Oh, to be in England
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough
Robert Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad, (1845)
When Robert Browning wrote Home Thoughts from Abroad in 1845, shortly before his marriage to Elizabeth Barrett, he was in his early thirties and living in the north of Italy. This was a part of the world which would go on to play an important role in his life and literary work, and although Browning obviously had a great affinity for the place, the poem eloquently captures the feelings of the ex-patriate. Whether English or Australian, Italian or Indian, it is possible to recognise the longing for the homeland which is so delicately described (even if this is often just the idealised version of ‘home’ that exists in the imagination). And as the verse aptly illustrates, the things that are taken for granted by those waking in their own country become much more significant to someone who is parted from them.
Around the time of the poem’s genesis (mid-19th century), the British Empire was still in the process of expanding rapidly, and many colonialists would have related to such feelings for the motherland. When I think of some of my own Victorian ancestors, I could imagine the same thoughts would have been in their heads. What might James William Skelton have felt when dealing with the tropical heat in British Honduras (see A Tale of Exploitation) instead of the soft light of an English spring? What did his younger sister, Ann, dream of while out in the wild and lawless goldfields of Australia? And did his older sister, Sarah, reminisce about cool spring rain from her palatial residence in Hong Kong? This branch of my family could be described as ‘children of the Empire’, and would have no doubt have appreciated Browning’s sentiments, made much more poignant at that time by the ever-present fear of death from disease, or from the long and often harrowing sea journeys involved in emigration.*
*Ann died in Victoria, Australia, in 1860 from tuberculosis. She was just 29. Sarah also died from tuberculosis while travelling back to England by steam ship from Hong Kong in 1873, aged 47.
I do not, however, believe the poem was meant to be jingoistic in any way – Browning was not a colonialist, and he loved and appreciated the way of life in Italy, which he later called ‘my university’. But like many of these types of poems which have wormed their way into the nation’s post-colonial consciousness, the meaning may leave itself open to being hijacked and reduced to a simplistic message concerning the superior way of life in England (rather than the idea of yearning for ‘home’ in general).
My yearly spring teaching break always falls in the first fortnight of April, a time when I long to return to the UK, and so I can certainly sympathise with Browning’s sentiments. For me, the British spring has a different quality from that here in Switzerland, where the transition between the seasons seems to happen all too quickly. Thus the end of March is a time for me to pack my bags and ‘head home’, away from the lingering snow that characterises my adopted country*, and allow myself to be catapulted into a milder and greener landscape. For Browning it would have been the reverse – there was not the long protracted spring in his warmer Italy, and his reference to the gaudy melon-flower later in the poem seems to refer to this.
*On returning back to Switzerland a fortnight later there is always a surprise to find that spring has usually appeared in my absence and tulips are now out beside the crocuses, and the hornbeam hedge in front of the house has exploded into a mass of green.
As a Scot, however, I did not really associate Browning’s poem with my April visits to the UK until I started visiting England in springtime. Latterly this has been the Yorkshire Dales, in order to combine family research with a regular walking and sightseeing holiday. But once, several years before those genealogical trips, it was Cornwall with Swiss friends who had never been to ‘the island’. I still remember their delight when, after a day of driving through snow blizzards in Germany, we arrived to find ourselves in a magical land where pink Camelias were in bloom, the sea was a dazzling turquoise, and the gorse bushes fizzed with sun-coloured flowers drenched in the subtle scent of coconut.
Kynance Cove, The Lizard, Andy Wright from Sheffield, UK, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6021874
Of course I could not help but quote Browning’s poem as we strode along the lanes towards the sea, proudly showing off what I regarded as ‘my country’ to our Swiss friends. Not only did they enthuse about the beauty of southern Cornwall, but they also loved the very Englishness of the place: the cacophonous rookery by the old church, the fat badgers in the garden at night, the thatched cottages which lined the road to the harbour, the friendly local pub with the folk music jamming sessions, the cream teas in tiny chintzy cafes. I saw Britain through their eyes – a heady experience and one which I’ve always wanted to repeat. Next time you can show us Scotland, my friends said, and I was already planning where we would take them. But that was ten years ago, and despite our best intentions we have not yet been away together again. Perhaps I knew instinctively that nothing would beat that visit to The Lizard, where a run of great weather certainly helped to turn the whole experience into the living embodiment of Browning’s poem.
Fast forward eight years later to May 2016, a month before that terrible referendum, when another unexpected trip to the south of England was on the horizon. This time it was to the Cotswolds with my cousin and his wife. Steve and Beverley have featured on this blog before – they were the ones who helped me visit Pennyhill Park (see On the Dogs’ Grave at Bagshot) and although not as fascinated by the family history as I am, they have always been very supportive of my project. But this time there was no genealogical sidetrips planned – just a long weekend of walking, talking, eating and relaxing. And it was every bit as much fun as I’d hoped. For the first time in years I was able to experience the magic of bluebell-carpeted woods again (I am always too early in my spring break), not to mention having the chance to explore a part of the country I’d never visited but had heard so much about over the years.
Bluebell Woods at Weston-Sub-Edge, Cotswolds
Looking back now, that whole long bank holiday weekend seemed suffused in a dreamy pre-referendum light. It was the first few days of real warmth of the season, and on the drive up (across?) from Reading we stopped for lunch by the river at the wonderfully atmospheric Trout Inn in Lechlade, before heading to our final destination – the hamlet of Weston-Sub-Edge. That Friday evening, when we walked through the bluebell woods and over Dover Hill to the almost too-perfect yellow stone town of Chipping Campden, I felt enveloped in a sudden peace. May is always a hectic time at work, and despite what many people think about living in Switzerland, here there is a constant ‘performance pressure’ that permeates every aspect of life which I’ve never experienced to the same extent in the UK. And so I always feel like I’m moving down a notch or two when I step onto home soil – although the fact that I’m usually there on holiday probably helps.
