misssylviadrake (misssylviadrake) wrote,

Wilkie Collins's Rambles Beyond Railways: Reveries of Cornish Travels

Dear friends and readers,

What can I better write about under Reveries under the Sign of Austen than a book which is itself a series of extended brilliant reveries?  Collins's Rambles Beyond Railways, about his walk with a friend (his illustrator) through a place no one goes to, is an informative delightful and serious travel book all at once.  Collins gives the reader a strong feel for the heart or typically individual Cornwall landscapes, its folk culture, economics, types of people, significant moments in its history through meditation, description, story telling,  and his own reactions. I like it best when he told somber stories of recent history against legends and older history. He also describes a play he went to (a satire on Victorian popular drama) and,using a manuscript out of a library, an ancient medieval mystery play he imagines done from an amphitheater he finds. There's more research here than meets the eye.  Lots of illustrations too,

Cheese-wring rocks (tiny at top)  Cornwall in spring

In order to learn more about Cornwall I've been reading histories (e.g., Mary Waugh's Smuggling in Devon and Cornwall, 1700-1850), watched a movie (a feature on the DVD Daphne, a biopic movie about Daphne DuMaurier which included a film adaptation of her Enchanted Cornwall), skimmed my older Arthurian books. And read travel books, fromr my Poldark interest, Winston Graham's Poldark's Cornwall, a partly autobiographic, part story of the writing of his novels and making of the mini-series, Poldark.  Robin Ellis's The Making of Poldark (from which I took a few 1970s photos for this blog) is also evocatively informative. I still have not found an old county book I can afford - but continue to look. 

Then a friend showed me a  blog dedicated to things Cornish and I came across the title, Rambles Beyond Railways.  Gentle reader, I bought it and have spent a couple of weeks reading it on and off in the evenings. It's a marvelous travel book.

Cover illustration, a colorized version of one of the numerous drawing illustrations by Henry Brandling, who accompanied Wilkie Collins. The illustrations are lovely, and one

Upon starting this book to my (mild) surprise, I found it delightful. I was mildly surprised because generally speaking I don't care much for Collins's fiction.  I did read in an intense fervor (when young) The Woman in White, but I never finished The Moonstone, and after trudging through the first third of Armadale, gave up, jumped to the end to see what had happened, and closed the book. My attitude towards involved mystery plot-designs is like Trollope's.  But, as I've seen with others authors, this author changes his tone and stance when it comes to travel books. This is true of Gissing, and I can even read D. H. Lawrence when it's a travel essay.

Collins's book begins lightly, wittily: he starts by introducing himself and his book as if his book is a kind of friend who he has dressed up for us in cloth and is vying with other friends for attention.  He begins by saying that he will not change his title, no not he, even if there are now railways in Cornwall and elsewhere. When he went, there were few or none, and in any case, he never got into any. The opening self-deprecating humor about the lowly stance of this type of writing draws us in-- which all the while Collins probably wants us to realize brings us gratifying experiences, hard to find information, and extends to our sympathies to people supposedly very unlike us.

The great joke to start with is Collins's assertion that is no one goes to Cornwall as travel writers. People go to the extremes of the earth, all sorts of exotic and home-y places. But two are left out: Kamtschatka and Cornwall.  They wanted to go where no one else had been (shades of Star Wars?), and Cornwall was closer plus they are a wee bit patriotic.


Cornish Fisherman

Chapter 2 is the start. We get a full portrait of a boatman -- presented as amusing but nonetheless realistic enough, and our narrator and his illustrator are taking to Saltash where they will begin their journey.  A singularly beautiful description of the waters and lights of the sky and land off Cornwall begins the piece.  Then we get all the stuff they must carry as they emerge from the boat into a tavern.

The practical is the situation of all three men caught up precisely as well as the atmosphere and specifics of place, but one reads this for evocation of experience.  The key note is they are beyond railways. I presume they will walk and/or ride in boats or coaches -- if there are any.  And this is a Collins I've never met before. I like him as  a writer this way much better than in his novelist stance. 

