Silas Marner Day 19: Let Us Now Praise Powerful Women*

Hydrangea and Madonna  lilies doing a good domestic job in the drain corner

Been reading Silas Marner intermittently here on the blog. Read the previous posts by typing Silas Marner into the search box. I’m picking up in Chapter X, where we learn how what was, to everyone else in the village, the subject of interesting, idle gossip (the robbery of Silas’s gold) is, to Silas himself, a possibly life-threatening trauma:

To any one who had observed him before he lost his gold, it might have seemed that so withered and shrunken a life as his could hardly be susceptible of a bruise, could hardly endure any subtraction but such as would put an end to it altogether. But in reality it had been an eager life, filled with immediate purpose which fenced him in from the wide, cheerless unknown. It had been a clinging life; and though the object round which its fibres had clung was a dead disrupted thing, it satisfied the need for clinging. But now the fence was broken down–the support was snatched away. Marner’s thoughts could no longer move in their old round, and were baffled by a blank like that which meets a plodding ant when the earth has broken away on its homeward path.

There is no getting over this.

I’d noticed before that Silas, locked into his loom, had been likened to a spider. Now he’s suffering like an ant. That ‘blank’ that meets the ant ‘when the earth has broken away on its homeward path’ is memorable: there’s something so pathetic about the inability of the creature to  get over, get round, see beyond the breakage which has  stopped it. I always feel a bit scared when I see that – and  that feeling of fear must be because its only a step away from imagining what I might look like to someone much, much bigger, when I am butting up against my insurmountable problems. The  clash of those two perspectives – the stuck and the  bigger picture – is painful. But here we are  – as a not-Silas, imagining perhaps  ‘you could get over it’, but as Silas, just feeling ‘never get over it’. As Emily Dickinson says, ‘the feet,mechanical, go round.’

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

However, Marner does  gain something from his terrible loss, and that is the  kindness of his village neighbours.  It would be difficult to find a modern equivalent to this – maybe workmates’ kindness? For those of us in work, possibly, there can community at work. Maybe in a  street where people are largely unemployed and are also a relativity static population, so have the chance of knowing each other? But for many of us  – no. This wouldn’t happen. We’re not connected enough. Hence the growing UK epidemic of loneliness.

But for Silas, the feel of the village changes: people stop thinking him a witch and start thinking of him as ‘a poor mushed creatur’: and thus along with gifts of black pudding and pigs pettitoes,

Neighbours … showed a disposition not only to greet Silas and discuss his misfortune at some length when they encountered him in the village, but also to take the trouble of calling at his cottage and getting him to repeat all the details on the very spot; and then they would try to cheer him by saying, “Well, Master Marner, you’re no worse off nor other poor folks, after all; and if you was to be crippled, the parish ‘ud give you a ‘lowance.”

One of the neighbours we meet now is Mrs Dolly Winthrop – one of the greatest women in literature, and on a par for me with Paulina, the  powerful matriarchal force at the centre of The Winter’s Tale. Dolly is a do-er,  full of energy and  kindness: all respects a woman of scrupulous conscience, so eager for duties that life seemed to offer them too scantily unless she rose at half-past four, though this threw a scarcity of work over the more advanced hours of the morning, which it was a constant problem with her to remove. Yet she had not the vixenish temper which is sometimes supposed to be a necessary condition of such habits: she was a very mild, patient woman, whose nature it was to seek out all the sadder and more serious elements of life, and pasture her mind upon them.

Dolly is ‘eager for duties’, ( this is like Paulina,  faced with a mad and dangerous King, deciding he must be spoken to and resolving ‘He must be told on’t, and he shall. The office becomes a woman best: I’ll take it upon me.’) In the days when most women had no access to careers, women like Paulina and Dolly, who might be running NHS Trusts or Government Departments now, had to use their considerable energy in private life, in relationship management. George Eliot (like Shakespeare?) adores such women.

