This Month in Writing – November

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‘The Well of Pen – Morfa’, November 1850

In the autumn of 1850, the year that Elizabeth Gaskell and her family took up residence at 42, Plymouth Grove, Charles Dickens published the second of Gaskell’s contributions to Household Words-‘The Well of Pen Morfa’, followed in December of that year by ‘The Heart of John Middleton.

Pen Morfa location (click to enlarge)

Kate Krueger avers that Gaskell ‘offered a short story composite indebted to travel sketches’, and ‘The Well of Pen- Morfa’ is certainly no exception[1].  From the outset Gaskell clearly defines the history and landscape of the area surrounding Porthmadog on the southern side of the Llyn Peninsula in North Wales. It was an area Elizabeth Gaskell was familiar with after having made frequent visits to her Uncle Samuel Holland’s rural farm house near Porthmadog. On the 1841 census, Samuel is listed as a slate merchant whose business was located in the industrialised mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog, nine miles away from his home. In fact, it was on one of her visits to Porthmadog that Willie, Elizabeth’s  nine month old son, died from scarlet fever in 1845.  This landscape meant a great deal to Elizabeth so  it is no surprise that it was,  as  Merfyn Jones notes, ‘to this incomparably beautiful  and significance-laden borderland  between Glasyn and Dwyryd, Caernarfonshire and  Merioneth, that the writer [Gaskell] returned in the Welsh chapters of her fiction’[2]. 

In addition to the personal significance , this landscape signified the boundary between old and new; the progress of industrialisation and the ‘old ways’ of rural Wales, represented by the village of Pen- Morfa.  Gaskell describes this place as both ‘ancient’, and ‘Welsh Welsh’. Doubly Welsh because it had little traffic with the outside world and was therefore still steeped in the old Welsh traditions.

As always, Gaskell uses the techniques of fiction to prove her points. She describes how the village was once vital, ‘lashed’ by the sea which joins one shore to another and is forever in motion. The sea represents energy and connectedness, but now Pen –Morfa is left disconnected and abandoned- ‘high and dry,…on a disused road to Caernarfon’. Moreover, Gaskell states: ‘ I do not think there has been a new cottage built in Pen-Morfa this hundred years and many an old one has dates in some obscure corner which tell of the fifteenth century’ . So the village is now a  static community, and stasis is usually a precursor to death. 

It is into this time warp that we are drawn to hear the story of a romance between Nest, a beautiful Welsh girl, and the handsome farmer Edward Williams. But Gaskell shows the fragility of romance which is soon shattered by an accident. Nest must walk across ‘rich, verdant meadow[lands] to the rocks which house the village well  ‘sharp down under [neath]’ to gather water in her pitcher.  

Professor J. Sharp at the Well of Pen Morfa

However, this rich and verdant landscape holds a lurking danger: ‘one or two large sloping pieces of stone in that last field, on the road leading to the well, which are always slippery; slippery in the summer’s heat, almost as much as in the frost of winter’. Slippery is repeated to emphasis the danger which changes the well from a symbol of life to a place of death; the death of ‘love and hope, and her bright glad youth’.  

Yet how far does Gaskell blame Nest for her own suffering? Is this a tale of hubris and nemesis, or in more Christian terms, of pride going before the fall? Great emphasis is put on the girl’s cloak and the new hat which her mother advised her against wearing. These garments enhanced Nest’s beauty, presumably that was her plan as such cloaks, we are told, were never worn for household errands. Moreover there is a subtle irony in the comment by one observer: ‘It was not possible to look in her face, and “fault” anything she wore’. Nest was ‘beautiful and delighted in it’, the princess of this fairy tale is both vain and stubborn.

Fairy tale is an important narrative feature of Gaskell’s short fiction and this tale is no exception.  Autumn is described as ‘enchanted’ and the young woman as ‘unusually lovely…like the fairy-gifted child, and dropped inestimable gifts’. Sleeping Beauty received gifts from the fairies, but Nest’s gifts did not ensure her marriage to the prince. In the real world of nineteenth- century Wales, ‘beauty was a great gift of God (for the Welsh are a very pious people)’ and fairies belong to the pagan world of superstition. Furthermore we are reminded of  Sleeping Beauty when Nest is found on the rocks, her beauty changed to ‘deadly pallor, [with…] filmy eyes, over which dark shades seemed to chase each other’.

Girl at the Waterfall (The Waterfall, St. Nighton’s near Tintacel) – a picture of Georgina Hogarth, the sister-in-law of Charles Dickens’s wife Catherine by Daniel Maclisr

But Gaskell soon breaks with fairy tale tradition as this beauty is not awakened by a kiss – but by a cruel reality.  Moreover the prince is a farmer trying to earn his living in a hard rural landscape. He needs a wife who can work at his side as: ‘I’ve a deal of cattle; and the farm makes heavy work, as much as an able healthy woman can do’. Nest is no-longer able to fulfil this role and is thus cast aside. Love is shown to be a romantic construct that fades in the light of reality and Nest’s vanity leads to misery and regret. 

The prince is also subject to the aging process. Edward becomes ‘a gray, hard-featured man’ and we must ask why Gaskell mentions this. Age would make him ‘gray’, but why must he also be ‘hard featured’?  Perhaps in his pursuit of practicalities Edward has lost any empathy with others, a quality which becomes Nest’s redemption. For despite the fact that Gaskell overturns the traditional fairy tale ending, life is not all negative, and some love does survive. Eleanor Gwynn’s love for her child never falters; neither does the bond between the physically damaged Nest and the mentally weak Mary. Thus we see a resolution and redemption which extends beyond the limited vision of fairy story’s romantic marriage plot. But that is not until Gaskell has revealed the cruel realities of a world that values superficial qualities, commodities such as wealth, youth and beauty instead of virtue, kindness and integrity.

 

 [1] Kate Krueger British Women Writers and the Short Story, 1850-1930: Reclaiming Space (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 11.

 [2] R. Merfyn Jones, ‘‘No Barrier Against Agony’ Elizabeth Gaskell’s North Wales’, Journals of the Merioneth Historical and Record Society, 1993

Diane Duffy

 

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