In the next chapter he he reaches the "Cheese-Wring," one of these bizarre formations of rock -- to those to whom it's unfamiliar it looks like a series of rough slates placed one on top of the other only some smaller ones are under larger ones so it looks like it might topple any moment. But it hasn't after centuries

The cheese-wringer stones on top of a rock formation covered by snow (Cornwall in winter)

One of Brandling's illustrations of the Cheese-Wring rock has with a tiny male figure below it. The figure is intended to suggest Collins and the difference in size between the rock and the people coming to see it.  I can't reproduce it as it comes out to fuzzily but in context it makes its point. These rocks dwarf people - the question is how the formed piles were put up?. The standing stone of Cornwall come from the same neolithic period as Stonehenge, Avebury and Stanhope (all in England) and similar stone monumental art works and natural formations around Europe. 

One of the things I became aware of this morning was how he manages to convey the poverty, desolation, real circumstances of the people living in Cornwall (including the corrupt egregiously corrupt rotten boroughs, just then being put out of commission, what work on a mine really looks and probably feels like on the surface), the reality of the picturesque towns and the grim agricultural ones in this gay humorous tone.  There is the usual desperately old lady living alone who gives he and his illustrators a lodging for the night -- in these travel books there is often such a woman, sometimes with a cat, sometimes just alone.  Johnson and Boswell make fun of one they met in Scotland because she was so fearful for her "virtue."  Poor old women; they are still with us and I begin to identify.  Much on inns -- but then that's what a traveler experiences

The determined cheer is a bit grating on my nerves I admit but then  he can smoothly move into these lovely serene moments in the apparently deeply beautiful landscapes. One at a so-called Holy Well -- which reminds me of a painting by Gainsborough of such a place in the southeast.

Gainsborugh, a Holy Wells in the southeast of England

Happily Collins drops his arch-facetious tone by the middle of Chapter 4 and his book begins to become good, even powerful at moments; it is at least a good travel and regional book.

After the extraordinary landscape envisaged from the Cheese-Wring and the shore, he tells the story of a man who could not get a job that could support himself and his family beyond the most starvation level and give him time to study mathematics. The one joy of his existence was his studies.  This does remind me of Dickens's "Signalman" where we have a similar personality type outlined. Daniel Gumb finally gave up the hopeless struggle and moved with his family to live on one of these huge rock formations, carving out a dwelling inside one of these high Cheese Wrings. He and the family found enough to eat from a nearby plot they took over and braved solitude, cold, indifference.  Ridicule he could no longer hear. There they lived for a number of years until he died and the wife and children disappeared -- so it seems -- at any rate no one cared enough to tell or it was in no one's interest.  Collins writes;  "amid a civilized nation, and during a civilized age, under such a shelter as would hardly serve the first savage tribes of the most savage country -- to live, starving out poverty and want on a barred wild."  Lines were left carved on the rocks.

He and his companion-illustrator tried to find accommodation they could sleep in in the area, but it was hopeless so they went to a grand hotel and spent the night.

Chapter 5 gives us a picture of the economy of Cornwall.  Collins begins with the statistic that Cornwall is rare for having "no returns of death from starvation" in its "Government Tables of Mortality."  The trouble here is maybe they just weren't recorded.  The wife and children of Gumb weren't.  But this ability to subsist is his theme.  A land on th edge of England, where emigration has been more resorted to than any other place he says, how the cottages are very cheap, how the people live on pilchards, mining.  A little about how difficult it is to produce food, how people are dependent on the potato.   I know people lived by smuggling too -- big industry as well as wreckage (taking things from what is wrecked on shore).

A photo of an old Cornish mine (1990s image)

The miners are surprisingly literate Collins says -- because national schools have been set up.  There is no sense that women live different lives.  Are they literate too?  we are not told.  There is much hospitality, but ghost stories abound.

