Fractal Myth

Novel Perceptions of the Countryside.

[Michelle Chapman ©1995]

"Let me enjoy the earth no less
Because the all-enacting Might
That fashioned forth its loveliness
Had other aims than my delight."
Thomas Hardy, Let me Enjoy, 1909.

An essay exploring portrayals of the English countryside in novels by Thomas Hardy, E.M.Forster, and D.H.Lawrence.

As Margaret Drabble pointed out in her article 'Hardy and the Natural World', most of the "early novelists in the English language were Londoners, and if their characters made excursions into the country, it was into a countryside of coaching inns and highwaymen rather than of trees and moors, birds and animals. ... Descriptions of nature were left, on the whole, to the poets: so were descriptions of natural beauty."(1) Thomas Hardy, was one of the first novelists to use the English countryside as a major setting for his work, though mention should also be made of an earlier novel, Middlemarch (1871-2), by George Eliot.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Hardy presented a wealth of naturalistic detail, conveying a view of rural life closely linked to the seasons and the rhythms of nature. Pervading his description of the countryside is a strong sense of nostalgia for the passing of a purely agricultural way of life and its associated traditional values and customs. This sense of nostalgia is developed further in E.M.Forster's Howards End (1910). In this novel, the encroachment of suburbia on the countryside is portrayed with disgust, as "Forster sees the entire middle-class becoming rootless, cluttered with moveable possessions, belonging nowhere. The danger of this lies in the attitude toward England, the wrong sort of patriotism, it engenders. England becomes something to be exploited rather than loved."(2) Forster's apparent attitude towards the countryside is one which celebrates natural beauty, and his expressions of approval are reserved for those characters who share this appreciation. D.H.Lawrence's The Rainbow (1915) further continues this theme of regret for the passing of a life spent immersed in the beauty of the English countryside, and a corresponding horror of industrial society.

In the Author's Preface to The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy firmly anchors his story to the English countryside through topographical details. The novel starts in the district of Upper Wessex, invented by Hardy, and based on the country he had lived in as a child and still loved. His description of the landscape through which the Henchard family pass is generic, and establishes them as realistic characters in a rural world.

... the scene for that matter being one that might have been matched at almost any spot in any county in England at this time of year; a road neither straight nor crooked, neither level nor hilly, bordered by hedges, trees, and other vegetation, which had entered the blackened-green stage of colour that the doomed leaves pass through on their way to dingy, yellow, and red.
The Mayor of Casterbridge p.70-1

The scenery, with its "doomed leaves" is symbolic of the future of all three characters, as all will die before the end of the novel. The incident of the wife-sale, the catalyst for the main action, goes almost unnoticed by the human occupants of the town of Weydon-Priors where it occurs, but it, too, is symbolically commented on by the animal inhabitants of the rural environment. The appearance of the swallow in the furmity-tent, although completely natural, can also be seen as Nature's attempt to avert the catastrophe that is to come, giving Michael Henchard one last chance to recover from his 'unnatural' alcohol-induced behaviour.

At that moment a swallow, one of the last of the season, which had by chance found its way through an opening into the upper part of the tent, flew to and fro in quick curves above their heads, causing all eyes to follow it absently. In watching the bird till it made its escape the assembled company neglected to respond to the workman's offer, and the subject dropped.
The Mayor of Casterbridge p.78

Henchard refuses to accept the warning, and although his actions are never specifically condemned by Hardy, they are contrasted with the behaviour of more natural inhabitants of the country.

The difference between the peacefulness of interior nature and the sinful hostilities of mankind was very apparent in this place. In contrast with the harshness of the act just ended within the tent was the sight of several horses crossing their necks and rubbing each other lovingly as they waited in patience to be harnessed for the homeward journey.
The Mayor of Casterbridge p.80

Any temptation for the reader to see nature as a purely moral force is dismissed by Hardy, however, as he also insists on the realism of his country, which is as unpredictable as humanity itself.

