MONTHLY BLOG 118, COMMEMORATING ANOTHER FEISTY EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY SEA-GOING CAT

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Fig. 1 John Cornwell’s bronze statue of Trim, the feisty black cat who sailed in the circumnavigation of Australia in 1801/3: located outside Mitchell Library, 173 Macquarie St, Sydney, Australia.

Another feisty sea-going cat from the eighteenth century has inspired a great set of contemporary statues in both England and Australia.1 This cat was jet black, with white feet and a white star on its breast. He was named Trim, after the devoted servant and companion-at-arms in Laurence Sterne’s whimsical novel Tristram Shandy (1759). And in the years 1801-3 the cat participated in the first recorded circumnavigation of Australia with Captain Matthew Flinders, the explorer and cartographer.2 It was he who later paid Trim the compliment of writing a special account of its life history, preserving its memory for posterity.3

At one point on the trip round Australia, the adventurous feline was washed overboard. But it swam/scrambled to reach a floating rope and clambered determinedly up to safety, winning the captain’s admiration. Indeed, Flinders later saluted Trim as ‘one of the finest animals I ever saw’. The cat had in fact been born on a ship and lived much of its life on board a series of different vessels. So it clearly had the feline equivalent of ‘sea-legs’. It also had a degree of good luck, surviving, with Flinders, the shipwreck of HMS Porpoise in 1803. (The disaster happened on the Wreck Reefs in the Coral Sea, off north-eastern Australia – an area now preserved as a historic shipwreck site).

Trim thus became something of a mascot for Flinders and his crew. Many cats were in fact to be found on board ships.They were recruited as mousers, providing on-board pest control. But they often provided affection and companionship as well. Flinders was not short of human company on his circumnavigation. One leading member of his team was a community leader named Bungaree, who came from the indigenous people of eastern Australia. He provided invaluable help as guide and negotiator.5 On more than one occasion on the long journey, he averted conflict between the sailors and various indigenous communities, with whom he managed to communicate, despite the linguistic barriers. Flinders, who wrote warmly of Bungaree’s ‘open and manly conduct’, also appreciated his kindness to Trim.

This adventurous cat was thus an archetype of the many travelling felines who appear in myths and legends.6 In such tales, their natures are resourceful and affectionate, without being dependent or needy. Cats like the companion of Dick Whittington; or Puss-in-Boots (who appears in many European variants); or the cat who proverbially ‘looks at a king’ are cool customers. They star in many folk cultures around the world, featuring in songs and musicals as well as art and cartoons. It is no surprise to find also that travelling cats are imagined as voyagers in space fiction.Shared adventures are integral to the long history of human-feline interactions.

What ultimately bonded Trim and Matthew Flinders, however, was their joint experience of imprisonment. On his return from Australia to Britain, the navigator put into the French-held island of Mauritius, hoping that his status as a scientific investigator would secure him safe passage. However, the governor detained him. France and Britain were then at war; and Flinders’ motives were suspected. He was held there from December 1803 to summer 1810, at first in close captivity, and then with greater freedom but without the right to leave. Trim kept Flinders company for most of this period of irksome inactivity; and it was when the cat disappeared suddenly some time in c.1808 (its fate unknown), that Flinders was moved to pen his account of the cat’s life. His warm tribute, stating that Trim was ‘ever the delight and pleasure of his fellow voyagers’, undeniably came from the heart.

Matthew Flinders has been extensively commemorated in Australia. Not only are there many places and institutions which bear his name (including the renowned Flinders University in Adelaide) but he himself named many features around the coast, in the course of circumnavigation. Bungaree has been much less well served, in terms of public commemorations. But Boongaree Island, off the Kimberley coast of Western Australia, was named after him in 1820; and there have been some nautical tributes. (A public statue is surely overdue).

Meanwhile, the cultural star of Trim has risen in recent years. The publication of Flinders’ cat-biography in 1977, allied to the increasing contemporary desire to humanise past heroes, has brought the intrepid feline voyager to public attention. In 1996, John Cornwell’s bronze statue of Trim (Fig.1) was installed outside the Mitchell Library (State Library of New South Wales) in Sydney. The striking representation was an immediate success. The Library began to sell a range of Trim memorabilia and it names its restaurant as Café Trim. In 2006, another engaging statue of Flinders was installed in Donington, his Lincolnshire birthplace. In this case Trim leans confidently against the navigator’s leg, in a style which is obviously cat-like but not subservient. The statue was created by Judith Holmes Drewry, with input from local schoolchildren. Their joint project helped to foster local interest in Flinders, which has recently culminated in a successful campaign to have his remains reburied in Donington’s parish church.

