I figured out what it was about the weather the other day that was throwing me all off kilter (apart from the fact I am a bit mental). It was historical English weather. There I was, all in the present, feeding Fluffhead from sterilised jars, food prepared ‘somewhere in the EU’. Watching 24 hour rolling news.
(Argh. 24 hour news. You’d think they would try harder – they have twenty four hours a day to educate us and inform us…and all it is, is disasters and panic and the same old speculation run in hourly intervals. In all this apparent dead time, they could be showing us investigative reporting about how people far away live, and what they are doing – we could all do with understanding far away people better. More understanding; less fear, less disagreement. So interesting to learn things about far away places. The animals, the environments, the stories. And not only the bad stuff, the sad stuff. The good things, what was achieved, on a small as well as large scale. Things you could extrapolate from microcosm to macrocosm. Anyway. What a disappointment and possible Tool For International Ill 24 hour news has proven to be. I’m only scratching the surface of it; content is bad enough, presentation and journalistic standards…some other time.)
So I am sitting there, watching the outside heave and hum a bit threateningly, and small branches flying off trees. Later I go out with Fluffhead in the old pushchair; larger branches breaking off trees. My ears start to hurt from the wind and rain. I get soaked through in about half a minute despite 3 layers (waterproof things not effective). The sky has gone so dark and low and I am in my Chicken Licken state of mind, all terrified the sky will fall as the air pressure is pressing down. Hair escaping from my hood is sticking to my face and I’m spitting it out. We get down to town, and in the small Post Office, I join the dogs and old ladies and other mothers, all shaking off the rain and laughing or making disapproving faces, depending on temperament. The babies in their prams and chairs jump up and down happily – all were protected by plastic rain-hoods: all found the deep funnelling wind and massive plopping rain sound very exciting. All smile with big wide eyes and wave their hands about. I post my Amazon sales, and my Lovefilm rental DVDs. I chat to the ever beautiful postmistress in her orange sari and golden bangles. I shop in the local Boots (more food, and babymilk), and the local mini Tescos’s (reduced price veg, bread). I labour back up the hill, starting to realise that I am confused, because I am feeling a bit Dickensian.
There’s such a heavy weight of stuff under the pushchair (all those glass jars filled with goo are not light), and the rain is hitting me full in the face even if I keep my head down. I am pushing and pushing to get up the hill; sweating in my layers (which is very annoying – to be cold and hot at the same time). My hands have gone icywet and I can’t feel them. My long black raincoat suddenly feels like it should have some kind of ruffle on it somewhere; or it should be a bit raggy and grey and tattered. I really should be wearing some kind of heavy boot, in black, suitable for an …apprentice released from the Workhouse to go and do an errand for my vile employer. That involves pushing vastly heavy groceries (could it be lots of cuts of meat? – they ate a phenomenal amount of overly meatified dishes, the rich Victorians, quite gross – meat wrapped in different meat stuffed with further meat – and sometimes eight or nine courses of the same in a fancy guest meal ) up this hill back to the big house…
I’m further confused when I get back indoors, releasing Fluffhead from the pushchair to put him in the high chair, for his lunch. I put him infront of CBeebies while I go and make his toast, nuke my food, and check my email. While I sit at my laptop rubbing at my hair with a towel, I realise I’ve changed time period. I can see straight into the back garden, where there’s quite a mess of leaves. Everything is in violent motion still: the huge hypericum bush has lost most of its yellow flowers. The rowan tree has lost most of its red berries. The cherry tree has lost most of its smaller branches. The roof has lost a slate; it’s on the ground, with a tiny snail sliding underneath it. I’m feeling earlier Victorian now, I’ve gone northern. It’s all the Moors-ish, this vast deep angry air in motion sound. I’m wondering how the Bronte sisters kept themselves warm on bitingly cold days like this. (They of course didn’t have central heating. We just can’t afford to put ours on. Similar result.) I’m imagining that the sound of the house creaking (it’s a Very creaky house) upstairs, is Branwell Bronte, turning miserably on his bed, having opiate nightmares. The sounds from the living room are the sisters, walking round and round the living room table with their small solid laced boots, walking the plots to come in their minds, as they did. Telling their Gondal or Angria stories, their early works to each other. Off into corners, writing on bits of envelopes, in tiny tiny writing, because paper was precious. God its cold. Their hands must have been so cold.