The section describing Cornish people, their landscape, their ways of life ends with a description of how the people react to our travellers: walking, with knapsacks.  The people think the travelers more than a little mad for not riding, not staying in grand hotels.  Collins says it's probably expected that he tell tales of the people living by smuggling and wreckage. He quotes a statistic he finds in one community that only one wreckage has been recorded in so many years and no smuggling. This is a joke.  He does suggest that the govt' and prevention men have come down hard on the people of later -- and this is backed by Mary Waugh's book where she says that the gov't did stop much of the smuggling by mid-century.  The upper class wanted their cut and they didn't like disorder.  Collins also denies that the people caused or created the wrecks, only lived off what washed up. But in any case, it would be ungrateful for him to dwell on this since he is being treated very courteously and his is a "the story of a holiday walk."

1970s photo of a Cornish harbour

He has managed to be suggestive and tell enough truth without having to do much research or burdening his narrative unduly. He does aim for a non-diabolic tone at a minimum

Loo Pool and the Lizard

Lizzard Light -- again a 1970s photo

Magnficient compelling description of treks along the dangerous rock mountains, rock-ways, coves and beaches with their unusual flora, narrow ledges, high cliffs, and sudden gaps and holes fills the chapters. Collins says he skips the towns and cities that connect his first towns on the south coast to Loo Pool (so no Loswithiel, Fowey, St Austrell, Gampound, Probus, Truro or Falmouth); it's not his aim to describe variants on the sorts of town and other life these can be fitte into, but describe what is unique to Cornwall -- as he just went over the Holy Wells, Druid Relics indigenous to this part of the UK and Cornish people.

What is strikingly Cornish is the terrain.  Loo Pool is a huge sea-lake that is formed by a sand barrier; it attracts specific kinds of festivals, rituals and myths, and the people try to control its tides to gather fish off of it, cope with (and get things from) nearby wrecks.

Bird watching at St Ives

The masterpiece is his climbing with a Cornish guide up and down and all around the LIzzard. Really remarkable scenery and the illustrations (probably originally full-size) try to convey something of the strangeness of the place (vast towering rocks) but how people clamber about and play and live within the area.  Graham sets several of his key scenes on just such a landscape:  Morwenna Chrynoweth (governess) and Drake Carne's first falling in love; Demelza Poldark's liaison and love-making with Hugh Armitage among the rocks and sands in one of the flats (near crabs), and walks on the beach, one which ends Twisted Sword where Demelza throws to the sea the cup that she snatched from Jeremy's robbery of Warleggan bank

Collins is particulary good on catching the changing lights and mists of morning, flashes in the night, storm and sun and sand with lots of gothic sounds and structures thrown in here and there.

The Pilchard Fishery.  We are offered the rhythms of fish, and in this case pilchard life enable groups of people in Cornwall to survive for parts of the year by being at the spot the pilchards debouch at and catching thousands of them. You must be there just then and no other time. It is a strange magnificent and desperate scene because people can fail to get them.  Winston Graham has a scene at the close of his first Poldark novel where his hero and heroine, just married (against all taboos, he a gentleman and landowner, she a miner's daughter, having been lovers for about a month) -- they get up before dawn, and row out to sea to watch one of these scenes.

From Poldark, 1977-78 (Second Season, Part 8: Demelza and Armitage running among the rocks)

The first half of the chapter on the Pilchard Fishery shows us how remarkable human beings are as a species. Different groups numbers of people, large enough to crowd a vast beach and rocky coast line and waters cooperate to net a huge huge cache of fish.  Watching this would give the mind pause.  They do it in order not to starve and everyone gets some cut, though the owners far more than the workers.  Every level of society, type, and age except the smallest babies.

One wonders why they cooperate this way but cannot in so many others.  Is it that the hierarchy makes the few very rich and those few are the strong types that make this happen? Collins maintains a postive inspired tone.  As I recall Graham's description is more austere.

And then St Michael's Mount where we are blessedly free of the human beings.

Brandling's St Michael's Mount

In Mt St Michael's Collins uses a kind of proto-film technique. You'd think he'd been watching movies where some camera was using dissolves and cuts and flashbacks. We are first made to experience walking up to the mount, the weather, the rock, the building, the landscape, look out at the sea and contemplate what all this implies you have to do to live here.

