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A review of ‘The Spinning House Affair’ by Jane Taylor

Published by Thunderpoint Publishing Ltd, 2021.
The Spinning House, Cambridge UK. Demolished in 1901.

Emotional investment

In ‘The Spinning House Affair’ Taylor tells an atmospheric tale, inspired by the true stories of Daisy Hopkins and Jane Elsdon, imprisoned at the Spinning House, Cambridge University’s infamous house of correction in the late nineteenth century. She also highlights the broader struggle of women at this time, through the plight of her characters Hope Bassett (daughter of a college porter) and Aurelia Travers (daughter of a newspaper proprietor).

While there is pathos, the novel is light on sentiment, to the extent that a friend gave up on it because she was bored and didn’t care about any of the characters, not even Rose Whipple, a housemaid who is erroneously arrested by the proctors and incarcerated in the Spinning House – not once, but twice. Perhaps Taylor set out in her style to reflect the seemingly restrained nature of late Victorian Cambridge. The tone is genteel and not especially demonstrative, although it is often lyrical and pleasing.

I understand my friend’s frustration. To be honest, I like a dash of emotion in my history. The historian, David Olusoga, argues that public historians need to embrace the emotional, human aspects of the subject. In a 2020 interview with De Montfort University, he declared,

“I get lots of messages saying that in a programme like A House Through Time, I am destroying the spirit of history and being over-emotional … But if I don’t make the people in history real to me, how can I get people to care about them on the programme?”

We should bear in mind that Taylor is not a historian and that her account is fictional. Interestingly, her author biography tells us that she has a doctorate in Creative and Critical Writing from the University of East Anglia and that she intends to further explore the blurring of genre boundaries through her fiction.

Eloquence

On the creative side, I really enjoyed Taylor’s tableaux vivants, especially of late nineteenth century Cambridge in winter; the snow that,‘promised to grant a disguise for all rough edges, and must surely offer a brief respite to personal worries, dissolving them in its whiteness just as it promised the illusion of comfort and an untainted tomorrow.’ The snow felt mysterious to young Aurelia Travers in that it augured a most exhilarating, ‘period of difference.’

Various activities of the people serving the town and the university are skilfully staged; the undertaker, the butter seller, the college servants collecting dirty crockery from student lodging houses. And it is nice for those of us who know and love Cambridge to see familiar trade names such as Hawkins’ pastry counter, the Eaden Lilley emporium and the Fountain Inn.

Taylor’s descriptions are eloquent and articulate, but I agree with my friend. The characters are underdeveloped and as a consequence, it is hard to empathise with them. I did finish the book. Not because I cared about Rose, Hope or Aurelia, but because I appreciated the lexicon and I’m interested in this period of Cambridge history, Cambridge being my hometown and the scene of my great-great grandmother’s tragic life, mired by poverty and prostitution.

Exploitation

Whether casual or professional, the town’s prostitutes were viewed as a necessary evil, although many were arrested and detained on a regular basis. Victorian double standards flourished in this university town, where the visiting and resident scholars exploited vulnerable local women and girls for their own ends. According to the nineteenth century author and magistrate, Robert Mackenzie Beverley, Barnwell was ‘set apart and dedicated to sin… prostitutes swarm there’.

The University proctors and their constables (known as bulldogs) would patrol the town precincts for women they ‘suspected of evil’. For a few years after opening his first shop in Fitzroy Street, Barnwell, William Heffer, founder of the great Cambridge bookshop that is Heffers, worked in his ‘spare’ time as a proctor’s bulldog. (In the 1890s William took pity on my great-grandfather, described by the Heffer family as a ‘bright specimen – practically uneducated and from a miserable home’. He undertook to educate this son of a ‘Barnwell lady’, insisting he write in a copy book and work out simple sums each night, bringing the results to work the next morning. The boy thrived by this strange tuition, and eventually became head of the Science Department at the Petty Cury bookshop.)

The proctors had the power to arrest and would escort their arrestees to the infamous Spinning House, where they were tried and sentenced by the University Vice-Chancellor. Women who had been plucked off the streets were charged with a range of misdemeanours such as, ‘consorting with a student’ and, ‘walking with a young man in the street suspected to be an undergraduate.’ Critically, although ‘suspected of evil’, not all those imprisoned were street walkers, and in the 1890s, the Vice-Chancellor’s unpopular authority on this matter was abolished by Act of Parliament, the much-hated Spinning House being finally demolished in 1901.

I scoured the Spinning House Committal Books at Cambridge University Library for any mention of my great-great grandmother and learned that she had never been detained there, although several of her neighbours in Wellington Street, Barnwell, had. She had instead been detained in the town goal, several times. The Borough Police would patrol the streets of Barnwell, known locally as ‘a place of leisure’. Women arrested by the police were usually older than those arrested in the town by the university proctors. They were brought before the Cambridge Borough Magistrates and upon conviction, incarcerated in the Cambridge town goal on Castle Hill.

Taylor eloquently describes Barnwell as a ‘suburb of open cesspits, feral cats and dogs and baleful vapours of decay curling through an extended warren of shabby tenements, cramped passageways and overcrowded dens.’ Joined to Cambridge town by the smart houses along Jesus Lane and Maid’s Causeway, the area was notorious for its brothels and private receiving houses. The social reformer and founder of the Save the Children charity, Eglantine Jebb, in her 1906 social study of Cambridge, described the people of Barnwell as pitiful caricatures of men and women, ‘creatures of stunted facilities, of wasted and misused gifts, of poor and mean experience, prisoners of their circumstances, ground down by the difficulties of their lot, or ruined by its dangers.’ My ancestors’ neighbours in late nineteenth century Barnwell included carpenters, painters, gardeners, compositors, bricklayers, plumbers, shoeblacks, shirtbinders, brewers, bedmakers, lamplighters, coprilite diggers and organ grinders.

Jebb asked why we still see about our streets, ‘men and women whose very faces tell us how low we have allowed them to sink?’ Her study highlighted concerns about the very large number of hotels, inns and public houses in the town; 279 establishments, or one to every 138 persons. She was citing a 1903 deputation to the Cambridge Borough Magistrates on the need for a reduction in the number of licensed houses in the town. The ‘memorial’ for this plea mentioned a stretch of 796 yards, from the east side of Wellington Street to the south side of Newmarket Road, which contained a total of 22 public houses. By this time, Cambridge had had its first temperance mayor, Alfred Isaac Tillyard, and the temperance movement was growing. Tillyard was the editor and proprietor of the Cambridge Independent Press.

Execution

Taylor appears to emulate Tillyard in her fictional portrait of William Travers, founding proprietor of The Mercury, a daily Cambridge newspaper. Initially restrained by a keen interest in the ‘mundane of everyday existence in Cambridge’ and an aversion to sensationalism, in response to the outcry over Rose Whipple’s case, Travers eventually decides to challenge the University’s disdain for ‘his Cambridge’, and the abuse of its power to ‘shamefully insult our womenfolk.’ In doing so, he demonstrates his desire to enter into a ‘new intimacy’ with his readers.

Like Travers, I sense that his creator needed to engender greater zeal in her final execution. The novel reads like an extended exercise in creative fusion that is somehow missing an essential ingredient. Perhaps Taylor was trying to do too much. Her rendering of this ‘wave of terror’ and ‘historic struggle’ may be cleverly written in parts, but overall it lacks feeling and as a consequence is underwhelming.

Errors

While appreciating the ever-constant need for proof reading in my own writing, and while I could, with a stretch, overlook the date apostrophe (‘1890’s’) in the back cover (and Amazon) blurb, it is astonishing to see that Hope Bassett and Rose Whipple’s names are spelled incorrectly. I suspect the author did not sign this off.

