of the tailor’s garden he too was gone.

Mr. Winter himself gives us a tour of the countryside as he walks from his farmhouse, situated in the northern Hedgely fields, northward through Woodbridge Wood and Hedgely Wood – the extensive woodland that separates his town from its sister, Woodbridge – eventually emerging in this latter setting and continuing on to Woodbridge Manor.  This woodland becomes of importance in the resolution of Part 1 of the novel, which I will flush out, further on down in this missive, but in order to fully grasp the significance of this, it must firstly be understood that all the younger characters in the novel – Mr. Winter, Harriet and Charlotte Moore, and the nameless tailor’s daughter – have been born into this spirit of romanticism, and find the utmost pleasure in walking these woods.  Let us follow Mr. Winter into the trees:

Mr. Winter plunged into the forest and continued northward on a path that showed some regular use; perhaps in the innocent collection of fallen wood by Hedgely’s northern occupants. He took in, deeply, the cool air flavored by the scent of the first batches of freshly fallen leaves littering the path, and noted the songs of the tree pipit and sparrow which confounded those of the grey partridge, lapwing and corn bunting he had just left behind in the hedges and fields. These birds he had identified as a novice naturalist – a trait born that summer when he had come to town to examine the renovations to his new home and adventure in the countryside. He had also done quite well concerning the trees: This particular wood kept a vast population of Ash, but other common species noted thus far were local varieties of Beech, Oak, Maple, Sweet Chestnut, Horse Chestnut, Willow, and Birch, though his portfolio was far from complete. In one particular park west of Woodbridge Woods he had also seen Common Yew, Sycamore, and a few lonely Norway Spruce that were more than likely transplants brought by one of the park’s ancient owners.     

After several hundred feet, his path ran perpendicularly into another, and he continued on the western leg of such, running alongside a credible brook whose turbulent waters added to the soundscape of calls, buzzes, knocks, clicks, chirps, and the scattering of leaves by unseen creatures making their way to safety upon his determined approach. And as he momentarily halted his march to examine a particular stream pool for trout, he contemplated the extensive variance between olden woodland and the modern farmland which now dominated the countryside at the expense of the former.

Just as Mr. Winter’s erection of his boiler-heated glasshouse represents the Industrial Revolution beginning to saturate the English countryside, we are given another aspect of man’s destruction of nature for his own gain; save this one occurred much earlier, in ancient times, when it is said that the amount of farmland then was of the selfsame geographical area as what is present today.  The olden English forests held no chance against the sharp set stomach of even bronze age man.  Just examine the UK on Google Maps against the eastern US, and observe the difference in coverage of forest.

In this section, we also find the trend of amateur naturalism in motion, which was the thing during the era, from Sir Joseph Blaine’s large ‘bug’ collection – ha, ha! – to the Patrick O’Brien character, Stephen Maturin’s roaming the world on a Royal Navy frigate, in search of old and new species alike – a man after Charles Darwin’s heart.  My character Charlotte Moore is also an avid bird watcher and keeps close to her person a particular book on the subject in the front chapters of the novel:

Charlotte had failed (or was presently failing) to marry not from want of interest, but from a combination of lack of suitable interest concerning income, and her personal necessity of staying close at hand to, perhaps Woodbridge Manor, but more so to its lush countryside of rolling hills and forests; for like the younger Ms. Moore, and her father, regarding his apples, she too adored the local natural surround – a family trait, one might suppose. She was not as venturous as Harriet, wandering about the wood alone, but was vigilant to the daily opportunities at hand, such as today’s accompaniment of her cousin to the Edwards, for which she brought along the missing book that inspired such trouble in their library the day Mr. Winter had been introduced – Bewick’s History of British Birds. 

And here we observe all three of the younger, main characters walking to Hedgely from the Woodbridge parish with design to identify a few entries in Charlotte’s book:

‘Well then ladies – shall we begin our journey?’ he said through a genuine smile with his arm extended, gesturing at the path before them. Alas such was taken well, and they found much to say about the triumph of walking as opposed to the stuffy, cramped, and sometimes physically shocking experience that a carriage would provide on an uneven road. They too did all agree that Compton Lane, with its wooded embellishments, sounds of the river, and voidance of post coaches was the superior walking path in comparison to the upper leg of Westfield Road, and took the route in hopes of sighting a few specimens from Charlotte’s book.