The sun had recently set, and the west heaven was hung with rosy cloud, which seemed permanent, yet slowly changed. To watch it was like looking at some grand feat of stagery from a darkened auditorium. In presence of this scene after the other there was a natural instinct to abjure man as the blot on an otherwise kindly universe; till it was remembered that all terrestrial conditions were intermittent, and that mankind might some night be innocently sleeping when these quiet objects were raging loud.
The Mayor of Casterbridge p.80

Hardy "seems at times to have had an almost perverse delight in destroying the convention of a happy, pretty, gentle rural world, where the only vile thing is man."(3) This convention was not completely discredited, however, as it emerges with full force in D.H.Lawrence's The Rainbow.

She came to school in the morning seeing the hawthorn flowers wet, the little, rosy grains swimming in a bowl of dew. The larks quivered their song up into the new sunshine, and the country was so glad. It was a violation to plunge into the dust and greyness of the town.
The Rainbow p.458

In The Rainbow, Lawrence's language also suggests the blending of naturalism and symbolism that Hardy favoured, though Lawrence's symbolism is much more dense, especially in relation to the natural world.

She could sit for hours by a brook or a stream, on the roots of the alders, and watch the water hasten dancing over the stones, or among the twigs of a fallen branch. Sometimes, little fish vanished before they had become real, like hallucinations, sometimes wagtails ran by the water's brink, sometimes other little birds came to drink. She saw a kingfisher darting blue - and then she was very happy. The kingfisher was the key to the magic world: he was witness of the order of enchantment.
The Rainbow p.

There is also a sense of almost superstitious awe in Lawrence's descriptions of nature which is more effusive than Hardy's equally detailed poetic language. The town of Casterbridge, to which Henchard travels in his unsuccessful attempt to find his wife and daughter, is first described in a birds-eye view that emphasises the inter-relationship of the town with the surrounding countryside.

To birds of the more soaring kind Casterbridge must have appeared on this fine evening as a mosaic-work of subdued reds, browns, greys, and crystals, held together by a rectangular frame of deep green. To the level eye of humanity it stood as an indistinct mass behind a dense stockade of limes and chestnuts, set in the midst of miles of rotund down and concave field. The mass became gradually dissected by the vision into towers, gables, chimneys and casements, the highest glazings shining bleared and bloodshot with the coppery fire they caught from the belt of sunlit clouds in the west.
The Mayor of Casterbridge p.94

The community of Casterbridge is organic and agricultural, existing in harmony with nature. It is shown to be still a part of the old ways of life, and is contrasted with the manufacturing towns of the emerging Industrial Age, which "are as foreign bodies set down ... in a green world with which they have nothing in common." (The Mayor of Casterbridge p.130) The country around Casterbridge is a fully functional landscape, dedicated to the growth of rural produce, as the occupations of the townsfolk and the agricultural community complement each other.

The farmer's boy could sit under his barley-mow and pitch a stone into the office-window of the town-clerk; reapers at work among the sheaves nodded to acquaintances standing on the pavement-corner; the red-robed judge, when he condemned a sheep-stealer, pronounced sentence to the tune of Baa, that floated in at the window from the remainder of the flock browsing hard by; and at executions the waiting crowd stood in a meadow immediately before the drop, out of which the cows had been temporarily driven to give the spectators room.
The Mayor of Casterbridge p.162

The beauty and peaceful harmony of the town itself is celebrated, with its tiny back gardens, "glowing with nasturtiums, fuschias, scarlet geraniums, 'bloody warriors', snapdragons, and dahlias." (The Mayor of Casterbridge p.128) The glorious colour and scent of this imagery is appealing, not only to the human observers, but also to the insect inhabitants of the surrounding countryside.