Mr Doggett, a true Heffers of Cambridge eccentric

A year ago, in February 2020 I had a meeting with archivist Dr David Jones at The Perse Upper School in Cambridge. Dr Jones had kindly agreed to give a talk on the charities of Stephen Perse, at a forthcoming Cambridgeshire Association for Local History conference that, in the end, was cancelled because of COVID.

The theme of the conference was going to be, ‘The Charities that Began at Home: Historical Perspectives on Local Philanthropy.’ (thank you Antony Carpen for suggesting the excellent title). The other speakers we had lined up were Susan Woodall on the Cambridge Female Refuge; Tricia McBride on the Addenbrookes Charitable Trust; and Dr Evelyn Lord on Cambridge alms houses. Perhaps one day in the future we will be permitted to assemble for this fascinating programme.

Upon greeting me at The Perse, Dr Jones was most gracious about the history of Heffers that I’d written in 2016 (This Book is About Heffers). He was especially pleased to see a photograph in the book of John Doggett, a Cambridge gentleman who for decades, held court in the Trinity Street bookshop as a regular and loyal customer.

Mr Doggett in the Trinity Street bookshop

Several booksellers had spoken fondly about Mr Doggett when I interviewed them for my research. Suzanne Jones recalled his love of David Lean films and books by Charles Dickens. Kate Turner (née Hastings) always heard him from across the shop floor and remembered him eating her colleagues’ sandwiches (he was also spotted eating raw sausages on the gallery). Jean Clarke (known to her bookselling colleagues as Jean the Bean) remembered Mr Doggett answering the phone at Trinity Street if no-one was at the desk on the shop floor, shouting,

“There’s no-one here at the moment!”

He regularly enquired if there were any jobs going at Heffers, would talk about the ‘Beard Law’, and would stand at the front of the shop, yelling out the cast names from the 1947 film version of Oliver Twist.

In a 2016 interview with The Guardian, Heffers Manager David Robinson, named Mr Doggett as their favourite regular customer,

“He has been coming into the shop forever. It used to be Thursdays and Saturdays but is now just Saturday mornings. He has his own chair and always wants the same questions answering—have we got any books on pigs, traction engines or the First World War? He wishes everybody who comes near him a Happy New Year, regardless of the date, and then happily shuffles out of the shop for another week. He can be a distraction, but Saturdays wouldn’t be the same without him.”

Aged 90, Mr Doggett sadly passed over to the eternal bookshop in 2018.

‘Nowt so queer as folk’

Not meaning to be rude, the phrase ‘nowt so queer as folk’ seems appropriate when it comes to depicting people at Heffers. I don’t mind saying that, mainly because members of my own family served over one hundred and twenty years with the firm. The shops were a haven for many characters and eccentrics – staff and customers. According to bookseller Richard Reynolds, the Trinity Street staff were all, in their way, eccentric. Perhaps this can be said about the book trade in general.

Heffers staff badge

The bookselling side of the business at Heffers is remembered as being more ‘edgy’, although the stationery side at the shop in Sidney Street, Cambridge, had its fair share of eccentrics, as noted by retired Manager, Mr Norman Biggs who said,

“We had our moments. It makes life interesting, characters in the firm and in the customers.”

Staff shared many anecdotes about their colleagues, many long gone, such as a Sidney Street manager known as, ‘Barmy’ Clarke, who ran the Maps and Guidebooks department in the 1950s. Mr Clarke had perfected a way of avoiding having serve customers. From his counter, he could see the front door and when he saw someone approaching the shop he didn’t wish to serve, he would niftily step out the side door and re-enter from the front. Now, behind the customer, he was able to go up to them and say,

“Are you being served? Oh, I see you’re being taken care of.”

Heffers Sidney Street shop, 1953

The different Heffers shops had their own distinctive cultures, very much separate worlds. There were moments when colleagues seemed to forget that they were there to provide a service, but then you might say that this was no different to any other organisation. Perhaps at Heffers, it was question of the extent to which idiosyncrasies were accommodated, as indeed many were, over many years.

Just like their customers, some booksellers would take a dislike to a particular book or author. Duncan Littlechild, a strong pacifist, disapproved of Winston Churchill and actively discouraged customers from buying Churchill’s A History of the English-Speaking Peoples in the 1950s.

“You don’t want to buy that old rogue”, he would say.

Mr Littlechild

Considered ‘old school’ by then, colleagues would often observe Mr Littlechild ‘kowtowing’ to academic customers on the telephone.

Heffers Petty Cury bookshop

Littlechild began his fifty-four-year career at the firm as an apprentice in 1903. During the First World War he had a spell as a prisoner of war. After the war ended, he returned to Heffers. Perhaps a more incongruous memory is that of Mr Littlechild in regular conversation with a favourite customer of his, English comedian and actor, Cyril Fletcher, who appeared as the Pantomime Dame in the Arts Theatre from 1949 to 1972, in shows written by his wife, Betty Astell.

Cyril Fletcher

Some booksellers took a liking not just to particular books, but to reading in general (and who can blame them?). Marion and Dudley Davenport, who both worked at the Petty Cury bookshop, remembered a colleague in the 1950s and ’60s who sat in a corner of his section reading for most of the time. Another would occasionally lose his temper at a particular book and flail around with it, knocking other books off the shelves.

Heffers Trinity Street bookshop

The author, Julian Sedgwick, who worked at the main Trinity Street bookshop from 1991 to 2003, fondly recalled the parade of “influential, cosmopolitan, charming, grumpy, famous, notorious, odd and downright weird customers”, who continually fascinated him. His most memorable included a beaten Chris Patten, fresh from losing his seat in the 1992 election, asking for advice on books about China. He was about to head to Hong Kong and left with a stack of books; and the President of Armenia with his hefty bodyguards bearing down on the Oriental Department, asking to see the Caucasus section. They dutifully examined the twenty or so titles but made no purchase. Julian also remembers surreptitiously watching Terry Waite while he quietly browsed the shelves in the basement following his release from captivity. His dignity and sense of calm fascinated him.

I can’t wait to get back into bookshops when the lockdown is over.

Lines of Life

Our friend Gwyn recently shared his 2020 reading list on Facebook, having scored each book out of five. He mentioned having received the gift of a Heffers of Cambridge book subscription, a bespoke service whereby the bookshop sends a title to the recipient each month. Over the year, Gwyn read those and many more. Perhaps unsurprisingly, subscription services have become popular during periods of lockdown. It’s interesting to see what others read and I enjoy the various social media posts on people’s favourite books, as well as the book club exchanges. For one year only – 2019 – I compiled monthly collages of the books I read, and in August that year, I wrote a post about my book harvest.

The signing

For Christmas 2020, we were delighted to receive a Box of Stories, from Trevor’s eldest, Ellie, who clearly understands our love of reading. It’s a subscription club and as they say on their website, every time you open a box, you will discover an author or a book you might not have otherwise come across or selected. A percentage of their profits go to charities working for literacy.

The selection contained in our Box of Stories

I had already read one of the selection, The Rapture by Claire McGlasson, rightly described by The Guardian as a clever fact-based debut about The Panacea Society in Bedford. Trevor and I attended a launch event at the St Neots Library, organised by Jacqui, the manager of Waterstones, St Neots. After Claire’s intriguing talk, I bought a copy of her novel and went over to where she was sitting, in order to get it signed. As I waited to attract her attention, another member of the audience decided to form a queue from the other side. After a minute or so, Claire looked up, saw me, and assumed I was trying to push in front of the (by now) lengthy line of eager fans. She asked if they would mind her signing my copy first, and they said it was fine, lending weight to the false impression that I had not been there first. Such incidents come back to haunt you.

