Summer holidays were always a transformative time for me growing up. We had little money, and I hailed from a single-parent household. I had only one living grandparent (my maternal grandfather, or Grandpa), whose home we used to visit each Summer. His was a two-bedroomed cottage in a village nestled into the Weald of Kent, called Plaxtol. Being born and raised in North-east London, the rurality of Kent (despite its closeness to the capital) was always a pleasantly jarring experience.
This was the 90s. For a long time, the most technological item I owned was my Gameboy. Due to the cost of computers back then, it was a while before we were able to own one (a friend of my mother’s found a monitor from a skip, and hooked it up to a second-hand hard-drive he managed to source for us). Eventually, Grandpa bought us a brand new computer, with a hard-drive of 6GB and modem internet. Around the same time we also got a new family member: Flora was a Golden Retriever who grew up with my older brother and I, and came to Plaxtol with us every July and August.
Back in North-east London we lived in a typical terraced Victorian house, complete with threadbare carpets, an extension that had been built wrong (and probably illegally) when my dad still lived there, recycled kitchen cupboards and doors taken from the dump. The glass of the bay window at the front of our house was marred by faults: like most else, it had been bought cheap by my dad, discarded by the manufacturer. It never looked quite clean due to translucent white stripes stained across the pane.
Once school finished up in July, we enjoyed a few days of freedom before setting off, taking the M25, driving through the Shoreham Valley and always keeping an eye out for the chalk cross on the hillside. Through Otford and Seal we drove, past signposts echoing an old Anglo Saxon influence in the region, Kentish tiles and oasthouses visibly changing the look of the landscape.
I don’t know why, but whenever we arrived at Grandpa’s, he was always cooking a casserole. It’s herbaceous smell welcomed us upon each visit. His front door was rarely used. Instead, we’d go in through the ‘porch’: a lean-to greenhouse on the side of the house where Grandpa grew cactuses and other succulents, and kept pots and other gardening materials that hadn’t quite made the cut for the shed or the greenhouse-proper in his expansive and well-loved garden.
This being a time before smartphones and digital cameras, the photos I have are even more precious, and my memories are especially vivid. These hazy summers were spent mostly outdoors where I could embrace my wildness, outdoing my brother with my daredevil escapades, climbing trees, building dams together, exploring tracks off the beaten path with Flora, and walking her around the Dux Hill route: possibly my favourite location in all the world. The warm evenings were spent sitting in Grandpa’s garden, shelling peas, watching bats swoop overhead; and in the mornings, over breakfast, three pheasants came and waited at the back door for crusts of bread Grandpa bought each day from the local bakery.
This bucolic idyll is a period that has long since been scrapped by the violent changes of circumstance that time brings with it. In a strange twist, Flora died three days after we lost Grandpa. The abrupt loss of my father-figure, and my mother’s support during her constant struggle as a single parent recoiling from an unpleasant divorce, and an even more unpleasant marriage, drew her, my brother and I even closer together. We lost forever our intimacy with Plaxtol and the Weald of Kent: I was fourteen years old.
Circumstances continue to change without a care for our thoughts. Summers split the year, dividing seasonal change from seasonal change, but there’s no family for me to visit in this warm and hazy period. My family is with me instead. Since studying at the University of St Andrews, I have spent most of the past ten years living between Fife and Edinburgh. The South is a foreign place to me now.
My twenties has been littered with the transformative nature of rash decisions, loss, and personal epiphanies. I used some (most/all) of my savings to travel, as any sensible young person without responsibility does. Whilst friends quickly settled onto their career paths, I obstinately followed my own calling, which was to embrace adventure while I could still get away with it. Now—on the cusp of turning thirty—contemplation of the past begins to trickle back into my thoughts. Ruminating on personal history is not always something to be recommended; but the struggles of coming to terms with unhappy and defining experiences is a process of surrender, of letting go, and embracing the flow of time and change. I am a thoughtful and optimistic person, and I have stories to tell.