Before we go back to Silas  I want to notice the use of the verb ‘pasture’ at the end of the section above. We’ve already noticed natural-process metaphors of the seed/harvest type, but  ‘pasture’ is a strange one, isn’t it? It makes Dolly’s mind like a farm animal (for these are the animals that are put to pasture), and that makes Dolly like a workhorse, cow, beast of burden? Patient, mild, but working. Strong. And her mind, when her nature makes her ‘seek out all the sadder and more serious elements of life’, gets to work on those sad and serious things, which is a great place for human mind to be.  It doesn’t feel a quick mind, it feels slow and steady, even ruminant. But strong and present. It will do a good job.

There’s a thought here, which I really don’t have time to write out carefully today, about this kind of ‘work’, a kind of work George Eliot herself was particularly good at: the application of intellect and heart to profound human problems.

Yesterday I spent several hours in a Design Team meeting at Calderstones, with a gender balance of three women and eleven men.  The men were architects, structural engineers, mechanical engineers, health and safety men, quantity surveyors… they were practical men who know about electrical cables and trenches,  bat droppings in roof spaces, loads on beams and lengths of ducting. I was suddenly aware that they were men operating, as it were,  a piece of machinery (the machine: the design/build meeting) which men have been operating for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.  Groups of men like this designed the pyramids and put up stonehenge as well as most of the houses we’ve ever had, and I was aware of a culture of men, and the long history of that culture: men in their  structures and specific and hierarchical roles, they all knew where they were and what their bit of the job was, and they got a lot of stuff built. The women in the room were two of us Reader people, ‘the client’, and  the architectural assistant, and that made me think…

What were the women doing all those thousands of years while the men were holding design-build meetings and digging  trenches and  felling oak trees?  They were having babies and  hoeing turnips, looking after toddlers and making clay pots, running dairies and being prostitutes, nursing the sick, laying out the dead, picking  barley. But the boys are having design-build meetings and thinking about smoke escape routes, and drainage and value-engineering.  As Talking Heads sing,

The girls don’t want to play like that,
They just want to talk to the boys.
They just want to do what is in their hearts,
And the girls want to be with the girls.

And very powerful and naturally intelligent women, like George Eliot (aka Marian Evans) and Dolly Winthrop… what did they do with their brains back in the day  when women could not become structural engineers? Marian Evans  could cook a Harvest Home supper for 60 and bottle preserves with the best of them, and by night she used her brain, teaching herself,  as a  young woman, German, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian and complex mathematics at home from books. She was of a class that could buy books, and her father (a design-build man if ever there was one) recognised the brightness of his daughter, and gave her an account at the local bookshop and got her access to the library of his employer at Arbury Hall. But a Dolly Winthrop, with a such a brain, growing up in the peasant class in a rural village? Well, let us see what George Eliot makes of her.

But first, going back to the book, we turn again  to Silas, and see how he will take to Dolly, with her nature and her mind, coming into his life:

Formerly, his heart had been as a locked casket with its treasure inside; but now the casket was empty, and the lock was broken. Left groping in darkness, with his prop utterly gone, Silas had inevitably a sense, though a dull and half-despairing one, that if any help came to him it must come from without; and there was a slight stirring of expectation at the sight of his fellow-men, a faint consciousness of dependence on their goodwill. He opened the door wide to admit Dolly, but without otherwise returning her greeting than by moving the armchair a few inches as a sign that she was to sit down in it.

Interesting that before his loss Silas didn’t have any sense of dependence on the goodwill of fellow-men, but now  with nothing else to turn to, he has ‘a faint consciousness of dependence on their goodwill’.

Excellent. Silas is partially set up for some sort of help, and Dolly is primed to give it.

*My title today calls on James Agee’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Where is Josephine Butler?

Josphine Butler 1869
Josphine Butler 1869

I haven’t discovered yet whether Josephine Butler was in any way connected to one of my old schools (Blackburn House, where I was unhappily a pupil between the ages of 12-15) but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that she had a hand in it. Odd to think that that hand might still in some sense be at work in the world, more than a hundred years after her death. Makes me think of this poem:

We Live In Deeds, Not Years

We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.
And he whose heart beats quickest lives the longest:
Lives in one hour more than in years do some
Whose fat blood sleeps as it slips along their veins.
Life’s but a means unto an end; that end,
Beginning, mean, and end to all things—God.
The dead have all the glory of the world.