Solace in books

I’ve always found great solace in books and concluded in recent years that reading, rather than counselling, may guide me out of the emotional torture chamber that my mind had become (needless to say, this had not been brought about by the book signing mishap). For many of us, reading is a form of therapy. In her novel, Possession, AS Byatt describes ‘personal’ readings that ‘snatch’ for personal meanings, and I’m drawn to those lines of life that, as she says, describe the indescribable, taking us out of time and towards not blindness but understanding.

The practice of bibliotherapy has a long history, although the term was not coined until 1916, by the North American Unitarian Minister, Samuel McChord Crothers. The author Ann Cleeves, who created the fictional Northumberland detective, Vera Stanhope, once worked for Kirklees Libraries in West Yorkshire, where the Chief Librarian established a bibliotherapy project, attaching three part-time ‘therapists’ to GP practices who prescribed books. Apparently, literature can relieve chronic pain and dementia. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, bibliotherapy is, ‘The use of reading matter for therapeutic purposes in the treatment of nervous disorders.’ I needed to open what the author, Penelope Lively, called that, ‘medicine chest of works.’ I needed to self-medicate.

Although by this time I was using a Kindle, I was not inclined towards an exclusively digital bookish experience and would put the device to one side and employ various ways and means to replenish my supply of solid, hold-in-your-hand-put-on-your-shelf books, with varying degrees of success. Initially, my strategy was aimless; going with the hype, whatever wins the prizes; making a list and playing ‘pin the book’; waiting for a sunny day and grabbing the book on the shelf with a yellow spine, or a sombre day and going for blue; searching the bookshelves of friends in the expectation of a loan that, frankly, would never be returned; picking up books left behind in cafés.

For some months in 2019, I attended a book club in a gastro pub. With each session I grew more exasperated with our club leader who juggled the scoffing and scrolling when searching for reviews on her mobile phone, but it was worth it. As I re-read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies for this club, I was struck by Ralph’s comforting daydream of his bedtime routine at home, where this seemingly civilised boy could reach up and touch his beloved dog-eared books, and for a brief moment, everything was all right.

Margaret Fuller Ossoli, North America’s first full-time book reviewer (and the first woman permitted to use Harvard’s library), saw books as, ‘a medium for viewing all humanity’.

Margaret Fuller Ossoli (1810-1850) journalist, critic and women’s rights activist.

Over a century later, in 1968, when the late Lithuanian scholar and human rights activist, Irena Veisaitė, encountered an American bookstore for the first time, she realised how much the Soviet government had stolen from her, by making books so inaccessible in her home country. As she would say, “All of those books and the ideas collected in them belonged to me too!”

Irena Veisaitė (1928-2020), Lithuanian theatre and literary critic, taken by Alma Pater

Never imagining what it must have been like to have been so deprived, I have always taken my access to books for granted. Reading defined my universe and helped me to grow. The author, Virginia Woolf, who believed that we all learn with feeling, said that after the dust of reading has settled, we must open our minds to a fast flocking of innumerable impressions.

Through reading, I would gain greater insight into the human condition and find a way of unlocking my own emotional truth and through reading, I would learn to accept what I could not change.

A book review tinged with imposter syndrome

Thoughts on Sue Slack’s book, ‘Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote’, interspersed with brief reflections on academic jargon, school history lessons, and imposter syndrome.

Slack’s highly illustrated and informative introduction to the Cambridge suffragist movement, presented in the style of an in-depth gazetteer, plugs an important gap in the narrative on the British votes for women campaign. Chapter One, entitled, ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War’, provides a useful overture, confirming the pivotal role of Cambridge in the campaign, and introducing some of the significant players, societies and events.

The book covers the topics of rural societies in Cambridgeshire towns such as Ely and March; the role of key Cambridge colleges (specifically Girton, Newnham, Hughes Hall and Homerton); suffragettes and militancy in Cambridge; the story of the Women’s Freedom League; ‘Suffering Gents’ who supported women’s suffrage; ‘Fighting Harridans’, women who opposed women’s suffrage; the impact of the First World War on the campaign; what happened after some women were given the vote in 1918, bringing the chronicle up to date by noting the issues of equal pay and opportunity in the context of The Fawcett Society’s continuing campaign for equal rights; and celebrating Cambridge women, including the unveiling of the statue of Millicent Fawcett in Parliament Square on 24thApril 2018, one hundred years on from the Representation of the People Act.

This is not an ‘academic’ book, and is all the better for it. Slack herself says that she approached the subject from a local and family history perspective. In doing so, she tells the story through a series of portraits, cameos and reflections that are, thankfully, free from academic jargon

In 2019, Professor John R. McNeill, President of the American Historical Association, observed that obscure language is undemocratic; it reaches only a few initiates and excludes the great majority of readers (see his blog post, ‘Jargon in history writing shuts out the public’). He says that history is one of the few disciplines that allows efficient communication among specialists in ordinary language. The same cannot be said for my own discipline, sociology.

On completing my doctorate and a couple of research contracts at the University of East Anglia, I decided to quit academia in 2015 and focus on researching and writing social history, starting with the history of Heffers of Cambridge.

Heffer’s Children’s Bookshop, 1969

I now describe myself as a ‘social historian and author’, and whilst having worked incredibly hard to earn the title of ‘Dr’, I do sometimes feel a bit of a fraud at gatherings when surrounded by proper historians who, unlike me, have higher degrees in History. At least the responses to my publications and illustrated talks have been favourable, and I particularly enjoy meeting fellow history enthusiasts.

From the beginning, Slack disabuses readers of the common myth that votes for women were won by the suffragettes led by the Pankhurst family, and explains the critical distinction between suffragette and suffragist. I could have done with this book as a teenage scholar in the 1970s. Whilst my secondary school history teacher, the memorable Mr Maxwell-Stuart of Chesterton, Cambridge, went beyond the confines of an unwritten national curriculum dictated by the emulation of grammar school convention, I do not recall any specific lessons on the movement for women’s suffrage. I do recall watching the television series, ‘Shoulder to Shoulder’ (written by a team of men) in 1974, and hero-worshipping Sylvia Pankhurst. Had I been better informed about Millicent Fawcett, I would perhaps have admired her more.

I did admire Mr Maxwell-Stuart, a colourful educator (despite turning up to school every day in a dark suit) with an infectious enthusiasm for his subject. It was many years, however, before I pursued history in any meaningful way, apart from becoming an inveterate reader of biographies in my spare time. As Miss Haywood, the Principal of Long Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge, wrote in 1978, ‘Julie seems to lack the confidence in her own ability that will in fact enable her to make the most of her gifts.’ My ‘A’ Level History grade was poor, and any plans to pursue a career in librarianship and archivism were shelved.

Julie Bounford (née Driver) 1981

The confidence eventually began to bloom in late 1980, over two-hundred miles from home, at university in Bangor, North Wales, where I gained a respectable upper-second in ‘Social Administration’. Looking back at the study modules, I’m struck by their relevance to the multifarious and (conceivably) successful career I did eventually pursue, in the fields of public sector housing, equality and social policy, homelessness, victim support, higher education and social history. The modules included political sociology, crime, deviance and social control, the welfare state and the citizen, theories of social policy and income maintenance, health and personal social services, legal and political institutions, the development of the welfare state, and nineteenth century origins of social policy.

