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Landscapes/Cityscapes Situational Identity in British Literature and Visual Arts (20th-21st Centuries)
Landscapes of the common

The Significance of Cumbria in Sarah Hall’s First Novel, Haweswater

Le rôle du comté de Cumbria dans le premier roman de Sarah Hall, Haweswater
Émilie Walezak


Le paysage est un protagoniste central dans l’œuvre de Sarah Hall. Née et élevée dans le Lake District, elle situe tout ou partie de ses cinq romans dans le comté de Cumbria. Cet article propose une analyse du premier roman de l’auteur, Haweswater, à la lumière de cette relecture et réécriture systématique de sa région natale. Sarah Hall problématise le comté de Cumbria dans sa dimension de paysage culturel dont elle mobilise les strates historiques, géologiques, politiques et sociales pour dépeindre les luttes de pouvoir qui s’y jouent. Haweswater narre l’histoire d’une communauté rurale en 1936 dont la vallée est sur le point d’être engloutie par la construction d’un réservoir. L’œuvre de Hall reflète les questionnements actuels sur la spatialisation puisque les conflits territoriaux viennent refléter la lutte individuelle au sein de combats politiques collectifs. Ce premier roman éclaire ainsi la stratégie d’écriture naturaliste poursuivie ensuite par l’auteur dans les quatre romans suivants publiés à ce jour.

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1Sarah Hall is the award-winning author of five novels and two collections of short stories. Her first novel from 2002, Haweswater, won the Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Best First Book. Her second novel from 2004, The Electric Michelangelo, was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. Her third novel from 2007, The Carhullan Army, published under the title Daughters of the North in its American edition, won the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize. Her fourth novel from 2009, How to Paint a Dead Man, was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize. In 2013, she appeared on the Granta list of 20 best young writers. Her short stories have also been distinguished with ‘Butcher’s Perfume’ from her 2010 collection The Beautiful Indifference short-listed for the BBC National Short Story award, while ‘Mrs Fox’, the lead story from her 2017 collection Madame Zero, won the BBC National Short Story Prize in 2013.

2In an interview from 2013, Sarah Hall declared: ‘Every writer has a tic, a first port of call and for me it’s the landscape’ (Garvey). Born and raised in the Lake District, she has set her novels partly or wholly in Cumbria. Haweswater is about a rural community inhabiting a dale in remote Westmorland in 1936 whose habitat is about to be flooded by the building of a reservoir to supply water for Manchester. It focuses on the Lightburn family. The parents are Samuel, a WWI veteran, who met his wife, Ella, when she worked as a nurse in Penrith. Their children are Janet, a daughter of the North who falls in love with the Manchester overseer Jack, and Isaac. Jack, Janet and Isaac tragically die at the end of the novel: Jack dies in the fells, Janet commits suicide after giving birth to Jack’s child and Isaac drowns in the reservoir.

3This paper examines Sarah Hall’s first novel, Haweswater, to demonstrate how it sowed the seeds of her literary appropriation of her native region as a cultural landscape whose historical, geological, political and cultural strata she knowingly brings into play to depict power conflicts and resilience: ‘I create survivalist strategies where people are tested, where the urge to keep going comes to the fore’ (Garvey). The paper aims to interpret her writing along the lines of J.W.T. Mitchell’s operative distinction between the conceptual notions of space, landscape and place. Mitchell points out how landscape has been largely overlooked in theoretical apprehensions of space as it has been confined to art history. He proposes to remedy such neglect by resorting to the Lacanian orders to try and distinguish between the three concepts. Hall’s novel brings those three dimensions into play. Space, which Mitchell equates with the Lacanian symbolic as the location of power struggles, ‘a manifestation of law, prohibition, regulation, and control’ (Mitchell x), corresponds to Hall’s depiction of Cumbria as a site of conflict, a contested space subjected to administrative regulation, military conquest, industrial development, and linguistic idiosyncrasy. In Mitchell’s estimation, landscape would conform to the Lacanian imaginary as a ‘site encountered as image or “sight”’ (Mitchell x). Hall’s interest in the reciprocal influence of land over people and people over land accords with a postmodern naturalist approach of character as the product of social, economic, geographic, national environments. Fragmented postmodern identity, the site of conflicting values, is tackled as a spatial montage that enlarges the original naturalist concern with sociological ‘milieu’ to a conception of the environment that ranges from the macro-scale of geology to the micro-scale of cell biology, thus magnifying the refractions of the imago. Finally, place would be consistent with the Lacanian real, ‘the site of trauma or the historical event’ (Mitchell xi). Romance serves to problematize place through historical and individual trauma with the protagonists’ destructive love story paralleling references to the two world wars, problematizing the psychic annihilation of identity. This ‘brutal landscape of the mind’ (62), mirroring the rugged geological landscape of the fells, is what fuels the writer’s own imagination.

