“He felt the strain of this clinging affection for the old home as part of his life, part of himself. He couldn’t bear to think of himself living on any other spot than this, where he knew the sound of every gate and door.”
— George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss
In a turn of events perhaps best described by the phrase ‘not with a bang but a whimper’, the high intensity production line of finals and graduation came to a shuddering halt. I returned my (ridiculous) furry graduation hood, said a series of increasingly weepy goodbyes to the people I’ve lived with and loved with (and love) for the past three years and returned to the village I grew up in. Here, the most exciting things that happen are a wife-carrying race and occasional acts of vandalism to the giant silver cockerel statue on the roundabout; although, as this was named one of the UK Roundabout Appreciation Society’s top 12 roundabouts in 2012, perhaps I’m just impossible to please. ‘Leaving home’ is a strange phrase, and it has undergone a curious value slippage as the process itself has shifted: rather than a definite exodus from the nest, if your leave-taking now involves going to university it is likely to be defined by periods of increasingly prolonged absence; a liminal state, shuttling between the familiar and the new.
‘Home’ itself is a heavy term, and bloated by its accumulation of clichés: home is where the heart is, love feels like home, a house is not a home, but where does that leave me? I’m certainly not likely to own any property for the foreseeable future, and, had I a hat, I wouldn’t have anywhere permanent to lay it. I feel at home, certainly, in the city I went to university in, but I never lived in the same building for more than 9 months, and every 10 weeks I returned to a different home, that of my childhood. I realise that this is a privilege: without even touching on the obvious fact that to have anywhere to live at all is hugely fortunate, I grew up somewhere so stable that my personal narrative is closely intertwined with that particular place. This kind of home has its foundations in the familiar: there is a cherry tree in my front garden that my friend Tom gave me on my 13th birthday, and all my old pets are buried in the flowerbeds. Yet this makes a feeling of displacement now difficult to avoid. I love fiercely the people I associate with home, my friends and family, but relationships travel with you; increasingly, returning—however welcome— feels like a hiatus from the forward momentum of ‘real’ life.
Memory plays a huge part in the thorny relationship between place and identity, in home-making, if you will. Shona Illingworth’s 2009 mixed media exhibition Balnakiel and Caterina Albano’s accompanying Balnakiel: in the Spaces of Memory examine notions of identity, landscape and belonging through the relationship between the hamlet of Balnakiel, on the northernmost coast of Scotland, and the Cape Wrath bombardment range. For those considered local to Balnakiel, there is an “almost complete integration between memory and physical environment”: the landscape is “charged with affective cues that facilitate their memory and subsequently allowing them to imagine a future in that landscape”. The voice transcripts of residents supports this: the experience of Balnakiel is one deeply felt: “that’s what I always felt when you went outside at Balnakiel… you were aware of the sound of your climate like the vibration… almost the world turning… you were aware of this huge passage of time under your feet”.
These links between memory and space establish what is perhaps the ‘affective cue’ most associated with ideas of home: nostalgia. Again, this is as much a mark of my own good luck as anything else, but the two homes I’ve known thus far invite a sentimental perspective more than most. I went to university in Cambridge, a place steeped in pre-emptive nostalgia from the very day you arrive, and I grew up in a small village in Surrey that—with its hills and village fetes and herds of placid meandering cows—is the very image of pastoral Little England. The real memories of my childhood and adolescence blur and merge into the way the idea of a specifically English countryside is represented and fetishized by Cath Kidston kitchenware and Johnny Flynn album covers. It is easy too, to idealise the termly return to rural life: in actuality, I spent half of it mutinously stomping around damp hedgerows like a bad crayon drawing of Gudrun Brangwen, wishing I were somewhere with night buses. Nostalgia always seems to find its roots in the countryside: pastoral literature is often concerned with a wistful need to belong. Raymond Williams, in his exploration of the pastoral, The Country and the City, writes of this as something that has always been a mark—and often a criticism—of the genre: this sense of something always fading, eternally “just over the last hill”.