Then dissolve to a first picture:  "ancient" people rowing in the waters to bring out tin, catch fish, interact with one another (quarrelling mostly), and also discipline.  Powerful.

Dissovve and cut to Edward the Confessor in the 11th century. Now we see a church establishment with its rich powerful king types. How they behave around this new building, the granite (how did it get there) what the aesthetic things carved mean.  Pilgrims coming.

Dissolve and cut to Charles First who came here in flight. How he talked to the loyal people is set up against a fast forward to what his experience of beheading must've felt like to contemplate and stand there that morning.  The letter of thanks that is left in the documents.

And the picture fades from view and we are on the mount again.  Back to present time -- flashbacks over.

Then the banality (to those there all the time) and extraordinariness of fhe neolithic rocks at land's end.  Four different illustraions of different rocks, one of the whole coast.  A story of how a lieutenant in 1824 took it upon him to knock one huge rock, the Loggan stone, because it was said it could never come down. It was also in the way he thought. He didn't quite manage it and then the people around got frightened and mad at him and tried to restore it. They didn't quite.

The grandeur of the place and the legends is caught up.  Alas Collins had no archealogy but we can supply it as modern readers.

He is getting to the heart and reaities of this place.  Land's end closes with an argument to do your traveling at home -- the UK. In his travel stories which take place in the UK (Devonshire countryside, Cornwall) Trollope does the same. And one reality is the famous Botallack Mine.

Cornish mine opening

Of course we must have a mine  Collins opens this section with the statement his readers must be impatient for a description of a mine by now. "Why do we hear nothing abouttin, and copper, and shafts, and steam-pumps -- why are we all the time kept away from the mines?"

He makes up for it in this chapter. He comes upon Botallack (famous) and shows us how crack-gimmed together it seems.  How odd if you don't understand what you are seeing.

He uses himself too . He says he is small, 5 feet six and the outfit given him too large. He emphasizes what such outfits feel like (much is canvas) and the candles in your hand and on your hat and how they are glued in place.  Again perspective de-familiarizes and familiarizes all at once.

He then really gives you a sense of the experience of being in a mine, going all the way down, crawling in it, half walking, the dangers of the ladders, the hard work, what it feels like to go up again, to see the sky after hours and hours below. Then the water -- how central to pump it out The fear of being engulfed when there is a storm.

He emerges and we learn about the social organization, how people are paid (so little). The desperate nature of such work. But he ends on an accident that had a happy ending. A fourteen year old boy saved. And how his parents were so tender of him -- so transient human life even here among individuals valued.

Modern and ancient drama in Cornwall

The old Launston  Gaol gate

There follow two chapters which are marvels of writing. In the first Collins tells of a touring group he sees do a performance of some ludicrous but somehow plausible melodrama before a large group of spectators in St Ives. I didn't really find it funny, and think I was supposed to laugh until the tears ran down my face. Maybe if I were a Victorian and had been subjected to such an appalling lot of absurdity in lesser forms I would have. I did however find it amusing and many of the underlying patterns of ludicrous forms of sex and  aggression and money and other troubles are still with us today. In fact this silly play ends with the death of the major heroine blamed on the two heroes. Well in Graham's Angry Tide that's just what happens: a major heroine, Elizabeth Poldark, dies and we are to see that the two chief males, Ross and George, between them in effect killed her. Collins wants us to see also this play pleases. There are numerous actors described, costumes, the sets. Much is done that is admirable and for little money.  I was amused by the people thenselves and their ingenuity.  Then afterward their good time together drinking and talking. The lack of sophisticated understanding by middle class people too is underlined. He forgets maybe they had no other play to see, but then it was uncomfortable in a make-shift shed.