The Contested Space of the Borderlands

4Although the acknowledgements in Hall’s first novel specify that the story is fictional and the dates not historically accurate, the story is based on the actual building of the Haweswater dam that flooded Mardale Valley to provide water for Manchester following an Act of parliament (50). By opting to narrow the time frame between the arrival of the Manchester overseer and the destruction of the village, blown up by the army that used it as a testing ground for explosives, to the years 1936-1937, Hall dramatizes the struggle over the land’s significance. Her concluding remark reads as a metafictional comment on the purpose of the novel that spatializes history by using the geographic and historical identity of Cumbria as a border region to problematize the moving boundaries between dominant and marginal narratives:

So, the borders between fact and myth have a tendency to blur in these regions. History fogs, or becomes loose and watery. Bizarre mythologies arise. Half-lives. Half-truths. Events are built up or deconstructed. Leaps of faith are made, often for the strangest of sakes. The past becomes indistinct and subplots continue, subversions. (253)

5History takes on an environmental flavour, mimicking the weather, while space becomes myth. Hall contextualizes the story of the reservoir within the long history of the debatable lands. She references its many conquerors and battles to depict a continued struggle for dominance by drawing parallels between the novel’s present and the region’s past. Thus the Roman conquest, referred to with ‘the old Roman route’ (149), resurfaces when the army, come to blow up the village, is compared to ‘a phantom sighting of Roman legionaries, marching south from Hadrian’s Wall’ (219). Her story, set in 1936, of the encroachment of city developers onto the remote rural terrain is thus compared to ‘a civilized invasion, the valley annexed with great sympathy, dignity’ (53). Similarly, the Middle Ages’ raids that characterized the region’s history as a contested land between England and Scotland—‘the old border myths and long-ago frictions of the area’ (37)—are called upon when the new village of Burnbanks is erected to house the construction workers of the dam. The inhabitants of Mardale compare them to the border reivers: ‘the valley’s population […] joked that there had not been such an influx of foreigners since the Border Raids’ (163). In addition to the historical facts and fights, and their remaining traces in the landscape, like Hadrian’s Wall, Hall evokes cultural and literary myths. The border reivers cannot but evoke the folk tradition of the border ballads made popular by Walter Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. The construction workers are the navvies, migrant workers become cultural industrial myth.

6By offering a panorama of the region’s territorial disputes, Hall problematizes the process of spatialisation. The term was coined by Rob Shields to translate Henri Lefebvre’s concept of the social production of space. Mitchell’s own conception of space bears resemblance to Lefebvre’s notion of ‘conceived space’ as that of urban planners, land administrators and military victors. By weaving together the narratives of conquerors and the folk tales of rebels, Hall exposes the competition for domination at the core of spatialisation as well as the ‘relational network of differences that provides the principle and rationale for movement between places and regions’ (Shields 31). The central love story between shepherdess Janet and proletarian-born city-dweller Jack serves as a catalyst to display the shifts between the metropolitan and non-metropolitan divide as well as class and labour divisions. Hall’s regional writing is thus not a fixed localization that would lead to nostalgic mythologizing but a mobile terrain of conflict. She uses her native region to glocalize spatial issues.

