Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Little Match Girl Strikes Back, part 1

[Here's the latest installment in the Women's Art is Women's Work series. Because this essay by Eberle is a bit long, I divided it into two parts—please stay tuned, because part 2 is also great & should be posted next Thursday. Enjoy!]

To some degree, the everyday lives of women in the past will always remain mysterious. That ephemeral entity called the spirit of the times disappears from the horizon as succinctly as a ship going under—and although we may recover parts of it here and there, and experience a thrill when a brooch or a spoon glimmers through the silent wreckage, only a partial reconstruction is ever possible. A grocery list, a scrub brush, or an advertisement for face crea
m can be as evocative as any historical treatise on the spirit of the times. Because the question always is, which spirit and whose times?

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, writers and readers both were contain
ed within a smaller segment of the population than they are today when literacy is a possession held more in common. So right from the start, written records of that era come from a narrowed segment of social experience. Non-written records were also sparser than they are today—there are no snapshots or home movies from factory workers or servants, no documentaries of daily life to examine for clues. Diaries and letters can be a good source of information about daily life, but diaries and letters of published writers were a popular genre of the time, and so are not always as unfiltered as one might wish.

A nineteenth century diary does exist, written in code, in tiny handwriting, and kept for a period of fifteen years, that distinguishes itself from the mass of private writing written with an eye to possible publication. Beatrix Potter invented her own alphabet for writing in the secret diary she kept from 1881 to 1896, and the code she used wasn’t deciphered until the 1960s. Because of the great lengths she went to in order to ensure the privacy of this journal, it provides a uniquely personal record.

From her fif
teenth to her thirtieth year, Beatrix recorded her thoughts and observations in this secret diary. Her sharp-tongued honesty reveals the thoughts of a young woman in definite contrast to any stereotype of sheltered Victorian female passivity and innocence. Beatrix kept a detailed record of the social upheaval in the world around her, had a clear awareness of poverty and vice, and showed herself at a young age very capable of independent thought.

All outward forms of religion are almost useless, and are the cause of endless strife. What do creeds matter…. Believe there is a great power silently working all things for good, behave yourself, and never mind the rest. (August 1, 1884)

Beatrix also wrote about her own creative process in an illuminating way:

It is all the same, drawing, painting, modeling, the irresistible desire to copy any beautiful object which strikes the eye. Why cannot one be content to look at it? I cannot rest, I must draw, however poor the result, and when I have a bad time come over me it is a stronger desire than ever, and settles on the queerest things… I caught myself in the back yard making a careful and admiring copy of the swill bucket, and the laugh it gave me brought me round. (October 4, 1884)

Beatrix’s journal descriptions of street life indicate that an upper-class young woman of her time had ample opportunity to observe and reflect on a wide slice of life. Convicts at work, sailors in town, workers taking to the streets in protest all came under her intelligent scrutiny. She also commented on rumors, scandal, jokes, modern marvels, and many stories of violent death. The picture that comes across is of a person very much in touch with the world around her and forming decided opinions. It seems that a nineteenth century woman would actually have had to work fairly hard to remain “sheltered” from the realities of urban poverty. In addition to newspapers, gossip, and letters, town criers brought newsworthy events right to her window, especially during the urban riots and terrorist explosions that punctuated her teenage years.

There is
scarcely a night without the news-criers come round in the silent streets, sometimes after ten o’clock. Their voices echo and answer one another and the wind howls in the chimney. (February 21, 1885)

She reported on a lar
ge amount of everyday contact between social classes—for instance, a number of conversations she sought out with the elderly washerwoman Kitty MacDonald. “Perhaps the Kincraigie folk had some ground for saying she was a witch, for, when we came up to her little cottage, there was a little toad sitting in the middle of the little flat, grey stone inside the doorsill.” (August 29, 1892.) Kitty’s stories of a poverty-stricken childhood made a definite impression on Beatrix, who honored her in the mysterious and compelling character of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle, the washer of kittens’ feet and hens’ legs and the red waists of Cock Robin.

Beatrix describes the
panic in the wake of lootings and beatings after the West End Riots in 1886, when many of her family’s friends were afraid to go out in the streets and some fled the city in fear that the riots would escalate. She mentions the trial of Henry Hyndman, the founder of Britain’s first socialist party, after these riots and is not at all in sympathy with him. In fact, she comments that Hyndman and the other accused instigators of the riots “ought to be hung at once like dogs.” Hyndman, on the other hand, who was acquitted of any crime, described the panic as ludicrous in The Record of an Adventurous Life (1911): “The whole thing was a remarkable evidence of the pusillanimity of the profitmongers when they imagine, however foolishly, their class domination is threatened by the wage-earners.” He adds that the riots “awakened people to the fact that there really was a Socialist party in Great Britain, and that the party numbered among its members men who knew what they were talking about.” And indeed, Beatrix was aware of the problem of unemployment that lay behind the riots, and, even as a member of the upper class, willing to acknowledge some merit to the claims of the working class. Her conservatism did not leave her adolescent self incapable of criticizing authority:

The Prince of Wales lately visited the slums in Holburn in disguise. Who says the present century is not romantic? Compare the exploits of his Royal Highness with those of his ancestor James V. To be sure, instead of a gallant knight on horseback you have a midd
le-aged gentleman in a four-wheeler with his trousers rolled up, and probably holding his nose, but time mellows everything in a few hundred years. (February 22, 1884)

Holborn contained notorious slums, and is the site of the opening description of Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1852). In the winter of 1883, Beatrix attended a Phiz (Hablot Browne) exhibition and admired the originals of the illustrations to this novel, especially one of the slums, Tom All-Alone: “(W)hat a sermon that little drawing preaches.” From Holborn to the Strand lay a tangled web of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century streets, courts and alleys; a popular legend claimed that a hapless wayfarer had entered this maze on his way to the Strand and had never been able to get out, his ghost still searching for a way back to civilization.

© Eberle Umbach 2007-2009

Pix from top:
1889 Illustration for The Little Match-Girl
Beatrix Potter
The Old Town Crier, from Cape Cod & All the Pilgrim Land, June 1922 (Project Gutenberg)
Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle (by Beatrix Potter) holding Henny Penny's gloves
Henry Hyndman
The Phiz illustration of Tom All-Alone from Bleak House

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  1. Nice article - I'm looking forward to Part 2. A few years ago we used to go on holiday to Tenby in Wales. I discovered that the house where we would stay used to be visited by Beatrix Potter and she may have used the small garden at the back of the house as the inspiration for Mr McGregor's vegetable garden. The last I heard, the Council was thinking of concreting the garden over and turning it into a car park!

  2. Hi Alan:

    Glad you liked it--hope the Council reconsiders that course of action, tho.

  3. That was a great post indeed. Difficult to pick out bits to praise as it was all of the highest quality. I shall certainly be looking out for part 2! - and I am sure I shall be reading part 1 again. If only all posts were this good...!

  4. This is an interesting look at an author about whom I know very little. I don't know why I have equated Potter with her lovely works, never once considering that she had this rich, mature inner life of her mind...

  5. Hi Dave & Karen:

    Dave: Thanks so much for your enthusiastic reading; very much appreciated. Part 2 next Thursday.

    Karen: I don't know a lot about Potter, but Eberle does, & she (like Potter herself apparently) sees her children's writing as having a serious intent & often dark vision in the background.

  6. Interesting. BP lived not far from here in the Lake District - also the home of John Ruskin (another interesting character) and -most famously- Wordsworth.


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