What allows some people to escape their demons while others can’t shake them off? What mad inertia drives some, demonstrably resilient, people straight over cliffs to their destruction? I guess there are thousands, millions of individual answers to that question. I had a moment with Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald the other week, wondering if they might whisper something, inspire some insight, as I stood by their grave with a meager offering of flowers. Wondering how things went so terribly wrong this side of paradise (although some of the answers to that question are blatant), but also wondering if things look remarkably different (and if there was any wisdom that they could share) from the other side of paradise.
I was met with little more than a cold March breeze and silence, but for the low hum of the roadside just beyond the graveyard.
Until . . . I turned my back to leave and a swirl of snow flurries began to fall. Not forecast, not expected, and not entirely welcome in March, but altogether beautiful. And this was my farewell from the Fitzgeralds. They were a puzzle to the end– and even beyond– but, by God, they had style. And it seems they have it still.
The stone at the foot of the grave, engraved with what is likely Fitzgerald’s most famous passage, from the end of The Great Gatsby.
A few more notes on the gravesite, the Fitzgeralds, and my visit:
Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald are buried at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Rockville, MD: a very old church around which a modern sprawl has grown. The graveyard sits atop a busy intersection– a major artery in the morning commute into DC. Despite that, it feels quiet and respectful. The Fitzgerald headstones are set back from the road, close to the old church building, so they enjoy one of the more serene spots in the cemetery.
And “serene” well describes the moment I lingered over this gravesite– if it doesn’t describe the Fitzgeralds’ lives in the least. Their lives were too often consumed by mania– in Zelda’s emotional state, in Scott’s unquenchable thirst for alcohol– but their final resting place is peaceful. Its background music may be the rumble of the road and the back-and-forth and here-and-there frantic energy of the ambitious, but this small plot seemed impervious. I paused a moment on a Friday morning, I placed my flowers and bowed my head briefly, and I raised my head again to find that snow flurries had appeared out of nowhere. Within minutes, the sky grew heavy and the swirl picked up.
I moved on, eager to make use of the free morning I had, wary of what unforeseen storm might be blowing in to disrupt my plans, but also delighted at the beauty of the unexpected swirl and sudden cold. I jumped in my car and headed out into the Rockville Pike traffic, a boat against the current, but moving nonetheless.
Tonight, I’ll be tuning in for To Walk Invisible — the BBC drama about the Bronte sisters that is featuring on PBS Masterpiece. If your passing knowledge of the Bronte sisters is simply that they were successful writers, then you’ve missed a huge swath of their story– the entire furtive, formative swath. The part that was hard, ugly, and, literally, doomed . . . but literarily resilient. But then, could you have expected anything else from a family that lived on the atmospheric Yorkshire Moors and created such stories as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre?
I think you could not.
It might be smart for me to watch tonight’s show and then write this post about the Brontes– both to refresh my memory about their story and to comment on the show itself. But I’m at the computer now, and so I write. Also– before the show has the opportunity to retouch my memory of a trip to the Bronte Parsonage at Haworth– I’d like to tell you what I remember about my trip there, because it had quite an impact on me.
Confession: I was never a big Bronte fan. My sister was the impetus behind our trip to the Bronte’s home. I didn’t dislike the Brontes, I just hadn’t spent much time with them. I probably thought their brand of gothic fiction was more outdated than classic. I was wrong.
But I didn’t see that until I visited their home and learned more about their lives. The conventions of gothic had nothing on the actual lives of the Bronte sisters. Dark, atmospheric tales weren’t just a hook for catching a reader, they were faithful incarnations of the harsh realities of life in Haworth (and at the Bronte home).
Their mother and two sisters died young. Their brother died in young adulthood– of illness and addiction. Emily died four months after her brother; Anne died the next year; Charlotte died six years later (but still only 38 years old). Their father outlived them all, by many decades.
He was quite the exception for the village of Haworth. In the 1800’s, the village was a gloomy place and the average life expectancy was less than 30 years old. There was no real sewage system in Haworth. Sewage often ran in the streets and tainted the water supply. What water there was to start with– which wasn’t much and was of bad quality. Finally– just to add some grim to the grime– the overcrowded city cemetery, which grew more overcrowded each year and had very bad drainage, sat (still sits) at the top of the city hill, further poisoning the town. That is a recipe for death by death.