7Not only does Hall reference the region’s past retrospectively but she also extrapolates anachronistically on events postdating her plot: the blown up village is compared to ‘a vision of the Blitz’ with the buildings looking ‘like forgotten war veterans. Or skeletal prisoners left in a concentration camp’ (226). She thus integrates the region into the larger national history of Britain, with the Blitz, as well as European history, with repeated mentions of the two world wars. Janet’s father, Samuel, is a veteran of WWI. Hall’s choice of the years 1936-1937 possibly stems from the national uproar of Edward VIII’s abdication and his subsequent marriage to Wallis Simpson, both events being mentioned in the text (198), with the couple famously visiting Hitler in October 1937. She further globalizes the historical context by referring to a constantly-evolving world map under the influence of political strife, imperialist rivalries and the start of independence movements: ‘The shift and tussle of monopolies in this era’ (19). Moreover, Hall refers to the ever-increasing mapping of the universe: ‘The stars are brilliant above the fells, many still unmapped, unnamed, though the solar system is being completed’ (129). In the novel, this idea is integrated into the plot, as the birth of Janet’s brother, Isaac, coincides with the discovery of Pluto.

8The mapping out of territories, even to outer space, is complemented by linguistic monopolies as Hall underlines the interconnectedness of power and naming: ‘Sometimes the world’s place names are changed. […] Poetic, colourful names become practical, or flavoured with a different poetry, another country’s mother-tongue’ (18-19). The epilogue mentions the emergence of the name of Cumbria following the Local Government Act of 1972 which divided counties and districts into oppositional metropolitan and non-metropolitan areas: ‘what is now the united county of Cumbria, what was once one of the last corners of Westmorland’ (261). The novel’s dialogues reproduce the characteristics of the Cumbrian local speech, delimiting the difference between Manchester city waterworks representative Jack Liggett and the inhabitants. Jack, however, is clever and his inspirational speech to the Mardale inhabitants sums up the stakes of the struggle for dominance. His strategy is to blur the border between us and them to conquer the village peacefully: ‘There were now no clear borders drawn from which the two sides could hurl insults and offence at each other’ (94). The law of the land and ‘the old bitten-at language of the area’ (91) draw ‘a relational network of differences’ involving geo-politics: ‘crossing the border into Scotland, where law and language blur and at some point separate as different smoky elements under the same crown’ (244). By adopting the different perspectives of the various parties involved, shifting as she does between Jack’s viewpoint, Janet’s and the inhabitants’, Hall does not tell a simplistic tale of urban development versus rural retreat but rather constructs an elaborate reflection on the region’s identity through population movements.

9She includes within those movements that of non-human populations with the story of the golden eagle. It condenses issues of imperialist domination, whether of humans over other humans or humans over land, of extinction and conservation. Hall makes an anachronistic use of the presence of the golden eagle, a protected species which appeared in the region in the 1950s (and disappeared recently, in 2015). Hall uses it to draw the subplot of Jack’s story as an English class story: the boy from lower class industrial Manchester has risen in the world on his own merit and become a high player in the Manchester city waterworks. Upon arriving in Mardale, he hires a poacher to bring him back an eagle he wants to stuff and put on display at his home ‘as a proletarian prize’ (200) to mock his privileged fellows: ‘The golden eagle was no Indian tiger, no polished ivory tusk, it was not another country usurped, or the spoils of exotic adventure. It was indigenous, a symbol of the beauty of the islands, the hub of the empire’ (199). The reservoir project and the destruction of the vale is a way for him to divest himself of his past when he sought refuge in the Lakes, trying to escape the brutality of his father and of Manchester’s industrial life. Jack’s story emblematizes the opposing forces at work in shaping the landscape: metropolitan and non-metropolitan, destruction and conservation, past and future, class struggle. The golden eagle also serves to introduce another major feature of the Cumbrian space: the national park.

