Monday, September 01, 2014

Discovering a Treasure Trove: the poems of Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney Photograph Edit.jpg
 
Seamus Heaney



I have to confess to something very sad.  I had never heard of Seamus Heaney till recently.  I mean to say, he is a greatly acclaimed Irish poet, the winner of the 1995 Nobel Prize for literature who died only a year ago in 2013.  And there was a programme about him on Country File.  I missed all this.  Where was I?

I think this dire omission is because my mind has always been somewhat closed to ‘modern’ poetry.  I’m an unashamed Romantic Philosopher myself and my joy in poetry is derived from the works of William Blake, Keats, Shelley, Wordsworth and I might kindly go as far as the War Poets, Yeats, Ted Hughes - just about - and a few others.  Then I stop.  (I’m sorry, I can’t abide Sylvia Plath and always felt sorry for Ted faced with this neurotic, narcissistic wife) 
So basically, in the eyes of many, I am a poetry ignoramus.

But thankfully I have a wonderful literature tutor who talks to us about many styles and aspects of literature.  This lady is 80 years old but with a mind sharp as a razor, a memory that holds a library of literary knowledge and who walks about as if she was still only 40.   Her undying enthusiasm and love for her subject, her readiness to learn about new subject matter herself is so inspiring.  I went rather reluctantly to her afternoon talk on Seamus Heaney.  The poems she sent us to bone up on looked incomprehensibe, even pecualiar at times.  Did I really care about this poetry?  

However I went.  And as always, Angela turned the afternoon to one of fascinated interest and exploration into many aspects of this poetry.  Interesting understanding I'd like to share. 

It's all so different when poetry is read aloud.  We then hear the melodic cadences, the unusual words that suddenly aren’t so strange but perfectly appropriate.  Hearing Heaney read his poetry in his soft Irish lilt gave new meaning to it all. When we learns the story behnd it the poem and understand the background and life of the poet, it gives his work a new dimension, a background picture.  All springs to life as if a light has been cast upon a dark corner to reveal a treasure hiding there. 

Seamus Heaney was born in Northern Ireland but lived all his life in Dublin and always associated himself with the Republic of Eire.  He is not an overtly political poet and yet there many little words and phrases that give away his background and the constant underlying fear that was in the hearts of the Irish people.  One poem called A Constable Calls from an album called North (1975) shows this fear well.  It describes a scene from Heaney’s young life when a policeman came to visit the family.  he bore with him an official ledger to take tillage returns, in other words to assess exactly what was produced and grown.  The poem is full of references such ‘the pedal treads (of the policeman’s bicycle)  hanging relieved of the boot of the law’ 

Arithmetic and fear.
I sat staring at the polished holster
With its buttoned flap, the braid cord
Looped into the revolver butt.

The Americans might not find this so alarming but the British are unused to policemen with revolvers. However, it was a necessary fact of life in Northern Ireland at that time. The poem ends with the knowledge that his father has withheld the fact he had planted a few turnips at the bottom of the potato field and not declared them.  Guilt and fear enters the boy's heart on his father's behalf.  As the policeman goes we have the lines:

A shadow bobbed in the window.
He was snapping the carrier spring
Over the ledger.  His boot pushed off
And the bicycle ticked, ticked, ticked.

The last line evokes the sound of the wheels perhaps on cobbles or rough ground but it also has the menacing notion of a bomb.  And there were plenty of those going off in Ireland during the troubles. So many troubled young people living with this kind of fear as an everyday image even today.

Heaney wrote a good deal about his childhood as have many poets.  My favourite is Blackberry Picking from his first album Death of a Naturalist (1966).  Most of these remembered childhood scenes start with a sense of innocence and joy which suddenly turns to dismay and even revulsion as he encounters Nature’s darker side.  The blackberries so plump and sweet and delicious when picked can't be kept.  They begin to grow mould and turn sour and stink.  He wants to keep them forever but it’s impossible (certainly in those days of no freezers!)  But nature cannot be captured like this, all is death and decay eventually. Thus is Paradise Lost and the garden of Eden left behind and the boy is obliged to grow up and face the adult world of toil, violence and disillusion.  This always reminds me of Wordsworth’s ‘shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing boy’ or the poetry of William Blake which speaks with equal sorrow about our lost innocence and childhood joy.  I’ve even written a poem like this myself, a feeble one I know. There are so many poets who have expressed that intense sense of loss of a childhood time when the mind and heart is free of the corruption of adult knowledge, empty of later experiences and ready to find every new experience a source of wonder and awe.  