This may seem alien to those of you raised on the mean streets of the metropolis, but the association between an idealized, nostalgic concept of home—an innocence, perhaps—and the countryside is a persistent one in our collective cultural psyche. There are interesting theories about the possible psychological reasons for this, and childhood—unsurprisingly— looms large in all of them. Shakespeare returns again and again to the “babbling of green fields”, not only in the pastoral comedies but throughout his works, and in Green Shakespeare: from Ecopolitics to Ecocriticism, Gabriel Egan notes that the mass exodus from the countryside to London that took place in the 16th century meant that for Shakespeare and his contemporaries their childhood literally was located in the country, and their adulthood in the city. Egan references Iris Murdoch’s The Bell, in which Peter Topglass asserts that “all children naturally live in the country”, and this, although coming from a faintly risible minor character, serves not as a sarcastic indictment of the sentiment but rather a distorted tribute to a truer seam of feeling.
Dorothy J. Hale has linked Murdoch to a tradition of liberal humanism that has some of its strongest roots in the work of George Eliot, and Eliot’s 1860 novel The Mill on the Floss emphasizes the importance of bonds between the landscape of childhood and the beliefs and affections we hold in adulthood. As Tom and Maggie Tulliver oscillate between new, adult desires and the old bonds of duty and affection, the latter eventually wins, intertwined with the deeply felt familiarity of their rural home: “Life did change for Tom and Maggie; and yet they were not wrong in believing that the thought and loves of these first years would always make part of their lives. We could never have loved the earth so well if we had had no childhood in it”. The River Floss is present from the opening of the novel, and is responsible for its tragic denouement: Maggie in particular, as she runs into the flooding river to save both her childhood residence and her brother, cannot conscience any kind of adulthood that betrays the truth she finds in the landscape of home.
At the risk of inciting the rage of Eliot scholars, a book that almost matches The Mill on the Floss in its wisdom, and its kindness, is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Again something of a bildungsroman centred around a female protagonist, I Capture the Castle follows its narrator Cassandra Mortmain through a coming of age marked at every point by symbolic interaction with her a tangible, located home, the dilapidated Scoatney Castle: sunbathing naked on the roof, swimming in the moat at midnight on the eve of her sister’s engagement, or the last ever ‘Midsummer Rites’ she performs in the gardens. Yet the artistic inheritance of this vanishing rural England is referred to just as much as the landscape itself: Austen, Blake, Keats, Nashe, Shakespeare and Thackeray are mentioned like supporting characters. In a way, they are: the genteel poverty the novel describes is more akin to literature than life, with the Mortmains living on and in the land, but not off it. The circumstances of the novel’s composition go some way to explaining this: published in 1949, Smith wrote I Capture the Castle during the 1940s whilst she and her husband, a conscientious objector, were living in self-imposed exile in California. Smith’s own longing for home certainly translates into nostalgia, and Cassandra’s relationship to her home as a kind of figurative heartland is as much of a response to this need for an (apparently) simpler time and a more familiar place as to the place itself.
Smith’s home is more of a wish than a memory; perhaps this is always the case. Last month—the 24th June, to be precise—saw the 100th anniversary of Edward Thomas’ ‘Adelstrop’, a poem often heralded as an example of wartime longing for a safer, pastoral England. The title refers to a small village in the Cotswolds—allegedly the inspiration for Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park—but here, as with Balnakiel, it is the memory of place that provides the topic: “Yes, I remember Adelstrop / the name”. The poem describes a real train journey, but Thomas never disembarked in Adelstrop itself and, as Glen Newey points out in his article in the London Review of Books, ‘Goneness is everywhere’, the poem is an elegy to what Adelstrop symbolises, not to what it is: ‘Thomas didn’t write the poem immediately; he began it early in 1915. By then, the England that had not quite ever been had ceased to exist’. Even here, the countryside’s lasting impact is in the mind.
Perhaps that’s one reason why the archaic connection between the landscape of the country and the notion of home persists: we most often access them both through our nostalgia for them. To regress—fittingly—to my adolescent DVD collection, as Zach Braff’s perpetually adolescent Andrew Largerman puts it in the 2004 film Garden State “maybe that’s all family really is: a group of people that miss the same imaginary place”. I disagree, about family, but this “imaginary place” comes closer to the complexities of home than an address or a map can, on their own. Places exist, and our memories of them exist, but perhaps home can only ever be located in the elusive overlap between the two.