Fig. 2 Trim with Matthew Flinders, standing together on a street corner in Donington, Lincolnshire, Flinders’ birthplace: statue by Judith Holmes Drewry, erected 2006

Fig. 2 Trim with Matthew Flinders, standing together on a street corner in Donington, Lincolnshire, Flinders’ birthplace: statue by Judith Holmes Drewry, erected 2006.

There is also one fine composite statue of Flinders, with Trim on the lookout, both crouching over a chart of the territory of Terra Australis, Flinders being one of the most determined to popularise its name as Australia. This monument, devised by Mark Richards, was erected in 2014. It was timed to commemorate the bicentenary of Flinders’ death in 1814, at the comparatively early age of 40. And the statue was aptly located at Euston Station, which was later constructed over the graveyard where the navigator was buried.8 (His coffin was discovered in 2019 during excavations for the new high-speed rail link, leading to the successful campaign for Flinders to be reinterred at Donington).
Fig.3 Flinders, compasses in hand, and Trim on the watch, crouch together over the map of Australia: elegantly apt statue by Mark Richards, installed at Euston Station with copy also at Tasman Terrace, Port Lincoln, Australia.

Fig.3 Flinders, compasses in hand, and Trim on the watch, crouch together over the map of Australia: elegantly apt statue by Mark Richards, installed at Euston Station with copy also at Tasman Terrace, Port Lincoln, Australia.

So these companions on the move are commemorated in multiple locations. The moral, from the viewpoint of a feline wishing to be remembered by posterity, was to be loved by a writer with time to write a cat-biography on its behalf. And for Flinders? He was a great namer of places: among others, Australia’s Port Lincoln, after the county of his birth; Kangaroo Island, named for the abundant wildlife there; Encounter Cove, where he met and exchanged news of his discoveries with the French scientist Nicholas Baudin, who was also exploring the world far from his homeland. Naming has a certain power – not supreme power; but influential. And, yes: Flinders did well to identify the feisty black cat with white feet as Trim – neat, natty, nautical, appealing, affecrtionate – and now memorable as well.

ENDNOTES:

1 Companion-piece to PJC BLOG.117 (Sept. 2020), entitled: ‘An Eighteenth-Century Folly Builder and Cat Lover’. For further context, see also P.J. Corfield, ‘“For I will Consider my Cat Jeoffry”: Cats and Literary Creativity in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, work-in-progress for publication 2021.

2 K. Morgan, Matthew Flinders: Maritime Explorer of Australia (2016).

3 M. Flinders, Trim: Being the True Story of a Brave Seafaring Cat (1977; 1997); https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trim_(cat).

4 See V. Lewis, Ship’s Cats in War and Peace (2001); and listings of known travelling cats in  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship%27s_cat.

5 K.V. Smith, King Bungaree (Kenthurst, 1992).

6 H. Loxton, Cats: 99 Lives – Cats in History, Legend and Literature (1999)

7 An example is the cat Spot in the sci-fi TV series Star Trek (1966- ).

8 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Flinders.

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MONTHLY BLOG 117, AN EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY FOLLY-BUILDER & CAT-LOVER

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Public monuments to cats – as opposed to literary, artistic and musical celebrations1 – are rare to find, especially dating from the eighteenth century. So this majestic example deserves full appreciation. The lordly cat sits atop a giant Grecian vase, all forming the substantial Cat Monument.2 It was designed in 1749 and built c.1770 in the new weatherproof composite known as Coade Stone.3 Erected at Shugborough Park in Staffordshire, the Monument was commissioned by Thomas Anson (c.1695-1773). He was the felinophile, who owned the estate and had the wealth as well as the space to indulge his taste for architectural patronage in full.

Curiously enough, the identity of this publicly honoured cat remains uncertain. One strong possibility is that it commemorates Thomas Anton’s own favoured pet, named Khouli-Khan. This cat was the last of a line of Persian cats owned by the family. Hence, behind the luxuriant mustachios on the Monument’s lordly feline, the statue may show the round face and short muzzle that is characteristic of that particular breed.