Heaney, the eldest of nine children, lost his young bother aged four in a car accident.  He describes the sadness and pain of this in his poems.  He wrote many poems about family which are full of tenderness and love. His ability to paint a portrait or a scene is wonderful and many words in the poems appeal to the senses.

The automatic lock clunks shut (The Blackbird of Glanmore)

She sat all day as the sun sundialled
Window splays across the quiet floor.  (Chairing Mary)

…its flesh was sweet
Like thickened summer wine; summer’s blood was in it
Leaving stains upon the tongue.  (Blackberry-Picking)

I could go on but maybe you should just take a look at this poems for yourself!  Thank you my dear tutor for bringing this poetry to me and opening my mind to something new and wonderful.  And thank you Seamus for writing these evocative poems. 




Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Diamonds that Destroyed a Palace



The best books are often those given to you by a friend or family.  These are people who understand your taste and you can trust that.  Bailey's book above, 'Black Diamonds' came from a lady I had met only a few times before but she hit the right note with this one. I had over indulged in crime stories and needed something real and moving not a load of corpses and overweight police inspectors.  And this amazing true story of the rise and fall of Wentworth, the beautiful Fitzwilliam family home, was very moving indeed.
second marquess of Rockingham
The house was built for Thomas Watson Wentworth, ist marquess of Rockingham  in the 1700's but Bailey begins her narrative with the death of the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam, one of the richest men in Britain at the time, who had by then inherited the estates, the villages, coalmines and the mining and agricultural people that went with it.  It was a grand building, the facade said to be the longest of any house in the whole of the British Isles.  Hundreds of servants were employed to manage the house and grounds and they had to walk five miles of passageways amongst the hundreds of rooms, one for each day of the year. Humphrey Repton had landscaped the beautiful park and filled it with follies, towers and columns.  But over everything lay a very fine pall of dust, the coal dust that darkened the facade and lay on the furniture and gardens.  The house itself stood on hundreds of tons of coal that lay deep in the ground beneath the house.  It was a jewel set on top of the black diamonds so coveted, so needed at the time to help fuel the maws of the Industrial revolution and later to keep afloat the huge British Empire.  The coal was exported to other countries as well making millionaires of the pit owners.
Wentworth House
In the end, the coal which made the 6th Earl so rich a man proved to be the undoing of the house and family and others' greed mixed with political power struggles almost brought the house itself down by undermining its foundations.  The family, also undermined by scandals, hate, jealousies brought about their own ruin, strange stories of bastard heirs, changelings and mothers who turned against their own sons! But there was also a series of sad tragedies that led to their fall.  The later descendants became associated with the Kennedys, another fated and seemingly accursed family.  It is at times as if some malign God takes a dislike to a rich, successful, beautiful family and wreaks revenge for their foolish hubris and misdeeds. 

Wentworth village
The Fitzwilliams were actually much loved by the community of miners who worked their coalfields for them.  The Earl owned the pits, owned, the villages they lived in and paid their wages.  He made sure their homes were reasonable and comfortable, the wages fair, listened to their complaints and on the whole, the men were glad to work for him and not some of the less philanthropic pit owners.  The village was considered wonderful compared to many other depressing, run down miner's villages around the country. Yet, oddly, it was Wentworth that bore the brunt of the Miner's Strike in the deeply depressed era of the 1930's and the aftermath of the war because the ire of the Labour government of the time was aroused against the Fitzwilliams and all their kind.  They became the scapegoats of this wrath.

