Wednesday, 20 February 2013

... in the Isle of Wight #1

I always find it interesting to pursue obscure novels about places I know, and I just ran into a 'possible': the anonymously written In the Isle of Wight: A Novel. It turns out not to be findable online, and, from the short piece in The British Quarterly Review, quite possibly not worth the effort of finding in any other form:
In the Isle of Wight. A Novel. Two Vols. (Sampson Low and Co.) There is not much to be said of this story. It has neither strength, depth, nor brilliancy, it is a mechanical narrative of numerous fallings in love— often abruptly — and without any delineation of underlying processes. The contrast of the two brothers, Henry and Gilbert, is fairly maintained. Gilbert, a fickle, handsome, brilliant soldier, falls in love with Elsie, who is engaged, but without much affection on her part, to his elder brother Henry, a clergyman. Henry discovers their mutual passion, and releases her; but Gilbert falls in love, and makes an offer to Maud Fortescue while engaged to Elsie. Maud rejects him, and at the very time he receives a telegram to say that she is dying from a fall from her horse. Henry afterwards marries Elsie's sister, and facile Gilbert marries his cousin Mira. That is all. and the telling is very poor.
- The British Quarterly Review, January 1874
There's an extended review in The Spectator of 27 December 1873, of which the salient summary is this:
The novel is not sensational, nor is it written in conspicuously bad English ; but it is common-place and mindless, and destitute, so far as we have been able to discover, of a single literary merit.
- read the rest here
However, the failed search for the phrase "In the Isle of Wight" produced some pleasant out-takes: a set of Isle of Wight travelogues, in different eras and very different styles, that I hadn't previously encountered. Some have very nice pictures too.

Bonchurch: Undermount Rock aka Flagstaff Rock aka Hadfield's Lookout
from Rambles in the Isle of Wight. Note that despite the overall similarity in shape, this is not the same rock as Pulpit Rock. Pulpit Rock is on the cliffs to the north of Bonchurch;
Underdermount Rock is on the ridge that bounds the village to the south.
Undermount Rock aka Flagstaff Rock, September 2012
Rambles in the Isle of Wight (John Gwilliam, pub. Simpkin, Marshall, 1844, Internet Archive ID ramblesinislewi00gwilgoog)is a travelogue of the Wight written as a cycle of poems, each section with an explanatory prose note. While a lot of it is pretty conventional nature-description, some of it is fiercely polemical; Gwilliam was writing at a time when the spectacular wooded landslip terrain of Bonchurch was being taken over for the ongoing property development that turned it into a fashionable and upmarket village of villas and mansions (the same development that George Brannon decried - see Brannon on Bonchurch). Here's Gwilliam's verse commentary:
Unrivall'd Bonchurch ! how shall I depict
Thy various beauties, those superb retreats.
Those mural heights and ever peaceful downs.
Those gurgling rills and sweetly-scented nooks.
Those hills and dales, and weed-encircl'd rocks.
That have for cent'ries render'd thee the first
And chief attraction of the Undercliff !
Vain is the poet's or the painter's skill
In pict'ring thy enchantments — thou hast scenes
Their arts can ne'er develop, lofty sites
Whose boundless prospects of the Channel Sea
Enlarge the calm and contemplative mind.
And fill with rapture the enthusiast's soul !
But Fashion now is stealing thro' thy groves.
Tainting thy lucid rills and shady lanes,
Plucking thy roses froom polluted stems
And turning all thy lone and quiet paths
Into trim roads and populated ways —
Whilst speculation rooting up thy elms,
Thy knotted oaks and sun-excluding firs.
Seems bent upon illimitable waste :
For here already are her slaves at work.
Blasting the rocks and tearing up the trees.
Whilst Gibson, anxious to increase his fame.
And add importance to a weighty purse.
Has rais'd a villa of enormous size.
Fit for some eastern Croesus to inhabit !

Can such things be, and all the woodland pow 'rs.
The nymphs and dryads of the neighb'ring groves.
Observe them unaffected ? — can they hear
The ruthless axe assailling their tall elms.
Nor call on heav'n to check destruction's hand ?

But so it is — their spirit is subdued
By man's insatiate waste, and now, alas !
They wisely shun their customary haunts.
And fly to glooms congenial with their grief.

But where will riot stop ? and where will end
This brutal havoc, sacrilege and wrong ?
"Here," says some tasteless, money-lusting knave,
" A vast improvement gratifies the sight.
Whilst there a mansion, worthy of a prince.
Will shed its blessings on the neighboring poor.
And add distinction to the gen'ral scene ! "
False reasoning this — those very piles but shame
The cotter's lowly dwelling, and the good,
The boasted benefit of which he prates.
Will prove a vain and visionary dream.
And end in nothing but the babbler's froth !

There's scarcely aught the inmates may require
But what the London markets will supply.
For Av'rice prompts e'en Riches to procure
Its food and raiment at the cheapest rate.
And shun the mart its patronage should aid!
Gwilliam either ran out of Isle of Wight inspiration, or wanted an excuse to publish his other poetry, as there's a 40-page section of his miscellaneous poems mid-book. But he returns on form with Gibson's Villa, taking a dig at a notable villa's owner, George Gibson, for making money out of the misfortunes of others as Official Assignee (the official who distributes the assets of bankrupts to creditors). There sounds to be an interesting story here, as Gwilliam prefaces the poem with ...
"This delightful summer residence was built by the late Mr. George Gibson, the official assignee, and was, no doubt, one of the causes that led to the rash act which terminated his eventful career"
... but I haven't yet been able to find out what this "rash act" was.