Love, Lust and the Luxuriation in Nature

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Let us now examine the amalgam of nature and amorous notions with Mr. Winter’s shoddy poetical prose, which he secretly writes at his desk in his bedroom.  In the provided section, he is describing he and a young lover discovering themselves by chance on their lonesome country walks, and falling in love whilst witnessing the waking of the countryside on an early Sunday morning.

We did little to deserve each other, than what we did those few moments rising into the morning sun. Sure, such were no less soluble than any of the hundred scents conjured by the flourishing warmth, yet they did raise to the highest power what was, just before she existed, seemingly ordinary countryside. I fear the younger audience might tend to find love a void to be occupied as soon and as frequently as possible; its depth discovered by fervent thrusting. Perhaps I am grown simple, that it may, with equal credibility, be just the accidental brushing of her hand to mine, as she gestured at some creature I pretended to see for the sake of her excitement, roused out by the starting day…

[Some material removed]

…As the Sun’s titan tongue lapped further at our position, the world was reduced to two odd figures, the wind, the railed fence that marked our converging paths, and the soft permeation of cathedral chimes in the wooded distance; it must have been Sunday, the day we met. I felt it proper to mar at last a tacit interval born from trailing observations we had for each other about the boxed fields and their contents beyond our fence. In doing so – my begging of her name, for she had painted every other aspect of her character necessary for me to stumble about – a damnable hobbledehoy – my topside overweighed – I was confounded by an ungovernable discharge of emotion. Depth begets depth by the sounding of a name.

Her name. Faith, her name! Her name – a charmed amulet thus hung ‘round my neck, suffuse with supernatural will and revelry, that I may stand to the world with enlivened resolve, ingest its colors with an irrational augment of resonance, and have no doubt of comfort these last few earthly steps trusted to me. For these moments do arise that love is careless of curfew and refuge, that an indelible mark is made – the maker unexpected – and that a recognition so strong is to be found in another who has by naked chance shared one’s bit of walking path.

This next section concerns what I had previously stated about the woodland, and the younger characters’ reverence toward it, playing a significant role in the resolution of Part 1 of the the book.  [Spoiler Alert!]  Here Mr. Winter and Harriet Moore, both desiring to confront one another regarding their thus far unspoken love, which has, at this point, reached a flash point, are coincidentally walking toward each others residences – Harriet from Woodbridge, Mr. Winter from Hedgely.  They converge upon one another inside the vast woodland that separates their towns during the beginning of a large thunderstorm, which not only represents their inner turmoil and the ‘sinful nature’ of their behavior, with the extremity of nature playing out both internally and exogenously around them, but also adds a heightened sense of emotion to the scene, and taps into the primitive human desire for shelter seeking against the harsh, climactic elements in their environment, again informing the audience that it is the primal aspects of the human experience that is of concern in that moment:  Who hasn’t woken up to a thunderstorm, and finding themselves in a cozy bed, untouched by the elements, desired some manner of physical romance with their partner next to them, as a function of this transient phenomenon?

‘Mr. Winter!’ – a white flash as the figure sprinted her last few yards at him, her cloak inadvertently opening. Harriet Moore. Her face was entirely wet, yet not entirely from the rain; such was clear from the reddened distress in her eyes.

‘Ms. Moore! It is uncommon wet and only becoming worse. To where shall I take you?’

Ms. Moore looked away and stumbled for words that did not answer in the crescendoing elements. She eventually became overwhelmed and began to weep: ‘Mr. Winter, I am come to see you!’ There was not much of a height difference between the two of them, but still she looked up at him, warming him in the manner he terribly feared, to which his mind became dosed with riotous chemistry.

‘Well, come on then’, he said grabbing her hand and pulling her into Woodbridge Woods for shelter. They stormed the underbrush toward the small path known to the both of them, which led to a crop of olden oaks that were prized by the locals for their quality of shelter in a blow. There it was wet but tolerable, as they stood alongside one’s particularly massive trunk.

‘Oh Mr. Winter, I’ve something horrid to say to you…’

‘Ms. Moore!’, he burst out, ‘I’ve something for you as well – I beg before you do any damage that you hear me first, that I may spare you such. I was headed to Woodbridge to call…’

‘Oh, indeed?’

