Friday, 26 October 2012

A New Englander hates on the Sandrock

I always like historical travelogues, and just ran into an interesting one by the American author and literary critic John Neal (see pp 40-42, The Cambridge History of American Literature: Volume 2, Prose Writing 1820-1865). It's not a travelogue as such, but Neal paid an extended visit to England from 1824-1827, on a kind of evangelical tour for American literature and culture, and in 1830 he incorporated the visit into his novel Authorship: A Tale (Internet Archive ID authorshipatale01nealgoog).

Authorship is an extremely complex work: a metafictional novel in which a narrator called Holmes visits the Isle of Wight, though the character of Holmes is closely based on Neal, and the landscape detail on Neal's real visit to the Island.

Holmes's / Neal's trip starts out well:
I had long been wishing to see the Isle-of-Wight; and by the merest accident in the world I found myself there in the beautiful autumn of eighteen hundred and twenty—.

Such weather I had never seen before out of America. It was the very counterpart of our Indian-summer, that we brag so much of. I do not know what other men may feel, but I feel in the rich drowsy atmosphere of that particular season very much as if I could make love to any body or any thing that fell in my way. To breathe was a luxury. To tread the green turf, to walk under the great beech-trees that overshadowed my path, to look up at the sky and out upon the sea, from every side of "the Garden of England," as they call it there — a miniature picture of England, 1 should call it — was to be happy, to be charitable, and to be at peace with all the world — authors excepted.
Ryde Pier, looking across Solent
His description of the Solent view is heartfelt and appreciative. Having made the crossing several times under similar conditions - the view has changed little in the nearly two centuries since Neal saw it - I can fully understand the buzz he got from it. The water adjacent to Ryde is indeed a remarkable colour, and arriving is always a delight. (My photos are from September 2012).

Ryde, from Ryde Pier

So I set off on my pilgrimage from Ryde, after running down to the pier for the fourth time, to look at the Portsmouth shore as it lay glittering afar off through the thin haze and over the smooth beautifully-shadowed sea, like a sort of aerial panorama. — Stop, reader — I must try to give you a notion of Portsmouth as it appeared to me at the time I speak of, whether you have or have not stood upon the pier at Ryde, while the waters were spread before you like a sheet of changeable satin— changeable with shadow and light and with every hue between the deep yellow of the shore and the deep strange blue of the sea ...
Portsmouth Harbour entrance, from the Solent
... nothing that I saw then, though it was all that I have described it to be, could equal the view that I had now of the Portsmouth shore of Gosport, of the shipping, of the military works, and of the far blue sea with a fleet riding slowly over the dim barrier which hardly separated it from the far blue sky — launching away, ship after ship into the unfathomable air, as if they knew, like the huge birds of South-America when they float over the top of the Andes — into the sky — with all their mighty wings outspread, that there was no power in heaven or earth able to wreck them, or shatter them, or disturb them on their way. It was a picture to be remembered for life— 'to be carried away on the. heart, as if the colors were burnt there, and the moveable beauty of a camera obscura had been shut up for another day, or melted into the material and fixed there for ever and ever.

looking west froom Ryde Pier
The broad-striped waters were like a smooth satin, glossy with light, and rippling with a low soft air that stole over the green surface like a shadow. You could see it move. They were green too— of a beautiful positive green, such as I never saw any where else; no doubt owing to the mixture of a sober yellowish dye produced by the sands near the shore with the cold blue of the ocean— a blue that appeared as black as midnight, where the waters were very deep, On every side of me were happy faces — grown-up children wading about on the shore, and looking as if they had never heard the name of sorrow, as if to them life were but one long holyday; barges and wherries dipping to the swell ; great ships at anchor with their sides turned up to the air as if they had been cast away in the very middle of the great deep ; and others afar off towering into the sky like prodigies, or floating up and fading away, like so many superb creatures of the air, each abroad on some great particular errand of its own.
The Gosport shore, from the Solent