I go to make myself camomile tea, and then change my mind to hot chocolate, and it’s the eighteenth century. They had hot chocolate for breakfast, the more well-to-do women of that period. It was what popularised chocolate over here, before solid chocolate became the Rightful Cult it is today. I’m back in the living room, with my warm mug and its lovely smell, and I’m feeling suddenly pastel coloured and as if I’m wearing a powdered wig. (Which must have been horribly uncomfortable, what with the lice – erk – and the sweating, and the sheer weight of it; some of those tall ones in Gainsborough et al portraits are scary.)
I get that urge to go and rifle my DVD collection and find Pride and Prejudice, or North and South, or Middlemarch (Fluffhead finds these oddly restful too) or something similar. I think about escaping into the past, with my stout working urchin boots, my unlikely powdered wig, my Vanbrugh chicken (which I have not been able to stop thinking about since I read it), and my Heathcliff on the Moors weather. After all, the current choices here are maddening children’s TV or depressing news (don’t even begin with me on daytime advertising and game shows)…isn’t the past a safer, kinder place? A famously different country? A nice controlled environment?
Well…only with a caveat. I’m always reminding myself any book is only ever a reflection of who wrote it and how they see the society they live in (I include all text books here, not just fiction) – all information given, be it factual or ambient must be filtered through that awareness. Every person is of their time. Even those ahead of their time; who fought against their time! And TV and film are even more so. As long as we know this; then yes, romp in the reconstructed past, of ambiguous accuracy. (Unless you are very into fact checking and what’s a Primary and Secondary historical source, in which case – you probably do have a better idea than most of us what may well have been the case in everyday life, a long time ago.)
It isn’t better though. I’m always in danger of thinking the past is better (whatever my favourite era is at the time), because its far away and I can manage it in my mind. In some developments this may well be true. But in any of those time periods I mentioned, could I have sat about in my extremely comfortable jeans (not a silly impractical skirt), belching loudly while being informed of (albeit irritating) developments around the world from my living room, by people who aren’t there? Listening to a historically correct orchestral recording of early Mozart with perfect clarity? Where I didn’t have to make my lunch or Fluffhead’s, and it didn’t bankrupt me to get it from somewhere else? Where I could go down to town and chat to strangers and it be ok, myself an Unmarried Woman And All, With Clearly a Baby With Her? And Living In Sin? And messing with herbs, and tarot, and casting circles and other Misunderstood Things? If I was me, born into the economic and family circumstances I was – but in any of those other times…there would have been no powdered wig for me, no hot chocolate. I would have been properly poor, not relatively poor like now. Properly I Might Be Dead Come This Winter’s Cold Poor. My child might not have lived out the winter. I might well have ended up in a Workhouse, later, or doing indentured errands for someone who ate ridiculous quantities of expensive meat (imagine the smell of that flatulence…like a sick dog…). I would not have been able to live my life as a Female, as me, with any degree of freedom (however relative that may be too). My personal notions of spirituality (for want of a better word) would have got me in serious trouble. I would not be wittering to people in India, or Belgium, as I am now with comparative ease.
I do have trouble, sometimes, working out which reality I’m in. And I often hate this one, my immediate circumstances and the wider world, the way it leans and tends (and seems to be currently going backwards in so many ways). But I do have to remember its still, despite all, better than it was. So if I dream and time-travel and get lost in other worlds and time periods, remind me its just dreaming and learning. That the Vanbrugh Chicken isn’t actually a historical fact, but an inspired noodling that helps me through the day when I get confused, and makes me smile.
 This is a brilliant website, so much in it, most Primary sources. To find the relevant page here, about the meat consumption and dinner menus, go to the Food and Drink section, and select ‘Meals and Parties’. Have a read. Also, if you have time, in the Food and Drink section, again, try Public Dinners, and select ‘at the Fishmongers Hall’. This article wanders all over the place, very funny, scary, fascinating.
 Also: http://www.haworth-village.org.uk/brontes/bronte.asp
 This was first mentioned in Elizabeth Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Bronte (1857). I don’t have a copy right now, so couldn’t get the page reference. So this info comes verified for you by the Collections Manager at the Bronte Parsonage Museum in Haworth, Ann Dinsdale, who spoke to me on the phone today, 8.9.11. A servant called Martha Brown reported to Mrs Gaskell that the sisters always walked round and round the table to think out their plots and discuss their work. They did it in adolescence; and Charlotte and Anne were still doing it after Emily had died, well into adulthood.