Archive for August, 2010

Working-Class Women Poets in Victorian Britain (book #79)

9 August 2010

ed Florence S Boos, 2008.

This is an important book, I think.

Boos discusses the following writers:

Janet Hamilton (1795-1873), Lanarkshire.
Poems, Essays, and Sketches.

See also essay on Hamilton here.

Anonymous Celtic songs collected by Alexander Carmichael.

Isabella Chisholm (fl 1865-82).

Chisholm was one of Carmichael’s sources, a “travelling tinker” who spoke English, Gaelic and Shelta or Romany (Carmichael uses both terms).

The wicked who would do me harm
May he take the disease,
Globularly, spirally, circularly,
Fluxy, pellety, horny-grim.

Boos glosses “pellet” as raw skin before it is tanned.

Elizabeth Duncan Campbell (1804-78), Arbroath

Jane Stevenson (dates and place unknown: book published in Kilmarnock in 1870).

Elizabeth Horne Smith (1876-?), Glasgow

Mary MacDonald MacPherson / Mairi Nighean Iain Bain / Mairu Mhor nan Oran (1821-1898)

Gaelic oral poet. Bizarrely, she’s on Facebook. “Wrong Mairi Mhor Nan Oran? Search for others … ”

A CD of her songs.

Notes on her life, with a photograph of her spinning; and more notes.

“Marie” (fl 1840s-50s)


IN an antiquated almshouse lived the good Dame Margery,
Night and morning for the Donor with a fervent heart prayed she,
For, though poor and scant the pittance, still it made life’s travail cease,
And, if deed of good availeth, well his soul might “rest in peace.”
With her lived the gentle Amy, sunlight of her dark-ened days,
Pleasant voice, that lightened sorrow as she went her household ways ;
Thing of beauty in the loneness, child of Margery’s only son,
Latest remnant of the loved ones, who departed one by one!
Through the round-recurring seasons Amy went by woods and fields,
Gathering herbs of blessed uses, herbs that bounteous Nature yields;
Some were plucked beneath the gazing of the golden summer eye,
Some when moonlight’s chequered shadows in the quiet meadows lie.
So, a meditative maiden, to sequestered nooks she’d stray,
Gaining from Earth’s gracious bosom goodly gifts from day to day;
And she made her glad companions of the winds and wildling flowers,
And the birds that chanted by her through the lengthening summer hours
By the reedy lake she’d wander, by the sedges tall and slim,
By the world of water-lilies that upon the surface swim;
By the woods, where lie the blue-bells in a clustering multitude,
By the mallows, and the foxglove, nodding in their solitude;
And a thousand human feelings ebullant with joy would rise,
Fluttering in her throbbing bosom, dancing in her liquid eyes!
Evening shadows now would warn her that her feet must not further roam,
But, with stores of herbage laden, she must backward to her home.
Good Dame Margery by the gateway oft would stand and, watching, gaze,
And, afar her form discerning in the twilight’s falling haze,
Would a silent benediction from her affluent nature pour,
And with gentle welcome bring her to the arched massive door;
Then, with heartfelt satisfaction, close the door upon the night,
Feeling that her greatest blessing was in safety in her sight.
Through the dim old lattice-window gleamed the radiant setting sun,
And the idle wheel was standing where its latest threads were spun;
And the evening meal was over, and the flickering of the fire
Sent the shadows to the ceiling, dancing ever gaunt and higher.
“Gentle mother,” so said Amy, seated in the chim-ney nook,
“Will you read again some story from that old and pleasant book ?
As I wandered in the hollows, sudden came a won-drous thought,
Why each leaf and lowly floweret with such curious care is wrought,
Why enamelled with such colours, why so beauteous and fair,
Why enriched with balmy odours to impregnate all the air?
Then, as if in ready answer, came the nightly words you read,
How the bounteous God bestoweth more than satisfies our need;
And my heart grew overburdened with its weight of thankfulness
For the perfume, and tne song-birds, and the thousand things that bless!
Then, as by the lake of lilies for a moment brief I stood,
Came the story of young Moses and King Pharaoh’s daughter good;
And I thought of you, kind mother! and my many childish needs,
And I blessed you for the rescue that had borne me from the reeds!
Somehow, in the church, on Sundays, when the parson reads that book,
I can never feel the story coming from his meaning look,
And my thoughts will get distracted, and will wander here and there,
Mostly to the silent shadows where the flowers are bent in prayer!
But when you, dear mother ! read it, every word like music falls,
And I see the varying story painted on the grey house walls!”
Mother Margery’s reverent fingers turned the consecrated page,
Lingering o’er the marked passage that had soothed her silver age,
While a crowd of gentle faces rose before her mental sight,
Faces that had faded from her, smiling out their faint “good night;”
With emotion, therefore, read she, and her trembling accents fell
Like the dying-swelling cadence of a lately swinging bell.
Amy, with her young heart beating, peopled this old world of ours
With the fragrance and the beauty gathered from the golden flowers!
Lonely seemed the maid and matron, but the angels of the good,
With their sheltering wings protecting, by their homely threshold stood ;
Lowly, but like blue-eyed speedwell on the old wall’s stony cope,
By the thorny world’s rough pathway they would teach our hearts to hope.

