I attribute my new interest in cormorants to Jane Eyre. During my most recent long car trip from Mustoe, Virginia, to Ithaca, New York, I listened to an audio version of Jane Eyre. In the opening scene, Jane, in fear of insults and abuse at the hands of a bully, her cousin John, hides behind the red curtain of a window seat with Thomas Bewick’s History of British Birds.
John finds her, grabs the book, and throws it at her face. Jane falls, hitting her head on the fireplace. Bloodied and enraged, she attacks her cousin, whose mother then imprisons Jane for several days in her room, where ghostly night visions torment her.
Charlotte Bronte is clearly writing from life experience, with Bewick at least, as she recorded elsewhere how she and her now famous siblings delighted in Bewick’s book, a present from their father, and we know that the Bronte children did not receive many gifts. Jane finds correspondence to her mood in Bewick’s descriptions of Arctic sea fowl and landscapes:
the vast sweep of the Arctic Zone, and those forlorn regions of dreary space, –that reservoir of frost and snow, where firm fields of ice, the accumulation of centuries of winters, glazed in Alpine heights above heights, surround the pole, and concentre the multiplied rigors of extreme cold.
This seems like a gloomy piece of reading, but Bronte’s Jane says, “With Bewick on my knee I was then happy.” However, shortly afterwards the grueling physical battle with the bullying cousin ensues. I am always interested in how literary authors use natural history to illuminate human character and emotion.
Much later, after Jane has survived the rigors of Lowood School for Unwanted Girls, Mr. Rochester interrogates her about her accomplishments. Can she play the piano? Can she draw? Yes. During one vacation at Lowood, where she was a teacher by then, she spent a day drawing. She shows Mr. Rochester five of her drawings, one of a cormorant in a tragic and fantastical scene.
Jane describes her cormorant as
large and dark, with wings flecked with foam; its beak held a gold bracelet set with gems, that I had touched with as brilliant tints as my palette could yield, and as glittering distinctness as my pencil could impart. Sinking below the bird and mast, a drowned corpse glanced through the green water; a fair arm was the only limb clearly visible, whence the bracelet had been washed or torn.
Upon questioning, she tell Mr. Rochester that she was happy painting her ghastly scenes, because she was absorbed in her task. He asks her, “Who taught you to draw the wind?” I would have asked “Why did you draw a cormorant?” (We know that the wind taught her to draw the wind.)
In order to find out what she would have learned from Bewick’s book, I decided to read a biography, Nature’s Engraver: A Life of Thomas Bewick by Jenny Uglow. I bought a hard copy and packed it with me on a trip to Scotland. Failing to read it on the way over or during the trip, where I saw cormorants on three occasions, I made good and started reading the minute I was squished, sardine like, into my plane seat.
I stayed awake the entire 8.5-hr trip and read this wonderful biography from first page to last. It was no hardship. Uglow’s book is beautifully written and Thomas Bewick a man I am grateful to have gotten to know.
The son of a tenant farmer, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) loved his natal territory, near Newcastle in Northumberland, Britain. Rebelling against a sadistic schoolmaster, Bewick played truant in the fields and forests around his home and school during the school day, while completing arduous farm chores before and after school, thus becoming a close observer of natural history. Later in life he would become well read. It seems that perhaps he educated himself the right way round. I stumbled on this quote from St. Bernard in Scotland in a grove of some of the world’s tallest trees:
Sent away at 14 as an apprentice to a copper engraver, he bent himself, literally, as engraving required many hours of a hunched back, to learning his craft. Eventually he introduced a method of wood engraving using the specialized tools of the metal engraver cross grain on boxwood, a very hard wood. Uglow carefully documents his work ethic and his rebellion against tyranny and cruelty to all living creatures. He protested the docking of horses’ tails, for example, and favored the upstart colonists in the New World over his own King. A fervent admirer of Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, he worried about right and wrong. It is possible to read Bewick’s books online. In this passage from the Preface to vol. 2 of The History of British Birds, he shows the generous thrust of his positive personality:
To point out the paths which lead to happiness, however remote they may lie from common observation, and at the same time to forewarn the inexperienced stranger against approaching those which terminate in vice and misery, is a task worthy of the most enlightened understanding.
He then asserts that the study of natural history is a “distinguished path” of instruction that can lead to the aforementioned happiness because it offers
a flow to the imagination which banishes early prejudices, and expands the ideas; and an endless fund of the most rational entertainment is spread out, which captivates the attention and exalts the mind.
The study of natural history, he writes, results
in a cheerful resignation of mind, in peace and happiness, under a conscious persuasion, that a good naturalist cannot be a bad man.