10Through the network of administrative, political and historical references to the construction of the region, the background of Hall’s novel demonstrates that ‘place is not just a matter of real estate or landed property; it is intellectual property, cultural property’ (Shields 31). Thus she cannot fail to also acknowledge one of the most influential cultural authorities on the Lake region, William Wordsworth (see Hess), and emphasizes the connection of his poetry with tourism, which he himself promoted when he wrote A Guide to the District of the Lakes: ‘the infamous poetry which people absorbed as if it were a travel guide’ (143). His cultural authority, expressed in political terms with his plea for the Lakeland conservation as ‘national property’ (Wordsworth 88) and his famous opposition to the Kendal and Windermere rail line, led to another administrative regulation of the region: the creation of the Lake District National Park in 1951. The story continues today with the inscription, in July 2017, of the Lake District as a Unesco World Heritage site under the category of cultural landscape chiefly for its agro-pastoral activity and the literary legacy of the Lake poets. With her focus on the agricultural community of Mardale, Hall could be said to have anticipated the Unesco inscription, especially as she makes use of the location of the Dun Bull Inn and the local tradition of the stray sheep exchange which are mentioned in the section of the nomination dossier devoted to Haweswater.

11However her treatment of the landscape in relation to regional identity departs from the Romantic legacy to resignify Cumbria in accordance with current ecocritical concerns about the relationships between humans and their environment.

Landscape and Identity

12Hall’s treatment of the Wordsworthian daffodils underlines both her reclaiming of, and her departure from, the romantic legacy of landscape contemplation. Instead of the peaceful pastoral meditation of the original poem, they serve to unlock Samuel’s confession of guilt to his future wife, Ella, over his survival as a WWI veteran. Hall acknowledged in an interview her indebtedness to the Romantics: ‘the other thing about the Romantics that I think is somehow a liberation is that they place so much power on the imagination and inheriting that as a writer is wonderful’. Yet she also made it clear that her landscape imagination is more rugged: ‘I am more likely to write about bracken than daffodils’ (Frostrup 14:15-14:30). Thus Hall’s focus on survival and survivalist strategies also accounts for her contrastive depiction of the local population, which radicalizes the Wordsworthian pastoral idealism in the Guide. Wordsworth praised a ‘perfect republic of Shepherd and Agriculturalists’ (Wordsworth 57), mostly on the grounds of their unobtrusive presence in the landscape, when he chose to depict the cottages blending with the mountainous scenery much more than the agricultural activities themselves. Hall chooses to depict at length the harshness of agricultural life and gives detailed descriptions of the shepherds’ work: the marking of the sheep, the lambing, the killing of maimed animals. She also eulogizes the last celebrations that marked the village’s routine before the construction of the dam: the autumnal shepherd’s meet at the Dun Bull’s Inn, when stray sheep were gathered to be returned to their owner, and wrestling and horse-racing took place, or the haymaking period. In lieu of the aesthetic criteria presiding over Wordsworth’s panegyric of the landscape’s picturesque sublimity, Hall dramatizes a moment of irrevocable change in the landscape’s history, not to sanction it but to problematize the competing forces shaping this cultural landscape.

13Conversely, she also portrays the impact of the landscape and the agricultural activity over its inhabitants. The distinct topology of Cumbria, which favours a geopolitical as well as a cultural reading of the landscape, also accommodates a reverse reading process of eliciting an ‘essentialist understanding of identity’ (Bradshaw 37) through a process of ‘naturification of the people’ which ‘reinforce[s] the connection between the physical characteristics of the place and the people who live here’ (Bradshaw 38). The climate has etched itself onto the villagers’ physicality so that the depiction of their features is characterized by the use of meteorological lexicon and similes: ‘as if scowls and laughter, lines of concentration and hardship were weathered one on top another […] Every expression set and roughened and deepened by the wind and the rain, the sun’ (5). Their stone faces literally stem from the landscape that has imprinted both their personality and their body, like Ella ‘cut out from granite by the north wind itself’ (254), whose ‘unalterable character’ (59) explains why ‘her nature remained unchanged over the years. She was a constant’ (59). When he dies, the old farmer Nathaniel turns into a stone so perfectly blending with the landscape that he is hard to descry: ‘The rock became a man, an old friend, grey with the cold and death, as grey as the background of scree’ (185).