(published 1851. I picked up the full text from Google books – format may be dodge.)

Ellen Johnston (1835-c 1873), Dundee

Interesting to me particularly because she worked at the Verdant Works.

From The Factory Girl’s Reply to Edith

A father’s love I never knew,
He left me when an infant child,
And sailed Columbia’s shore to view,
And chance ambition’s fancy wild.

He was a bard – ‘tis from his veins
That my poetic blood doth flow;
His were the wild and mystic strains
Such as in Byron’s breast did glow.

Eight years on Time’s iron wings had fled,
When Hope’s gold star began to wane;
My mother, dreaming he was dead,
Joined in wedlock’s band again.

The grief that I have borne since then
Is only known unto the Lord;
No power of words nor author’s pen
My countless wrongs can e’er record.

Another dozen years had fled:
One day a startling letter came –
Oh God! my father was not dead,
But living in the state of Maine.

Ruth Wills (1826-1908)

Lays of Lowly Life (1861)

Fanny Forrester (1852-1889), Manchester

The Lowly Bard (1883)

He tunes his lyre within his lowly dwelling …
The children bound, with trailing grasses laden,
And fling their treasures at the rhymester’s feet!

And while their eyes grow round with baby wonder
His toil-stained fingers ‘mongst their tresses stray;
But lo! The engine booms like angry thunder,
And frights the sympathetic band away!
Spindle and bobbin fill their vacant places,
And o’er great looms slight figures lowly stoop,
And weary shadows cross the girlish faces
That like frail flowers o’er stagnant waters droop.

Toil, toil today, and toil again tomorrow:
Some weave their warp to reach a pauper grave!
Naught of romance doth gild their common sorrow;
Yet ne’er were heroines more strong, more brave.
Poor common herd! they never dream of glory!
This is their work – to live is its reward.
Ah! when they end their sad but common story,
Will the great God such common souls regard?

Yes, yes, however menial be the duty,
He deems it noble, if ’tis nobly done …

He tunes His lyre in sickly court and alley …
The seamstress hears, and lo! their (sic) weary fingers,
Mid front and waistband, white and listless lie;
And though her glance upon the gusset lingers,
No thought of scanty wage or toil is nigh. …

The priest bends lower o’er the ragged bed –
No banner waves, nor muffled drum is beating;
Yet, ’tis a hero that lies still and dead. …

The great may flaunt their pampered bards above him,
But when their laurels shall be sere and brown,
Kind heaven will grant, because the lowliest love him,
To the poor rhymester an eternal crown.

John Goodridge, responding partly to Boos’s book, summarises and comments on Forrester’s career:

The daughter of Ellen Forrester (d. 1883), a poet and Fenian activist who had served time in prison and later emigrated to the United States, Fanny Forrester’s own response to the crisis engulfing nineteenth-century Ireland emerges in quite another way, through poems of exile and alienation. An example of such poems is the three-part sequence “Strangers in the City,” which documents the arrival, homelessness, and lack of resources, severe working, and living conditions and consequent premature death of Mary, a “timid fawn” exiled from her native land, along with her mother, following a brutal land eviction that has either claimed the lives of her father and sister or at least split the family. This is serious material, but because it is cast in terms of sentimental melodrama, it may not evince a very serious response. The poem seems to the modern reader emotionally overladen, as may be seen in this description of Mary at her factory work, from the second part of the poem “Toiling in the City:”

O’er her work, from morn till evening, bends her sweet and saintly face,
But her busy hands oft tremble, and the tears each other chase;
For she thinks of pleasant rambles through the quiet lonely glen,
And she wonders will she ever hear the birds’ sweet song again.

The tears are frequent in this poem, as is the contrast between Mary’s “sweet and saintly” demeanor and the implicitly unsweet and unsaintly world she is cast into; between the factory full of noisy, dangerous, belt-driven machinery and the “quiet glen” she remembers; and again between the factory’s noise and the “birds’ sweet song” of rural Ireland, which is cast as a lost Eden. The melodrama intensifies as Mary nears her death, and her deathbed scene itself is repeated in other Forrester poems, such as “In the Workhouse–A Deserter’s Story,” where a soldier, dying in the workhouse, like Mary in her garret, pathetically clings to a final vision of remembered beauty:

Come nearer, nurse, come nearer, for my sight is growing dim:
Just hold my hand and sing to me some simple vesper hymn,
And I’ll watch your kind eyes glistening, and my spirit shall rejoice
For I’ll fancy I am listening to my Margaretta’s voice;

It is difficult to respond positively or seriously to such writing, because one’s responses are conditioned by an aesthetic that is naturally weighted against displays of raw emotion or sentiment–with the melodramatic “Victorian death scene” a favorite example of such aesthetic taboo. But there is evidence that Forrester’s poetry was admired and taken seriously by her contemporary readers, including some rather touching evidence that professor Florence Boos has retrieved from the records of the Royal Literary Fund, to which Fanny Forrester’s mother, Ellen, made an application for support in 1872. Though primarily concerned with explaining the toils of encroaching poverty and disability, the veteran Fenian cannot resist giving vent to a burst of maternal pride in her daughter, who, although she is “only nineteen years of age,” has “written more than I have–and better too.” Ben Brierley, the editor who most consistently championed and published her (and was himself a significant laboring-class poet in the period) is similarly enthusiastic, writing of her with paternalistic pride, as one of his most popular and effective contributors.