Mr. Winter felt the passage of time become gnarled as if the great perpetual clock of the wood was gently amiss: some ten fathoms above, the wind did dart to and fro through their tree’s oldest branches, causing sharpened wisps of sound to cry ‘hurry’ to the already shortened day; but below there was no such haste: Droplets lazily fell from the lowest branches and quietly and flatly puttered upon the forest litter, and the gusts were never quite so quarrelsome as to be the cause of their reddened cheeks. He was vaguely aware of the harm he was then to accomplish, but more so he was paradoxically at ease, for this woman calmed him and kept him from suffering the work of the clock, that he was indifferent to the consequences of the next year, the next month, or the next day…

[Large volumes of dialog-driven material omitted]

Thunder came from overhead and cracked time back into its natural setting. Wind, wet and hail surged through and through, numbing their extremities beyond tolerable, that they both uncontrollably shook. But the couple could not proceed to Woodbridge: they two, unchaperoned, presenting like soaked dogs would indeed be the fuel for rumors and those for injury with respect to Mr. Wyatt and by extension, Mr. Moore. Sneaking about unchristian-like, whist the squire was sincerely presenting an opportunity to his niece with the best of intention, even if such was fundamentally flawed, would surely be an insult that could justify a withheld blessing, and further jeopardize Mr. Winter’s social capacity to which his experiments relied. Ditto for Mr. Winter’s home: for they would be betrayed by the servants, and possibly the Edwards’ at their window, marveling at the weather, within the week – they wearily reasoned.  

And so it came to pass that they carried westward through the various splotches of groves to a grounds keeper’s cottage, which Mr. Winter had observed months before as unlet, and which presently displayed no variance in that respect. It took the best part of half an hour for Mr. Winter to ignite a fire, even though the former owner had left a few days’ dry kit for the rudimentary chimney that divided the two rooms of the dwelling. And when he was done, quite worked up and warmer for it, he threw down his grand cloak in front of the fire, offering Harriet the driest section, and alleviated her of her own ill weeping garment, and saturated gloves and hat.

‘Faith woman, your hands are the like to the weather!’, he exclaimed, noting the difference in temperature between them and his. He put a few deep breaths to them and rubbed them inside his own. ‘Sit in front the fire, Miss Harriet, and I will open my jacket and waistcoat just so that I may sit behind you and warm you from behind; between my person and the fire, we will see you warm in ten minute’s time’.

She leaned back into him and nestled her temple and cheek bone into the more supple part of his, that her ear felt afire. He laid his arms and cupped palms of his hands upon the selfsame of hers, contralaterally, that it was no longer just her ear that suffered pleasant inflammation, but the entirety of her skin and deeper still. She closed her eyes and recalled the cathedral chimes and faint smell of the clover and cocksfoot which had saturated her senses that long ago summer day. Then, looking back at him, she found herself unexpectedly fragile for the amount of natural laudanous spirits that boiled into her blood, dismissing everything proper before her king, country and God. It was but twelve beats of her heart that she ensnared an impeccant glance on his part with her resolute stare, that no other enterprise was reasoned or engendered, save the ungovernable collision of their lips; love knowing no honor…

Let the fountains, falls and gushes cease; and of the faintest match or greatest ripple of fire inside the earth – let these spare that which they are nourished; let no moon, nor earth, nor heavenly body crank one more inch; for thrusting into her, I am home and never wish again to depart, he inwardly professed just before the thunder clapped and he filled her with joyous living filament. 

The last line is the novel’s ultimate culmination of the merging of nature and romance:  Mr. Winter ejaculates inside of his lover as the thunderstorm continues to present its own moments of climax.  The term ‘living filament’ is a biological term used by Erasmus Darwin inside his chapter on generation – the sexual reproduction of animals with the concept of evolution of species in mind – found in his book Zoonomia.  Harriet Moore’s father had just presented a lecture on E. Darwin and his evolutionary philosophies, earlier in the chapter.

[I had originally planned a part III to this post, but alas family tragedy and time limits have exploded my intentions.]

[This, I believe, is my last post necessary for the complete reconstruction of my blog which suffered a data erasure a month or so ago.  From this point forward, when time allows, new postings will indeed be such, and not previously published.]