Another possibility, however, is that the honoured cat was the adventurous moggy who circumnavigated the globe in the years 1740-44 with Admiral George Anson (1697-1762). He was the much admired younger brother of Thomas Anson. And the childless George Anson had bequeathed his great fortune, based upon Spanish treasure, to his older sibling. As a result, some of the monuments and memorabilia at Shugborough Park were devised as fraternal tributes to the circumnavigator. In that context, therefore, it is possible that the Cat Monument commemorates the circumnavigating cat.

Throughout this period (as in earlier and later eras), thousands of feline pest controllers travelled the high seas.4 They dined on the mice and rats which infested the wooden ships of the commercial fleet and the Royal Navy. (Keeping pets on board was banned by the British Navy only in 1975). Often these sailing cats were adopted by the crews as informal mascots. The feline companion (name unknown) of George Anson seems to have been a talisman of that ilk. Indeed, it is quite possible that the Cat Monument commemorates not one specific cat but human admiration for the species generically. The design is certainly eclectic. Around the Monument’s plinth are the carved heads of Corinthian goats, which were kept on the Shugborough Park estate c.1768. But the lofty cat is the king.

Accompanying the Monument, meanwhile, Anson commissioned an extraordinary array of follies and fancies.5 The Chinese House (1747) is one of the earliest examples of oriental design in Britain. A Gothic Ruin, complete with a gothic pigeon-house, followed in 1750. The Shepherd’s Monument was built in the later 1750s, taking the form of an ornamental arch around a pastoral bas-relief. (Two outer pillars and a classic pediment were added in 1763). A Doric Temple followed in c.1760. The massive Hadrian’s Arch was then erected in 1762, at a high point on the estate with extensive views. Built in a style borrowed from classical Athens, the design was adapted as a tribute to George Anson, who died in 1762, and George’s wife Elizabeth. A Tower of the Winds, based upon the Athens’ Horologium of Andronikos, was created in 1765, initially with a surrounding pool of water, which was lost in the course of flood damage on the estate in 1795. And in 1771 the Lanthorn of Demosthenes, based upon the design of an Athenian house dating from 4BCE, completed Anson’s career as an alfresco architectural patron. (He also remodelled the ancestral Shugborough Hall and amassed a collection of memorabilia).

Amongst this eclectic miscellany of edifices, the Cat Monument more than holds its own. It has a stately presence, framed by trees. It is not overawed by its Gothic, Oriental, Doric or Corinthian monumental companions, elsewhere in Shugborough Park. Whether it commemorates one adventurous globe-trotting feline, or one exotic Persian cat, or all cats generically, it makes its point finely.

Fig.2.1-3 Three Shugborough Park Monuments, Commissioned by Thomas Anson:
(L) The Shepherd’s Monument (later 1750s; expanded 1763)
(Centre) The Cat Monument (designed 1749; built c.1770)
(R) Hadrian’s Arch (1762), adapted as a tribute to Admiral George Anson and his wife Elizabeth.

Around the globe – and at home in Staffordshire – feline companionship is something to admire. A cat may look at an admiral or at a country landowner (and MP) or at a king. And humans look closely at these classic domestic companions too. At a time of global crisis, compounded of climatic, epidemiological, economic and political challenges, it is as well for humans to recollect their pan-global co-residence with all living beings. And, not least among them, those great triggers to the literary imagination in the form of the amiable, adventurous, wily, and famously enigmatic cats.6

ENDNOTES:

1 H. Loxton, Cats: 99 Lives – Cats in History, Legend and Literature (1999).

2 For the Cat Monument (designed 1749; erected c.1770) NGR: SJ9932022722, see https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/shugborough-estate/features/parkland-buildings-monuments-and-follies

3 H. Van Lemmen, Coade Stone (Princes Risborough, 2006).

4 See V. Lewis, Ship’s Cats in War and Peace (2001); and listings in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ship%27s_cat/.

5 All monuments are listed and dated in https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/shugborough-estate/features/parkland-buildings-monuments-and-follies

6 See P.J. Corfield, ‘“For I will Consider my Cat Jeoffry”: Cats and Literary Creativity in Eighteenth-Century Britain’, work-in-progress for publication 2021.

