Sarah Hall's Haweswater is the third novel I've read about drowning English villages to create reservoirs, along with Robert Edric's Gathering the Water and Reginald Hill's On Beulah Height. One can see why the topic would appeal to a historically-minded novelist: the demands of modern life literally submerge the remnants of rural English culture, disrupting the landscape in the process. Haweswater reimagines the building of the Haweswater reservoir dam through an ill-starred romance between Janet Lightburn, daughter of the grimly Christian Ella and her husband Samuel, and Jack Ligget, a self-made man of sorts who represents the Manchester Water Works. (Readers should ignore the back cover, which not only confuses Janet with her mother when it comes to religious faith, but also misspells the village's name.) Janet possesses striking features, intelligence, and independence, nurtured by the radical village teacher and by her father's shy support; her character, thinks her father, is "above and beyond" all norms of gender (73). While Janet's unique nature and interests seem to ally her with the forces of modernity, both positive and negative, her passionate attachment to Mardale also makes her a chthonic force. She is simultaneously grounded in the natural cycles of the region and at odds with the local culture, but the landscape takes precedence: "Her body chemistry alters as the terrain decomposes, turns, begins again. She would have her ashes scattered to the open face of the scar. She has given herself over to this saturated strip of Westmoreland" (112). The boundaries between the landscape and the woman are porous, in an organic relationship that is part symbiosis and part romance.
Jack Ligget, by contrast, is instantly identified with new technologies, thanks to his sleek automobile. And where Janet's relationship to her surroundings has been "as unconscious and simple as the mechanisms of breathing" (112), Jack performs the role of a man born to fine things: "He knew how to enter a room of applause without seeming relieved, was wasteful enough with pate and champagne at social gatherings not to seem unaccustomed"; notes the narrator, the sole flaw of this "performance" is "its perfection" (144). Jack produces himself out of a careful study of all the outward signifiers of class difference, ranging from the right clothes to the right physical carriage. Unlike Janet's imbrication in the landscape, which makes it impossible to separate her body from its surroundings, Jack's performance requires hyper-consciousness, an ongoing adjustment of the self to other's expectations. This performance is Jack's desperate attempt to escape his brutal upbringing in Manchester, where "[t]o breathe was a waste of time" (131). Janet is all natural cycles; Jack all urban rhythms. But, as their identical initials suggest, the fissures in their relations to place and time destine them for each other. Janet's entire being may be bound up in this valley, but her education has made her aware of other potentialities elsewhere. Similarly, Jack's coming warns of the large-scale urban appetites that will obliterate this small-scale rural community, but Jack also feels for the valley and its graces.
While the merging of Jack and Janet coincides with the onslaught of the city against the country, there are larger forces at work. Haweswater is an interwar novel set in the 1930s, and the characters both bear the scars of WWI (Ella was a nurse; Samuel her patient; another resident lost an arm) and glimpse, more or less dimly, the approach of another war. Hall repeatedly slips in similes that link the construction of the dam to war: workers "like a disparate army of discharged soldiers" (163); badly injured men who "might have been returning from the front lines of trench warfare for their so-often sorry states" (166); the remnants of buildings, discovered years later, that resemble "forgotten war veterans. Or skeletal prisoners left in a concentration camp" (226). And the impending threat of WWII manifests itself in the British Army's demolition of the village with explosives. Mardale, apparently so insignificant and isolated, cannot help but register the memories and effects of worldwide destruction. Both the figurative language and the Army presence disrupt the apparent (and very traditional) binary opposition of country vs. city, since the coming war threatens Manchester as much as Manchester threatens Mardale. But the technologies that destroy bodies and the technologies that rework the landscape unite to submerge Mardale.
Not surprisingly, Janet's and Jack's wildly passionate relationship is itself marked by violence; Janet, in particular, has a thing for whacking Jack around, but Jack can be fairly brutal himself. While Jack's love for Janet temporarily "naturalizes" him, a forgotten arrangement with a poacher during Jack's citified phase precipitates his death--by precipitating him off an icy ridge--and causes Janet to collapse in raving madness, not soothed by the arrival of their illegitimate child. (I must admit that this is probably the weakest part of the novel, since it feels driven by the plot's exigencies rather than any convincing characterization on Hall's part; the novel's romantic elements tip over into stereotypical Victorian melodrama here.) As the poacher's sudden reappearance suggests, Jack cannot shuck off the weight of his past choices. If, in a sense, he becomes one with the landscape by dying in it, it's still true that he cannot leave Manchester behind and remain alive. Jack's accidental death is in stark contrast to that of Samuel's friend Nathaniel, who deliberately chooses the place and time of his death like the "great and wise animals," and melds with the landscape until he is almost indistinguishable from the rocks around him (184). But where Nathaniel's death becomes one more marker of the village's impending erasure (187-88), Jack's has no lasting significance for the dam. Even Janet's suicidal assault on the dam near the end accomplishes nothing but the most cosmetic of damage, although it horrifically obliterates her. Several years later, Janet's Little Father Time-esque younger brother, Isaac, who loves immersing himself in water, contentedly commits suicide in the reservoir and comes "home" (266). History inexorably drowns everyone who tries to resist it.
Nevertheless, Jack's and Janet's daughter Miriam manages to survive, the bearer of the country's and the city's joint legacies; significantly, she is an adult before she learns the truth about her conception. Miriam, projected into the future, exists in part because she discovers her parents' history as story, rather than lived experience. Janet, we discover, has already passed on into folklore as a ghost, "Janet Tree" (absorbing Janet back into the landscape again). Ella's deathbed story of Jack's and Janet's love prompts Miriam to "dream and imagine, and speculate about the sort of romance that shakes up history and devastates valleys" (254), but even the terminology suggests that Miriam can only experience this apparently world-historic passion as an imaginative narrative. This is a historical loss, but for Jack and Janet, it is also a kind of immortality, released into the grand emotional sweep of a romance that outlasts everything that history can throw at it.