14As opposed to the ideality of the picturesque landscape which seeks to promote the natural over the material and rids the scenery of its human economic activity (see Mitchell 15), Hall represents an inhabited landscape and signals its cultural dimension ‘correcting the romanticization of idyllic landscapes by substituting transcendental symbolism with the conscientious depiction of actual social conditions’ (James 48). She employs an organic ‘transference’ process to dramatize reciprocal environmental influence: ‘Just as the climactic exigencies of hill and valley have seeped into the cells of its farmers, so the slow-beating blood of the villagers has found its way, as if by osmosis, into the valley’s body’ (Lea 157).

15Although it is Penny Bradshaw’s contention that such a process favours an essentialist view of Cumbrian identity, the conflicting perspectives and meanings that Hall integrates in her novel, emblematized by the central lovers’ struggle, belie any such reductionism. Thus her depiction of landscape artist Paul Levell’s paintings as accommodating ‘an impossibility to the perspectives of his high mountains, breathtaking verticals, paths fractured up over cliffs’ reads as a metafictional comment on her own fictionalization of clashing frames of reference. What David James says about Pat Barker and the regional novel could very well apply to Sarah Hall too: ‘By this pluralization of narrative perspective, indebted to predecessors as distinctive as Thomas Hardy and Storm Jameson, Barker pursues a critique of the countryside’s susceptibility to mythologization’ (James 48). The conflation in Hall’s landscape depictions of the macro-scale of the geological and the micro-scale of the biological evokes perpetual change rather than fixed nostalgic longing: ‘this carnal realm of water and earth’ is an ‘old, dying, re-living place’ (231). The landscape is a body: it has muscles (48), flesh and skin (138). Just like the human body, especially the lover’s body, it is a reading site. To determine the best moment to start the hay season, the farmers decipher the landscape: ‘There were always indications, narcotic references within the biology of the wildlife in the valley that a continued period of dryness was coming. These men could read nature, could navigate its warm signs’ (124). Similarly, Janet endeavours to determine Jack’s motive by scrutinizing his body as she would the land: ‘Was his tone imbued with references? Or a turn in the flow of colour at the back of his eyes, past their pupils, like a piece of water suddenly shifting around a stone in a riverbed’ (115). Jack is fascinated by Janet’s body, for instance when she emerges from a waterfall and looks like ‘a statue of rain’ (136). The omnipresence of water in the novel with its many connections to the environment and the weather, the history of the reservoir and its urban background, the biblical myth of the flood—with the chapter titles recalling the biblical notations of chapter: verse—the platonic myth of the Atlantis and its utopian derivatives, is enhanced in the novel’s epilogue which warns the readers that the water’s ‘voice’ is ‘a continuance of text in a land of broken fluid’ (ix).