Sad as it is to read of the demise of this spoilt, beautiful, privileged family, sad as it is to see an old feudal way of life disappear into the mists of time, it was sadder to learn of the terrible poverty, hardships, squalor and slavery the mining communities had to undergo.  It is true to say that they built between them a real spirit of giving, sharing, helping one another.  In the right hands, the feudal system worked well and everyone was well provided for.  But by the 20th century, greed was paramount amongst the pit owners and they were merciless in squeezing every drop of coal from the ground.  The miners were slaves, as bad as the slaves of Ancient Rome, Greece and Egypt, if not worse.  They lived in the century of mechanisation, enlightenment, wealth in Britain.  Yet their short, endangered lives were spent in the bowels of the earth, they had no choice, where else to go and work in such depressed times but in the mines as their fathers had done before them? 

I felt for the miners.  My uncle was one in Newcastle and I always remember staying with them and having to leave the room when he got home.  His bath was a tin on set before the fire, filled by my auntie who scrubbed his back for him.  But he was always cheerful and gave me a shilling for being good.  I loved him, but like many miners, he died young. It wasn't a life that made old bones.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

I'm not too sure about Flowers

Enjoy this poem by my friend and great poet, Richard Devereux.  He and his family joined us for a walk on our lovely Malvern Hills and we took them to see the famous bluebells.



bluebells
    bluebells and beyond the bluebells bluebells
    a whole hill-side of bluebells
    the famous Blackhill bluebells
    May Day bluebells
   
    run-away bluebells
    scampering  bluebells
    drawn to the sunshine – sunshine bluebells
     ding-a-ling bluebells

    my little  girl lies in the bluebells
    in the long grasses and bluebells
    her hair is dressed with bluebells
    I see a painting – girl in the bluebells

    a cry of pain – from the bluebells
    my girl is hurt – stung – forget the bloody bluebells
    she’s been stung by a bee in the bluebells
    no – by a stinging nettle nestling in the bluebells

    there is always a nettle
    in the bluebells

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Stunning Tale: Return of The Native by Thomas Hardy




Recently I came across a paperback of Return of the Native in a second hand bookshop and grabbed it at once.  It was a long time since I had read a novel by Thomas Hardy and this was one I had never tackled.

The trouble with reading a lot of modern fiction (especially thrillers and crime fiction which I do love) is that the dialogue and action are all important with virtually no descriptive passages.  You are carried along at a helter-skelter pace most of the time as the crime is resolved and the characters play their part for a brief moment. It's the storyline that is important, the special style of the detective and his sidekick and often there is a sameness in the characters making them mere appendages to the required action.   Such stories are marvellous when you need something to grab your attention and keep you mesmerised for a while, say at airports, on train journeys or snatched moments of rest in a busy day.  But too much of this fast food diet is like eating too many hamburgers.  Tasty and filling at the time but not really satisfying or even good for mental and emotional growth.  I always feel a need for a little bit of bon cuisine after such a diet, a yearning to delve into something more thoughtful and thought provoking after a few of the fast paced thrillers (though I have been known to live on a feast of Earl Stanley Gardner books for quite a while.  Perry Mason is quite addictive!).

I read many of the great English, Russian, French and American classics from ten years old and onwards and that is thanks to my Greek mother who had a wide ranging taste and education.  It seems amazing now but as a child I was introduced to Charles Dickens at the age of ten at our primary school.  Can you imagine this happening nowadays?  David Copperfield was the first literary book I read and loved and it led me to many other wonderful books. We had a splendid local library were we lived then and I haunted it, avid for the good books available.  Thankfully I read only classics for years, actually avoiding and even scorning 'modern' writers.  But no getting away with it - my daughter was like all our family a great reader and enamoured of crime books in particular and introduced me to crime thrillers. I thank her for it because I enjoy them so much and have since been introduced to other modern writers by her.  And some of them use stunning and wonderful opening descriptions.  One of my favourites is the writer, Nicholas Evans, (The Horse Whisperer) - just read those first few pages of The Divide - his descriptions of the snow covered mountains are sublime.


Catherin Zeta Jones as Eustacia Vye

I say 'thankfully' because the result of all these 'fast food' books is that I do now find it hard work to get into a thick, meaty classic.  They can seem so dauntingly slow and long drawn out in the description department and even the dialogue can be hard work.  People's conversations in past times weren't as snappy as ours today! 