In her chapter on rural suffrage societies, Slack points out that their members were mainly made up of women with private means including ladies of the manor; members in Cambridge itself were often don’s wives or ladies associated with the University. In the villages, support was also given by shopkeepers, teachers, lawyers and doctors. Virtually no town or country working-class women signed-up.

In her foreword to Slack’s book, Emeritus Professor Mary Joannou notes that the history of the suffrage campaigns is not merely that of the socially privileged women, and refers to the ‘forgotten’ and ‘unknown’ women such as the college bedders, shop assistants, seamstresses and homeworkers. The women featured in Slack’s book were, however, mainly privileged, which may reflect just how difficult it is to research the hidden lives of those who were not. I am reminded of the invisibility of my nanna, Ethel Driver, who gave many years of loyal service as a college bedder in Cambridge, and who, according to college records, never existed. Nanna lived in a small terraced house in Christchurch Street, worked doggedly, and was devoted to her ‘boys’ on her staircase.

Ethel Driver (left) with her sister, Ivy

Watching the 2015 film, ‘Suffragette’, I was struck by the different trajectories of the mistresses and their servants who fought for the same cause. A review of the film by Dr Laura Schwartz in History Today rightly observes that it fails to address the tension between mistress and maid, ‘between the woman who didn’t wish to waste her life on domestic drudgery, and the woman she paid to ‘drudge’ in her place’. At least Slack and Joannou acknowledge the issue.

The inclusion of contemporary photographs in Slack’s book to illustrate locations, alongside a wide range of images from the archives, enhances the narrative and is especially useful to readers who are familiar with Cambridge today.

Many times in recent years, I have walked past my old primary school, St Luke’s in Victoria Road Cambridge, the location of a Women’s Suffrage Public Meeting during the campaign. Slack reproduces the poster for this meeting in her book.

The old St Luke’s School, Victoria Road, Cambridge (photo: Julie Bounford)

Slack’s excavation of the abundant Cambridgeshire Collection at the Cambridge Central Library (which is thankfully available to all) has clearly enriched her presentation. It is also good to see the contributions of the Cambridgeshire Archives, the colleges and the University Library.

Many archives are more accessible to the general public than people realise. That is, when we’re not in a pandemic lockdown doing our bit to protect those more susceptible to the ravages of Covid-19, and the wonderful NHS teams who treat them. All facilities at 24th March 2020 are closed, and rightly so.

There are also excellent historians and biographers who write blogs about Cambridge women in history. Do explore for example, Antony Carpen’s ‘Lost Cambridge’ and Dr Ann Kennedy Smith’s ‘Ladies’ Dining Society 1890-1914′.

The lack of an index in Slack’s book is a significant shortcoming and, unless I am missing something, the author biography is irritating, as it refers to the author’s book soon to be published, ‘Better is Wisdom than Weapons of War’.

Note to Amberley Publishing: pay more attention when checking the final proof.

Note to Sue Slack: thank you for a job well done.

Note to self: stay at home and keep writing.

‘Cambridge Women and the Struggle for the Vote’ by Sue Slack (2018)

Amberley Publishing £14.99

Winner of a Cambridgeshire Association for Local History Book Award, 2019

New illustrated talk on the strange tale of Norah C. James & her banned book, ‘Sleeveless Errand’

The December 2019 publication in The Cambridge Independent, of my feature on Norah C. James and her banned book, ‘Sleeveless Errand’, was a timely reminder that I should be promoting my new illustrated talk on this intriguing episode from the twentieth century. Below is the title and some blurb. If you would like to book a talk for your group or society, please drop me an email – juliebounford@gmail.com

The strange tale of Norah C. James and her banned book, ‘Sleeveless Errand’

Known as ‘Jimmy’ to her friends and associates, Norah James officially became an ‘authoress’ with the publication of ‘Sleeveless Errand’ in 1929. The novel was swiftly ruled obscene, giving James a place on the roll call of authors with British banned books; a place neglected in favour of more esteemed names including James Joyce, Radclyffe Hall, D.H. Lawrence and Vladimir Nabokov. If it wasn’t for ‘Sleeveless Errand’, however, which led to the establishment of the Obelisk Press, banned books by these authors would not have been made available so quickly to a wider audience. Her first novel presented a real challenge to re-imagining the nation after World War One, and the story of its suppression, seen as a conspiratorial or state-sanctioned action, is fascinating. James went on to write over 75 publications including romantic novels, radio plays, short stories and articles. During the 1930s, she had a weekend cottage near Cambridge and people still talk about her. She died in 1979.

Norah C James, 1934

Labyrinths & Mazes in the Americas

In my illustrated talk on ‘The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes’, I cover the highlights of this fascinating four-thousand year story. After a recent talk in Cambridge, a member of the audience asked specifically about labyrinths and mazes in the Americas, which is the focus of this post, drawn from a 2018 article I wrote for the website, Mexicolore.

Mysterious origins

The labyrinth design occurs worldwide during prehistoric times, when travel between the continents would have been virtually non-existent, which simply adds to the mystery. It suggests that humans as a race have always been intrigued by the pattern, preoccupied with spirals, circuitous routes, and their associated rituals. Knowledge of the original purpose of these rituals in specific cultures has not always travelled as effectively over time as the design itself, and from today’s perspective we can only surmise the true meaning in some cases. Labyrinths do, of course, occur in nature and must surely have inspired humans to create labyrinthine symbols. The Greek word for the Nautilus shell, for example, is laburinthoi.

The earliest recorded labyrinths created by humans are found in petroglyphs, ancient rock carvings. Dating these precisely is challenging, and identifying the very first carved labyrinth is tricky, if not impossible. A disputed contender for the earliest is an incision on an inner chamber wall of the Neolithic tomb known as Tomba del Labrinto at Luzzanas in Sardinia; some experts however, have concluded this may actually be Roman. Most intriguing are the early labyrinths of North America.

As Jeff Saward (co-founder of Labyrinthos) declares, the origin of labyrinths in the American Southwest is one of the biggest mysteries of the entire story. Examples are found in southern Arizona, near the Gillespie Dam, and in New Mexico at Arroyo Hondo and Galisteo, but so far, no inscription or decoration has been found on a securely datable object from pre-European times. In the 1930s and ’40s, former Arizona Senator William Coxon recorded labyrinth petroglyphs in the Southwest and devised the theory that these geometric inscriptions, found in very widely separated localities, provided evidence of global migration. Saward calls for further fieldwork and the cataloguing of labyrinth petroglyphs, so we may determine exactly how and when the labyrinth reached the New World.

Meaning and mythology in the Americas

In the Americas the labyrinth can be a symbol of tribal identity. The Man in the Maze design, for example, features in Tohono O’odham and Pima legends. The Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community adopted the Man in the Maze motif as their Great Seal. In this context, the design symbolizes an elder brother or medicine man, living in a place where people could not find him.

Illustration of the ‘Man in the Maze’ Great Seal ©Trevor Bounford

Mazes and labyrinths clearly refuse to conform to any rudimentary definition, and in attempting to navigate their winding history, I devised broadly chronological classifications; ‘classical’, ‘spiritual’, ‘medieval’, ‘rustic’, ‘romantic’ and ‘modern’. In many cultures, labyrinths have been given a metaphysical or sacred status that takes us beyond the natural world, as ritualized symbols and sites with different devotional purposes. And it is this that I specifically refer to the Mesoamerican notion of mazes.

Perhaps the most illuminating way of tracing the real origins of the labyrinth (or maze – I use the term interchangeably) is indeed to investigate its deeper significance. As I’ve already acknowledged, the form is integral to cultures worldwide. In the book I explore historical icons in different locations, along with associated practices and what they signify, particularly from a symbolic and spiritual perspective. By engaging with labyrinths and mazes in a spiritual context, we give meaning to their many and various interpretations. These include a metaphor for life’s journey, a means of warding off evil, a method of ensuring fertility, and a form of spiritual devotion.

