‘S’ for snow…‘What is SNOW?’: literary tourism via spatiality and temporality

Chitra Jayathilake (Keele University & University of Sri Jayewardenepura)

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Keele University Library

‘What is SNOW?’ was neither rightly answered nor comprehended in the least then; instead I was taught, and I mastered, the English alphabet through ‘Apple’ and ‘Snow’ at the age of 3 or 4, ostensibly prior to reading the alphabet of my native language. Being a Sri Lankan, born and brought up in the home country when Sri Lankans had little to no access to television to see ‘the impossible-to-imagine things’,  snow  was only a white material until we saw it later on screen, and apples were just ‘red oranges’ until we tasted them frequently, owing to the rapid expansion of open economic policies.

The first English novel I read – in fact a simplified version, being a small school girl, a hosteller, who learnt English as a second language – helped me to sympathise with the parentless, the ill-treated and the ostracized. It was Jane Eyre, and I loved Jane, above all for her innocence, honesty and kindness but hated Rochester for his arrogance.

The Brontes' School

The Brontes’ School

Lakes are not only common sights in Sri Lanka but also function as ‘swimming pools’ and ‘bath tubs’ for some in the tropical country, yet DAFFODILS, unknown  and unseen, left us in a quandary.  When the teacher explained ‘[w]hen all at once I saw a crowd…A host, of golden daffodils’,  I attempted to picture ‘fluttering’ and ‘dancing’ yellow mass; thus not only inspired by the beauty but also imagined being hosted by the unseen. However, when Wordsworth’s poem became ‘the ever-present literary work’ in almost all English Literature classrooms, dancing daffodils also pushed me from my dreams to a sleepy hollow.

As a teenager, wasn’t I madly in love with the speaker of these words: ‘Take any form, drive me mad, only do not leave me in this dark alone where I cannot find you. I cannot live without my life! I cannot die without my soul’? Yes, I expected, as is usual for many ‘immature’ girls of my age, to find an ‘I-cannot-live-without-you’ man: I loved Heathcliff, therefore at times was envious of Catherine, until this craze developed to explore, as an undergrad, the creator of this complex character in Wuthering Heights and the author’s life. Through the first English drama I studied – ‘If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die?’ – I saw Shakespeare’s merchant [of Venice] only as a vicious inhumane person until later I deconstructed the interpretation through postcolonial lens. I am used to considering Shakespeare’s Globe as a marvel although I later learnt to question its politics and reconstruction by the American actor and director Sam Wanamaker in the 1970s. I continue to regard Shakespeare as a genius, and love Wuthering Heights, yet problematise their impact, as legacies of colonialism, on the Sri Lankan education system. I know all the aforesaid experiences are partly due to my exposure to, and interest in, English literature, yet mainly due to the country’s exposure to British colonialism – the teaching of Shakespeare along with other English classics was partly a cultural project of colonialism.[1]

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So, there is no wonder, and it needs no further explanation, why I was so excited, even though it was years later, to experience and see the world around Keele University, when I received an opportunity to be a PhD candidate there in 2012. One of the first things (my arrival was during winter) was to enjoy the beauty of snow-falling, by reflecting on the ‘S for Snow’ lesson, while ‘suffering’ from the alien weather. The childhood dreams and imaginations, possessed through English literary classics, culminated in many first-hand experiences and sight-seeing visits in the UK, thanks to the friends I met at Keele: the Globe Theatre, daffodils, the Lake District and the Peak District, Ruskin’s Brentwood, Bronte Sisters’ School, Arthur’s Seat in Scotland and Shakespeare’s birth place are just to name a few. With Guy and Marion, I saw the Brontës’ and Ruskin’s lifestyles, and with Hannah explored Stratford-upon-Avon to reflect on my memories of English literature, by crossing the spatial and temporal boundaries. These pictures represent two significant spaces of my literary tourism, along with the query, snow. The first photograph is the library of Keele University taken in January 2015: the second is an edited photo focussing on the place where Bronte sisters’ ‘lived as pupils’ taken in February 2013. The next is Shakespeare’s birthplace captured in April 2014. The last snapshots, taken on the same day, highlight Ann Hathaway’s residence (left) and Shakespeare’s museum. The Brontës’ school connotes two sisters’ impact on my personal life and the Shakespeare’s birthplace signifies my continued interest in Anglophone theatre, yet particularly in postcolonial plays – the context of my doctoral research.

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[1] See for instance, Brian Longhurst et al. ( 2008) Introducing Cultural Studies (2nd edition), London: Longman, and Bill Ashcroft et al. (2007) Post-colonial Studies: The key concepts (2nd edition), London and New York, Routledge.

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