Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Stonehenge and Virginia Stephen Woolf

Virginia and Vanessa and their brothers, in the prewar years, always spent August and September on "holiday."  During their 1903 holiday, they stayed in the Salisbury area. They were, therefore, able to return to Stonehenge a second time for a leisurely and (pleasantly) lonesome visit on September 5. I include much of Woolf's description because it shows how different the experience of Stonehenge was from how it is possible to experience it today, when it has become a very controlled and reconstructed world heritage tourist site. I was especially taken with Woolf's picture of the shepherds on Salisbury plain: what she is describes is not what you would see there today. 

Not quite Woolf's black-cape clad shepherds, but he does have a staff. 

I was also impressed with what a strong writer she was at this point, and with her touch of self irony in describing so romantic a scene as the shepherds. I took the time to really think about what it might like to stay in a spot for two months on holiday and have the ability to return to favorite destinations. Most of us see Stonehenge once and must move on (even if we happen to be living nearby, as I was in London).

Woolf's Stonehenge

It is also interesting to me that Woolf was reading Hardy's Tess at this time, and mentions it in her journal, but says nothing about imagining Tess at Stonehenge. I also find it fascinating that Woolf saw Stonehenge so strongly through a religious lens: when I was there I was interested in it primarily as a historic cultural site, an archeological "treasure." (And I just might have seen Tess ... :))

Woolf's diary of  Sept 5, 1903 
… our two visits to Stonehenge have impressed such pictures on my mind as I never wish to be obliterated. 
We made a second expedition today … I would rather call it a pilgrimage: because in truth we went with all reverence  with a pure design to enjoy ourselves. A day spent happily in the open air, counts, I am sure ‘whatever Gods there be,’ as worship; the air is a Temple in which one is purged of one’s sins.
We drove [in a horse-drawn cart] over the Downs, instead of the by-road, a straighter and more interesting way … a showery morning … 
On the plain itself, the only people we passed were shepherds, they drift about in the wide space with their flocks, just as though they were in the Bible; they take advantage of this wet weather too; to add one bold stroke to their appearance, which, I as an artist would hesitate to introduce; I should be half afraid of over picturesqueness: they wear long black cloaks reaching down to their heels, & flapping in capes round the shoulders:  in one hand too they grasp a real shepherds staff. You may actually see one of these figures lying on his elbow, wrapped in his cloak, his dog lolling out his tongue beside him, & his flock grazing all around.
We lunched—& we walked across to Stonehenge & sat within the Circle. Our choice of a day gave us the whole place to ourselves. The solitary policeman whose strange lot in life is to mount guard over Stonehenge had taken shelter behind one of his charges. The apoplectic sheep, who can imitate a standing motor car which is still palpitating to perfection, were grazing outside the Circle, & as far as we could see we had not only Stonehenge,  but the whole ocean of plain entirely to ourselves. One can imagine why this spot was chosen by the Druids—or whoever they were—for their Temple to the Sun. It lies very naked to the sun. It is a kind of altar made of earth, on which the whole world might do sacrifice.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Virginia Woolf: Stonehenge Serendipities

Serendipity upon serendipity. I took with me to Malta (smushed into my luggage) the large hardback of Virgina's Woolf's first set of diaries, A Passionate Apprentice. While there, with two weeks to go before heading to Alton, England, I read the 1903 entries. In that year, she holidayed in Salisbury and went to Stonehenge. It dawned on me that I was soon going to be almost in the same spot: Alton is not far from Stonehenge. What a nice coincidence, I thought. Although we didn't visit, Roger and I drove past Stonehenge on the way to Bath and had a beautiful view. I was relieved the view hadn't been marred by a museum. It looked much as in the photo below:

Stonehenge today

The serendipities, however, did not end at me seeing Stonehenge not long after reading about Woolf visiting Stonehenge. 

Woolf writes about being surprised at how much smaller Stonehenge was than she envsioned: 

I suddenly looked ahead, & saw with a start that with which one sees in real life what ones eyes had always known in pictures, the famous circle of Stonehenge. Pictures give one no idea of size; & I had imagined something on a much larger scale. I had thought that the stones were scattered at intervals over a great space of the plain—so when we settled to meet the riders at ‘Stonehenge’  I had privately judged the plan to be far too vague. But really it is a tiny compact little place …
Stonehenge from around the time Woolf visited

A nineteenth century photo of Stonehenge

I came home from England and continued rereading a journal I had recently found from my time living in England in 1979. Almost immediately, I came across an entry about a trip I took  to Winchester/Stonehenge. Interesting, I thought. Even more so was what I wrote, on April 27, 1979 which I have utterly no memory of thinking: 

