Friday, 30 March 2012

"Ursula" and Blackgang

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 A while back - see The Red House and the Sewells - I mentioned the Sewells, a high-achieving family in 19th-century Newport, Isle of Wight, and particularly one of the daughters, the novelist and educator Elizabeth Missing Sewell. I've been a little brainless, possibly because the Victorian Web assessment of her novels - as pious and dull - put me off investigating. I didn't spot that (as with Maxwell Gray) at least one of her works, Ursula, has a fictionalized Isle of Wight setting. It's unsurprising, considering that she was born in Newport in 1815 and spent much of her life on the Island, dying at Bonchurch in 1906.

I spotted the reference in the 1895 Black's Guide to the Isle of Wight (Internet Archive blacksguidetoisl00moncuoft) which cites Sewell's 1858 novel Ursula: A Tale of Country Life in its section on the Undercliff at the southern tip of the Island:
Miss Sewell, who has described this neighbourhood in her novel, Ursula, tells us : "The ground is tossed about in every direction, and huge rocks lie scattered upon it. But thorns and chestnuts and ash-trees have sprung up amongst them upon the green-sward ; ivy has climbed up the ledges of the jagged cliffs ; primroses cluster upon the banks ; cowslips glitter on the turf ; and masses of hyacinths may be seen in glades, half hidden by the foliage of the thick trees, and through which the jutting masses of gray rock peep out upon the open sea, sparkling with silver and blue some hundreds of feet beneath them."
There are several copies of Ursula in the Internet Archive (for instance, the single-volume 1886 edition is ursulataleofcoun00sewe) and a quick skim finds some detailed descriptions of the southern Island. For example, there is a scene in which the narrator recalls her childhood, and the view from "St. Anne's Hill" and "Sandcombe Down", which are clearly St. Catherine's Hill and St. Catherine's Down,

We walked over to Dene late one bright summer's evening, about two months after the plan had been first talked about. I just remember that. I don't recollect what the country looked like ; but it must have been very beautiful if it at all resembled — as of course it did — what I have known it since. The down behind Sandcombe is a long ridge, as I have said ; but towards the south it rises up in a great hill, called St. Anne's Hill, from the summit of which there is a view for many miles round, over the land and over the sea; for it is very near the sea, not above a mile distant. The coast forms part of a great bay, indented by smaller ones. The shore is closed in with red sand-cliffs, rather low, broken, and jagged; but away to the west the red sand changes into chalk, and the cliffs become very steep, and rise to a great height ; standing out against the sky, when the sun shines on them, until they almost dazzle the eye; and at other times covering themselves,. as it were, with a blueish veil of mist, and looking out proudly from behind it. ... Below the ridge of Sandcombe Down the ground is very flat for a long way. From the edge of the cliff it is level for miles, cut up into corn-fields and pastures, with a few trees dotting the hedge-rows. People have said that it is a barren-looking country, and wanted wood ; but it was never barren to me. There was always variety in it. The clouds., when they drifted over the sky, cast shadows upon the fields ; and the sun, when it burst out, gleamed across them in long streaks of light ; and sometimes touched the tower of a church, or seemed as if it were trying to light up the old castle, standing on the hill close to Hove. For we could see as far as Hove, and beyond it, from Sandcombe Down : away, indeed, to where the river, which had its source close to us, and was then only a tiny brook, became quite a broad stream, and deep enough to float vessels. We could follow it till it reached a little seaport a few miles from Hove, and trace beyond it a blue line of sea, appearing here and there, as the land rose or sunk. There was an opposite coast, too, in that direction, and we could plainly distinguish the houses, looking like white dots, and the great chalk-pits, like patches on the sides of the misty hills. I was never tired of the view ; yet it was not so grand as the open sea, and the white cliffs from St. Anne's ; and I think it gave me more thoughts of the world.

More on most of these locations shortly - but briefly, don't be confused by "Hove". It's evidently Newport, the old castle Carisbrooke Castle, and the river is the Medina. The part about the opposite coast refers to looking northward across to the Hampshire mainland, and the chalk pits are on the southern face of Portsdown Hill, the down that backs Portsmouth Harbour. Further:

Mrs. Weir's new house was not exactly in Compton ; it might have been pleasanter for her if it had been. She would have been nearer the church and the parsonage. I don't know that I could describe the situation well to any one acquainted with the neighbourhood, and who did not know the kind of country that lay on the other side of St. Anne's Hill, between it and the sea. But supposing a person was standing on the top of St. Anne's facing the sea, and then was to go down the hill on that side, he would come to the top of a steep, jagged cliff, broken into uneven ledges, bare and sharp, except where here and there some green plant had I taken root in the crevices, and managed to grow in spite of the fury of the south-west winds, which, in these parts, are the fiercest winds that blow. Before coming to the top of the cliffs, it seems that there is nothing between them and the sea, but on reaching the edge there is a sight which makes a stranger start. For below lies, not the sea, but a broad tract of land, tossed up and down in little hills and valleys. It is scattered all over with huge rocks, which look as though giants had thrown them about in their play, and it slopes down in a steep descent towards the top of a second range of cliffs. This range cannot, of course, be discovered immediately underneath the upper cliffs, but it can be traced towards the west for many miles, forming the outline of Compton Bay. A dreary-looking country it is, but it has a charm even for that very reason. As a child I only saw it occasionally, and always thought of it as connected with haunts of smugglers, and wild storms ; roaring waves, and shipwrecks, and heavy sea mists, gathering over the hills, and shutting out the light which was the only hope of the seaman's safety. It must have been a fierce time on earth when the land sank away from the upper cliffs, and the great rocks were hurled down, and the streams, which have now worked their way through the lower cliffs, and formed deep chasms, first began to flow. But those days are not within the memory of man that I ever heard. Yet even now it is solemn to stand and think of what once has been. When I first remember that part of the country it was, so to say, unknown and untraversed. There was no road through it. Persons wishing to go from Hatton to Compton had to go up Hatton lane, and over the hill; only foot-passengers went over the cliffs, and with them it was a difficult task to find their way, especially on a dark night. They might stumble among the rocks, or wander to the edge of the cliff, and be over before they were aware of it. Some people, at that time, thought it an unsafe country to live in, and said that the rooks would fall again ; but there was little enough really to fear, though certainly things did seem terrible to those who were unaccustomed to them. Perhaps the country looks all the more wild from the contrast with that which immediately adjoins it. For to the east of St. Anne's Hill, just beyond Hatton, the land turns towards the south, and the warm sun shines full upon it. The ground is tossed about still in every direction, and huge rocks lie scattered upon it But thorns, and chestnuts, and ash trees have sprung up amongst them upon the greensward, ivy has climbed up we ledges of the jagged cliffs ; primroses cluster upon the banks; cowslips glitter on the turf; and masses of hyacinths may be seen in glades, half hidden by the foliage of the thick trees, and through which the jutting masses of grey rock peep out upon the open sea, sparkling with silver and blue, some hundreds of feet beneath them.
I'd formed an extremely good impression where this is: with St. Anne's Hill being St. Catherine's Down, the tumbled landscape is the Undercliff between Blackgang and Niton that I described and photographed last year: see On the lost road. However, Miss Sewell was helpfully explicit in her autobiography, identifying many locations that still exist (except for the two houses in the Undercliff, long-destroyed by landslip):
Ursula, which was published in 1858, is, as regards scenery, more entirely part of my early associations than any other of my tales — for Dene, Ursula's first home with her brother Roger, represents the Hermitage, where my happy holidays were so often spent.
The places mentioned in the neighbourhood of Dene are those which are really near the Hermitage. Compton is Chale; Hatton is Niton; and Hove is Newport; Sandcombe is a farm known as Downcourt; and Longside another farm called Fairfields. Every description is in fact taken from reality. Compton Heath represents the scenery and the houses near Blackgang Chine. In my childhood there was no high road to Blackgang. Persons wishing to drive from Chale to Niton were obliged to follow the cart-track over St. Catherine's Down. Mrs. Weir's cottage, "The Heath," is one amongst the many small villas which have sprung up between Niton and Blackgang. I think it is now called "Ninestones". Stonecliffe is Southlands, a large house on the lower edge of the cliff.
Probably many persons may consider I have exaggerated the beauty of the view looking from the cliffs under St. Catherine's over the rocks and trees to the sea: but I speak of it in Ursula as it was to my young imagination, before villas and roads had intruded upon its quiet loveliness. The drive along the Undercliff from Niton to Bonchurch has great attractions still, but nothing can restore the lost charm which haunts my remembrance to this day as a prophecy of the beauty of a future and better world.
- The Autobiography of Elizabeth M. Sewell (Elizabeth Missing Sewell, Eleanor L. Sewell, 1907, Internet Archive autobiographyel00unkngoog
On the former Blackgang-Niton Road, Blackgang landslip, Oct 2011
For me the description is very evocative; as regular readers will recall, I know this landscape well, both from my childhood and now. I don't have a nostalgia in the sense of regrets about how things have changed. It's been quite opposite: enough things have stayed the same that revisiting was possible, and I hadn't imagined the impact that being able to connect past and present would have on me. As I said in the earlier post, visiting the "lost road" and the ruin of the Shakespeare Memorial Fountain was the most intense experience of landscape I've had for decades. I knew it would be interesting in a kind of post-apocalyptic urban exploration way, but that didn't prepare me for the sheer terror of crossing the narrow cliff path to get there (and the elation at having over-ridden the terror and done it), or for the flood of memories - the sense of touching the past - when I got there.

Consequently I decided, after some months' thought, to commemorate it with a new tattoo, a slightly stylized image of the remaining logo from the Shakespeare Fountain. "TAR AND THE RO" is all that's left of a quotation from Two Gentlemen of Verona, apposite to the landscape - "The water nectar, and the rocks pure gold" - chosen by the installer, Charles Letts, to commemorate the tercentenary of Shakespeare's birth. So I guess it counts as a literary tattoo as well. The work is by Lewis at Glory Bound, Rolle Street, Exmouth, who also did my bayan tattoo.

Shakespeare Memorial Fountain, Oct 2011, detail

Shakespeare Memorial Fountain, Oct 2011
- Ray

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