“A good naturalist cannot be a bad man.” This is a lovely hope and probably true in a great many cases. E. O. Wilson, John Muir, Thoreau, and Rachel Carson come to mind. Their love of natural history nourished a continuous expansion of ideas, witness their many books and essays, flowing effervescently like bubbles from a medicinal spring. Bewick’s phrase “cheerful resignation” carries the thought that the naturalist “resigns” him or herself to cheerfulness after a thorough understanding of the balance of life and death seen every day in the natural world. He writes
It is a melancholy reflection, that from man downwards, to the smallest living creature, all are found to prey upon and devour each other.
Darwin also knew this melancholy, deeply, but, like Bewick, he was bewitched by nature’s “endless forms most beautiful” into an endless study of life forms, from the earthworm to the primrose, that enlivened him.
I have found that I love Bewick’s writing as much as his engravings. He introduces his discussion of cormorants in the grand manner:
This tribe seems possessed of energies not of an ordinary kind; they are of a stern sullen character, with a remarkably keen penetrating eye and a vigorous body; and their whole deportment carries along with it the appearance of the wary circumspect plunderer, the unrelenting tyrant, and the greedy insatiable glutton, rendered lazy only when the appetite is palled, and they sit puffing forth the fetid fumes of a gorged stomach, vented occasionally in the disagreeable croakings of their hoarse hollow voice. Such is their portrait, such the character generally given of them by ornithologists; and Milton seems to have put the finishing hand to it, by making Satan personate the Cormorant, while he surveys, undelighted, the beauties of Paradise (Paradise Lost, Book iv, I. 194-198). It ought, however, to be observed that this bird, like other animals, led only by the cravings of appetite, and directed by instinct, fills the place and pursues the course assigned to it by nature.
In the last sentence we hear the reasonable voice of the naturalist noting that while humans have applied attributes like “plunderer,” “tyrant,” and Satan (in a way these attributes are like “ideas” and lead to an exploration of who we are), the cormorant is just going about business in order to survive in its place.
Humans have made use of the supposedly insatiable appetite of the cormorant by enlisting their fishing expertise, encircling their necks with a band so they cannot swallow what they have caught. Charles I of England had a Master of Cormorants to increase his catch, and the Chinese have long practiced cormorant fishing. Perhaps human appetites exceed those of the cormorant, who fish alone.
So why did Jane paint a cormorant with a jeweled bracelet in its beak, as “a fair hand” sinks into oblivion into the ocean? I don’t want to read too much into it. Charlotte Bronte wrote, I believe, without the ecological awareness we now have. One species of cormorant is extinct at present, but she probably does not intend a moralistic statement about the relative survival of cormorant vs. human. It is more likely that Bewick imparted some of the benefits of the study of natural history through his written and pictorial descriptions to Jane/Charlotte. “A flow is given to the imagination,” he wrote. Bewick’s cormorant inspired Jane’s imagination. It doesn’t matter whether that flow leads to characterizing the cormorant as Satan or saint. E. M. Forster made this point beautifully in his sci-fi novella “The Machine Stops.” At the end of Part I, “The Air Ship,” his character, who has been living her life in a totally artificial environment where “ideas” are generated artificially, chooses, reluctantly, to take a trip in a plane:
At midday she took a second glance at the earth. The air-ship was crossing another range of mountains, but she could see little, owing to clouds. Masses of black rock hovered below her, and merged indistinctly into grey. Their shapes were fantastic; one of them resembled a prostrate man.
‘No ideas here,’ murmured Vashti, and hid the Caucasus behind a metal blind. In the evening she looked again. They were crossing a golden sea, in which lay many small islands and one peninsula. She repeated, ‘No ideas here,’ and hid Greece behind a metal blind.
Forster’s point is that the Earth has been a source of ideas for centuries, ideas like freedom. Good ideas will be hard to imagine if the Earth collapses.
Cormorants are hard to see. On sunny days apparently they spread their wings wide to dry out in the sun. In Scotland my companions pointed out cormorants to me on three occasions but I had no binoculars, and there was some confusion because their plumage varies in color according to age and season. Were they cormorants? We think so. I did recognize the bulging belly and the extended neck. Bewick has helped me to really see the cormorant, and Jane Eyre has inspired me to imagine them. I think she identified with the cormorant’s lonely, proud stance (strong appetite and all).
I then proceeded to get a hard copy of Jane Eyre. A version for young adults, it features a peony on the cover.
What about an edition with a cormorant on the cover?
(P. S. Added on Feb.26, 2015: Here is a link to a Feb. 25, 2015 article by Alison Flood in The Guardian about a rare first edition of Bewick’s History of British Birds that belonged to a family friend of the Brontes, who probably inspired Charlotte Bronte’s pseudonym.)
Wonderful, Elizabeth. You have inspired a new appreciation for cormorants, Jane Eyre, and Thomas Bewick. Thank you.
Thank you for reading appreciatively, which is the spirit in which I try to write! Happy Thanksgiving!
I love the way you weave natural history into literature and history and today. This is fabulous.
Thank you! I am happy to have you as a reader who understands what I am trying to do or what I like doing–connecting all the things that pop into my head as I look at the world! Thank you!