I’d disagree that contemporary readers can’t respond “positively or seriously” to her writing, though acknowledging its lack of what we see as high literary qualities. Though I think Goodridge rather undermines his own point by quoting Forrester’s mother in her praise.

Ethel Carnie (also published under her married name, Ethel Holdsworth) (1886-1962), Lancashire.

Clip of the silent film of her novel Helen of Four Gates, and some details here. Novel itself here.

Songs of a Factory Girl (1911).

Voices of Womenhood (1914).


I do not care! There was a time
When I put on my Sunday clothes
And went a-walking in the sun,
Like all these folk who tilt their nose
To see me now. What do I care ?
My elbows and my heart are bare!

What does it matter, anyway?
What does it matter at the end
If you’ve climbed up and up and up,
Or have not got one bloomin’ friend ?
Die with a little prayer of trust
Or with a curse? Both turn to dust.

Why should I be afraid to die?
I wash and wash the whole year long
The clothes of those who scorn me so.
And fill my nights with laugh and song.
My hell is day, my heaven is night!
Are not your garments smooth and white ?

I wash the sheets from fever’s bed;
The babe’s first robes — the flounced skirt
That’s whirled in many a glorious waltz,
And make it clean from the world’s dirt.
I charge so little for the score
That though you scorn, you bring me more.

What do I care ? My pot of beer
Is more than all your praise or blame.
My children died, one after one —
Did I not wash for you the same ?
My tears fell fast into the tub
To “rub-a-dub, rub, rub-a-dub!”

They laid one here; they laid one there;
With stranger’s children they knew not;
And I have bought no flowers for them —
No names are writ to mark the spot.
But as I rub I think and think;
Then night comes on, and I must drink.

Boos quotes an incredibly patronising interview with Carnie from 1908:

there was a new thrill: I had never before had the good luck to interview a fairy. … I took the fairy at first sight … She is as free from affectation as a seagull [good simile]; she has as much common sense as a policeman; she dresses plainly, wears her hair plainly, speaks with a downright homely Lancashire accent; and is a real “lady” in the very best sense of that ill-used word.
She is just what a deep-souled, clear-eyed, true-hearted factory girl poet ought to be. She is as genuine, as inconspicuous, as marvellous as a song thrush or a nightingale. The grave eyes regard you with placid sincerity. You would not think she was a fairy; but you would know directly that she was good. … as soon as one holds Miss Carnie’s little hand one likes her. … And I’d give a box of cigars to know what she thought of me; for she has humour.

Eliza Cook (1812-89), London

Google books: The Poetical Works of Eliza Cook (collection, published 1870).

Mary Smith (1822-89), Carlisle

There’s a fascinating article on her at the E and J blog.

Google books: The autobiography of Mary Smith, schoolmistress and nonconformist, a fragment of a life: With letters from Jane Welsh Carlyle and Thomas Carlyle, Volume 2 – Miscellaneous Poems (1860).

Jessie Russell (fl 1870s), Glasgow

Poem here (1870).

Jeannie Graham Paterson (1871-?), Glasgow

Marion Bernstein (1846-1906), Glasgow

Other links:

Factory Girls and Serving Maids: Victorian Working-Class Women Poets Archive.

Of Factory Girls and Serving Maids: The Literary Labours of Working Women in Victorian Britain (PhD thesis, Meagan Timney).

“The Little Match Girls”: Eastgate’s Tinderbox and The Victorian Working-Class Women Poets Archive (Meagan Timney)

The Labouring-Class Writers Project.

Things that struck me:
– how difficult it is to find much online about these writers.
– the same handful of academics (Florence Boos, Nicola Wilson, Meagan Timney) come up over and over.
– how sad some of their lives were: lack of recognition, poverty – Boos quotes requests to the Royal Literary Fund for financial assistance, none of which were granted.
– their focus on women’s lives, women’s interests – spinning, children, friends.
– how easily women disappear from the records. Boos has been unable to discover even the dates of some of these writers.
– how many were Scottish.

The Burden of Sympathy: How Families Cope with Mental Illness (book #78)

9 August 2010

David A Karp, 2001.

Read this because F was using it for her course.

[Arthur] Frank’s book The Wounded Storyteller is about the need of ill people to tell their stories as a way of reconstructing “the map of their lives”. His thesis is that storytelling is a way to create order from the chaos generated by serious illness. … An illness narrative is told to someone. There is really no such thing as a self-story because stories are inherently social productions. That is, all self-stories are really self-other stories.