However, I began to read Return of the Native but sadly confess that at first I struggled with the lengthy opening pages of the descriptions of Egdon Heath. (And I still wish they had been cut back by the author- just a little)  However, the brilliance of the prose, the flow of dialogue and unusual characters soon drew me into the story and in no time I was totally immersed in the unhappy lives of Eustacia Vye, her lover, Damon Wildeve, Tamsin Yeobright and the native himself, Clym Yeobright.  I began to feel more and more that the full, rich descriptions of Egdon Heath, this wild, almost desolate natural surrounding in which these people lived and loved, was as much a character as they were.  It formed them and they grew forth from it, part of Nature themselves with the same wild moods and passions that often corresponded to their dramas.  Eustacia hated it, hated the Heath and longed to escape it.  She saw no beauty in its manifold changes and colours.  For her it was a desolation that echoed the state of her own soul.  To Clym Yeobright, the heath had grandeur, beauty and a meaningfulness which the city and its bright lights never held for him.  Their different aspirations and inner lives were in total opposition and they were destined to drive one another apart.  One felt deep sympathy for all the characters in this tale.  They suffered as always the pain of misunderstandings and misapprehensions which for Hardy forms the warp and woof of life's dramas. 


Egdon Heath

'The place became full of a watchful intentness now; for when other things sank brooding to sleep the heath appeared slowly to waken and listen .  Every night its Titanic form seemed to await something; but it had awaited thus, unmoved, during so many centuries, through the cries of many things, that it could only be imagined to await one last crisis - the final overthrow. '

The Heath becomes an impassive, impersonal watcher and listener to the little fates of those who live there.  It is like some enormous Deity without pity, without anything but being itself for itself.   Human lives come and go but it has been untouched almost since the dawn of time. Night, Nature, the Great Mother is the backdrop to most Hardy stories in which the compelling and passionate lives of his characters dwindle into insignificance in the presence of Nature's ancient detachment.



Many of the lines in this book tuned into my own feelings.  'The vision of what ought to have been is thrown aside in sheer weariness and browbeaten human endeavour listlessly makes the best of the fact that is.'  Many such passages abound and ring a bell for us.  One of the stunning descriptions is of the sound of the night wind blowing through the husks of the dead harebells which can be heard in the immense silence of the heath.  Amazing.  To spend time listening like this, listening to a silence so profound that the faint sound of these brown husks can be heard like a gentle song.

I feel this is one of Hardy's best novels and I hope you agree. 

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Poetic Soul and the Dark Lover: the Haunted Bronte Women

The Bronte Parsonage


The Bronte family are perhaps one of the most outstanding literary families of all times. The sentimental myths that have grown around them and their lives since Mrs Elisabeth Gaskell published her famous, though somewhat biased biography , can now be perceived with more honesty through the work of modern biographers with more material to hand and less prejudice in favour of Charlotte.  Yet none of the fascination is lost for having a spotlight turned upon the darker corners. We can still read such works as Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, Charlotte's Jane Eyre and Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and ask ourselves, as did their contemporaries, how on earth did these three young women, living fairly sheltered and parochial lives in a little Yorkshire town, write such passionate and feeling masterpieces.  I invite you to look at this from a Jungian psychological perspective in which we explore the animus figure of these women.

Patrick Bronte

This was a family with a literary soul.  Patrick Brunty, their father, came from a labouring family in Ireland and changed his name to Bronte as a young man.  He achieved a great deal, studied theology at St. John's College, Cambridge, receiving his BA in 1806 and eventually was given the living at a small Church in Howarth, Yorkshire.  Patrick wrote varied articles and books on serious topics and encouraged his children to read literature and talk politics with him.  He wasn't the Victorian ogre painted by Gaskell but neither was he a tender or demonstrative father.  He left the child rearing to his wife's spinster sister, Lizzie, who came from Cornwall during the fatal illness of his wife, Maria Bronte, in order to care for his six children.  This wasn't at all strange for the times; men seldom had much to do with their children.  And certainly the children saw little of him for Patrick Bronte preferred to be left alone in his study, writing poetry, articles, organising sermons and other parish matters. There is no doubt that he was so wrapped in his own activities that he lacked sensitive care and attention to their welfare.  He meant well enough when he sent his eldest two girls, Elizabeth and Maria, to Cowan Bridge School (an institution that was to be made famous by Charlotte as the dreaded Lowood).  They were not wealthy and thus the girls needed an education in order to survive later in life as there was no guarantee they would marry.  However, the Clergy Daughters School was poorly run at the time, the food so bad that the children ate little.  First Maria died of consumption followed by Elizabeth shortly after.  It seemed to take Patrick some time to realise he would lose all his girls. His first daughter, Maria, was said to be precocious beyond her ten years and with a brilliant imagination; we can only speculate about the books she too might have written.he bitterly mourned her loss.

