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Monthly Archives: September 2014

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If you keep doing the same thing over and over again, it’s easy to go a bit on automatic, even if it’s something glorious. So sometimes when I go on my lunchtime walk round the Botanic Gardens I try experiencing it in a different way. Like taking my ears for a walk.

Trees have very distinctive sounds. The poplar trees at the entrance gate of the Botanic Gardens make this incredible sparkling rushing sound, like the sea. It can be heard hundreds of yards away and close to it is almost deafening. Why does no one else notice them shouting? There are other trees in the garden that are almost completely silent: the majestic sequoias seem severely mute even in the highest wind. Horse chestnuts are another mute surprise, but they are all sick with the leaf miner. Beeches and hornbeams both make pleasant murmuring sounds, and tucked away in another corner of the garden I find a catalpa tree sweetly rustling. Bamboos of course make a soundscape all of their own, whispering, squeaking and mysteriously knocking.

It is a tactile time of year too, full of fruits and seed heads that are knobbly, spiked, furry. I touch them surreptitiously (is one allowed to touch the plants?). I find one flower whose seed heads are like tiny velvet purses.

Scent, not so much, except some of the more exotic limes whose sweet scented flowers still linger, and the hot spicy scents of the herb border. The tropical glasshouses are another matter: still a riot of sweet and earthy smells as everything competes for space and attention.

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Jane Eyre: how I hated that book! For two years we slaved over it at school, reading and rereading it, our set text for O level. It’s strangeness, it’s originality, it’s rich vocabulary, all ground into dust. I can still remember the horror, when we read it aloud round the class and I was handed the midsummer night scene in which Jane and Rochester finally declare their love to one another. I was fifteen: I was scarlet, mumbling the Victorian endearments.

It was thirty years before I could bring myself to read it again. I had remembered the plot, there are still a few passages I remember word for word (“Reader, I married him.”). I had forgotten what an odd-ball Jane is, and what a bully Rochester can be. But I was surprised at what I had misremembered.

Everyone remembers the madwoman in the attic: Rochester’s first wife. Bronte’s nightmare depiction of madness is still haunting, still buried somewhere deep in our collective unconscious. The lunatic, shut away from sight, raving and dangerous.

But though that image had remained vivid, I had misunderstood it. According to Rochester, “it is not because she is mad I hate her.” He hates his wife, he declares, because she has “a nature the most gross, impure, depraved I ever saw”. Had Jane gone mad, he claims, he would care for her tenderly. The madness is an inconvenience, preventing him legally divorcing from a monster. His wife’s former “vices” are rather vague, mixed up with the discovery that her mother was “a Creole”. We are left with the distinct impression that the first Mrs Rochester’s sin was not so much to be secretly mad as secretly black. “Her family wished to secure me because I was of a good race” says Rochester smugly, and Bronte does not bother to discuss this.

It may have been obvious to Victorian audiences – comfortable in their notions of racial superiority – that Rochester’s West Indian marriage was “impossible”, even before his wife went mad. But all that remains to modern audiences is the raving lunatic with her hideous strength and low cunning. In endless dramatisations of the book, this is all that appears on screen: any undercurrents of racism are written out. Perhaps they, like the book’s religious fervour, are too unsettling.

Myths about mental illness are strangely persistent. Downton Abbey, written recently, screened last year, rehashed the Rochester plot line: a character, under pressure to marry his girlfriend, reluctantly reveals the existence of a wife in an asylum from whom he cannot divorce. There is not even a fig leaf of “incompatibility” here: it is clear we are meant to sympathise with this man’s plight. He is, after all, a good chap, and clearly the mentally ill are unlovable and not fully human.

Give me Charlotte Bronte any day. An old unreconstructed racist she may have been, but she did try to give Rochester a better reason to hate his wife than her descent into illness. As Jane herself says: “It is cruel – she cannot help being mad.”

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It’s that time of year again: the start of another academic year. Everyone who has ever been a child or raised a child in the Western Hemisphere will recognize that this is the time of new beginnings. Small children start school, bigger children chafe in new uniforms, and many teenagers leave home for the first time against a backdrop of reddening trees and the freshening winds of autumn. 

For me it is also the time to pick up the exacting routines of housekeeping after the laxness of summer. Everyone has to get up, eat and shower and be out of the house on time.  Everyone has to return home safely at the end of the day and be fed again, listened to, commiserated with, supported and soothed and finally nagged back in to their beds.  The fridge must be kept supplied with food, everyone must have shoes and the lights on the bikes must be working. 

This routine, though somewhat monotonous, is necessary. Without it we rapidly sag downwards into the chaos that awaits beneath: skipped meals, forgotten medication, chronic sleep shortages and abandoned homework assignments. I will know my children are truly adult and independent of me when they finally recognise the importance of getting enough sleep and eating regularly.

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