Casterbridge was the complement of the rural life around; not its urban opposite. Bees and butterflies in the cornfields at the top of the town, who desired to get to the meads at the bottom, took no circuitous course, but flew straight down High Street without any apparent consciousness that they were traversing strange latitudes.
The Mayor of Casterbridge p.126

In his description of Casterbridge, Hardy also celebrates the ancient history of the town, with its Roman ruins and adherence to traditional values. "The Casterbridge populace still retained the primitive habit of helping one another in times of need."(The Mayor of Casterbridge p.267) The customs of a past age are still practised in the isolated community, and the incident of the weather-prophet shows Hardy's belief in their validity. Although Henchard attempts to preserve his scepticism, the forecaster's correct prediction illustrates the way in which human life, when dedicated to the close observation of natural phenomenon, can attain almost supernatural harmony with the moods of the natural world.

By the sun, moon, and stars, by the clouds, the winds, the trees, and grass, the candleflame and swallows, the smell of the herbs; likewise by the cats' eyes, the ravens, the leeches, the spiders, and the dungmixen, the last fortnight in August will be - rain and tempest.
The Mayor of Casterbridge p.260

However, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, there is also a sense that this way of life is soon to disappear, being replaced by scientific innovations, reducing people's dependence on knowing the natural rhythms of the country. The traditional farming implements filling the shop windows of the town fade into insignificance beside Farfrae's new sowing machine.

'Stupid? O no!' said Farfrae gravely. 'It will revolutionize sowing hereabout! No more sowers flinging their seed about broadcast, so that some falls by the wayside and some among the thorns, and all that. Each grain will go straight to its intended place, and nowhere else whatever!'

'Then the romance of the sower is gone for good,' observed Elizabeth-Jane, who felt herself at one with Farfrae in Bible-reading at least. '"He that observeth the wind shall not sow," so the Preacher said; but his words will not be to the point any more. How things change!'
The Mayor of Casterbridge p.240

Hardy's concern with the replacement of the traditional by modern inventions is symbolically represented by the relationship between the two Mayors of Casterbridge, Henchard and Farfrae. Henchard represents the old ways. His methods of farming depend on trust and 'guess-work', and are soon replaced by Farfrae's mechanical "scales and steel-yards." (The Mayor of Casterbridge p.295) The final proof of the inevitability of the change comes with Henchard's death in the ruined and deserted cottage, far from the increasing bustle of the town, and very different from the prosperous life he once enjoyed in the large house, which Farfrae now occupies.

The walls, built of kneaded clay originally faced with a trowel, had been worn by years of rain-washings to a lumpy crumbling surface, channelled and sunken from its plane, its grey rents held together here and there by a leafy strap of ivy which could scarcely find substance enough for the purpose. The rafters were sunken, and the thatch of the roof in ragged holes. Leaves from the fence had been blown into the corners of the doorway, and lay there undisturbed.
The Mayor of Casterbridge p.407-8

The truth of Hardy's premonition of the destruction of the natural country and an organic way of life is demonstrated by a comparison between his description of the pristine English landscape,

that ancient country whose surface never had been stirred to a finger's depth, save by the scratchings of rabbits, since brushed by the feet of the earliest tribes
The Mayor of Casterbridge p.406

and D.H.Lawrence's description of a similar setting in The Rainbow, nearly thirty years later, where the land has been altered to suit human whims, and the beauty of the landscape is forced to co-exist with the ugliness of mechanical progress.

Yet the downs, in magnificent indifference, bearing limbs and body to the sun, drinking sunshine and sea-wind and sea-wet cloud into its golden skin, with superb stillness and calm of being, was not the downs still more wonderful? The blind, pathetic, energetic courage of the train as it steamed tinily away through the patterned levels to the sea's dimness, so fast and so energetic, made her weep. Where was it going? It was going nowhere, it was just going. So blind, so without goal or aim, yet so hasty! She sat on an old prehistoric earth-work and cried, and the tears ran down her face. The train had tunnelled all the earth, blindly, uglily.
The Rainbow p.515

E.M.Forster, in his novel Howards End, is also concerned with the split between the natural beauty of the country, and the ugliness of man-made urbanisation. He contrasts the type of character who has a keen appreciation for the country, embodied by Mrs Wilcox, with the attitude of less sensitive characters, who see the country in terms of possession and utility, as the rest of the Wilcox family do. Mrs Wilcox is explicitly associated with her house, Howards End. Like the house, she embodies all that is best in traditional England.

