Monday, November 15, 2010

Finding my Bookish Roots

As an English major, one of the absolute best things about spending time in England is being able to experience the places and scenery that prominently feature in the literature I'm reading. For me, the impact of this has been huge.

I've been to the Globe Theatre and can imagine how Shakespeare must have looked on that stage. When I read Dickens or Thackeray, I recognize their descriptions of London, even across a distance of 150 years. St. Paul's, Fleet Street, Chancery Lane, various towers and bridges: yes, yes, I know that too! Their books suddenly stir with new life, vivid and relevant like never before. I've now been to a country gentleman's house - Mr. Darcy's Pemberley, perhaps, or Queen's Crawley or Thornfield - as well as seemingly hundreds of English churches; I've seen towns, taverns, inns. In Bath, I find myself whirling into the world of Jane Austen: I can see the balls, the pretentious society, the tedium of social appearances. When the mists descend on Oxford, I see how mysterious the English countryside can seem, and the Gothic no longer feels so ludicrous; it does seem that an ignis fatuus could flare at any point and lead me astray. Hillsides and ruins and vistas do strike me as romantic, or - as I think Burke put it - sublime. Even on walks through wooden paths and meadows, I can visualize myself as Jane Eyre; at any moment, Mr. Rochester could gallop up and go sprawling on that horse of his. Or perhaps this is just a nice Sunday stroll, and I am Dorothea Brooke, and tea (and hopefully not Mr. Casaubon) will await in the parlor upon my return.

All this, and more. The bottom line is that the British literature I read no longer seems to me as fantastical, as far away as it once did, but grounded in a specific place and time. My surroundings speak to me again and again through my books, through the strong and vigorous voices from long ago. I am seeing how books are the concrete manifestations of their age, and this only increases their magic and charm. Oh, England - an English major's dream!

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