The mythology of the Hopi of northern Arizona features labyrinths. Most well-known is the Tapu’at, the “Mother and Child” symbol. Both the circular and square forms represent the womb of Mother Earth, the divine birth-giver. The circular in particular is said to represent the road of a human life. In following it, one attains spiritual rebirth. From early on, the labyrinth has been associated with death and rebirth. In death, one returns to the earth (the eternal mother), from which one is reborn. The Tohono O’odham and the Pima peoples employ the labyrinth design extensively in their craftwork.

Hopi Tapu’at, the “Mother and Child” symbol ©Trevor Bounford

Mazes and labyrinths are symbols of all that is experienced in life, depicting the choices we have to make along our journey. For some American indigenous peoples, the centre of the labyrinth exists simultaneously in this world and in the spiritual world, providing us with a doorway to a different dimension of reality. A saying in North America for example, tells us, ‘To die is to walk the path of the dream without returning.’ In some cultures, mazes were used to keep the dead from returning. In 1955 the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss wrote in Tristes Tropiques about fragments of Tupi pottery urns in Brazil, with a design that represented a maze intended to confuse the evil spirits looking for the human remains preserved in them.

‘The lacy black markings seemed to form a labyrinth—destined, so people say, to deter those evil spirits which would otherwise have sought out the bones that were once preserved in these urns.’

Kindred spirits across time and continents

In some Mesoamerican cultures it was believed that the wicked could be ‘mazed’ in the underworld, so their souls would not return. The notion of spirits being ‘mazed’ is an interesting one in the context of this history. It gives an indication of where we may tentatively link ancient practices in Mesoamerica to other aspects of the global narrative. For example, the word ‘maze’ itself, like its companion, has multiple derivations. The Roman poet Virgil brings them together in The Aeneid and describes the labyrinth as having, ‘a path woven with blind walks.’ It is a,

‘bewildering work of craft with a thousand ways where the tokens of the course were confused by the indiscoverable and irretraceable maze.’

Here we have ambiguity, confusion, uncertain choices, and the search for a clear path. Much later, in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, we find examples of early English usage that also combine these themes. People are in a state of “masednesse.” That is, they are puzzled or bewildered.

In my book, The Curious History of Mazes, I cover the topic of mazes as puzzles, from early medieval artefacts to the modern maze revival. That revival was (and still is) realized in the hands of extraordinary individual innovators who garnered not only their incredibly creative and inventive minds but also a vast range of tools and materials, taking the design and construction of mazes to levels of multidimensional complexity never previously imagined. Today there are many companies and maze-makers world-wide who create and construct mazes of all kinds. It is big business.

I also compare the maze and labyrinth experience, acknowledging that some will insist that a maze is a puzzle and a labyrinth is not. However, as W.H. Matthews declares in his most comprehensive 1922 history of labyrinths and mazes, the labyrinth itself represents the enigmatic character of life. This is the intriguing – and puzzling – essence of labyrinths and their mythology. Sig Lonegren, founding member of The Labyrinth Society, writes in 1991 that while a myth is not history, it can point to truths far beyond historical fact. I couldn’t agree more. He says that,

‘each teller adds part of his or her own essence to the tale. Sometimes cultures, for purposes of their own, change significant portions of a given myth; however, the essential bones of the story seem to carry through the many tellings and revisions.’

The essential bones of this story, certainly where ancient American cultures are concerned, do seem to be spiritual, although it appears the creator(s) was not always aiming to confuse. Take the enigmatic series of geoglyphs, the Nazca lines, covering nearly 400 square miles (1,036 sq km) of the Peruvian desert. Discovered by archaeologist Toribio Mejía Xesspe in the 1920s, these lines were drawn by the Nazca people, a civilization that disappeared almost 1,500 years ago, living in what is now modern Peru.

Designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1994, they were originally created by the scraping away of red dust and rock to reveal the white ground beneath. Many of the designs are geometric shapes or resemble animals including monkeys, humans, birds, and fish. In 2012 a team of British experts declared that they were created to be walked. Well preserved, they were probably walked by small groups of people in single file, indicating that they had a spiritual purpose.

The ‘Monkey Labyrinth’, measuring just over 80 yards (73m) long, from the series of geoglyphs, the Nazca Lines in Peru. Photo: Unukorno

In North America, the Navajo peoples sand painted mandalas were created for ritual healing. Each sacred painting was made communally by several artists who started from the centre and worked outward, following the sun from the east, through south and west, to finish in the north. The eastern side of the circle is left open to allow spiritual beings to enter. Every painting is unique, and like the monks of Tibet, the Navajo used the sand paintings not to confuse but to restore order and harmony. They are still created today.

Navajo sand painting, from Sand Paintings of the Navajo Shooting Chant by G. A.
Reichard and F. J. Newcombe, 1937

And finally, we find the labyrinth-like meander design featured in South American art and architecture. For example, the xicalcoliuhqui, known as a “step” or “stepped” fret—greca in Spanish—is a common motif in Mesoamerican art. It consists of three or more steps connected to a hook or spiral. The motif appears on temples and other sacred buildings such as the Pyramid of the Niches at the Veracruz site of El Tajin.

The xicalcoliuhqui. Photo: Bobak Ha’Eri

The few examples I’ve featured here suggest that the aim of labyrinths and mazes in the Americas was not always to confuse, but also to harmonize and enlighten. In writing The Curious History of Mazes I certainly aimed to do the latter, by introducing a complex history to a wide audience, citing thoughts and theories while echoing the prevailing mysteries.

The Curious History of Mazes by Julie E. Bounford, is illustrated by Trevor Bounford and published by Wellfleet Press, October 2018, price £12.99 ISBN: 978-1-57715-177-7

If you would like to book an illustrated talk on ‘The Curious History of Labyrinths & Mazes’, do email:

juliebounford@gmail.com


Is your favourite pub literally haunted?

Working from home has its benefits, especially when home is a Tudor cottage with great character and warmth. Our abode may not have the grandeur of say, Cotehele, a quietly magnificent Tudor residence located high above the River Tamar, fortunately preserved and cared for by the National Trust. But we do enjoy our smaller scale medieval aesthetic, especially the vaulted ceilings and arcs. As I sit in my study, I like to envisage the labourers assembling the many and varied beams, using the carved Roman numerals as guidance.

Our house also has a distinctive atmosphere which is very conducive to writing. I wrote up my doctorate here and subsequently, on becoming an independent social historian and author, penned ‘This Book is About Heffers’ (2016) and ‘The Curious History of Mazes’ (2018). More recently, I’ve finished work on a new publication, ‘Beer and Spirits: Haunted Hostelries of Cambridgeshire’, a handy gazetteer of over sixty haunted pubs with many local tales. It seems inevitable that the hauntings reflect our rich seam of history and often originate from well-known stories and legends that echo the past. The book also contains two original ghost stories written by my husband, Trevor Bounford.

Now available online or via good bookshops at £6.99

Manifestations

Now, I don’t know if our home is haunted. I can’t honestly say that I saw any apparitions whilst writing ‘Beer and Spirits’. We do sometimes hear someone entering the house via the back door in the evening, but when we check we find no-one there. One afternoon, an invisible hand brushed through a pot plant in the dining room, vigorously shaking the leaves, and late one night, a notebook was thrown off the bedside table.

There is, no doubt, a rational explanation for these incidents.