16The biblical theme of the Flood as the unraveling of God’s creation carries particularly strong echoes. It is inaugurated with the opening labour scene of Janet’s birth which depicts how ‘human birth is something unnatural, something beyond animal—female pain become self-conscious’ (5). Ella’s fight ‘with her own body, with God, with nature, unmaking herself’ (3) echoes what Lefebvre calls the ‘illusion of naturalness’, in other words, the way ‘historical and political forces’ use the discourse of nature to rationalize their domination of it and conversely the way ‘nature cloaks itself in nostalgias which supplant rationality’ (30). Hall problematizes the way both nature and women are dominated through nostalgic mythologizing. The Flood story carries echoes of feminist eco-criticism with the parallels drawn between the disappearance of mankind in the flooded valley, the woman ‘unmaking herself’ after her waters broke, the lovers coming undone by flooding one another. Janet’s brother, called Isaac, cannot but evoke the late, miraculous birth of his biblical namesake, and his sacrifice at the hands of his father Abraham, demanded by God. Depicted as a watery creature, he dies by drowning in the reservoir in the novel’s epilogue while Janet dies by fire in the last chapter. The family unit, coming undone with the death of Ella and Samuel’s children, also finds an echo in the death of Nathaniel, who was the only one left as he survived his offspring, and was the repository of the valley’s story, ‘he himself had been heritage’ (187) so that his death mirrors the obliteration of the place. Similarly, the true story of the relocation of the dead bodies of Mardale to another graveyard comes to bear symbolic significance, because the twice-buried bodies reflect the untimely death, in the novel, of the pair of siblings, Janet and Isaac. It is a story of extinction which interrogates the forces of creation and destruction of both mankind and nature. It anticipates the dystopian speculations of Hall’s third novel, The Carhullan Army, which envisions the aftermath of climactic disaster and was inspired by Hall’s own experience of the Cumbrian floods of January 2005 (Hall 2007). The interconnectedness of landscape and identity serves to dramatize the threat of environmental collapse literally embodied in Hall’s characters.

17Hall combines the literary genres of realism and romance to problematize her native landscape as a body and the bodies within the landscape. As with Paul Levell’s paintings, she endeavours to depict the land, its inhabitants and their habits ‘with startling realism, almost photographic accuracy, an exposed clarity’ (38). His paintings record the twofold influence of land over body and body over land:

they reveal rocks in the shape of people, and bury bodies in the environment with formal accuracy. Humans are jigsawed into a cliff or river, or hewn out of the landscape, a man’s torso kept in a cairn of rock, a child in the womb of a mountain wall, vast amalgams of environment and humanity. People of kept stone. (185).

18Thus her work dramatizes the way ‘bodies are “spaced”: the performative carriage of the body, the gestures, actions and rhythms of everyday routines deemed socially appropriate to a particular site are etched onto place and into the somatic memory of individual inhabitants’ (Shields 33). In that perspective, her particular brand of realism is closest to naturalism when depicting the influence of the environment over the people and she belongs with those ‘contemporary regional novelists [who] are hardly unselfconscious heirs of naturalism’s cause. Indeed, they refuse to sentimentalize England’s provinces, countering the compulsion to idealize rural integrity while evoking the historical density of such localized settings’ (James, 48). At the same time, she weaves into this realistic, highly descriptive environment an ‘unromantic and violent’ (38) romance: ‘the sort of romance that shakes up history and devastates valleys’ (254), or in Paul Levell’s pictorial terms, a romance that ‘pushed the limits of Lakeland geological existence’ (39).

The Place of Romance

19It is Susana Onega and Jean-Michel Ganteau’s contention that the combination of realism and romance in contemporary literature is related to traumatic history as ‘traumatic realism seem[s] to evince a formal affinity with the poetics of romance, as shown in the selfsame novels by Pat Barker, where romance seems to be solicited whenever realism fails to evoke limit-case situations’ (Onega and Ganteau 1-2). This would be the case of the excessive, destructive love affair central to the novel and its suicidal conclusion. The dizzying array of references Hall juggles with, combined to the largely military regional history and the repeated mentions of the two world wars, would seem to countenance Onega and Ganteau’s demonstration that ‘the blurring of boundaries between fictional and non-fictional genres, is meant to create a “complex system of understanding” aimed at making readers think history in relational, rather than sequential terms, thus substituting montage for the linearity of teleological world history’ (Onega and Ganteau 6). The fact that spatialisation furthermore orients Hall’s imagination serves to add an environmentalist concern with history that echoes the naturalist vein of her realistic writing.