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MONTHLY BLOG 116, THE LONG EIGHTEENTH CENTURY’S MOST AMAZING LADY RECLUSE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Image of Lady Hester Stanhope
(1776-1839)
Garbed as an Oriental Magus

More than matching the fame of the most notable male recluses of eighteenth-century Britain was the renown of the amazing Lady Hester Stanhope.1 She not only cut herself off from her aristocratic family background to live remotely but did so, at first in grand style and then as a recluse, in the Lebanon.

Her story indicates that there were some remarkable options open to independent-minded women, with independent fortunes but no family attachments. In fact, there was quite a substantial amount of female solitude in the eighteenth century.2 The caricature view, which asserts that every woman was under the domestic tutelage of either a husband or a father was just that – a caricature.

There were plenty of female-headed households listed in contemporary urban enumerations; and a number of these were formed by widows living alone. Many lived in the growing spas and resorts, where low-cost lodgings were plentiful. Some would have other family members living with them; but the poorest were completely alone. In Jane Austen’s Persuasion (1817), the protagonist Anne Elliott meets in Bath an old school-friend, the widowed Mrs Smith. She is impecunious and disabled. Her lodgings consist of two small rooms; and she is ‘unable even to afford herself the comfort of a servant’. Nonetheless, solitary living was not the same as being a recluse. Local gossip networks helped to counter isolation, as Jane Austen well understood. Hence, although socially remote from Bath’s smart visitors, Mrs Smith gets all the up-to-date news ‘through the short cut of a laundress and a waiter’.3 As a result, Anne Elliott is surprised to discover how much information about herself and her family is already known to her old friend.

Lady Hester Stanhope was utterly different. Lively, charming, and wealthy, she was the daughter of the 3rd Earl Stanhope and, in her late twenties (1803-6) acted as political hostess for her uncle Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger. Her social elevation and experience of life at the heart of government gave her immense self-confidence. But Pitt’s death in 1806 left her looking for a role.

In retrospect, Stanhope’s subsequent adventures indicate something of the social plight – or, put more positively, the challenges – facing talented and spirited upper class women, who did not wish (or manage) to marry or to go into business. There were plenty of female commercial entrepreneurs, usually of ‘middling’ social origins.4   And there was a positive ‘femocracy’ of high-born women who pulled the political strings behind the scenes.5 > But these were generally married ladies, hosting salons and gatherings for their particular party affiliation, under the ‘shelter’ of their husband’s rank and wealth. The options were much more limited for a single aristocratic female, albeit one with a modest state pension granted after the death of Pitt (at his request). In 1810 Stanhope began to travel extensively in the Middle East; and she never returned to Britain. Initially, she had a sizeable entourage with her; and she attracted the attention of crowds as she toured. By the end of her life, however, she was running out of money and had become a complete recluse.

During her long self-exile, she did a number of remarkable things. Firstly, she adopted her own version of male oriental dress. She sported a velvet robe, embroidered trousers, soft slippers, a swathed turban. and no veil. So attired, she caused a sensation on her travels. In 1813, crowds gathered to see the ‘Queen of the Desert’ as she rode triumphantly on horseback into the remote and beautiful city of Palmyra, having crossed the territory of potentially hostile Bedouins. That moment was, for her, one of intense joy. Her garb and demeanour signalled that she had cut herself off from her previous life; and, even more pointedly, that she rejected any submissive female role, whether in the occident or orient. She was visibly her own person. Indeed, she was a grand personage, meeting local power brokers and Ottoman officials as a potentate in her own right.

A second notable initiative happened in 1815. Stanhope at the age of 39 broke new ground in terms of female self-employment – literally, when she tried some pioneering archaeology.6 She won permission from the Turkish authorities to excavate the ancient port of Ashkelon, north of Gaza. There were disputes, both then and later, about the outcomes of this search for fabled treasure. But Stanhope’s method of basing dirt-archaeology upon documentary evidence from medieval manuscripts showed that she was not attempting a random smash-and-grab raid. But, either way, it was not an adventure that she ever repeated.

Instead, it was a moment of religious revelation which constituted Stanhope’s third claim to fame – and which governed her behaviour for the rest of her life. At some stage c.1815 she was told by Christian sooth-sayers that she would become the bride of the Messiah, whose return to Earth was imminently due. Nothing could be more aptly dramatic. Stanhope accepted her destiny; and settled down to wait. She found two noble and distinctive horses, which were carefully tended for years, awaiting the moment when the returned Messiah and his bride would ride forth to judge the world at the Second Coming.