She seemed to belong not to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it. One knew that she worshipped the past, and that the instinctive wisdom the past alone can bestow had descended upon her - that wisdom to which we give the clumsy name of aristocracy. High-born she might not be. But assuredly she cared about her ancestors, and let them help her.
Howards End p.36

When seen in the context of her house and garden, Mrs Wilcox appears completely natural. She rises early, to appreciate the beauty of her garden, and Helen's letter describes her coming back from the meadow before breakfast with her hands full of hay. In the city, however, Mrs Wilcox is uncomfortable, and out of place.

Mrs Wilcox went in after due civilities, and Margaret watched the tall, lonely figure sweep up the hall to the lift. As the glass doors closed on it she had the sense of an imprisonment. The beautiful head disappeared first, still buried in the muff; the long trailing skirt followed. A woman of undefinable rarity was going up heavenward, like a specimen in a bottle. And what a heaven - a vault as of hell, sooty black, from which soots descended!
Howards End p.94-5

Her growing friendship with Margaret Schlegel develops as she recognises Margaret's fondness for her own house at Wickham Place, which she will soon be forced to leave due to a greedy landlord, who plans to pull it down for purely economic gain. Having saved Howards End from destruction, by a marriage of convenience to Mr Wilcox, Mrs Wilcox determines to leave her house to Margaret in her will. To Mrs Wilcox, Howards End had been, not just a house, but "a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir." (Howards End p.107)

Her family, however, has no such belief in the house's spirituality, and Forster points out that they are incapable of een seeing the beauty of the country. On the day the Wilcoxes discuss Mrs Wilcox's legacy, they become so concerned with their hereditary rights of property that they completely fail to observe the transcendently lovely day outside.

The clock ticked, the coals blazed higher, and contended with the white radiance that poured in through the windows. Unnoticed, the sun occupied his sky, and the shadows of the tree stems, extraordinarily solid, fell like trenches of purple across the frosted lawn. It was a glorious winter morning. Evie's fox-terrier, who had passed for white, was only a dirty gray dog now, so intense was the purity that surrounded him. He was discredited, but the blackbirds that he was chasing glowed with Arabian darkness, for all the conventional colouring of life had been altered.
Howards End p.107

"One of the central ironies of the novel is that the rural-minded Schlegels are for the most part constrained in London while the Wilcoxes, whose money has been made in cities, have been able to buy a chain of country estates and represent themselves as landowning aristocracy. Nomads at heart, the Wilcoxes are spiritually allied to the encroachment of the cities on the country-side."(4) Howards End has felt the effects of the Wilcoxes' desire for change, but as the embodiment of the stability and tradition of the country, it resists all such attempts, and their developments soon regress to their natural state.

Howards End is one of those converted farms. They don't really do, spend what you will on them. We messed away with a garage all among the wych-elm roots, and last year we enclosed a bit of the meadow and attempted a rockery. Evie got rather keen on Alpine plants. But it didn't do - no, it didn't do.
Howards End p.141

Throughout the novel, Forster reinforces his view of the countryside through the use of symbolism. The hay that Mrs Wilcox carries represents her love of the natural world, a characteristic echoed by Margaret after Mrs Wilcox's death.

Margaret was sent to dress, and the housemaid to sweep up the long trickle of grass that she had left across the hall.
Howards End p.245

Significantly, those characters who cannot see the beauty of the country all suffer from hayfever, expressive of Forster's revenge on them for their lack of feeling, and indicating their total unsuitability as owners of the land.

'Yes, the maidy's well enough,' said Mrs Avery, 'for those, that is, who don't suffer from sneezing.' And she cackled maliciously. 'I've seen Charlie Wilcox go out to my lads in hay time - oh, they ought to do this - they mustn't do that - he'd learn them to be lads. And just then the tickling took him. He has it from his father, with other things. There's not one Wilcox who can stand up against a field in June - I laughed fit to burst while he was courting Ruth.'
Howards End p.268

The ancient wych-elm tree that grows beside the house at Howards End is symbolic of the rich traditions of English custom and folklore. It also represents the country-folks' superstition, and the power of nature to heal those who believe in it.