20The story of Jack is representative of the influence of the land over body and character. Jack falls in love with Janet, whose portrayal makes her an integral part of the landscape, to the extent that ‘without her presence any meaning the terrain once possessed had become superficial’ (127). Their antagonistic romance springs from an inescapable ‘tellurian pull’ (115) between them which Jack’s growing attraction to the landscape and his daily climbs in the fells mirror. He explicitly compares the two when evoking ‘the fulfilment of a high climb and the sensuality of release as he flooded into her body’ (147). Her love-making in the woods infuses his body with the identity of the place: ‘He smelled like the character of the forest’ (122) while his regular mountaineering eventually changes his appearance so that ‘through a metamorphosis in this wild, saturated, palatial land, he was becoming abridged, and finished’ (148). The joint influence of both lover and land leads to his death in a final act of penance for the golden eagle trophy he first coveted. When the poacher brings him back the dead eagle, Jack is determined to return it to the eyrie to atone for his arrogance and be worthy of Janet. He falls to his death on the expedition.

21The tragic unromantic love story intertwines the same complex web of readings as the place itself: it is a site of struggle. Despite the remorse that fills Jack, his treatment of the landscape’s body when night climbing is as brutal as the lovers’ bellicose sex. He attacks the landscape ‘as if aiming at volatile levels of an imaginary human body with a knife, a fist. […] punching shadows in the solar plexus, as if he wants to outmanœuvre and overwhelm the nerve system of the mountain as he would an enemy. It is a strange skill, this blind murder of landscape’ (128). In exactly the same way, Jack’s interactions with his conflicted lover is ‘a struggle, a combat’ (120) because ‘she still needed to attack him before she could love’ (121). The reciprocal violence means that ‘there were always injuries. Bruises as she struggled to leave him, again and again, a ring of blue fingers round her wrist, her ankles. Pieces of her hair torn out when she demanded he leave’ (120). What plays out through the violent treatment of the lover’s body, is their reciprocal struggle with the unravelling of their perspective: Janet’s acceptance of the disappearance of her native place, Jack’s realization that his self-made success is meaningless now that the animus of his childhood revenge comes undone. In Daniel Lea’s words: ‘Each tears at the other’s body as they tear at each other’s values, seeking to eviscerate self and other in a sexual cataclysm. Their struggles are less to destroy that in the other which opposes them than to eradicate the appeal of the other’s worldview that they cannot deny in themselves’ (Lea 159).

22The love story echoes the struggle for the domination of the landscape, whether in war or through its destruction by the reservoir, all the more so as the dead eagle is a female one. The proximity of the land and the woman protagonist draws a parallel between geographical physique and the female body as ‘the locus of intense struggle over the[ir] meaning and significance’ (Shields 32). Janet’s portrait is both naturified and unnatural, thus demonstrating the cultural dimension of gender identity: ‘Where his wife is a hard, often stubborn woman, who believes in separate roles, Janet is above and beyond. She terrorizes the old notions, batters her way through and out to the other side. […] She has feral qualities not belonging to either sex’ (73). Thus Janet has the native traits of the landscape as ‘she has been pressed between two vast mountain ranges’ (112), emitting for instance ‘a low growl […] like the sound of snow about to move off a mountain in large pieces’ (25), with her body bearing the marks of regional identity like the scar on her head, which is ‘a reminder that her life has included the sporadic brutality of her family’s trade’ (24-25). However she also exhibits exotic peculiarities. She is variously compared to such out-of-place animals as a lynx (28), a leopard (81), a rodeo bull (178), impala and alligators (258), her body harbouring phantom foreign wilds: ‘her collarbones had deep shadows, and in them hung the carcasses of animals in the savannah’ (250). The animal similes echo the stuffed trophies, the symbols of imperialism that Jack aims to mock with his stuffed eagle, drawing yet another connection between struggle over the land and the body.