The night before there had been a gale, which prepared the way for what I saw now. I stood on the pier and saw it approach — the breeze sounding over the deep, the mist rolling toward me like a heavy white smoke, the tide moving with a steady roar, which grew louder and louder as it heaved and weltered underneath our feet; and the Portsmouth shore, while it seemed very high and very far off, breaking through the mist with an effect such as I never saw before, either in life or in poetry, either in pictures or in sleep. The sky was cloudy — it was even dark—there was nothing above able to produce what I saw, nothing of brightness in that part of the above which I could see ; and yet the high lands of the opposite shore, lands that were neither high nor picturesque when the wind was another way, were gleaming with a sort of mysterious beauty, such as you may conceive would be the character of a fine painting, if it were covered with a grey gauze and lighted up from within. It was what I should call, if I were not afraid of being charged with affectation, a sketch by the Deity, a shadow of the landscapes that we are to see hereafter; so faint, so ethereal was it, so unlike the landscapes of our earth.
- ibid, pp14-17

The view - now much overgrown and gentrified - from "the celebrated wall"
Holmes/Neal is equally blown away on visiting "Bow-Church" [sic] and seeing the view of what he calls "the celebrated wall" (the escarpment backing the Undercliff) from the vantage point of what's recognisable as Hadfield's Lookout.
The view was delightful, and rich, and various, and like nothing I had ever seen before. I remember thus much, and I remember too that whatever there was to see, I saw, and that before the day was well over, I (But for my life I cannot say now whether it was while I stood on that rock or after I had peeped over and crawled away) among a multitude of things, the memory of which had escaped me before my head was on the pillow that very night, I saw — a huge high wall— so huge as to appear like a part of the foundations of our earth, and so high that I mistook a white cloud sailing over the top, for smoke. It was like the vapor that follows the discharge of cannon that are too far off to be heard ; a wall stretching over leagues and leagues of territory ; cottages underneath my very feet (I could have jumped through the roofs) grouped here and there among the trees and the rocks and the gushing water and the wild shrubbery, as if they were copied from old pictures ; on every side of me the bulwarks of an empire, great square blocks which appeared as if they had been wrought by the hands, or piled up where they lay by the power of giants ; here a cottage or two garnered up in the holes of the rocks, and there half a dozen more literally folded among the ruins of what appeared like the overthrown barrier of a huge citadel — a barrier overthrown by flood, or by earthquake, or by fire from above — not by the wrath of mortal man ; here a heap of the greenest foliage I ever saw, overhanging a roof, the loveliest I ever saw (not seven feet high), and a little bit of smooth rich turf, yet greener than the foliage of the young trees, and as lively as the plumage of a parrot — ' Green to the very door ' — and hedged about with flowering shrubs and great rocks, much higher than the roof, and scattered clumps of blackberry — bushes, with never a bit of a pathway to be seen, so that you could not conceive how the people got there alive, nor how they got the children there that you saw laughing and rolling about, or hiding in the shadow of the rocks, or creeping half sideways over the smooth turf.

All this I did see, and I saw it either while I was on the top of that rock, holding by the flag-staff, afraid to move lest the rock should tip over among the houses, and afraid to let go, lest I should be blown away ; or I saw it, after I had escaped ...
- ibid, pp31-33
Sandrock Hotel roughly as it would have been when Neal visited
- image from Cooke's A New Picture of the Isle of Wight, 1812
After that it went downhill. Holmes/Neal stays at the now-defunct Sandrock Hotel, and gets off to a bad start.
The approach to the house delighted me. The roof was thatched, there was a green piazza running the whole length of the house, and there was a very pretty patch of green turf spreading out before the piazza far enough to allow a sort of a promenade. As I drove up to the door, I saw several faces at the window — but I could not see of what shape or form they were, much as I desired it; for there was a bit of thin white drapery between the faces and me. At the door too, several persons appeared, and others were walking about on the little patch of green; but nobody in the shape of a landlord or waiter, chamber-maid or hostler. I went up to the door, and was going in to look for the coffee-room, or the traveller's room, or a room where I could see somebody belonging to the house, when I perceived that I should get into the kitchen if I stirred either way, or into the room at the window of .which the faces appeared. A knocker was on the door — I believe — but I dare not be certain, for I have quite forgotten much that I saw there, and I hope to forget the rest before I die. But whether a knocker was on the door or not, I knocked ; and after a while — faith, it was a good while too, so long that I began to fear the guide had brought me to a private house, and that the people about me were the retired nobility of our age — a very good sort of a man appeared, with a face that I took the liberty to be pleased with. I asked for a room. He hesitated. For the coffee- room, — there was no coffee-room. For the travellers' room, — there was no such room to be had; he was very sorry. Could I have a private room? or a place to eat my dinner? —I was hungry as a tiger. He did not know, but would inquire. He left me standing at the door, and after a few minutes came back, and desiring me to follow him, took me round the house on the outside, and opening a door which led me up a narrow stair-case, entrapped me into a room so meagre, so desolate, and so like the rooms we see in the new public-houses of my country when they stand out of the general thoroughfare, that I felt rather inclined to be merry by occupying all the furniture I saw.
- ibid, pp37-38
The trip then turns into a whingefest, from the interminable account of the narrator's attempts to get an egg for breakfast at the Sandrock (pp51-55), via his disappointment with a sea cave at Freshwater, to his dealings with service staff, other Isle of Wight people, and other visitors (all portrayed by him as uniformly gormless) on various muddy and narrow paths. Bearing it mind that it's fictionalized, it's hard to believe it was that bad, and much of the account is very skimmable (the Wikipedia article rightly summarises Neal's work as "undisciplined and often rambling").