  Patrick hastily brought back Emily and Charlotte from Cowan Bridge and thus the remaining four children were educated at home.  Branwell, Charlotte, Emily and Anne were now left to create their own amusements and entertainments and read extensively thanks to their father's liberality and encouragement, writing vast reams of material in their childhood, making up journals and tiny little books in which they recorded the adventures of their imaginary as well as heroes and heroines who were surprisingly sophisticated and worldly.

But in the main the characters in their imaginative play reflected inner characters, portions of their own nature brought to life. There is an emotional intensity to their work from an early age.  Later we still see this intensity mixed with a down to earth Yorkshire quality which makes the male characters of the Bronte stories deeply fascinating for men and women alike.  They are real and yet unreal, passionate, insistent, wild and in the case of Heathcliffe, untamed

Anne Bronte

There is no doubt that the early death of a mother creates a trauma in the lives of children, leaving a sense of loss and abandonment. Even though Anne was too small to remember her mother, this loss is still observable in her writings.  In all the Bronte ouevre, there is seldom a warm, caring mother figure.  There is also no doubt that a mother's unlived creative and spiritual character lives on in the children she has brought to birth.  If she has not fulfilled her own creative yearnings, it is likely to be left to those who come after to try to contain her frustrated, enraged spirit it or live it out in some way.  Maria Branwell Bronte, their mother, was herself an intelligent and educated woman but an early death with uterine cancer left her no time for development of her gifts.

Jung coined the term 'animus' for the 'masculine' part of a woman's psyche and Branwell in many ways took on the role of this figure and became a scapegoat for the family.  He was too weak to sustain the greatness they wished upon him and his early talents led to nothing but drink, drugs, despair and an early death.  The unlived animus of the mother instead percolated through her daughters  in the form of those amazing  creations, Rochester, Heathcliffe and Arthur Huntingdon (who is said to be based to some extent on Branwell Bronte)  The dark animus is a part of the unlived, unconscious Shadow side which we all have.  Men and women alike have written, painted and been fascinated by the Dark Lover aspect of their souls. We have 'The Dark Lady' of Shakespeare's sonnets, the innumerable 'fallen women' of painters and writers like Zola, D H Lawrence, Rider Haggard's 'She' - as well as the paintings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti's beloved Jane Morris and his obsession with the image of Persephone, the Goddess of the Underworld. And even now this archetype has taken form as a vampire image, devouring and yet fascinating in his deadliness.

Charlotte Bronte
Thus for the Bronte children, their dead mother became the mother who had been taken by Hades, living on in her children's psyches as something unknown, unlived, consuming yet also transformative. The archetype of the Dark Lover became Rochester and Heathcliffe and Arthur Huntingdon for the girls and a devouring, destructive reality for Branwell who actually lived it all out for them - a fate which often befalls the one who is a weak sensitive link in the family wiring and blows the family fuse. As children, the Brontes invented imaginary characters that inhabited their inner worlds and imagination; war, powerful men and women figures, strange islands and countries with peculiar people. Later these figures and pent up sexual and dark images were to explode upon us as the strong male characters of their books.

Emily Bronte

In Emily's Heathcliff, we come closest to the archetype. The characters of Catherine and Heathcliff, despite their wild, dramatic passion are oddly sexless; their union is on some other plane entirely ---a cosmic union of great archetypal forces beyond our understanding.  Emily was never close to people but lived in a world of her own, a sexless free spirit, roaming the moors and at one with Nature and God.  In Rochester, we have a warmer more human element but still Jane flees from his forcefulness, pathos, despair and can only possess him when he is humbled, maimed, half blinded. Charlotte was far more dependant on warmth and contact than that of Emily.  Yet even when she at last describes in Villette the real man whom she loved and lost, she cannot be dishonest, she cannot possess him and Paul Emmanuel has to die at sea in the end.  Of them all however, Charlotte it was who married in the end and had a brief moment of happiness and normality before death claimed her also.  In Anne's Arthur Huntingdown we find a far more human character again.  Huntingdon is almost redeemable at the end and has some contrition over his evil past.