23The tension between creation and extinction is emblematized by the serial suicidal dénouement with Janet consuming herself when detonating a bomb at the reservoir. After Jack has died, Janet, while pregnant, self-mutilates. Repeating their brutal lovemaking, she beats herself up and breaks her own fingers but the battle has lost its meaning: ‘In his death, there was nothing to show for the long battle, nothing except herself, given up and remote’ (210). As an illustration of her depressive aloofness and her disconnection from her family, including her child, her own labour is not depicted in the text. Hall weaves other readings into the narrative of her depression, especially regarding her social status as a newcomer in Bampton, where they have relocated, and a pregnant, unmarried woman. Earlier on in the text, Hall had alluded to birth control through abortion (121). Because Janet is ‘a lunatic mother’ (208) and an unmarried woman, the text evokes, negatively, the fate of such women at the time: ‘There will be no asylum, no madhouse sanatorium for Janet Lightburn. Her mother will not have her sent to the workhouse for unmarried women in Penrith’ (208). Just as with the aborted storyline of the workhouse or the sanatorium, the text suggests an affinity with familiar tropes reminiscent of Bertha Mason, ‘the mad woman in the attic’ in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, along with other Gothic legacies.

24The allusive, implicit intertextuality pervading the text illustrates the elusiveness of definite meaning in Cumbria. What survives the annihilation of the place and the individuals who have died in it are conflicting stories opening up subversive ‘subplots’ (253) like Hall’s own novel. Thus Hall depicts the fate of Janet Lightburn in local folklore where ‘she was moved inside other tales, old wives’ gossip, whispers of witchcraft and haunting’ (254) to become white lady Janet Tree. In this metafictional concluding chapter, Hall sheds light on her own purpose contrasting the spectral identity of the female myth with the realistic story drawn from museum exhibits like ‘a short police report’ (253) about the explosion, or a photograph, the combination of romance and realism mirroring ‘politics and love, and that odd union of two opposites’ (254). Similarly what survives through Janet’s child is not so much the individual who is barely mentioned but the tale passed on by Ella: ‘her grandmother’s tale about belonging to the land’ (255) ‘accuracy […] does not matter, and the blank sections might not be so empty’ (255). Hall invents stories just as she would fill blank spaces on a map contrasting the dissimilar narrative claims over the land. Just as the landscape only had meaning for Jack with Janet in it, so Janet, before she kills herself, can no longer see any ‘reason to that place, the terra nullius’ (210). By presenting the variety of competing political, social, historical and cultural prerogatives that would attribute meaning to the Cumbrian territory, Hall effectively turns it back into nobody’s land, reversing the imperialistic prospect of conquest.

25By including pictorial and literary references to the history of Cumbria’s representation, Hall not only problematizes reading the region as space, landscape and place, approached through a series of myths, but also lays the groundwork of her own writing procedure as ‘an attention to the density of language as a function of place’ (Lea 155). She continued to develop ‘this placedness’ (Lea 155) in her subsequent novels in which one descries the development of writerly concerns condensed in her first novel. The landscape artist who reads as a metafictional self-portrait is summoned again in How to Paint a Dead Man. The wild female protagonist Janet anticipates the characters of Jackie in The Carhullan Army and Rachel in The Wolf Border. And, of course, the Cumbrian landscape with all its struggles remains the principal character she has continuously explored in all of her novels.

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Anon, ‘Haweswater, Summary Description, Section 2.c’, PDF file from the Lake District nomination dossier, last accessed at on August 17, 2017.

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Émilie Walezak, « The Significance of Cumbria in Sarah Hall’s First Novel, Haweswater »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 55 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 décembre 2018, consulté le 24 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Émilie Walezak

Émilie Walezak is a lecturer (MCF) at Université Lumière Lyon 2. A specialist of contemporary British literature, she has devoted several articles to the processes of rewriting in the works of Angela Carter, A. S. Byatt, Rose Tremain and Jeanette Winterson. She is the author of Rose Tremain. A Critical Introduction, (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017).

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