Typical Cotswolds Scenery
The trip certainly surpassed my expectations, with the particular highlight for me being the walk over the fields from from the church of St Lawrence at Mickleton to the arts and crafts gardens at Hidcote Manor, now owned by the National Trust. As we lazed on the grass by the ha-ha which separated the sheep from us, eating our homemade ploughman’s picnic lunch, and looking out over woods and undulating pastureland, I was overcome with an unexpectedly joyous feeling of possessing strong ties to family and land – an almost alien emotion for me, having lived away from my ‘home’ in south-west Scotland most of my adult life.
Hidcote Manor Gardens, Cotswolds
It was strange to feel such an attachment to an English landscape. Like many of my fellow compatriots north of the border, I have always had conflicting feelings about England, particularly the south. From an early age we are almost brainwashed into seeing this part of the UK as the default setting for the whole island. So much so, that when we actually visit the place for ourselves it can feel like stepping into a film set in the same way a first trip to Manhattan does. So while I delighted in the ancient churches, the soft meadowland paths, the stiles and kissing gates, the woodland streams, (in short the very Englishness of everything), part of me was struggling with the thought that it was not my own country. I am half English – the proof was in my very solid Berkshire cousin striding alongside me – and I do love the idea of England, at least in its most romantic sense. But something about the place shuts me out at the very same time that it beckons me in. It is a strange feeling to describe, although many Scottish writers have attempted to do so over the years.
Throughout the weekend I discussed the concept of identity with my cousin and his wife – how it was possible to feel British and Scottish, yet in my case also a tiny bit English, too. Perhaps this complex web of allegiances had been further tangled by all the years I’ve spent living and working abroad. Possibly my English relatives find it an odd thing to query, but if so they never say. They have never needed to grapple with those feelings, seeing English and British as mostly interchangeable terms.
With my very English Cousin, Chipping Campden, Cotswolds
However, it was not long before my national identity was called into question when the results of the EU referendum were announced. Very much in shock, us Brits on the Continent kept our heads down and whispered long into the night with our fellow ‘remainer’ friends – most of us having been denied a vote in any case. And so it came to pass that those very fragile feelings of Englishness which I possessed from my paternal side of the family began to wither away, and even my sense of Britishness was called into question. The handmade Union Jack rag rug I’d bought in the Dales was hidden under the bed, then my London mug mysteriously ‘broke’, the red-white-and-blue hessian shopper was suddenly needed for storing junk in the attic. And so it continued, until not a single object in the house could remind me of that patriotic feeling I’d once had, and which now was lost to me. It felt like a bereavement of sorts, and I struggled to keep up my enthusiasm for my genealogy project, no longer fired up to visit London in the same way I’d previously been.
And exactly a year ago, on April 1st 2017, I finally applied for Swiss citizenship. At the time I thought it an auspicious date, but now I see it as rather fitting – particularly as my new passport arrived this week, just in time for my annual spring voyage home. Before the EU referendum I had not felt the need for such a document. Unlike my parents-in-law, who had been happy to give up their Austrian and German identities after the war and proudly called themselves Swiss, I felt no strong desire to dilute my roots through taking on another nationality. And in 2012 (what seems to me now like the high watermark of my feeling of Britishness, and I suspect I am not alone in this) I had celebrated the queen’s diamond jubilee with strangers – many of whom were English – on the island of Islay, had watched and re-watched Danny Boyle’s exhilarating Olympic games’ opening ceremony, and had cheered on my cousin’s daughter as she gave the performance of her life for team GB in the synchronised swimming event.
It had been around this time that I’d begun to really throw myself into my genealogy project, discovering my English roots with a keen interest. My trips to London became more frequent and I felt more and more connected to the Skelton side of my family through pounding the streets of their neighbourhoods, tracking down long-lost relatives on-line, and immersing myself in the archives. But was my project simply a way to strengthen my feelings of belonging, of being British while living abroad? Now I realise that our very sense of national identity is such a fragile thing: it can be buoyed up by certain events, weakened by others. But did my ancestors feel this, too, or were they unwavering in their patriotism as they crossed seas, fought wars on foreign soil, and set up homes and businesses in far flung corners of the globe? Perhaps like me they always thought that it would only be temporary – that one day they would return to the place of their birth and find it unchanged.
But in the case of both James William Skelton’s sisters, death prevented them from ever seeing their native land again. And so we might begin to understand how more intense those feelings of home were for those who did not know if they would ever walk amongst the blossoms and dewdrops of an English meadow again.
And after April, when May follows,
And the whitethroat builds, and all the swallows!
Hark, where my blossomed pear-tree in the hedge
Leans to the field and scatters on the clover
Blossoms and dewdrops—at the bent spray’s edge—
That’s the wise thrush; he sings each song twice over,
Lest you should think he never could recapture
The first fine careless rapture!
And though the fields look rough with hoary dew,
All will be gay when noontide wakes anew
The buttercups, the little children’s dower
—Far brighter than this gaudy melon-flower!
Robert Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad, (1845)
Over the next three months I will be looking at the lives of James William Skelton’s three surviving sisters, starting with Ann, who emigrated to Australia with her husband in 1854, but who never made it back to England. My trip to the gold fields of Victoria was also a wonderful opportunity to visit the country again, meet fellow historians on the way, and immerse myself in the emigrant story. I look forward to sharing my research with you next month in Three Sisters: Ann.
Wishing everyone a very Happy Easter!
The Incidental Genealogist, April 2018