One more thing–possibly important if you are a Bronte– the village cemetery sits in front of the parsonage. Death on your doorstep: a fine thing to wake up to each morning.
So, if you were a Bronte sister, you grew up in a village where infant mortality was sky high and people of every age had a tough go of it. You lived at the edge of the wild and harsh Moors, quite a distance from any large, urban centers. Your prospects in Haworth were not so very good, your childhood playground was a cemetery, the wind howled, your preacher father married and buried a revolving door of friends and neighbors, and nothing in life was easy, not even a kettle of water for your tea.
No wonder your brother became an addict; no wonder your relatives passed young. No wonder your imagination turned to a rich inner world to pass your days . . . but a world of disquieting stories.
I’m sure tonight’s program will teach me a good many things about the Bronte family that I did not know. I am eager to learn. My first visit to Haworth was around 2006– so my memory is a little fuzzy on details, but not on the overall impression. I’d already been living in Yorkshire for a year, and loved the environs, so it’s not surprising that what struck me most about the Bronte home was the town, the general environs in which this family lived. It was the perfect setting for a gothic tale.
It was a grey, atmospheric day the first time I visited Haworth. The town was picturesque and compact. I remember winding up the cobbled street, passing a sweet shop, a tea room, a pub. Passing tourists. Seeing the tidy parsonage, and its dreary graveyard, at the top of the hill. All perfectly picturesque– especially as you stand at the crest of the hill and look down at the winding street of town, the stone shops and home fronts, and the rolling hills around it.
If you want to see a bit of what my eyes saw, here’s a short YouTube video that will give you a quick glance at Haworth and a view from the top of the town. ( Be warned–the narrator does drone on at the end of the video, “blah blah, polar bears, blah blah”– just ignore that bit. He also says “Withering” Heights, repeatedly– hard to ignore, but try.)
BUT– for all of the beauty, as the grey clouds swarmed the day of my first visit and the air ran chill, I gathered up all I had learned about life in Haworth in the 1800’s, and what I remembered of some of the haunting elements of the Bronte sisters’ tales, and I saw the town differently. I saw the graveyard at the pinnacle of the town, I saw the run off and sewage coursing through the streets below, I saw Branwell (the addled addict of a brother) watching death wash over the streets from the dark pub window. The town itself seemed a little Jekyll and Hyde to me.
Haworth seems like a tale well told, but hard-lived. An amazing place to visit, for certain.
I’ll leave you with two things, below. The first, a portrait that I saw in the parsonage– rather famous– which Branwell painted of the three sisters who survived him. I love (and loathe) it for the fact that Branwell had originally painted himself into the portrait, but (for what reason?) decided to erase himself out of it. It is no subtle erasure. What he leaves is worse than a gapping hole in the middle of the painting: it’s a spectral ghost of himself that (for me, at least) becomes almost more of a focal point than the remaining likenesses of his sisters! I suspect that this will in some ways ring true with the Bronte family story I watch tonight. The ghost of Branwell, the presence of death and despair in Haworth, is largely the energy that created the Bronte stories.
The second nugget I leave for you is a YouTube video that acts as a teaser for the production To Walk Invisible. Enjoy!
This is a traveler’s tale, believe me. Just suspend your disbelief for a few minutes, and you’ll see how it all comes around.
“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.” –so says Juliet in Shakespeare’s play.
Of course, the Bard is right when it comes to the star crossed lovers of his play, but other times it seems that there is something in a name. Some hint of the stars, indeed, the trajectories of fate. I offer up my husband’s family for closer inspection. (Sorry guys!)
When we had our first child, I dabbled with dozens of name combinations. I wanted to use family names, especially for my children’s middle names. As it turned out, both of my kiddoes have middle names that come from my family. I tried to be fair minded, but a quick look into my husband’s family tree sent me running scared. The first three names to appear in the foliage of that tree?
Butcher. (NO thank you.)
Butts. (Funny, but not for my children.)
Coffin. (Oh, dear Lord.)
Those names weren’t destined to go down in my family, except anecdotally, as the names which shall NOT go down in my family.
But then. . .