Stonehenge. Smaller than I expected. Films, the lying camera, made me imagine towering stone. Yet despite the smallness, it makes a deep impression. You stand on the top of a hill overlooking empty deep green plains on all sides. The wind cuts through clothing, whips back hair with brutal violence. It is still there but the guide’s voice screams into the wind. The stones stand, or lie, unmoved, solid, rugged, overlooking the plains. The mounds of Saxon kings circle the rocks. 
Arrangement of the rocks—like modern sculpture. There is a sense of history, of many centuries here,  the past entrenched here, and one can become part of that, yet remain distinct. It is the same almost as it was—the landscape, the plain, the rocks, the isolation. 
And here is more of Woolf, said far more elegantly and at greater length than me, but the same idea:

Nessa & I drove there [in a pony cart], 12 miles, all winding between the crest of the downs, with the Avon at our feet. It was, to give a most important setting to the scene, a brilliantly clear day; hot in the sun, fresh in the shadow, & the trees and the fields looked brisk & vigorous with the light on them, but by no means too hot. ...
The singular & intoxicating charm of Stonehenge to me, & to most I think, is that no one in the world can tell you anything about it. …Man has nothing to change Salisbury plain since these stones were set here; they have seen sunrise & moonrise over those identical swells & ridges for—I know not how many thousand years. I like to think of it; imagine those toiling pagans doing honor to the very sun now in the sky above me, & for some perverse reason I find this a more deeply impressive temple of Religion—block laid to block and half of them tumbled down in ruin so long that the earth almost hides them, then that perfect spire whence prayer & praise is at this very moment ascending.  

It was so startling for me to come across my own diary entry about Stonehenge, unread for forty years, just a few weeks after I had read Woolf's entry--and even more so to have had the same reaction that she did (even if not an unusual response). 

And now for the final serendipity, which ties back to Notre Dame and my previous blog on the narrative of place. As the photos above clearly show, the look of Stonehenge has changed since Woolf's time. I searched for old photos of Stonehenge to find a suitably "Woolfian" period photo and was stunned by the difference between then and now. The Stonehenge Woolf saw was not the same Stonehenge I saw in 1979 or a month ago driving by. I again note that what we see when we travel as tourists is a construct, a story. Who can say which is more "authentic"--"my" Stonehenge or "Woolf's"-- as the recent changes are clearly meant to make it more "authentically" what it was--or what we believe it to have been--in its heyday. 

Like the Notre Dame cathedral that burned, what is authenticity? That was already largely "restored" in a way that said more about nineteenth century interpretations of Gothic than what a medieval visitor would have seen. And it will be, as Europe always is, restored again. 

Finally, I can't help but quote at length from a humorous 2017 blog that dwells on this theme (and mentions size):


 Stonehenge was built in 1958. Our students go to investigate...It is sometimes hard to know what is authentic heritage, and what is not. ...
When we travel, we often create the things we expect to see. Quantum physicists know all about this phenomenon. ...But it would be harder, you would think, to create Stonehenge. Stonehenge is in truth pretty old (the landscape was worked on for a long time, but the stones will have been erected between 3000 and 2000 BC), but it has been touched up and ‘restored’ again and again through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In part, this was to secure the stones, to stop them from collapsing (one particularly crooked sarsen stone was straightened in the early twentieth century); but every time you touch something up it starts to look a little more like what everyone thinks it should look like. Archaeologists are on record stating that not a stone of Stonehenge has not been tinkered with in some way at some point in the last hundred years, and that it is ‘largely a product of the English Heritage Industry’. Thus it conforms, now, to expectations.
And for all that, not a single student I know who has been to see it has not remarked that it is much smaller than they thought. Perhaps some sort of gradual enlargement is the next step, if the British politico-military-industrial establishment can get its act together. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Narrative of Place: Malta and Bath

While walking the cobblestoned streets in Vallatta, Malta's capital, a UNESCO heritage site, I unexpectedly found myself imagining Jane Austen meandering down the same streets, breathing  the same Mediterranean breezes, perhaps looking into the same shop windows.

The many steps down to the Grand Harbor in Valletta. 

Little side streets shops showed  prints of  eighteenth century sailing vessels with sails billowing in the Grand Harbor. I could n't help but think with a thrill of Anne Eliot of Persuasion running into Admiral Croft staring into a shop window at a boat print on the streets of Bath. Austen never visited Malta, but the sense of her--and poets of her era who did, such as Byron and Coleridge--was palpable.

Ship prints in a shop window. Admiral Croft, where art thou??