But it's still worth reading for a contemporary account of visiting the Isle of Wight when it was just becoming a visitor attraction, before its Victorian fashionability. The account of the western extremity of the island at The Needles is at a time when it must have been extremely scary; it was 30 years before the building of the Needles Old Battery, and there was a narrow public path right to the very tip of the eroded chalk promontory.

View Larger Map

There's a huge amount of metafiction in Authorship. In the first chapter, Holmes fancies a mysterious woman in Westminster Abbey. Later, on the clifftop near the Needles, he gets into an altercation with a man who first calls himself Colonel Peter Piper, then various names of Neal's own fictional characters, before revealing himself as Edwards, husband of the woman (called Mary, whose life story is then told). These are the couple from the Abbey, and the encounter leads to a general discussion of the nature of authorship. I rather lost track at that point; Neal does indeed ramble. There's a nice comment on the novel in the biography John Neal (Donald A Sears, Twayne Publishers, 1978):
Such playfulness, when coupled with private jokes and the public scandal of the love story, failed to find a sufficiently sophisticated audience and the novel was hardly a success. Popular judgment survives, for a contemporary hand has written in the copy of Authorship in the Princeton University Library, "John Neal in this work is completely at home, his surpassing genius occasionally bursts forth from the heaps of rubbish in which he is so fond of obscuring it".
But I think "rubbish" is too harsh. The complex allusions in Authorship to Neal's life and works are discussed in detail in the essay collection John Neal and Nineteenth-Century American Literature and Culture (Edward Watts, David J. Carlson, Lexington Books, 2012). See, for instance, see the preview of the section from page 79 onward: "Bewildering alternations of fact and fiction". In this, Jorg Richter notes that Neal's scenery descriptions do bear terminological similarity to those in a contemporary guidebook, James Clarke's 1822 The delineator; or, A description of the Isle of Wight.

Relevant sections:
Chapter II: Isle-of-Wight— Portsmouth— English Inns: Wonders of the Isle
Chapter III: Tour of the Isle-— Home— Labor distinguished from Exercise— Grave-Yard
Chapter IV: The celebrated Wall— The Land-slip— Scenery — Comforts of Dining— Sand-Rock Hotel
Chapter V: English Inn for Tourists— English Beds— Waiters— English Breakfast— Household Philosophy— Alum Bay— The Needles— The Light-House
Chapter VI: Human Love put aside by the help of a fresh Egg— Black-Gang Chine — Tourists — The Land-slip — Cave at Freshwater
Chapter VIII: Adventure at the Needles— The Cliff— The Sea— Perplexity— The Drawing-Master turns out to be . . . what? mad ? perhaps a Player? 67

- Ray


  1. Nice entry, and good to see that people read Neal, after all. A slight correction though. "Watts and Carlson note that Neal's scenery descriptions do bear terminological similarity to those in a contemporary guidebook, James Clarke's 1822 The delineator; or, A description of the Isle of Wight." Well, the book is an essay collection on Neal, greatly edited by Watts and Carlson, with chapters written by numerous international scholars. The piece on Authorship comes from my quill. Regards, JTRichter

  2. Thanks, correction made; and sorry - I didn't see that you were the author, as the Google preview missed the page with that vital detail.
    - Ray