(That’s where so many stories begin, isn’t it? “Everything was just fine. But then…”)
But then I picked up Nathaniel Philbrick’s book In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex. I picked it up because I’d loved his book Mayflower and I looked forward to hearing his voice again; I didn’t have any particular love of sea-faring tales. But what a crazy tale opened up to me when I opened Philbrick’s book. His story of the tragic wreck of the Whaleship Essex was a tale I already knew, in some measure, from Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s long winded but brilliant tale of mania, fate, superstition, life and death, good and evil: the motherload of English Department themes.
Who knew that Melville had founded his story in the circumstances of an actual whaleship–The Essex–that had been sunk by an angry whale? And the wreck of the Essex both fascinates and horrifies not only in the circumstances of the wreck, but even more in the horrifying tale of survival, and attempted survival, of her crew.
The Essex was small, but she was known as a lucky, profitable ship when she left Nantucket in 1819. Her voyage to the west coast of South America would take over two years, and things got rough for this lucky ship even in the first week of the voyage. A squall hit and the ship was damaged. But that was just the beginning. By November of 1820, her luck ran out entirely.
I’d love to recount the entire story for you here, because it is horrifying and fascinating all at once, but Philbrick tells it best, and a blog post isn’t the right vehicle for an epic tale. (Yes, I hear you thanking me.) The half penny version is that the crew members were afloat in three small boats, with little water or food (much of which became salt-soaked and only increased their thirst). They were about 2,000 miles off of the South American coast at the time. The boats were separated in a squall. Starvation and dissociative madness ensued, and death picked them off one by one.
Nearly 100 days after the Whaleship Essex sank, the very few survivors (about 5 men) were rescued.
The Essex had started out with 21 men. She had started out a lucky ship. Her journey took an awful turn. But also an awe-full turn.
That turn went like this:
1-The first mate, Owen Chase, was one of the survivors, and he wrote an account of the tragedy: The Wreck of the Whaleship Essex.
2- That account fell into the hands of Herman Melville while he was at sea on a whaling voyage. In fact, legend has it that Melville met Owen Chase’s son on that voyage. Chase reportedly gave Melville a copy of his father’s story.
3- Melville’s copy of the story indicates his deep connection with the surviving Essex men, as he scribbled in the pages, “Met Captain Pollard [who had captained the Essex] on Nantucket. To most islanders a nobody. To me, one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met.”
And so the story of the Essex has lived on in American literary culture–in spirit, if not in detail-for-detail fact.
But why do I offer it up here? Because the Whaleship Essex was carrying a young boy named Owen Coffin. Yes, Coffin: one of the leaves in the foliage of my husband’s family tree.* And one of the most gruesome, but absolutely necessary, links in bringing you the tale of the Essex and the novel Moby Dick. Without Owen Coffin, Captain Pollard and another boatmate would not have survived.
In the most desperate last days of their desperate ordeal, the men of the Essex survived only by resorting to cannibalism. Disturbing enough that they had to cannibalize their dead shipmates, but in the final days they resorted, just this once, to “drawing straws” to make the ultimate sacrifice. One of their own would be killed to save the others. Owen Coffin drew a bad lot.
Well, what is in a name, indeed?
I don’t regret bypassing the gloomy monicker for my own children, but then. . .
I also thrill to this odd link to American history –both in the Essex and in Melville’s near-Biblical tale of struggle and mania and survival.
I’ve traveled an awful lot of roads in life, in a journey not only over geographic terrain, but over cultural and temporal peaks as well–that’s the nature of our lives’ stories. So if my children’s stories reach back to a heritage that includes Owen Coffin’s tale–Owen Coffin’s horrible, gruesome, but somehow resilient tale (in the survival of Chase and under the pen of Melville)–then I am thrilled.
It’s a very long view of the journey, isn’t it?
Owen Coffin suffered a horrible fate.
But Owen Chase lived to tell.
And he told Herman Melville, whose book bombed in his own time . . .
But became a classic of literature in the 20th century.
And I scoffed at the name Coffin. . . only to find that I admire it more than I could have imagined.
As we travelers always say, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”
*My husband’s ancestor left Nantucket for the coast of Canada in the years following the American Revolution. It’s not clear whether he was also a whaler, but he may have been a loyalist in the King’s Navy during the war.