Jane Austen’s characters, Maria and Julia of ‘Mansfield Park’, mock their cousin Fanny for her lack of geographical knowledge proclaiming:
‘She thinks of nothing but the Isle of Wight, and she calls it the Island, as if there were no other island in the world. I am sure I should have been ashamed of myself, if I had not known better long before I was so old as she is.’
However, the last laugh is on them, as Fanny, the heroine of the novel, is proved to have a depth of knowledge and an awareness of her surroundings that her cousins lack. This will come as little surprise to those who have visited the Isle of Wight, as the place is one of natural beauty and inspiration, and indeed possesses the kind of natural beauty that Fanny yearns for throughout ‘Mansfield Park’:
‘Fanny had been everywhere awake to the difference of the country since February; but when they entered the Park her perceptions and her pleasures were of the keenest sort […] Her eye fell everywhere on lawns and plantations of the freshest green; and the trees, though not fully clothed, were in that delightful state when farther beauty is known to be at hand, and when, while much is actually given to the sight, more yet remains for the imagination’
This natural beauty is reflected in the poetry of another Isle of Wight visitor, John Keats, who stayed in Shanklin and Carisbrooke for two years between 1817 and 1819, during which time he had one of his most poetically productive periods. One of Keats’s most famous long poems, ‘Endymion’, written in the pastoral tradition made popular by Milton’s ‘Lycidas’, speaks of the restorative power of nature, one of the primary concerns of the Romantic poets, whose works are referenced throughout ‘Mansfield Park’.
‘A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness; but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep
Full of sweet dreams, and health, and quiet breathing.’
Keats’s ‘On the Sea’ was also written during this period, and, although finished later whilst sailing to Italy, still retains a sense of the island’s shoreline.
‘It keeps eternal whisperings around
Desolate shores, and with its mighty swell
Gluts twice ten thousand caverns, till the spell
Of Hecate leaves them their old shadowy sound.
Often 'tis in such gentle temper found
That scarcely will the very smallest shell
Be mov'd for days from whence it sometime fell,
When last the winds of heaven were unbound.’
Of all the poets inspired by the Isle of Wight, Algernon Charles Swinburne, as he grew up in Bonchurch during the 1840s, has the greatest childhood connection to it as a place. Swinburne’s later poetry (after he departed from his more sensual and controversial themes), often takes both children and the landscape for its main subject matter, perhaps reaching back to his own childhood by the sea, such as his poem ‘Neap Tide’.
‘Far off is the sea, and the land is afar:
The low banks reach at the sky,
Seen hence, and are heavenward high;
Though light for the leap of a boy they are,
And the far sea late was nigh.’
Bonchurch has a strong literary heritage, since not only was it Swinburne’s home, but Charles Dickens also rented a house there, where he is rumoured to have begun writing ‘David Copperfield’. Aside from these novelists and poets there are many writers who have found in the Isle of Wight a quiet place to work, even if their subject matter does not reflect the scenery, amongst them is Lewis Carroll, who began work on ‘Alice in Wonderland’ whilst renting a house in Sandown. The island has also briefly been home to many socially motivated authors and theorists, amongst them J.B. Priestly, most famous for the play ‘An Inspector Calls’, who lived and worked in Brook, and even Karl Marx, who visited the Isle of Wight three times, staying in Ryde and Ventnor, who called the island a ‘Little Paradise’.