The Rural Life of England by William Howitt

Description

The Rural Life of England, written in 1838 by William Howitt, author and Quaker, is a survey of the rural English countryside. It contains anecdotes and observations of the people, traditions and customs of the countryside, as well as pieces of local gossip. Above all, however, it is an ode to the beauties of nature and the English landscape.

It was published in 2 volumes, divided into parts such as ‘Cottage Life’ and ‘Popular Festivals and Festivities’.

Published at the height of industrial revolution, Howitt evokes romantic sensibilities and reflects on the changes brought to rural areas. Although Howitt’s tone is nostalgic, his prose remains optimistic about the numbers of people who still maintain England’s traditions.

During the 19th century The Rural Life of England was an influential text. Its popularity declined after the close of the century.

Insights into Wuthering Heights

Critics of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights have drawn on The Rural Life of England to contextualise Heathcliff’s identity. Christopher Heywood, for instance, argues that Heathcliff is a black slave. He contends that Brontë displays an acute awareness of how slave-owning inextricably shaped her local area, and suggests that this awareness was raised by Howitt’s references to Jamaican plantation ownership in families of north-west Yorkshire. These local histories, Heywood maintains, are woven into Brontë's novel.[1]

Ultimately, Heathcliff’s identity remains undefined and indefinable. Yet Howitt’s text may help to shed light on the descriptions Nelly Dean and others apply to Heathcliff. Compare how Howitt’s descriptions of Lancashire’s ‘wild’ children (pp. 285-89) resonate with Nelly’s story of Heathcliff’s adoption into the family. Liverpool, where Heathcliff is found by Mr Earnshaw, fell within the boundary of Lancashire during the 19th century. Heathcliff is frequently called a ‘gypsy’; Howitt’s chapter on ‘Gypsies’ reveals that Roma communities were commonly seen in the English countryside. Howitt suggests that they dominated the English imagination, frequently appearing in works of poetry and literature. Of greatest interest, perhaps, Howitt records the English confusion and anxiety surrounding their racial (in)determinacy, an anxiety which other characters freely apply to Heathcliff and which only intensifies as he transgresses class structures.

[1] Christopher Heywood, 'Yorkshire slavery in Wuthering Heights', The Review of English Studies (May 1987), 38, JSTOR [accessed 9 September 2012]

Full title:
The Rural Life of England
Published:
1838, London
Format:
Book / Illustration / Image
Creator:
William Howitt
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Shelfmark:
2366.aa.28.

Full catalogue details

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Who is Heathcliff?

Article by:
John Bowen
Theme:
The novel 1832–1880

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