Gwilliam is described - here - on the site Spenser and the Tradition: English Poetry 1579-1830 as "a prolific writer of occasional verse". He wrote another Isle of Wight book, Norris Castle, or recent tramps in the Isle of Wight, though this is not online. Tait's Edinburgh Magazine said of it this ...
Norris Castle; or Recent Tramps in the Isle of Wight. By John Gwilliam, author of " Rambles in the Isle of Wight," &c. &c. London : Effingham Wilson. Mr. Gwilliam professes that his present publication, like his " Rambles" over the same ground, aims at two things—" amusement and utility;" and what is more to the purpose, he is certain that he has succeeded in his aims, and that his name will long be remembered in the Isle of Wight. The "recent trips" are mostly versified; and upon the whole the author is on such happy terms with himself, that the approbation of the critics can hardly be required for his contentment.
 ... and the Athenaeum review was even harsher:
The dedication to ' Punch' shows the vein attempted; the preface also commences very funnily with an apology for a superfluous letter t to be found in the exordium of the poem. Whether the author meant to insinuate that no graver fault could be charged upon it or him, he has scarcely left in mystery; for, by his book,he tells us, he proposes "amusement and utility"—nor will he permit himself to doubt having ob tained his end, since he confesses he had "the vanity to think that the poetry it contained would not be treated with contempt by persons of discernment and taste;"—. candidly adding,—" for though it may have a local feature about it, I think that, on an attentive perusal, it will be found to possess inherent qualities of a more elevated and aspiring character. If I may take the opinions of sensible and unprejudiced scholars, as vouchers of its effects, I am quite certain that the effusions in that work will render my name familiar to the residents of the Isle of Wight long after I have bid adieu to all worldly ambition." With such an opinion of his own labours, the author can scarcely want that of a reviewer. We, however, recommend the public to exercise considerable caution before they accept it as a veridical and unquestionable verdict—for ourselves, we dislike the tone and temper in which the work is written, and which is often wantonly offensive.
- The Athenaeum, No. 931, page 857, August 30, 1845.
Norris Castle is, by the way, the Gothic-style faux castle at East Cowes, built in 1799 by James Wyatt for Lord Henry Seymour.

Owen Gladdon's wanderings in the Isle of Wight ("Old Humphrey", pub. Robert Carter, NY, 1846, Internet Archive ID owengladdonswand00oldh) is a didactic work for children, in which great uncle Owen gives an account of his travels on the Wight to his great niece and nephew, with a lot of geology, history, anecdote and sermonizing. For example, here's part of the description of the geology of landslips:
"What do you mean by the Undercliff, uncle?"

"I mean a strip of broken land called the Undercliff, that is about half a dozen miles long, reaching from Bonchurch to Blackgang Chine, and varying in breadth of from half a mile, or less, to a mile. It has been formed by a succcession of landslips, in which hundreds of acres have separated from the high downs above, and slid down towards the sea."

"Oh the sea undermines the cliff, and then it falls; is that it, uncle ?"

"No, not exactly so; I will try to make it clear to you. If you were to put a large stone on a sloping bank of clay, perhaps it would remain there if the clay were dry, but if water should be poured on the clay it would become slippery, and then the large stone would most likely slip down."

" Yes, that it would. It would slide down the bank directly."

"But if I put my foot to prevent it sliding down, it would keep its position, nor would it begin to slip till my foot was removed ; and this is just the case with the chalky cliffs of which we are speaking."

"How can that be ? Who can prop up the high cliffs by putting his foot against them?"

"I might reply, that He who in the beginning created the heavens and the earth! He who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand. He who has meted out heaven with a span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, He who has weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance, can do all things. How illimitable his wisdom and power in making the round world and they that dwell therein! How immeasurable his mercy in the redemption of mankind! But I am now speaking of second causes, and will therefore, as I said, try to make clear to you the cause of the landslips. Underneath the high chalky cliffs is a stratum, or layer of bluish marl, I think it is called 'blue slipper;' and the rain in wet weather, and the landsoaks, and the springs, make this blue marl muddy and slippery, so that the chalk cliffs would slip down if it were not for the earth at the bottom of them, that acts as a foot to support them."
If you ignore the religion, it's surprisingly readable and informative; the author, George Mogridge (1787-1854), was a keen walker and traveller, and Wanderings in the Isle of Wight is clearly based on real explorations.

Mogridge was an astonishingly, obsessively prolific writer, poet and author of children's books and religious tracts, who also wrote under the pseudonyms Jeremy Jaunt, Ephraim Holding, Old Father Thames, and Peter Parley (the last not to be confused with Samuel Griswold Goodrich, an American who wrote somewhat similar, but considerably duller, didactic works also under the name Peter Parley - and who was ridiculed as "Cousin Cramchild" in Kingsley's The Water-Babies).

See George Mogridge: His Life Character and Writings, Charles Williams, 1856, for a contemporary account.

Continued in ... in the Isle of Wight #2

Addendum, March 2014. I just found a good illustration of the 1840s development of Bonchurch: see Newport: research visit and Little London.

- Ray


  1. One of my favourite guilty pleasures is reading potted reviews of one and two star rated films.

    Your BQR synopsis of In the Isle of Wight fits right into that canon, and gave me great enjoyment as I sit here recovering from a persistent bug! :-)

  2. It's one of the malicious pleasures of reading 19th century works to find that reviewers were just as good as nowadays at studied sarcasm. My current favourite is Hilda Gregg's commentary on Maxwell Gray's Sweethearts and Friends, which has a climactic scene where the heroine rescues the man she loves, by "swarming up a rope like a cat".

    We have never seen a cat swarm up a rope; but far be it from us to limit the powers of that ingenious animal

    And so on.