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Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Fens serendipities

Lately I have been coming across literature set in the English fens, so I thought I would write about three "fen" settings I have encountered in the past few weeks: a Father Brown story (my first) by G.K. Chesterton called "The Sins of Prince Saradine," the movie version of Waterland, based on the Graham Swift novel, and just today, Virginia Woolf's "The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn." All three use the fens--the emptiness, the melancholy marshes, the waterways--to lyrical effect, and to evoke the fairyland, both enchanting and frightful, of childhood.

In "The Sins of Prince Saradine," Father Brown accompanies his friend Flambeau on a month's holiday, traveling in a small boat on "little rivers in the Eastern counties ... [rivers] so small that the boat looked like a magic boat, sailing on land through meadows and cornfields."  The men delight in "overhanging gardens and meadows, the mirrored mansions or villages, lingering to fish in the pools and corners ..."

A narrow waterway through the fens

They end up, by design, at the home of Prince Saradine, called Reed House, on Reed Island, Norfolk. The day they arrive there, they awake before daylight:
" ... a large lemon moon was only just setting in the forest of high grass about their heads, and the sky was of a vivid violet-blue, nocturnal but bright. Both men had a simultaneous a reminiscence of childhood, of the elfin and adventurous time when tall weeds close over us like woods. Standing up thus against the large low moon, the daisies really seemed to be giant daisies, the dandelions to be giant dandelions. ... 'By Jove!'  said Flambeau, 'it's like being in fairyland.'"
Reed House has an Asian fairytale quality:
"... in the middle of this wider piece of water, fringed on every side with rushes, lay a long, low islet, along which ran a low, long house or bungalow built of bamboo or some kind of tough tropic cane."
Fittingly enough, they stumble on a murder and a mystery involving an Orientalized Sicilian in this exotic island fairyland: exotic in the midst of the ironically all-too-ordinary English fens.

Memories of childhood and adolescence on the fens also crowd the thoughts of middle-aged high-school history teacher Tom Crick (Jeremy Irons) as he tries to reach his disinterested students in the movie Waterland.  Here the fens also provide a lyrical  backdrop for a story about love, family and fractures that explores why history matters. The cinematography is breathtaking, the fens a land of magic and memory, as murky, insubstantial, real, and bittersweet as the past itself.

What can be said about "The Journal of Joan Martyn," an early, fictional exploration of woman's biography, written in 1906 when Woolf was 24? Woolf is brilliant and this story, set (mostly) in the 15th century village of East Harling, a real place, captures the poetry and intensity of what it is like to be a quiveringly free and alive adolescent girl on the brink of marriage,  a matrimony that is perhaps a too-majestic estate of "great honor and ... great burden."

Joan's story is framed by the modern-day tale of narrator Miss Rosamond Merridew, aged 45, a brittle and long-winded maiden historian, yet perceptive, imaginative, and thus linked to her subject, Joan. Miss Merridew writes:
I have not scrupled ... to show, vividly as in a picture, some scenes from the life of the time; here I knock at the serf's door, and find him roasting rabbits he has poached ... [Joan will describe a scene far harsher]
Rosamond, through instinct and intuition, and her "archaeological eyes" which "telegram" her, comes to
long low walls of buff coloured plaster; and on top of them, at no great distance was the roof of ruddy tiles, and finally, I beheld in front of me the whole of the dignified little house, built like the letter E with the middle notch smooth out of it.
This is Joan's ancestral manor, "one of those humble little old Halls," now owned by the middle-aged Martyns. They give Rosamond a tour and then reveal to her old papers. Mr. Martyn, like Austen's Sir Walter Elliot, is primarily interested in the family genealogy, "an elaborate ... tree ... [that] his finger travelled sagaciously ... as though it were so well used to this occupation it could almost be trusted to perform it itself."

He is far less concerned about what excites Miss Merridew, the journal of Joan Martyn. In his defense, he is matter-of-fact rather than pompous (like Sir Walter) about his heritage. His ancestors are casually alive to him not as status symbols but as friends, as if there were no gulf between past and present.