A few weeks later in Bath, also a UNESCO heritage site, under a chillier sky, walking past pale stone eighteenth century buildings and visiting the Assembly rooms, I had a far more difficult time channeling Jane Austen, though she lived in this city for more than four years and set parts of two  novels there.

The Assembly rooms were bombed to smithereens in WWII and rebuilt.

Churches in Bath suffered damage and were repaired.

How, I wondered, did, Valletta, an eighteenth century city  more or less obliterated during World War II that Austen never visited strike me as more authentically "Austenian" than a city she actually lived in?

I decided to do some sleuthing.

I already knew that Malta was the most bombed country during World War II, as the Germans tried to wrest control of this strategic island from the British. The "eighteenth-century" Vallatta we walk through today is a reconstruction of what the city looked like before it was destroyed by bombing in the 1940s.

Valletta in World War II. The Nazis were plagued by bombing runs on Africa originating here. 

 I was surprised to learn that Bath, too, was bombed during World War II. It was targeted in what were called the Baedecker bombings, made in retaliation for British bombing of historic German cities. Bath was targeted precisely because of its tourist appeal and beauty. Three nights of bombing  killed hundreds of people, destroyed 1,200 buildings and damaged 19,000. Included in the destruction were the Assembly rooms we today visit as if they were authentic eighteenth century rooms. The East window of the Bath Cathedral was also destroyed, as were many Georgian homes and buildings. Contemporary 1940s photographs show huge piles of rubble in Bath.

The Bath we see to today has been restored. 

Like Valletta, Bath was rebuilt.

Neither city is authentically eighteenth century. Both cities have undergone intensive reconstruction. So why does Valletta tell a more convincing than Bath?

The answer lies in the decisions city planners made. Malta used the advantage of two land masses separated by a quick (seven minute) ferry ride across a bay to create two culturally distinct areas, Valletta and Sliema. Sliema is a densely packed "cosmopolitan" area of high rise apartments, Euro-chic restaurants, and chain store shopping. (I ate at a Marks and Spencers.) Valletta, in contrast, is a low-rise area of eighteenth-century stone buildings and cobblestoned streets. Wide areas of the downtown are closed to auto traffic--and you need a permit to bring a car in at all.

Further, visitors can still walk down wide flights of stone stairs to the harbor, just like the stairs Byron bitterly complained about having to climb with his lame foot. The skyline is dominated by Church domes, and the major (and side) street are filled  Malta-style restaurants, cafes, and shops. Only the slightest number of chain stores have made their way in and have done so discreetly.

How much bombing damage did St. John's Baroque excess in Vallatta endure?

Bath, in contrast, amalgamates it eighteenth century Georgian city with a modern cosmopolitan city. Car traffic runs beside cobbled pedestrian malls. Pubs and Euro-chic restaurants stand side by side. Eighteenth century townhouses reside beside modern chain furniture stores.

If "UNESCO heritage  sites tell stories--are fictions--than Valletta/Sliema offers a clearer and more compelling narrative than Bath. If I can more easily channel Austen in Valletta, this is because Valletta, with its lack of cars and consistently eighteenth century look, seems more like a city Austen would have known.

Could Bath have off-shored the cosmopolitan parts of its city to a separate section, perhaps on the other side of the Avon? If it had done so, it could have left the area around the Roman Baths, the cathedral and the rebuilt Assembly rooms car free and populated with locally owned British pubs, tearooms, and shops. This would have created a more coherent narrative and sense of Jane Austen's Bath. Unfortunately, the juxtaposition of eighteenth century and twenty-first century city leads to a place that while lovely, is not really one or the other.

All of this has left me ruminating on how much of Europe, which we visit  for "authentic" encounters with the historic, (despite much written lately about Disneyfication) has been rebuilt, and how much that matters. What is authenticity? Isn't rebuilding a building, a cathedral, a city block or a square as it was making a strong gesture towards preserving the past?  Doesn't recreating, in fact, recreate? Of course, we can never really get to the experience of the past, especially the distant past. I stayed in a medieval city, Mdina, in Malta that has withstood  earthquakes and was not a target of World War II bombing, It still has fourteenth century buildings, narrow streets, and is on a hill surrounded by high walls, but health regulations alone ensure we don't occupy it the way medieval residents did. Yet, when you walk Mdina, you walk the streets that were 800 years in the past. This is different from a recreation of an Eiffel Tower put down in a swamp a continent away from the source.

Whatever the issues of authenticity, cities do best when they tell a coherent story--and I was delighted beyond measure to be able to channel the Regency world of Austen, Coleridge, and Byron in this Mediterranean setting. It's never a problem to have an unexpected encounter with Jane: who, I might mention, was quite tall and wearing a high-waisted white muslin gown.