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of the verb to ‘haunt’ refers to imaginary or spiritual beings such as ghosts. To haunt is to, ‘to visit frequently and habitually with manifestations of their influence and presence, usually of a molesting kind’, and to be haunted is to be, ‘subject to the visits and molestation of disembodied spirits’.  Various types of apparitions are described in the literature. For example, ‘restless spirits’ that continue to haunt their old home until they are laid to rest. Also, ‘psychic recording ghosts’, spirits that replay an event from their lifetime. And ‘poltergeists’, noisy spirits or malevolent energy characterised by noises, moving objects and physical disturbances. Hauntings can occur for centuries or days, and may be cyclical.

Haunted hostelries

There are any number of pubs rumoured to be haunted throughout East Anglia. No doubt, some tales are simply made up to draw in custom, or perhaps to keep unwelcome visitors at bay. Some landlords will tell you that the only spirits present are those behind the bar. Discerning the fanciful from the reported, and recorded, ‘factual’ experiences is no simple task. The ghostly activity I’ve listed in ‘Beer and Spirits’ cannot be verified by me, and I would suggest that only the most intrepid visitors may try to authenticate the accounts.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, public houses have for many centuries acted as important rural and urban social centres, and many have witnessed life changing and historic events. Ghost stories and strange happenings are an integral part of our folklore, in every city, town and village. In some places we feel a palpable sense of timelessness, almost of standing still, as though nothing has changed. We feel that people from the past are somehow still with us. But of course, over centuries and decades, people have come and gone, and communities have witnessed many changes, good and bad.

The Bell Inn Hotel, Stilton

Amongst the many hostelries featured in ‘Beer and Spirits’, we have included The Bell Inn Hotel at Stilton near Peterborough.

The fireplace at The Bell Inn Hotel, Stilton

The reported activity at this hostelry includes the sighting of a lady in the oldest part of the building which dates back to the fifteenth century (she has been known to sit and even lay on a guest’s bed, leaving an indentation, and to pace up and down the room); the sound of footsteps in empty rooms; the sighting of Cooper Thornhill, a former landlord who died in 1752, and of a dark figure on horseback outside or standing at the end of a guest’s bed. Some say this is the ghost of Dick Turpin who hid at this inn for several weeks.

Daniel Defoe (1659-1731)

Also seen is the ghost of the writer Daniel Defoe, author of a 1724 treatise, A tour thro’ the whole island of Great Britainin which he declares,

“We pass’d Stilton, a town famous for cheese, which is call’d our English Parmesan, and is brought to table with the mites, or maggots round it, so thick, that they bring a spoon with them for you to eat the mites with, as you do the cheese.”

Stilton was the main trading station for Stilton Cheese. Defoe, who regularly stayed at the Bell between 1697 and 1701, has been observed sitting by the fireplace in the hotel reception, smoking a clay pipe. Staff have seen several shadowy figures around the hotel and have often had a feeling of being watched.In 1962 a fire ignited itself in the grate of one of the bedrooms and staff have noticed that objects have disappeared, only to reappear a week later. A table in the restaurant is said to be cursed but by whom and why we do not know.

As noted by Caroline Clifford and Alan Akeroyd in their most excellent 2018 compendium ‘The Little Book of Cambridgeshire’, the village of Stilton hosts a popular annual ‘cheese’ rolling competition. The starting line is at the Bell Inn.  Stilton cheese itself is not made locally, but can only be made in Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Leicestershire.

The first modern ghost story?

Defoe is credited by some with the first modern ghost story, entitled, A True Relation of the Apparition of one Mrs. Veal, the next Day after her Death: to one Mrs. Bargrave at Canterbury, published anonymously in 1706. The original story was not hatched by Defoe, who himself had an interest in apparitions, or ‘appearances’ and, unlike our stories in ‘Beer and Spirits”, was not set in a hostelry or in Cambridgeshire.

The first modern ghost story?

Whilst Defoe believed in the spirit world, he warned against excessive gullibility and stressed the need for proper testimony and authenticity in recording witnessed appearances. His approach was not dissimilar to that of the Society for Psychical Research, founded in Cambridge in 1882. The Society is described as the first scientific organisation ever to examine claims of psychic and paranormal phenomena. Its purpose is to gather information and foster understanding through research and education. One of its founders, Henry Sidgwick, had been a member of the Cambridge Ghost Society since the 1850s and, for much of his life, pursued the empirical case in support of the existence of the afterlife. His wife, Eleanor Sidgwick (Principal of Newnham College, Cambridge from 1892) was the Society’s President in 1908/9 and President of Honour in 1932.

Haunted places or people?

The author, Joan Forman, who wrote ‘Haunted East Anglia’ (1974) declared that, ‘Any reader… who decides to visit one of the haunted sites… is asked to remember that the person who originally told the story may be now be over the hills and far away. However, except in a few rare cases, this fact is unlikely to have affected the ghosts, who are always more concerned with places than people. The hauntings will be where they always were. And no doubt new folk will be experiencing them in the old surroundings.’

Trevor begs to differ in his chilling ghost story, ‘The Last Round’, included in our Cambridgeshire edition of ‘Beer and Spirits’.

Highly recommended bedtime reading.

Book harvest

I enjoy reading at any time of the day and pretty much anywhere. I also like to have my dear husband close at hand. Wherever we go, I have something to read and Trevor has his sketchbook. Trevor works on a drawing as I read. That is, if he isn’t carrying my books.

Trevor carrying my birthday book haul in Plymouth, July 2019

Choosing which book to read can be tricky, although unlike people, books that disappoint are easily discarded. As Proust proclaimed, with books there is no forced sociability. If we pass the evening with books it’s because we really want to.

I do read a lot in my spare time, which is also taken up with writing, learning French, running, visiting art galleries with Trevor, helping out the Cambridgeshire Association for Local History and (more recently) participating in Extinction Rebellion activity. But mainly, I read and write.

Having joined one book club in January, and formed another of my own, some of my reading material this year has been chosen by others. For an entertaining piece on book clubs, see ‘Book Club Bust-Ups’ by Stuart Heritage.

At the end of each month I compile a collage of the books I’ve read, alongside a selected quotation from one, which more often than not relates to my writing. The themes are easily discerned. You will find January to August 2019 below.

January 2019
February 2019
March 2019
April 2019
May 2019
June 2019
July 2019
August 2019

These are not reviews of course, and I do need to be more active on that front. A page turner for me is a well researched biography such as John Hunter’s life of Samuel Smiles.

It’s interesting to see what others like to read and I enjoy the various social media posts on people’s favourite books, as well as the book club exchanges.

Here’s to more happy reading and reviewing.

Grimpact: the contagion of implicit optimism

When I saw the above value in a recent declaration by a UK university, I could immediately visualise the exuberance, the glee, with which it would have been received in the particular Vice-Chancellor’s Office.

It’s been a while since I have contemplated the discourse of excellence that is endemic in British higher education, and this mental image took me straight back to my 2015 PhD thesis which featured a fictional vignette entitled ‘We are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking’ (see below).

I now see also an interesting and to my mind, most welcome development in this field by way of an international research collaboration on the topic of ‘Grimpact’, which aims to get beyond the domination of economic and non-controversial versions of impact.

Here are two informative blog posts outlining the critical blind spot in the impact agenda; that it has been understood and defined solely in positive terms –

Grimpact: What it is and why research needs to talk about it by Gemma Derrick

Grimpact: Time to acknowledge the dark side of the impact agenda by Gemma Derrick and Paul Benneworth

And you can find here an open access paper on Towards characterising negative impact: Introducing Grimpact.