Philip James Bailey (1816-1902)

There is a strong Liverpool tradition of powerful women doing extraordinary good in educational and social work (just say for now: Eleanor Rathbone, Bessie Braddock, Kitty Wilkinson) and on the not-infrequent occasions when I waited outside the Headmistress’ study at Blackburn House, I think I might have gazed at pictures of those women and the quiet-looking pinafored Victorian girls they helped or educated. At the Everyman Theatre, as a stage-struck 15-year-old, a play about Bessie Braddock  – with the wonderful Gillian Hanna in the title role – moved me profoundly. As a student at the University of Liverpool I attended lectures in the Eleanor Rathbone building. And as a concert-goer at the Philharmonic or drinker in the Phil I walked past Josephine Butler House – scandalously demolished to make way for a car park.  The names of these women seemed in the air I breathed as I grew up in this broken, creative, poor, angry, rich, dying, living city.

So when, as a nominee in the Addidi Inspiration Awards, I was asked to choose a female historical figure to represent, Josephine Butler seemed the obvious choice. I thought I knew who she was: involved in women’s education, wasn’t she? Did she help to set up Girton College ? Wasn’t she a mate of George Eliot (my own real C19 heroine but let’s leave that for another time)? Didn’t she have a house that used to be by the Phil – or was it a Nurses Home?

It’s odd how a space can be held, like mist in a valley, in one’s mind by someone who isn’t really there. Is that a kind of ghost of Josephine Butler I have in my mind, a thin always more faded presence? I try to find out: Did she found Blackburn House?  I do not know. I thought I knew who she was but actually I know nothing.

To bolster my ignorance a little I turn first to Wikipedia – thinking, I’ll get some references for some books.  And there she nearly is – in that historical account of a girl born in the North Country to an anti-slavery family and marrying an Oxford cleric, and moving to Liverpool when he became the Headmaster of Liverpool College. And there is Brownlow Hill workhouse, which I know became the site of the Metropolitan Cathedral. I know the Brownlow Hill  workhouse! And so I read;

The Butlers had strong radical sympathies, including support for the Union in the American Civil War.

Their only daughter, Evangeline died in 1863.[7] This led Josephine to seek solace by ministering to people with greater pain than her own. Against her friends’ and family’s advice, she began visiting Liverpool‘s Brownlow Hill workhouse which led to her first involvement with prostitutes.

But this all feels like (forgive me, you historians) mere history. I want story. I want her story. I don’t want facts, I want feelings.

And here Wiki’s open-source begins to help me. Under the wiki-sub-heading Further Reading, I see someone has added;

Josephine Butler’s daughter Ava died from a accident with the stairs as when her parents came home she ran down the stairs and died this is why Josephine is the person who started acts. Josephine was making a statement to the parliament and they ignored all her letters and pamflets about women saying they can get an education and a better job and situations in life.

Now this is the beginning of a story. This is (I’m guessing, I’m fictionalising) a Liverpool women (look at the Scouse grammar of ‘a accident’ and note the emotional reality of the detail of running downstairs when her parents came home) moved by the Josephine Butler life in some profound way. Perhaps this is a woman whose life has not been an easy one. Yet she is moved to add to the Josephine Butler page in Wikipedia. That means something.

And now this open-source addition to the wiki page has given me the clue I needed to begin to feel Josephine Butler’s presence in the Universe. This feeling is where I start my thinking about her.

This is a novel I’d like to write. I imagine a sex-worker getting some basic education in a street education project. I imagine a live-wire-link between her and the grieving mother whose child died before her eyes.

Later I follow a link to the Josephine Butler Trust and see this charitable body, based here in Liverpool, discussing how to use money now: what would she want now? To speak about the unspeakable, about human trafficking, the child sex trade. I see that some of her works are still in print and I’m sending for them right now.

I want to hear her own voice. I want to find her. In a fragment in the University of Liverpool Special Collection I hear a stronger echo of her presence… ‘Hundreds of other little girls were being cruelly murdered by neglect or by orphanages throwing them into the hands of the destroyers of the innocent…’ Update the language slightly and you have the Rochdale abuse scandal, here, now.

Click to access h1006JosephineButlerinLiverpool1866-1882.pdf