This is compared to his imaginative recreation of a play text written down in 1611, called The Creation of the World. It's an apocalyptic drama that takes us through the drama we find in Paradise Lost by Milton -- only in chronological order from the creation of the earth to Noah. It's really a mystery play from a bigger cycle.  Collins is kinder to this one. For a start, he has done research and tells of the original and some successive translations and how it reached this stage and further reached him.  He finds some genuine poetry here and there and glimpses of serious feeling. I wondered if he was giving it too much credit because of its religious source. Or giving the modern drama too little - as the modern drama had moments like Dickens's Little Dorrit. There is a wonderful account of the landscape where there's a left-over amphitheatre used in medieval times. We are to admire this and the sense of this place has beauty.

Altogether the second play comes out better than the first, but then it is Collins imagining the second. The first happened. We have actors described, costumes, the sets. Much is done that is admirable and for little money.  I was amused by the people themselves and their ingenuity.  Collins mentions Mr Dickens as one who would take from his script an argument that we must educate people more.  It seems he did not know Mr Dickens then but is an admirer of Mr Dickens's strong social principles.

The penultimate chapter takes us deep into one of these woodlands in Cornwall and I have put on our groupsite page:

Woodland, Bonnocoe

It is just such an idyllically green and lush place Collins draws us into where he then describes death-in-life way of existence by a group of nuns, Carmelite who took over the House of Lanhearne and now live this perversely silent withdrawn life. I've read nothing like this since I read Ann Radcliffe's horrified description of a bunch of coffins she saw used as beds for nuns on the continent in 1794 Apparently Collins was attacked for his revelations -- there's a later footnote by him defending himself.

House of Lanhearne, one of Brandling's illustrations

This tragedy -- the women's lives is prefaced by a description of a group of men who froze to death one freezing night (they had not realized how cold) as they were about their desperate measures to get some food. The juxtaposition of human behavior, realities and the natural world in which it took place is effective. 

North coast shore

Collins's book ends brilliantly and movingly with him walking up the coast to Tintagel Castle and other places where ruins still exist.  The description of the magnficent coast line, at once desolate and goreous rich flora could be scenarios for a movie -- or a plan for going to shoot one on location. He retells briefly the most famous moments in the Arthurian tales, concentrating on moments of high tragedy. He does seem to have some knowledge of what's thought to be the historical basis of these legends:  some captain who had conquered the Saxons finally falling.

What I liked and can be presented as an epitome of the range of the book is this is matched by 2 local stories:  two women came to live in a now solitary cottage in a state of decay: they simply were there one day and lived together alone going out to procure food with money for months and months. They became the object of community curiosity since they never had anyone to visit them, but before this curiosity turned hostile, one of them died. This was discovered and the body taken from the grieving lone woman; she then died slowly and was found dead on her chair, and buried.

In the case of a second an old ruined church, Forrabury,  with a closed up belfry.  This church had no bells and the people of the church were jealous of the peals coming from Tintagel so they got together and produced enough money as a group (perhaps we should send them to the US congress who produce money only to conduct wars) to buy a new bell or set of bells. Alas, when the bell was formed, put on a ship, and the ship brought near harbor, a quarrel between the pilot and captain (the pilot devoutly bowing before the Tintagel bells heard, and the captain reviling the pilot as a fool) erupted and Heaven's vengeance descended, the ship went down and the bells with it.

As much time and space is devoted to these stories, the environs they are said to have occurred in as the Arthurian legends, and a walk amid a landscape in the area where there was no roadway.

The book closes with a beautiful description of a last twilight evening as the two travelers linger before Launceston from whch they will go to Plymouth and then back to modern day worlds. Collins then appends a list of the routes he walked, the miles and inns to be found within each circumference.

What makes a good travel book?  A evocative physical recreation of the place through words and pictures. A strong autobiographical element where we travel with someone and experience as he (or she) experienced the journey/trip.  Concise well-chosen information epitomizing how people live there now and had lived there earlier.   Good history, an account of the economic basis of the place, social arrangements, meet people there who tell you stories whose value is as much in their being told as what they say. All this is in Collins in a felicitious style. The book was published early in Collins's career, before he knew Dickens personally.  I should think it helped his career along.

Tags: poldark, sublimity, travel book

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