I can’t remember exactly who told me that the heath in Thomas Hardy’s Return of the Native was a character. I wish I could remember, because I’d like to thank that person. Landscape as character has stuck with me since I first read that novel in tenth grade. And since then, I’ve gone looking for other such landacters or charscapes, if you will, in everything I read.
My memory of Egdon Heath, as it was named in Return of the Native, is as a wild, wind-swept, rain-pelted, snow-encrusted, greedy place—a hungry thing that shrunk and grew with the seasons, and against which the tragedies of the human characters played out. It’s been quite a while since I read Return of the Native, and so my memory of its characters is a bit cloudy. Yet, when I think of that novel—and the heath in particular—I am hit with strong images, with a sense of things, rather than specific, or even accurate, plot points. For example, as I was thinking about this post, I was sure that Eustacia, one of the main human characters, had died as a result of exposure on the heath. After flipping through my book, I realized that my memory had misled me (spoiler alert): she had, in fact, thrown herself into a nearby river and drowned. My point is that what I recall of the heath has more to do with its personality traits—bleak, vindictive, unrelenting—rather than actual plot points. My memory of Egdon Heath is fuzzy around the edges, and not quite specific.
When I think about landscape in my own writing, I notice that the landscape that I currently exist in is not the one I want to write about. I have many theories for this, and they contradict: there’s a war between clarity and obscurity. Maybe I feel like I’m too close to the current landscape to see it clearly; a true assessment of its characteristics wouldn’t be possible. It’s like the inability to point out a new lover’s flaws—you are too close and too in love to see them. Or maybe I see my current landscape as mundane, old hat, boring snoring. I’m living in it and with it, and what is there to say? It’s bland and lacks character because I see it every day. Or maybe I just want some distance so I can love the old landscape again, so I can give it its rightful (or at least fairer) characteristics.
I think avoiding the current landscape for the past ones has something to do with the way that I remember Egdon Heath. Living in/with a landscape is perhaps too precise, too fact-driven. Reflecting on a past landscape is more imagistic, sensory, feelings-based. As with any memory of things past, I revise, reshape. Sometimes I remember things worse than they were, or better. The terrible relationship becomes a funny story, where my own ridiculous decisions are played up as comedy, as opposed to focusing on the 12,000 times I sat in my room and cried.
I like remembering the small, seaside town of Aberystwyth, Wales where I lived for a year, as a windy, damp, moody place, with tiny streets, quintessentially British architecture, and idyllic countryside dotted with old churches and graveyards. I don’t like remembering the specificity of the damp (my clothes dotted with mold, the stubbornness of my coal fireplace to light), or the remoteness of the town that frequently drove me to boredom. Or rather, it’s not that I don’t want to remember those things, but that I didn’t want to write about them when I was in it. I wanted to wait, until I could see all of it a bit more hazily, until I could give it some context and gain some perspective (or maybe at least until I could reach in my closet for a dress that wasn’t mold-wracked). But perspective in this case, for me, meaning less clarity. Or does it? What kind of perspective does distance and time give to something? If I return to Egdon Heath and the way I remembered it, I could say, on one hand, that I have a terrible memory and that I’m just wrong about the heath; on the other hand, I could say, my impression of the heath is true, my hazy memory of it is what matters.
And as far as Aberystwyth goes, now, I can use the town in my writing based on my broad strokes of memory—I can create mood and temperament more dramatically, perhaps, because of the distance from the actual place. I can create Aberystwyth, the character, with its seaside arcade, its ruined castle, its university, and Constitution Hill, that looked out over Cardigan Bay. I can make it moody and dreary, with unwelcoming bus drivers who resent my inability to speak Welsh. Or I can make it cheerful, with the sun shining, the seaside promenade bustling with walkers, the wind mild, and the waves rolling peacefully inward. I can create these two, seemingly contradictory characters, because really, Aberystwyth was both, and I can see that better or worse, now.