Three examples of Grimpact

In her post Derrick provides three extreme examples of Grimpact: firstly, the rejection of the MMR vaccine and resulting deaths from Measles; secondly, the generation of a tool that was capable of discerning the emotions of users of social media platforms, leading to the violation of ethical boundaries for political gain; and thirdly, the deregulation of financial services with the resulting behaviour of banks in response to the 2008 financial crisis validated by an overarching belief in economists and economic theory that promoted free-market, laissez-faire approaches.

The latter example reminds me of an excellent 2014 publication by Philip Roscoe, ‘I Spend, Therefore I Am: The True Cost of Economics’. My blog post on The utility of the economic lexicon in HE was inspired by a reading of Roscoe’s book.

The Grimpact agenda is clearly one to watch.

‘We are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking’

In writing my PhD thesis on the topic of the idea and experience of academic community, I followed Andrew Sparkes’ less traditional approach and produced three fictional vignettes, aimed a revealing elements of academic life within a fictional setting. All three pieces illustrate the institutional culture of contemporary higher education, or as observed, it’s brutality and crassness.  They also illustrate the day-to-day lives of the research participants. Bryan (an emeritus professor) is subject to a surprise move as, in his absence, his office (and his status) is eradicated; Jonathon (an academic leader) introduces a new member of staff to a different way of meeting the team, and the Vice-Chancellor gives an address that is steeped in the language of excellence that pervades the institutional discourse, a language from which there is no escape.

The Vice-Chancellor’s address, given below, is made up from phrases selected from the official corporate narrative of the University of Greystone, the site of the research. The confidence of the institutional discourse is emblematic of the grand narrative that tends to be a strong feature of universities today.

The Vice-Chancellor of Greystone gives an address.

‘Let me state at the outset that it is our leadership that is at the forefront of an outstanding reputation. The major contributions we shall make will undoubtedly be our greatest impact. Our particular strength is that we are well equipped for the pursuit of excellence. We are agenda setting internationally, avowedly ambitious and world-leading due to exceptional strengths that make us world-class. Being among the best with our high-quality, high-achieving and highest standards, which are undeniably of the highest quality and thereby market-leading at a high-level. This high-class and high-impact status must be the highest possible. Our highest ambitions, driven by the highest calibre leadership, enable the highest achievements and therefore the highest possible global influence. Inevitably this highest possible performance from our high performing team ensures a high academic engagement. From such a high base we can gain an edge. Our standards will be ratcheted up, supported by a long and proud history with its international distinction making us excellent in our excellence. This excellent achievement, regarded by all as an exemplar of good practice, is not just exemplary but is regarded as internationally excellent. Being internationally recognised, and being internationally aware, our international significance ensures us the strongest international position. Such international recognition of our extraordinary potential keeps us firmly in the top, in the top flight and on the top tier. And we are not just ranked in the top; we are in the top 20 ranking. Recognised as globally strong, the University excels and we can contribute equally with the best universities in the world. And this enviable reputation delivers an exceptional education, and with excellent research our excellent achievement is second to none. Building on the successes, which put us well within the world top 100, our intellectual power and influence obliges us to play a leading role. Our consistent top-20 ranking is an outstanding contribution, which is ranked in the top quartile. Being successful, inevitably there is public good flowing from what we do. This public good ensures a strong culture and our pioneering work in this area is a powerful combination, and a powerful platform. We are, simply, inspiring and innovative.’

What phrases would you suggest to make this excellent address more excellent?

Are you a helpmeet or kindred spirit?

On a visit to the market town of Arundel in the South Downs last year, I did what I always do and looked for second-hand books. At Kim’s Bookshop I found a 1972 biography of Aleksandr Solzhenistyn by David Burg and George Feifer, with around twenty press clippings tucked among the pages. I had great pleasure in giving this treasure to my son George, who had taken an interest in the author after borrowing my edition of Cancer Ward.

For me, I found a 1908 edition of the Complete Letter-Writer for Ladies and Gentlemen, published by Ward, Lock & Co. Ltd.

The book provides nearly two hundred example letters, covering social invitations, letters from parents to and about their children, letters relating to betrothal and marriage, letters of condolence, and letters relating to employment and business.

Love letters

The general advice on how to write any letter warns the writer against ‘badinage’ which should never be attempted unless the parties are on very friendly terms. And even if they are on very friendly terms, certain conventions apply. The book devotes a not insignificant proportion of the section on ‘Practical Letter Writing’ to the topic of love letters, with strong encouragement to express one’s feelings in loving phrases that are ‘gentleman-like’ and ‘lady-like’,

‘With reference to “love-letters” no rule can be laid down; but even here the less “high-falutin” writing and bombast the better. Affection is very well, but extravagance is not unlikely to provoke ridicule, and that is fatal to a lover’s correspondence.’

This example letter in the romantic category caught my eye.

No. 150. –Answer to a Missionary’s Proposal Affirmatively.

MY DEAR MR. WALKER,
Our friendship, if I may use the word, has not had a long existence, but short though it has been, I have learned to appreciate it more than you can imagine. Indeed, were it not so, I should shrink from replying frankly to the question you ask. You ask me if I will accompany you to Africa, and share the trials of a missionary’s life there, and I answer that I will, believing it to be my duty to join in so noble an undertaking as the wife of one whom I esteem. I cannot, as your wife, aid you as I would like, and to the work I cannot bring more than a willing heart, but perhaps the Almighty will strengthen both my heart and my hands, and enable me to be useful as your helpmeet in your distant home.
The day of your departure is, you say, drawing nigh, but, however near it may be, I can be ready. The sorest part of the preparation will be saying good-bye to those I love, and they are many. I am sure, however, that they will not tax my strength too far when they know in whose care I shall go.
You will tell me what to do.
And believe me,
My dear Mr. Walker,
Yours sincerely,
MARY BURTON

My immediate thought on reading this earnest epistle was that the template would be of no use to Jane Eyre.

Jane Eyre (from the front
cover of the Blackie & Son edition)

I turned to my Blackie & Son edition of Charlotte Brontë’s novel and looked up the episode where St. John Rivers proposes marriage to Jane. He wants, nay demands, that Jane accompanies him to India,

“God and nature intended you for a missionary’s wife. It is not personal, but mental endowments they have given you: you are formed for labour, not for love. A missionary’s wife you must––shall be. You shall be mine: I claim you––not for my pleasure, but for my Sovereign’s service.”

And,

“… do not forget that if you reject it, it is not me you deny, but God. Through my means, He opens to you a noble career; as my wife only can you enter upon it. Refuse to be my wife, and you limit yourself forever to a track of selfish ease and barren obscurity. Tremble lest in that case you should be numbered with those who have denied the faith, and are worse than infidels!”

He waited for an answer. Illustration by F. H. Townsend from an 1897 edition of Jane Eyre..

The next example letter in the handbook affords a refusal.

No. 151. –Answer to a Missionary’s Proposal Negatively.

MY DEAR MR. WALKER,
Were I free to consult my own wishes, my answer to your kind and generous letter would be “Yes.” I have seen much in your character to admire since you first became a visitor at my father’s house. But my parents, to whom I showed your letter, consider that I am constitutionally unfitted to reside in a climate so trying as that of Africa, and wish me to remain with them. They are, with myself, grateful for all that you say; and, were it not that you go abroad, their consent would have been willingly given. I feel myself, too, that I would be only an encumbrance even were I spared; and at a missionary station there should be no encumbrances.
You will allow me to call myself your sincere well-wisher, if nothing more, and I hope that your efforts in Africa will be crowned with success.
Believe me,
My dear Mr. Walker,
Yours sincerely,
MARY BURTON.