Excited prophecies of the End of the World can be found in any era,7 and were particularly rampant in Europe in the febrile aftermath of the French Revolution and the prolonged Napoleonic wars. At different times, individuals have claimed to be the returned Messiah – or to be closely connected with such a figure – or to know the exact date of the Second Coming. In the Christian tradition, it is rare for women to claim divinity or near-divinity on their own account. However, in 1814 Joanna Southcott, aged 64, announced that she was pregnant with the new Messiah and, briefly, attracted a large following, until she died of a stomach tumour, without producing the miraculous child. During her lifetime, she had instituted her own church, with a male minister to officiate at the services. And the Southcottian movement has survived as a small sect, with numerous twists and turns in its fortunes, into the twenty-first century.8

By contrast, Lady Hester Stanhope’s vision remained an individual destiny. Visitors approached her in her Lebanese retreat, impressed by her magus-like reputation.  But Stanhope did not attempt to found a church or a supporting movement. Instead, she settled in to wait patiently. That response is a not uncommon one when a divine revelation is not immediately realised. True believers keep faith. It is the timing, not the vision, which is inaccurate. So the answer is to wait, which is what Stanhope indomitably did. Living initially in first one and then another disused monastery, she retreated eventually to a conical hill-top site with panoramic views at Joun, eight miles (13k) inland from Sidon. There she lived as the de facto local magnate. She was accepted within the religious mix of Muslim, Christian and Druze communities that has long characterised the Lebanon; and she tried to protect the Druze from persecution on grounds of their distinctive blend of Islam, gnosticism and neo-platonism. Doctrinal rigidity was very far from her personal mindset.

Only with time did Stanhope become a real recluse. By the mid-1830s, her original English companions had either died or returned home. Her funds ran low and she was besieged by creditors. The servants, allegedly, began to steal her possessions. Lady Hester Stanhope received her few last visitors after dark, refusing to let them see more than her face and hands. Reportedly, she suffered from acute depression. The Messiah did not come. Yet there was a sort of glory in her faithfulness. Her life’s trajectory was utterly distinctive, not one that could be emulated by others. Buoyed by sufficient funds, she made an independent life in an initially strange country, far from the political salons of early nineteenth-century London. And she persisted, even when impecunious. Stanhope died in her sleep aged 63, still awaiting her destiny – and having made her own legend.

ENDNOTES

1 There are many biographies: see e.g. K. Ellis, Star of the Morning: The Extraordinary Life of Lady Hester Stanhope (2008); and a pioneering survey by C.L.W. Powlett, The Life and Letters of Lady Hester Stanhope (1897).

2 B. Hill, Women Alone: Spinsters in England, 1660-1850 (2001).

3 J. Austen, Persuasion (1817/18; in Harmondsworth, 1980 edn), pp. 165-7, 200.

4 N. Phillips, Women in Business, 1700-1850 (Woodbridge, 2006); H. Barker, Family and Business during the Industrial Revolution (Oxford, 2017).

5 E. Chalus, Elite Women in British Political Life, c.1754-90 (Oxford, 2005).

6 For a sympathetic account, see https://womeninarchaeology.com/2016/05/05/lady-hester-lucy-stanhope-the-first-modern-excavator-of-the-holy-land/.

7 J.M. Court, Approaching the Apocalypse: A Short History of Christian Millenarianism (2008); C. Wessinger (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Millenialism (Oxford, 2011).

8 J.K. Hopkins, A Woman to Deliver her People: Joanna Southcott and English Millenarianism in an Era of Revolution (Austin, Texas, 1982); J.D.M. Derrett, Prophesy in the Cotswolds, 1803-1947 (Shipston-on-Stour, 1994); P.J. Corfield, Power and the Professions in Britain, 1700-1850 (1995; 2000), pp. 106-8. 124, 139; J. Shaw, Octavia, Daughter of God: The Story of a female Messiah and her Followers (2012).