'Oh, it might interest you. there are pig's teeth stuck into the trunk, about four feet from the ground. The country people put them in long ago, and they think that if they chew a piece of the bark it will cure the toothache. The teeth are almost grown over now, and no one comes to the tree.'

'I should. I love folklore and all festering superstitions.'

'Do you think that the tree really did cure toothache, if one believed in it?'

'Of course it did. It would cure anything - once.'
Howards End p.82

When Margaret eventually visits Howards End the house and the wych-elm tree begin to exert their spell on her, when combined with their association with Mrs Wilcox and Mrs Avery, the traditional inhabitants of the country. Her view of England changes under this influence, and she feels the connection between the beauty of nature, and unseen world of spirituality. unexpected love of the island woke in her, connecting her on this side with the joys of the flesh, on that with the inconceivable. It had certainly come through the house and old Mrs Avery. Through them; the notion of 'through' persisted; her mind trembled towards a conclusion which only the unwise have put into words. Then, veering back into warmth, it dwelt on ruddy bricks, flowering plum trees, and all the tangible joys of spring.
Howards End p.205

In contrast to these natural symbols, Forster uses the motor-car to represent all that is wrong with modern society. Margaret dislikes travelling in the car as it destroys her sense of distance and perspective, leaving her feeling unconnected to the earth, the opposite feelings to those aroused by Howards End.

No doubt she had disgraced herself. But she felt their whole journey from London had been unreal. They had no part with the earth and its emotions. They were dust, and a stink, and cosmopolitan chatter, and the girl whose cat they had killed had lived more deeply than they.
Howards End p.213

For Forster, the pollution and noise of the modern culture, with its motor-cars and spreading suburbs, is an anathema to all that is beautiful in the country, and is destructive to all the values of human life.

And month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by midsummer; the sun shone through dirt with an admired obscurity.
Howards End p.115

This view is shared by D.H.Lawrence, in The Rainbow, who feels that the mechanistic effect of life in the city, and manufacturing towns, prevents people from experiencing life to the full. Like Forster, Lawrence presents the city of London as the ultimate contrast to the beauty and peace of the country.

The blue way of the canal wound softly between the autumn hedges, on towards the greenness of a small hill. On the left was the whole black agitation of colliery and railway and the town ...

That way, Ursula felt, was the way to London, through the grim, alluring seethe of the town. On the other hand was the evening, mellow over the green water-meadows and the winding alder-trees beside the river, and the pale stretches of stubble beyond. There the evening glowed softly, and even a pee-wit was flapping in solitude and peace.
The Rainbow p.355

For both novelists, the ugliness of the city is counteracted by images of naturalistic beauty. In Howards End, Forster celebrates the flowers of the country around the house, and on her first visit, Margaret rejoices in the dazzling colours and sheer abundance of life in the gardens.

There were the greengage trees that Helen had once described, there the tennis lawn, there the hedge that would be glorious with dog-roses in June, but the vision now was of black and palest green. Down by the dell-hole more vivid colours were awakening, and Lent-lillies stood sentinel on its margin, or advanced in battalions over the grass. Tulips were a tray of jewels. She could not see the wych-elm tree, but a branch of the celebrated vine, studded with velvet knobs, had covered the porch. She was struck by the fertility of the soil; she had seldom been in a garden where the flowers looked so well, and even the weeds she was idly plucking out of the porch were intensely green.
Howards End p.200

Howards End, as a place of beauty and natural power, "kills what is dreadful and makes what is beautiful live."(Howards End p.293) However, Howards End is not immune from the encroaching threat of urbanisation, and it is this danger that must be met, if the beauty of spiritual meaning inherent in the country is to be preserved.

'All the same, London's creeping.'