These stories all seem to show that all this family had a lack of faith that anyone could find love, be sexual and human, and not have to die because of that love- as their mother had died - as many women at that time died from the exhaustion brought about by the sexual and procreative act.  Branwell searched for love, falling for a woman much older than himself who cruelly betrayed his trust and naivete.  Emily, caught by her archetypal animus did not even search for love, her soul filled with something more mystical and divine.  The Dark Lover for her was a shadow side of God Himself.  Charlotte married at last but even then seemed at some unconscious level to feel unworthy of happiness and love. She was expecting her first child but died before she could bring into this world a real human being.  Perhaps the only one who died in peace was Anne, for unlike her character, Huntingdon, she firmly believed in her soul's redemption through the love of God and went gently into that good night.


Sunday, February 09, 2014

Another Amazing Woman: Grace Darling a Victorian Heroine


Grace Darling
Long before the tragedy of the ill fated Titanic was the sinking of the  Forfarshire.  Like the former, the ship was considered one of the greatest of Northern steamships.   It had left Hull for Dundee in Scotland on September 7th 1838 with a large quota of wealthy passengers, mainly merchants and their wives returning from holidays in England.  The ship left in good weather but on its way up North suddenly ran into a terrible storm.

Grace Darling was the twenty two year old daughter of William Darling whose family had been lighthouse keepers for many years.  In those days the keeper lived on his light with his family, a strange, wild, lonely existence.  This was especially the case here on Longstone Light, set on one of the windswept, rugged Farne islands off the coast of Northumberland.  The situation was so bleak and wild that the family were often driven to the upstairs rooms to escape the crashing waves at the base of the Light.  There was plenty to do, spinning, cleaning, gathering sea bird eggs to eat or catching birds when possible, fishing, books to read and the family members were used to their quiet life.

Longstone Light

During the early hours of the morning of the 8th September, Grace climbed up the stairs to the lantern after a Night Watch and saw a large black hulk on the distant rocks.  She wasn't sure if there were people on the wreck but couldn't rest easy unless they went out to see.  Her father told her it was impossible to take their small boat out in this foul weather; they themselves would be dashed to pieces on the jutting rocks.  It normally took three men to row it in bad weather and Grace's brothers were on the mainland at that time.  Grace may have been a small girl but she was also a brave one and said she'd take the boat herself.  her father reluctantly agreed to go with her.
Dressed in her normal muslin dress with just a small cape, her father in his seaman's clothes, they set off and on reaching the rock they found the unhappy survivors clinging desperately to the hulk and fighting to reach their little boat. They took as many as they could and then returned again and took the rest of the people back to the lighthouse and safety; it was an incredible feat.

From then on Grace was lionised and made the heroine of the nation.  But hers had been a quiet life on the light and she felt she had done nothing special.  Her father had, after all, saved countless lives himself and his father before him. However, Victorian society was as silly over its celebrities as we are today and endless portraits were made of Grace, locks of her hair requested.  She was given a small annuity and a silver gilt watch but the promiised silk dress never arrived...and she had always longed for a silk dress.
She died at the age of twenty seven, exhausted by the attention and the loss of her peaceful existence.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Amazing English Women: Role Models of the Past




When I was a young girl in the Fifties, we had a small school library and I eagerly devoured everything there was to read.  It ranged from children's favourite classics to books of geography, history and so on.  One book I was very fond of was about the English heroines, names that were then as familiar to us all as Britney Spears and Madonna are to today's kids.  But rather a different set of role models.  It contained stirring pictures of Grace Darling who helped to rescue the survivors from the wreck of the Forfarshire, Florence Nightingale holding aloft her lamp as she moved amongst the wounded at Scutari and Elizabeth Fry with the prisoners of Newgate, a place she helped to reform.

