Thursday, July 30, 2009

Devonshire and Sensibility

I have been wondering for quite awhile about setting and mood; how stories can be set in the same place, yet have a completely different mood because of the way it's described and the personality of the character describing it. In particular I am looking at Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen and The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle. Both are set in Devonshire, modern day Devon County, England. Barton Cottage in Sense and Sensibility is within four miles north of Exeter, and Baskerville Hall is somewhere in Dartmoor, ten miles west of Exeter.

I have two very different descriptions of Devonshire here, which I’ve color coded so you can see how they describe the same thing using different words.
Here is how Edward Ferrars, one of the heroes of Jane Austen’s novel, describes the country surrounding Barton Cottage;
I call it a very fine country -- the hills are steep, the
woods seem full of fine timber
, and the valley looks
comfortable and snug -- with rich meadows
and several neat farm houses scattered here and there. It exactly
answers my idea of a fine country, because it unites beauty with utility -- and
I dare say it is a picturesque one too, because you admire it; I can easily
believe it to be full of rocks and promontories, grey moss and brush wood,
but these are all lost on me. I know nothing of the picturesque.

And here is a description by Dr. Watson of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book;
...deep lanes worn by centuries of wheels, high banks on either side, heavy with dripping moss and fleshy hart's-tongue ferns. Bronzing bracken and mottled bramble gleamed in the
light of the sinking sun. Still steadily rising, we passed over a narrow granite
bridge and skirted a noisy stream which gushed swiftly down, foaming and roaring
amid the gray boulders. Both road and stream wound up
through a valley dense with scrub oak and fir
me a tinge of melancholy lay upon the countryside,
which bore so clearly the mark of the waning year. Yellow leaves carpeted the
lanes and fluttered down upon us as we passed. The rattle of our wheels died
away as we drove through drifts of rotting vegetation ...Now
and then we passed a moorland cottage, walled and roofed with stone, with no
creeper to break its harsh outline
...I drew aside my curtains before I
went to bed and looked out from my window. It opened upon the grassy space which
lay in front of the hall door. Beyond, two copses of trees
moaned and swung in a rising wind
. A half moon broke through the rifts of
racing clouds. In its cold light I saw beyond the trees a
broken fringe of rocks
, and the long, low curve of
the melancholy moor
. I closed the curtain, feeling that my last
impression was in keeping with the rest.

While I do realize that Baskerville Hall is on the moor, which could drastically change the terrain, I wonder if the time period a book is written has more to do with it.
Jane Austen wrote Sense and Sensibility just before the 1800’s, and likely revised it just before publication in 1811, when the “sensibility” movement was starting to become popular. One of the major themes in Sense and Sensibility is whether Marianne is wise to follow the poetic sensibility movement in showing her passionate feelings without any restraint. We know the author is on the side of restraint by how much Elinor, more practical than her sister, is praised in the novel for her forbearance. While Marianne is always portrayed sympathetically, she sometimes looks foolish and ultimately is heartbroken, partially because of her belief in transparency of feeling.

The Hound of the Baskervilles was originally serialized in 1901-1902, at the end of the Victorian era. Out of the Victorian age came the dramatic Bronte novels, as well as the poetry of Robert Browning and Tennyson. Watson is not alone is his very poetic and dramatic way of describing the countryside. I’ll end with a few lines from my favorite Tennyson poem, The Lady of Shallot.

Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver
Through the wave that runs for ever
By the island in the river
Flowing down to Camelot.


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