Visiting Stonehenge, Just Like Tess

Initially writing from my room in Bloomsbury, but revisited in the library of my hometown.
(Pictures are mine! Please respect that and don’t use without permission). 

I must admit (though it pains me to say this) that before arriving in London for the study abroad program, I had no idea what Stonehenge actually was. Everyone would ask me “what are you doing while studying in London?!” and I’d brag that I was going to see Highgate Cemetery and see the sunrise at Stonehenge. People were impressed and envious, though I didn’t really understand why…Thankfully I got my shit together before leaving on the bus at 2 am. The significance of Stonehenge didn’t register with me until I physically began to approach the massive henge. There, the definition of the word sublime, “affecting the mind with a sense of overwhelming grandeur or irresistible power; calculated to inspire awe, deep reverence, or lofty emotion, by reason of its beauty, vastness, or grandeur” was fully understood. My body recognized the importance if the henge, for reasons I’ll explore at the end of this post. First things first: why visit Stonehenge alongside English literature?

Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Ubervilles’ penultimate chapter takes place in Stonehenge, and getting a chance to visually take in the landscape and think back to the text definitely influenced my understanding. Silvia Mergenthal, in her essay titled “The Architecture of the Devil’: Stonehenge, Englishness, English Fiction,” writes about Stonehenge, Tess, and what it all says about Englishness. What struck me is the connection Mergenthal draws between Stonehenge and the abbey. She states:

Stonehenge and the abbey are not so much contrasted to one another as superimposed one upon the other (and vice versa, as it were). As a result, Hardy’s novel blurs spatial and temporal boundaries—the latter with regard to both the (internal) chronology of the novel and the (external, that is, ‘real-life’) histories of the two sites…It is only retrospectively, that is, from the perspective of the Stonehenge chapter, that a pattern common to both scenes emerges beneath the ‘criss-cross’ surface arrangement of sleeping/waking, waking/sleeping: in both scenes, Tess finds herself within the confines of a sacred site in ruins, the one (the abbey) devoted to Christian, the other (Stonehenge) to pre-Christian sets of beliefs.

This layering and blurring of the lines Mergenthal mentions is something I’ve identified as being an integral part of Englishness. Throughout the entire weekend, we kept learning about another instance where a Pagan ritual or belief was Christianized (either subtly or overtly) and the end result is a mixture of both. Lines have been continuously blurred throughout the history of Englishness in order to achieve some greater sense or preserve the idea of Englishness. A wordy statement, but basically Hardy’s connection between the Christian abbey and the Pagan Stonehenge, when read today, brings to light both the similarities that exist between the two, and how throughout history they have overlapped. The Pagan henge is referred to as “the heathen temple,” and it’s important to remember that the term “heathen” is a derogatory term for one that doesn’t believe in the widely accepted religion, which in this case is Christianity. Paganism was Christianized in order to be accepted and reinforce the powerful notion of Englishness, and Hardy’s connection between the two subverts this.
Mergenthal takes this connection further when she writes that:

…as Hardy’s novel possesses an equally marked gender bias: Stonehenge seems to demonstrate – as does the abbey in which Tess is laid to rest in a stone coffin – that English religious and legal institutions across the centuries have been founded, not on (or for) the protection of the weak, but on (or for) their victimization.

Hardy’s writing of the abbey and Stonehenge exposes one of the flaws of Englishness and the role religion has; those that are already in power will stay in power, and those that are weak and powerless will be kept weak and powerless. Tess, born into a lower class family, has absolutely no luck in her life. She is a victim of sexual harassment in the beginning of the novel, is rejected by her husband when telling him the truth (while even though he committed the same act, he was allowed to roam free), finally gets justice by killing Alec but in the end is executed. The abbey and Stonehenge, both having religious significance, are places where the injustices Tess faces culminate. She is visibly weak in the henge, when Angel notices that “her breathing now was quick and small, like that of a lesser creature than a woman” and is handed over to her execution.

When we visited Stonehenge, there was a clear divide between those in power (the men working inside of the henge) and the protesters on the outskirts of the sight. Though I didn’t have the chance to converse with the protesters, I did have the opportunity to talk with one of the men securing the henge. He told me that the protesters believed that the henge should be open to the public because that’s how it was intended to be used. Simple as that. It was a religious place to begin with and it should be kept that way. Pagans are only allowed to have complete access to the site only on the summer solstice, which might seem like a liberty, but our tour guide told us that the other significant rituals or holidays throughout the year are celebrated at the other henge in Avebury. The people in power, presumably not Pagans, have decided which part of the religion is important and which part is not. Again we see how the weak are kept weak and powerless while the powerful continue to have all of the power. The workers talked of the protesters as if they were subhuman and completely obsolete, when their message has a point: why should only a select few be able to access the henge? Englishness seems to continuously be inscribed with this unequal distribution of power, both legally and socially.

I felt quite a sense of the sublime all throughout our hour in Stonehenge. The sheer height of the stones took my breathe away; walking up the steps and seeing this immense henge in the middle of nowhere was striking. It truly was overwhelming! The space made me feel powerful and significant, for reasons I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s clear that the henge was built to fill you up with it’s importance, so you’d remember it. I’m extremely lucky to have been able to watch the sun rise over Stonehenge!

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