Alas, this template would also have been of no use to Jane, whose refusal of St. John is necessarily more forthright,

“God did not give me my life to throw it away; and to do as you wish me would, I begin to think, be almost equivalent to committing suicide.”

Charlotte Brontë 1816-1855

Helpmeet – what does it mean?

In the example letter No150 (the acceptance letter), and in Jane Eyre, we find the term, ‘helpmeet’. St. John wants Jane to accompany him as his ‘helpmeet and fellow-labourer’.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, helpmeet is an ‘absurdly formed’ compound of the two words, ‘help’ and ‘meet’. With its biblical roots in The Book of Genesis, the later conjoined version came into prominent use during the nineteenth century. It was unknown to lexicographers Dr Samuel Johnson (d1784) and Noah Webster (d1843). The OED gives this definition of the term,

‘A fitting or suitable helper; a helpmate: usually applied to a wife or husband.’

We know that by ‘helpmeet’ St. John means wife, as he finds Jane’s offer of her companionship to India as his ‘sister’ unacceptable. He wants a wife and nothing less, “the sole helpmeet I can influence efficiently in life, and retain absolutely till death”.

The OED cites a usage of the term by Samuel Smiles in his 1873 book, Huguenots in France, which would aptly describe St. John’s impression of Jane Eyre as a, ‘true helpmeet for him, young, beautiful, rich, and withal virtuous.’ By the time of his marriage proposal, Jane’s inheritance had been divulged.

Whilst helpmeet is a term I don’t use myself, I did recognise it when reading the example letter No150. I was surprised therefore when several of my friends and associates had never heard of it.

The Oxford Etymologist, Anatoly Liberman, writes an interesting post on, Helpmeet, Or Can Stillborn Words Prosper? He concludes that the term is the product of ignorance, and acknowledges that our language constantly delivers such ‘freaks’, which through usage may even for a short while look like ‘well-formed creatures.’ Liberman tells us that in usage, everything is right that the majority considers right, which does not mean that every novelty is beautiful.

Here are a few examples of the term’s usage from the late-nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, from the British Press.

‘Helpmeets and Hinderers’

In 1880, a Miss Farningham delivered a lecture on the topic of ‘Helpmeets and Hinderers’ to a small gathering of the Huddersfield Young Men’s Christian Association. Her paper, especially prepared for women, set out the differences between helpmeets who ‘chiefly gave their hearts to the keeping of others’ and a hinderer, who, ‘was a dreamy thinker, whose thoughts led to nothing but thinking, no working’.

‘A Great Man’s Helpmeet’

A press feature in 1897 on Mrs Thomas A. Edison, the wife of the inventor, is headed, ‘A GREAT MAN’S HELPMEET’. It is stated that Mrs Edison is, ‘in the highest sense of the term, a helpmeet to her famous husband, and the great inventive genius esteems his wife’s advice of greater value than that of the shrewdest lawyer or most intimate friend.’ She is an ‘almost perfect wife and mother’.

Mrs Thomas A. Edison

Kings and Queens

In his 1936 Declaration to the Privy Council on his succession to the throne, King George VI stated, ‘With my wife as helpmeet by my side, I take up the heavy task which lies before me.’ Twenty-five years earlier his father, King George V had used the same term in his own Declaration when referring to Queen Mary.

‘Mother’s Helpmeet’

In 1947, the Fifeshire Advertiser featured advice for mothers on the topic of giving vitamins to infants, under the heading of ‘Mother’s Helpmeet’.

Biblical interpretations

I was not aware of the term’s biblical origins which others have expanded upon, prompting different interpretations of the Bible and much debate on its true Christian meaning. Heather Farrell, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints, writes a blog, ‘Women in the Scriptures’ (with a sub-heading, ‘The greatest champion of woman and womanhood is Jesus Christ’). Her post on, The real meeting of the term “Help Meet”, concludes that Eve was Adam’s complete spiritual equal and that women ‘have been given a stewardship that is uniquely theirs and which is every bit as important as men’s stewardship’.

I often find comments on a post just as interesting as the post itself. Amongst the comments on Farrell’s post is a declaration that the equality of women we see today, ‘is a direct result of the firearm, particularly the small, concealable revolver.’ Another comment declares that women are never equal to men, that the relationship is complementary and, ‘One leads the other follows, one is dominant the other is submissive, one penetrates the other is penetrated, one is the authority the other is the subordinate.’

Perhaps ‘interesting’ is the wrong word in this instance. Even if I were Christian (which I’m not), I’d still find these views abhorrent and disturbing.

More regressive

From a brief investigation it does appear that the modern use of the term ‘helpmeet’ has been commandeered by the Christian creed. Farrell’s take on equality between men and women is certainly rooted in her Christianity as she asserts that, ‘Each woman, regardless of her ability to give birth, is a saviour to mankind when she loves men and nurtures a child closer to Christ.’

This association is further extended by Debi Pearl’s 2004 book, Created to be his Help Meet, in which she writes about God’s design for a woman, as a ‘properly-fitted helper’ (in 2012 her husband, Michael wrote, Created to Need a Help Meet). A Christian fundamentalist, Debi Pearl declares, ‘There is no loss of dignity in subordination when it serves a higher purpose. God made you to be a help meet to your husband so you can bolster him’, and, ‘God stands with you when you stand by your man, but you will stand alone if you insist on standing by your rights.’

The book, which contains case studies, advice giving responses to letters, and biblical reflections, is not necessarily representative of the diverse Christian communities across the U.S. and beyond. With nearly 1,000 reviews on Amazon.com (at 28 June 2019), it is described as toxic, dangerous, confusing, a holy grail, tough, raw, truthful and challenging.

A review by the Christian blogger Tim Challies (a pastor at the Grace Fellowship Church in Toronto, Ontario) describes Pearl’s book as, ‘one of the harshest, angriest books I have read on this side of Richard Dawkins and this critical spirit is displayed in insulting language, in lack of sympathy, and in the passing of harsh judgments.’

Castigation

I was unaware until now that the term ‘helpmeet’ is today being used to castigate women in the name of patriarchy and the Christian God. As Liberman might say, the use of this novelty is this case is not beautiful.

Although one of Pearl’s line did make me smile. In writing about Eve as God’s birthday gift to Adam, she says, ‘My husband, who is a learned student of the Word, assures me that Eve was indeed a birthday present, as seen by the fact that they were both wearing their birthday suits.’ (cue emoji).

Pearl then encourages her reader to greet their husband when he wakes up in the morning with an ‘inviting smile and a welcoming body’. A wife, according to Pearl, is created by God as a helper to suit the needs of her man, to make him complete and not to seek personal fulfilment parallel to him. A failing marriage in Pearl’s book is almost always put down to the wife, whatever the circumstances, and it is the wife who must change her game . For example, if the reader suspects that her husband is having an affair, she must use her feminine wiles to win him back,

‘Write love notes he will find when he gets to the office. Don’t ride him with suspicion. Don’t play detective and follow him around. But do call his work with a giggle in your voice, and give him fair warning that you expect “some loving” when he gets home, then giggle and ask him if he is blushing … Make sure you are looking radiant and delightfully in love.’

As I read on my smile disappears.

I reach for Jane Eyre, thinking if that’s what being a helpmeet means, I’d much rather, like Jane, resist the iron shroud of marriage with a man who, ‘regarded one but as a useful tool.’

Jane may in the end marry Mr Rochester with a love that is strengthened now she can really be useful to him (now he is blind), but in their partnership they are, ‘ever together … as free in solitude, as gay in company.’

As Kindred spirits.