The rustic idyll

An Irishman’s Diary about life in the country

‘According to a repeated phrase in the biographies, Edvard Munch was born in a “rustic farmhouse”. As somebody who was also  born in a rustic farmhouse, or at any rate grew up in one, I have to ask: what other kind of farmhouse is there?’ Photograph: Getty Images

‘According to a repeated phrase in the biographies, Edvard Munch was born in a “rustic farmhouse”. As somebody who was also born in a rustic farmhouse, or at any rate grew up in one, I have to ask: what other kind of farmhouse is there?’ Photograph: Getty Images

Thu, Dec 12, 2013, 01:00

Today we celebrate a major birthday of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, who would have been 150 by now had he not been cut off in his prime in 1944, at the tender age of 80.

But I notice in passing that, according to a repeated phrase in the biographies, Munch was born in a “rustic farmhouse”. And as somebody who was also born in a rustic farmhouse, or at any rate grew up in one, I have to ask: what other kind of farmhouse is there?

I suppose there may be the odd urban farmhouse here and there, but these are surely rare. So rare, indeed, that non-rustic adjectives are probably necessary when describing them. Whereas, as a description of the standard farmhouse, the term “rustic” is about as useful as the proverbial mammiferous appendages on a bull.

It’s a pitfall of writing that sometimes we use adjectives just because they sound nice. I’m reminded of a quotation attributed to the late evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould, to the effect that the human race is just “an insignificant twig on the vast, arborescent tree” of life.

And as adjectives go, arborescent is one of the most beautiful – I wouldn’t normally blame anyone for using it. But since it means only “tree-like”, it doesn’t add anything to Gould’s image. On the contrary, it begs to be pruned.

The concept of a “rustic farmhouse” is similarly tautological. A “rusticated” farmhouse, on the other hand, may be just about allowable. Rustication is a recognised sub-genre of architecture that gives buildings the romantically-rough appearance associated with structures of rural origin (like myself).

The style was popular in the early years of US independence, when the former colonists sought to marry the grandness of Palladian architecture with the aesthetic of the log cabin. Thus George Washington, himself a farmer, had his mansion designed in a deliberately rusticated fashion.

People could be rusticated too once, although that was a less sought-after distinction. It was (and perhaps remains so, to traditionalists) the grandiose term for being expelled or suspended from university, especially Oxford and Cambridge.

To be “rusticated” meant to be sent back down – everywhere outside Oxford and Cambridge being considered down – to the country: the punishment for a variety of misdemeanours.

The poets Shelley and Swinburne were both rusticated from Oxford: the former for his public declaration of atheism, the latter for applauding an assassination attempt on Napoleon III.

Richard Burton – the 19th-century explorer, not the 20th-century actor – was rusticated for the twin outrages of attending a horse race and challenging a fellow student to duel (after the student taunted him about the shape of his giant, almost arborescent, moustache).

By contrast, Oscar Wilde’s rustication from Oxford was for disappointingly prosaic reasons – he returned several weeks late for the start of term. In his case, the punishment was even more than usually figurative. Urbane to a fault, Wilde was rustication-proof.

Not so his tragic half sisters, Emily and Mary. Like him, they were born in Dublin. But unlike him, they were conceived out of wedlock by his father, the surgeon William Wilde, in an affair with a city shopkeeper.

Wilde Snr acknowledged paternity and supported the two girls, but he couldn’t do so in the public eye. Instead, for no sins of their own, they had to be rusticated, after a fashion: raised by his clergyman brother, Ralph, who lived in Monaghan, a safe distance from Victorian high society.

Little is known about the sisters’ lives, which ran for a decade or so either side of Edvard Munch’s birth. But one terrible night in October 1871, they attended a Halloween ball in a local country manor. Where, as she danced past an open fireplace, Emily’s crinoline dress went up in flames and then set Mary’s – when she ran to help – on fire too.

Both died from their burns. And they were buried as they lived, far from Dublin: in the Church of Ireland cemetery of Drumsnat, a place named for one of the countless surrounding drumlins, and for which the adjective “rustic” does not do justice.

The gravestone carries their famous surname. But when recording their deaths, the local coroner wrote it as “Wylie”. This may have been a simple mistake, although he also downgraded the usual inquest to a less-public “inquiry”. And Wylie is an established name in Monaghan: one that would not attract attention from the city. So the suspicion is that that too was part of the rustication.

fmcnally@irishtimes.com

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