Welcome then, to my compendium of word empathy: a collection of my thoughts, my memories, my travels: the collective sum of my spirit and heart.
Who is Marty South?
If you’re a Thomas Hardy enthusiast like I am, you may still have to pause for thought to recall who Marty South is. If you know right off the bat, then you’re the kind of person with whom I’d want to have coffee. If not, no problem. But have you heard of The Woodlanders? Yes, it’s by Thomas Hardy. It’s one of his lesser-known works (and I’m a sucker for underappreciated things). Hardy himself claimed that it was one of his favourites, and yet it never gained the reputation that Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Jude the Obscure received. I would highly recommend it.
Thomas Hardy was someone who dissected his societal norms without bias to the best of his ability. For example, he made it clear that it was not his place, as a man, to colonise the space of women. What he did accomplish, however, is extraordinary, and as relevant today as it was revolutionary in his time. Here is a man who understood: who famously wrote: ‘It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.’ (Far From the Madding Crowd). In the context of a world dominated by the voice of Men, Hardy’s ground-breaking approach was to realize the multi-dimensionality of women, without ever crossing the nebulous divide between male and female to dictate a woman’s experience to her. Havelock Ellis, writing for the Westminster Review, understood this. He wrote: ‘Mr. Hardy’s way of regarding women is peculiar and difficult to define, not because it is not a perfectly defensible way, but because it is in a great degree new. It is […] far removed from a method, adopted by many distinguished novelists, in which women are considered as moral forces, centripetal tendencies providentially adapted to balance the centrifugal tendencies of men.’ (“Thomas Hardy’s Novels”, Westminster Review, 1883)
Hardy’s women are, for me, a fitting precursor to the central figures of Jean Rhys’s novels a few decades later. Rhys, of course, was writing from personal experience. But both authors—firstly, a man who sought to understand from the outside, and then a remarkable woman who understood intimately—pull off a fascinating feat. These are female characters who are limited by social dictations of appearance; their sexual self-exploration is contained by cultural inhibition, and is therefore corrupted. Despite this, the heroism of these women is in their—sometimes hapless—attempts to seek the truth of their own nature in a society that constrains them from doing so.
Back to Marty South, and while it is the case that I am (sort of) ruining the end of The Woodlanders for you (the enjoyment is in the journey of reading it anyway), I want to quote the closing paragraph of the novel: ‘she [Marty South] entered the church-yard, going to a secluded corner behind the bushes, where rose the unadorned stone that marked the last bed of Giles Winterborne. As this solitary and silent girl stood there in the moonlight, a straight slim figure, clothed in a plaitless gown, the contours of womanhood so undeveloped as to be scarcely perceptible, the marks of poverty and toil effaced by the misty hour, she touched sublimity at points, and looked almost like a being who had rejected with indifference the attribute of sex for the loftier quality of abstract humanism.’
Marty South is a minor character: she’s no Sue Bridehead or Bathsheba Everdene, and certainly no Tess (I have strong, controversial feelings about Tess, which I am sure I will address at some point). Marty South is a young woman whose life is constrained by her rural destitution. There is potential in her talents, but no means of an output for them. Instead, she exists in the periphery of the educated Grace Melbury, and the wealthy, coquettish figure of Mrs Charmond. Between these three women, however, it is Marty South who comes closest to the truth of her own nature. Ironically, living rustically and far-removed from urban society, Marty South is not swept away by the clutches of stiff Victorian class structures like Grace. Nor has Marty built upon herself a multitude of superficial artifices like Mrs Charmond, who—like Jean Rhys’s female characters—is performative in her femininity.
Marty South, for me, is the actualisation of one woman who has attained ‘abstract humanism’. She is not defined by her sex: indeed, the novel opens with her being persuaded to cut her long, lustrous hair (a symbol of femininity if ever there was one) for two sovereigns. Her infatuation with Giles Winterborne meanwhile, and the actions she takes as a result of this infatuation, is human.
Copyright © 2019 Madeline Lucas. All rights reserved.