She pointed over the meadow - over eight or nine meadows, but at the end of them was a red rust.
Howards End p.329

Forster's presentation of the country, like Hardy's, is touched with nostalgia for a land that is slowly disappearing. He sees the country as "the visible link between past and present. ... it embodies tradition and allows for steady growth; it preserves somehow the undeniable but inexplicable wisdom of those who live close to the soil."(5) The only way for the country itself to be preserved is through its inheritance by people who love and understand the rhythms of nature. Finally in possession of Howards End, and having secured its succession to her nephew, whom she watches playing amid the sunshine and hay, Margaret realises that her life, like the first Mrs Wilcox, is now inextricably bound to this rhythm. The thought fills her with peace, despite the inconveniences of country life she sees ahead of her.

The meadow was being re-cut, the great red poppies were reopening in the garden. July would follow with the little red poppies among the wheat. August with the cutting of the wheat. These little events would become part of her, year after year. Every summer she would fear lest the well should give out, every winter lest the pipes should freeze; every westerly gale might blow the wych-elm down and bring the end of all things, and so she could not read or talk during a westerly gale. The air was tranquil now. She and her sister were sitting on the remains of Evie's rockery, where the lawn merged into the field.
Howards End p.326

Having followed Thomas Hardy in the quest to bring the poetic possibilities of the country into the novel, Forster throws out a challenge in Howards End to the English novelist of the future.

Why has not England a great mythology? Our folklore has never advanced beyond daintiness, and the greater melodies about our countryside have all issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here. It has stopped with the witches and the fairies. It cannot vivify one fraction of a summer field, or give names to half a dozen stars. England still waits for the supreme moment of her literature - for the great poet who shall voice her, or, better still, for the thousand little poets whose voices shall pass into our common talk.
Howards End p.262

D.H.Lawrence's The Rainbow fills this challenge, at least in part. The sheer beauty of his poetic prose descriptions of nature, and the countryside, overflow from almost every page of the novel, making it difficult to choose just one as an illustration. His attention to natural detail shows a lifetime spent in observing and appreciating the moods of nature, a lifestyle advocated by all three novelists, if one is to give the country the treatment it deserves.

There was yet so much to wonder over. Winter came, pine branches were torn down in the snow, the green pine needles looked rich upon the ground. There was the wonderful, starry, straight track of a pheasant's footsteps across the snow imprinted so clear; there was the lobbing mark of the rabbit, two holes abreast, two holes following behind; the hare shoved deeper shafts, slanting, and his two hind feet came down together and made one large pit; the cat podded little holes, and the birds made a lacy pattern.
The Rainbow p.323

All three novelists share a deep love of natural beauty, and see it in the English countryside in which they live. Their presentation is basically realistic and naturalistic, but elements of the scenery carry symbolic meaning that enhances the message of each novel. Spread over three decades, the novels present a changing view of rural England, from the untouched agricultural landscape of Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, to the slowly vanishing country of E.M.Forster's Howards End, sinking under the weight of people who have forgotten that land can have any meaning, other than a purely commercial one, and, finally, the remaining pockets of wildflower-filled country celebrated in D.H.Lawrence's The Rainbow.


1. Drabble, M. 'Hardy and the Natural World' in Drabble, M. (ed) The Genius of Thomas Hardy p.162.
2. Gransden, K. E.M.Forster p.77.
3. Drabble, M. 'Hardy and the Natural World' p.166.
4. Crews, F. E.M.Forster: The Perils of Humanism p.109.
5. Wilde, A. Art and Order: A Study of E.M.Forster p.102.


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Marker's comments.

84% - This essay conveys great engagement with your chosen texts. I think your exposition works well, although your inclination to quote frequently and at length (not a bad thing in itself) sometimes works against a tightness of exposition and leads your essay into some diffuseness. I wonder, of course, if the country / city split was so binary and strictly oppositional, and if the rural landscape is as essential and Edenic as it seems? You might think about gender and class, especially their complexities in Lawrence. Your authors were well chosen - what were their differences? I was encouraged by your essay to think about English identity and nationalism. Sometimes you veered towards description rather than analysis.

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