This book left a deep impression on me, one of awe and gratitude for these brave, strong minded women who defied the attitudes of their time when women were considered as a second class race without talent, voice, or much intelligence.  Any woman who dared to stand out and show herself to be an equal if not a superior to perceived male intellect was deemed unfeminine, brazen, unchristian, or accused of neglecting her family.  So it took some courage and conviction to stride out alone against the ideal of feminine sweetness, gentleness, vapidity and colourlessness much trumpeted in Coventry Patmore's famous poem 'The Angel in the House'.http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/novel_19c/thackeray/angel.html

Nowadays, despite a far less unbalanced attitude to women, we no longer hold up such historical figures of women in the past as role models.  In fact, few children even know who they are except in the vaguest manner, don't even spot their image on their £10 and £5 banknotes.  Most young people seldom even use banknotes, do they? - but wield their piece of plastic instead.  Role models now are pop stars, actors, sporting figures perhaps.  Some of these figures are worthy, especially the latter, but many are not and simply appeal to a youthful desire to be rich or simply to 'get on the telly.'  Few girls now want to be nurses or do good for those less fortunate than themselves.

Elizabeth Fry on the £5 banknote (to be replaced by Churchill)

So I hope to write a few lines now and then to remind us about these incredible women of the past.  Let's begin with my favourite:

Elizabeth Fry

Elizabeth Fry
 Elizabeth was born Elizabeth Gurney, her father a banker in Norwich and her mother part of the Barclays family.  Her mother died when she was twelve years old and as an older daughter, she had her hands full helping to raise the younger siblings.  She enjoyed a good life when young and admitted to loving dancing and riding in a scarlet habit!  However, at the age of 18 she attended a Quaker meeting and was deeply moved by the words of the American preacher, William Savery.  From then on she adopted the simple, unadorned Quaker dress.
In 1813 she married Joseph Fry another banker and also a Quaker and had eleven children by him. She managed her household duties perfectly well but always found time to visit the poor children in the school and workhouse at Islington.
Her real work began when she visited Newgate prison in the company of Sir Fowell Buxton's sister.  She was horrified by the overcrowded state of the prisons, the women and children living together in vile conditions of dirt and damp.   Some of the women had not even been tried in court but simply arrested and flung into these hell holes.  Elizabeth returned the next day with clothes and food and even stayed the night with them, inviting other members of the public to come and see for themselves what it was like in there.  The prisoners loved her and she gained their respect.  She eventually managed to set up schools for the children, appointing one of the inmates as a governess.  The women gained some self respect and began to see to their washing and cleaning and made efforts to improve themselves.  No one else was going to do it.  Matrons were installed in the prisons where before they had been overseen by men and one can only guess what that might mean.
Edith Sitwell reminds us in her article about Elizabeth Fry in the above wartime book that a 'destitute child of nine was committed to death for stealing four pennyworth of children's paints.  Eventually, after considerable delay, the sentence was commuted.  To what? Transportation to Botany Bay?' (English Women:  Edith Sitwell)

Les Miserables was fact not fiction. Here in Britain and also Europe and everywhere else in so called 'civilised' countries.  Mercy was an unknown quality.

Elizabeth's influence became great and she was supported by Queen Victoria.  Other monarchs admired her and even the Czar of Russia was influenced by her.  When he visited the debtor's prison, three old men threw themselves at his feet and begged for his mercy.  He told them that their considerable debts would be paid by him, an astonishing act of kindness in a harsh and stern regime. Mrs Fry visited Copenhagen and spoke to the monarchs there about slavery, the state of the prisons and persecution of various religious sects and was befriended by the Kind of Prussia who came to visit the prisons himself.  She founded a school for nurses that later inspired Florence Nightingale. These were just a few of the societies, libraries, schools and other institutions which this amazing and indefatigable womae set up. 

 She was said to be a warm and wonderful person who moved all to tears when she prayed with them. 
Prayer, she said, was always in her heart.  'Even in sleep I think the heart is lifted up.' And as she lay dying of a stroke in 1845 her last words were, 'Love, all love, my heart is filled with love for everyone.'

The seamen flew a flag at half mast for her passing, an honour reserved for royalty.  And thousands stood in silence at her burial.  A truly noble lady.