He is carelessly pleased to lend Rosamond Joan's journal, though bemused as to why she wouldn't want Willoughby's, yes Willoughby's, Stud book, no doubt a nod to the horse gifting and randy Mr. Willoughby of Jane Austen fame.

Miss Merridew, however, eschews the Stud book for the teenage girl's journal and the rest of the story comes from the journal as our focus moves to Joan.

For the duration of her account, Joan, though every day closer to matrimony, is the light, dancing, vibrant, happy daughter with "a clear vision." She writes;
"Oh, how blessed it would be never to marry or grow old; but to spend one's life innocently and indifferently among the trees and rivers which can alone keep one childlike in the midst of the troubles of the world! Marriage of any other great joy would confuse the clear vision which is still mine."
We hear the voice and vision of the young Virginia Woolf echoing through the words of Joan Martyn. Or, for that matter, the voice of Jane Austen, who never let marriage confuse her clear vision.

Joan is alive to the wonder of the world. On a winter day she perceives the sun as
"made of gleaming ice and not fire; and its rays were long icicles that reached from sky to earth. They splintered on our cheeks and went glancing across the fen."
One could weep at the beauty of that language. When the wandering storyteller, Master Richard, arrives at the small castle, Joan, aquiver with desire, admires his book:
"the capital letters framed bright blue skies, and golden robes; and in the midst of the writing their came broad spaces of color, where you might see princes and princesses, walking in procession and towns with churches on steep hills, and the sea breaking blue beneath them. They were like little mirrors, held up to those visions which I had seen passing in the air but here they were caught and stayed forever."

Joan has arrived at a time when her feelings are "true" and she
"saw them as solid globes of crystal; enclosing a round ball of earth and air, in which tiny men and women labored, as beneath the dome of the sky itself."
But Joan must prepare for marriage, which means the loss of childhood's fairyland, represented by the fens, and instead assume the adult mantle of colonization, possession, domination of one's surround, as her mother explains to her in "theory of ownership:"
"one is as the Ruler of a small island set in the midst of turbulent waters; how one must plant it and cultivate it; and drive roads through it, and fence it securely from the tides; and one day perhaps the waters will abate and this plot of ground will be ready to make part of a new world."
Joan's mother wants "one firm spot of ground to tread on."

But Joan yearns something more insubstantial, mysterious and ephemeral:
"Yet what it is I want, I cannot tell, although I crave for it, and in some secret way, expect it. For often, and oftener as time goes by, I find myself suddenly halting in my walk, as though I were stopped by a strange new look on the surface of the land which I know so well. It hints at something, but is gone before I know what it means."
Joan grasps for the numinous "more" just out of reach. We fear that she has reached her zenith at journal's end.


  1. Very moving and beautifully written. Yes the cinematography of the movie Waterland is breath-taking; they do it so realistically, one feels almost one (I) am there, and Woolf's Joan Martyn is a stunning gem. She does die at the end -- childbirth cuts her off as so many women. Joan Shakespeare did not die in the streets most of the time, she died of too many childbeds.

    Me too on noticing the fens. I've been reading Woolf, Graham and thought of Dickens, the fens of Great Expectations.

  2. Thanks Ellen. Roger mentioned Great Expectations too, and it's hard to forgot those vivid scenes in the beginning when Pip helps Magwitch in the fens. I think of Penelope Fitzgerald's The Bookshop too. I saw that Graham uses a quote from Great Expectations in his frontispiece. These works whet my appetite to visit the fens ... I was in the region two years ago, but we never got to the actual fens, alas.

  3. Interesting post, Diane. I'll have to watch Waterland. The fens remind me of the Prince Valiant comic strip. When Valiant and his parents are thrust out of their kingdom of Thule, they are allowed to make a home in the fens of England - it is there Valiant grows up before he goes off to become a Knight of the Round Table.

  4. Tyler,
    Thanks for reading and interesting about Prince Valiant.