Thursday, April 05, 2007

172. The Joyful Gloom

It's been many years--oh, jeez; almost thirty?--since I've read E. M. Forster's novel, Howards End, but I've seen the 1992 Merchant/Ivory film version at least half-a-dozen times. It gives me a kind of pleasure that has only become a guilty one over the past few years. I won't belabor the point that many Americans still grow up Anglophiles, at least indirectly. The "British invasion" certainly didn't begin in the '60s, and it isn't going to be over any time soon. In movies alone, there's been Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie, haunted castles and emigrating vampires, not to mention the semi-British accents favored by Golden Age movie stars--and let's not forget Errol Flynn and Cary Grant, nor the Anglo-Saxon attitudes of Katherine Hepburn and Bette Davis--and on to Lord of the Rings and Shawn of the Dead--and of course the veddy-veddy, RAW-tha, I-say-old-bean onslaught of the aforementioned Merchant/Ivory mill. Americans have never entirely left the groaning laden table of Merrie Olde.

I admit I myself have spent many hours at the board, so to speak, raising more than a few in cozy British imaginary familiarity. Whether rude-boy rowdy or dowager dowdy, upper-lip-stiffening or self-consciously whimsical, the Isles across the Pond never seemed that far away to me. It began when I was little: Among the earliest "real" books (more words than pictures) my parents gave me were Kipling's Just-So Stories and the Alice tales. While the former led me more to the Empire than the drawing-room, and the latter down rabbit-holes and through looking-glasses, the journeys remained unmistakably British. And despite the strangeness and violence of those books, they left me with a sense of the "homely," of the promise of some small treat by a lightly crackling fire. And then I found myself with a copy of Jane Eyre, then Great Expectations. Little by little, a part of me was altered, until I find myself still unable--and unwilling--to resist the Gothic coziness of these particular books.

Their influence extended to film, where, especially in black and white, I felt the pull of those slate-gray hills and windy rises, cobbled lanes and cheerful little doorways promising respite. But as I entered adulthood and my career in teaching--and as Americans--especially the ones going to college--began to wonder exactly who they were, while many, often less privileged, voices arose, insisting they too were Americans--I became aware of something ridiculously obvious: Here I was, a working-class East Coast-er, half Cuban and half Sicilian, and yet it was the "haunts of coot and hearn" I pined for, not the swaying sugarcane fields or olive-shaded hollows of my gene pool, let alone the sea to shining sea right here at home. And a part of me felt I had duped myself, defending foreign soil, doting on strangers.

But Howards End--the place, and the promise it makes--still stands; and to be honest, if someone handed us the keys to any version of Forster's nestled country place, smelling of fresh-cut hay, the sopping grass of the meadow merging with the lawn, the rooms low-ceilinged and close enough that you can hear them talk to one another as the wind passes, we would grab and go, forsaking all ethnic and national ties, relieved at last to open the gate and approach the yellow square of light that opens like a hand waiting to grasp in reassurance. Despite all its sorrow and loss, the house remains, the only solid thing in all that phony Britishness that Americans (and perhaps the British themselves) have invented--well, at least the only thing we want to remain, even though it is fragile--as Margaret worries in Forster's novel, a "westerly gale might blow the wych-elm [that stands next to the house] down and bring the end of all things." But such imaginary landscapes are by nature slight; and the funny part is, it's our imaginations themselves--abetted by foolish things like books and movies--that can form any substance, that make the hay smell the way it does and fill the rooms with solid furniture.

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