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April 20, 2012 / Louisa Yates

Renewable Energy given a neo-Victorian twist

You may remember that an earlier post discussed the the neo-Victorian tactic most seen in the media – that of the-Victorian-disrupting-the-present – as a political satire on the UK coalition. Well, it’s back: and this time it’s funny.

Lucy Mangan chose to re-imagine Wuthering Heights (1847) in order to comment most effectively on reports that turbines may be erected on the moor that ‘inspired’ Emily Bronte’s novel.

Writing as someone who, like Mangan, tends to come over all Flora Poste when faced with the denizens of a Bronte novel, Mangan’s short jab made Neo-Victorian Thoughts think that perhaps an irreverent ‘Neo-Victorian Flash Fiction’ competition might be just the thing.

For inspiration, behold (a section reproduced below, with a link to the full article):

“Oh Heathcliff! Why have you done this terrible, terrible thing?” sobbed Cathy, sinking to the ground and fairly beating the moorland with her tiny but spirited fists.

Heathcliff looked down at her, his brow furrowed with anger, his eyes flashing with an unnamed passion, his mouth twisted in rage. I, unbiased but frequently baffled narrator, Mr Lockwood, was filled with fear. What if his face should drop off, out here in the windswept moors with only the new turbines towering above us to bear witness to our plight?

“Ha!” roared Heathcliff, masculinely. “You ask me why I have done this terrible thing, Cathy? Why I have granted permission for green energy firm, Banks Renewables, to install a windfarm on the moors around my farmhouse, ruining the view from here to Thrushcross Grange and back again? With particular effect on other householders of perhaps more refined tastes and delicate aesthetic sensibilities? The type who, were a movie ever to be made of our mad, wearyingly tormented lives, could well be played by David Niven? Ha! Look into that mad, treacherous, damned organ you call a heart, Cathy, and tell me why!”

Cathy, so tiny and vulnerable yet so spirited, looked up at her tormentor. “Oh, why must you torment me so, Heathcliff? Very well, I admit it – I know why you have so gleefully despoiled this area that once possessed a beauty as natural and outstanding as my own! Yes, yes, I know your heart too!”

They all know each other’s hearts round here. I don’t know how. They’re years off even getting the telegraph yet.

She drew herself up to her full, spirited, tormented height and shook her tormented hair spiritedly back from her face. […]

To be continued here

Arf.* On a more serious note, the ‘Victorian’ once again functions as an impediment to progress. Victorians themselves are slightly unhinged, in sharp contrast to the cool, unemotional, sleek features of the turbines. The moor itself, meanwhile, is a slice of the green and pleasant land over which conservationists fight, NIMBYS protect their mortgages, and the heritage industry wishes to preserve in frozen perpetuity (you won’t be at all surprised to hear that The National Trust is Victorian). The fact that the moor is also wild and unhinged is financially profitable. Of course this is not always a bad thing – Mangan isn’t lightly joshing around with Wuthering Heights by accident, she’s doing it because contested emblems of the modern world is threatening a section of the UK’s most valued historical ancestors. That it’s wrapped up in a solid spatial metaphor is all to the good – the wind turbines encroaching on the wild, untamed moor is a great image.

It’s rather early in the morning to get into a discussion about the linear nature of history (‘10pm would be too early!’, I hear you cry) but it’s not terribly taxing to understand that everything we humans write and think about history is dedicated to moving forwards. 2016 is in front of us, 2012 is now, and the Romans well, they’re waaaaay back there.  Human genealogy moves forward – our grandfathers are in the past and you don’t have to be Whitney Houston to know that the children are our future.

Progress also moves forward – we get more of it as we move along, we presume. This is particularly easy to see in regard to technology. It allows us to do more things – go further in space, go deeper into the atomic level, make F1 cars lighter, make us live longer. I could go on. We used to hit each other with sticks, now we can blow each other up in all sorts of efficient ways and this, the mantra tells us, is newer and shiner and more efficient and therefore progress.

We therefore run into all sorts of conflicting emotions when our linear progress through time, and our collective dedication to rendering that progress as the natural order of things, runs into the concrete wall that is our desire to go back. We love going back.  But according to our ‘forward-is-best’ mantra, back there – the moor, Cathy and Heathcliff, the Victorians – has to be less developed than 2012. It has to be, or our devotion to linearity threatens to break.

The past, therefore, can be disruptive, unruly, and wild. It can be savage and unwashed. It can be a simpler, more honest way of life. It can be rigidly ordered. It can be a time where you weren’t afraid to leave your door unlocked and everyone was a proud Englisher whose home was his castle (also known as the Daily Mail’s oft-invoked – and entirely imaginary – Golden Age).

What it isn’t, however, is like now.

The cleverest of neo-Victorian fictions are the ones that see this. They see that the past is different, yes, but they also see that human society is intrinsically bound up with the notion that the past has to be less developed. They can therefore play with this narrative, confirming our expectations before (and this is the good bit) whipping them away.

We’ll be coming back to this idea over and over again in later posts. It’s a big neo-Victorian Thing.

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*An ex-boyfriend once told me that he took his mother to see the musical of Wuthering Heights, in which the role of Heathcliff was played by none other than Cliff Richard. Can you imagine?! The mind, frankly, boggles.

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