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MONTHLY BLOG 115, THE EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY INVENTION OF TWO NEW SOLITARY OCCUPATIONS

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1793 Statue of Ancient British Druid,
Croome Park, Worcestershire

Not only did a few famous eighteenth-century recluses choose solitude (see BLOG no 114, June 2020) but others found that isolation went with the job. Two new occupations called for people with self-contained personalities, who were willing to live and work ‘far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife’, to cite the evocative words of Thomas Gray (1751).1

Firstly, there were the light-housekeepers, employed to tend the dramatic new structures being constructed around the British coast to keep shipping safe.2 These men and the few women in the business had to be punctilious in sticking to the timetables of the job, and able to keep themselves busy with daily repairs and maintenance. Their lamps needed constant attention, to keep the lenses clean and wicks trimmed. Some keepers brought their families with them – indeed some jobs were handed on from father to son. But their work and lifestyles were unavoidably isolated.

Light-housekeepers, who were expected to keep their eyes open for shipping in distress at sea, sometimes found themselves in danger too. The world’s first sea-girt Eddystone Lighthouse (1698-1703), which was situated on perilous rocks off the Cornish coast, did not last long. Wood-built, it was destroyed in the notorious ‘great storm’ of 1703. Also killed in the cataclysm were Henry Winstanley, its architect who was checking for repairs – and three light-housekeepers. The imperative need for their warning beacon was such that three successor structures have since been built on or near the original site. A second Eddystone (1708-55) burned down in 1755, killing its 94-year-old light-housekeeper. He was looking at the blaze, open-mouthed, when he fatally swallowed a globule of hot lead, dying several days later. (The third Eddystone lasted from 1756-1877, until replaced by the current Victorian edifice, located very close to the original (1878- now).)

Notwithstanding the isolation and occasional dangers, the light-housekeepers stuck devotedly to their roles. They knew that their beaming lamps conveyed messages of hope and support for all seafarers. And the keepers formed part of a coastal watch-guard, which included customs officials and lifeboat crews.

Things were quite otherwise in the case of an entirely new eighteenth-century post for solitary workers. A few wealthy landowners with a taste for re-envisaging the simple life built hermitages in their rolling parklands. And they hoped to employ real individuals to inhabit these properties in a suitable druidic lifestyle. The ideal hermit was a man with an imposing presence, long hair, and a beard. He should have a taste for solitude but equally be willing to remain on view as a living statue.3 But suitable candidates were hard to find. The hermits generally had no tasks other than being – and no close colleagues, being neither part of the estate workforce not part of the employing household. They were intended to be truly lonely, in order to live the role.

In the mid-1740s one resident hermit was established in a specially built Heritage at the aristocrat Charles Hamilton’s lavishly landscaped Painshill Park, near Cobham, Surrey. However, the new recluse lasted three weeks in the job – before absconding. His contract was thereupon cancelled.

But, in other cases, the hermit was asked to play a particular role. At Sir Richard Hill’s Hawkstone Estate, near Market Drayton in Shropshire, visitors in 1784 could ring a special bell and gain admittance to the grotto. There sat a venerable hermit, in front of a table bearing a skull, an hour-glass, and an open book. Conversation was allowed, in which the sage would participate with graceful melancholy.

Elsewhere, however, employers expected hermits to remain silent. One landowner advertised for a recluse who was prepared to take a vow of silence for seven years – and, in the meantime, not to wash – and to let his hair and nails grow unchecked. There was, however, no rush of applicants. Before long, the fashion for employing humans as estate ornaments collapsed.

Already by the mid-eighteenth century, some landowners were experimenting with the use of model or dummy hermits. These were cheaper and much more tractable than living people. One mechanical hermit at Samuel Hellier’s estate at The Wodehouse, near Wombourne in Staffordshire, was reported in the 1770s as being moved (by a hidden servant) in a lifelike manner to delight visitors. Such contrivances showed how landowners tried to entertain the touring guests, who frequently called to view estates and the public rooms of grand houses. An ancient hermit gave an estate the patina of antiquity.

Druid statues, meanwhile, offered an equally visible but managerially easier option. They too alluded to ancient British mythologies; and signalled an intended link with the deep past.4 Thus two powerful druidic figures were installed in 1776 to flank the main entrance to the Palladian Penicuik House in Midlothian, Scotland. And in 1793 the owners of Croome Park, near Croome D’Abitot, in south Worcestershire, joined the fashion. Their finely brooding statue of a druid (shown above in 2013 photo) was carved in the new and fashionable Coade stone, which lent itself to expressive designs.5

Figures in a landscape were a means of attracting human attention. Only a few had the space and funds for large statues. But miniaturised versions began to become popular in Britain from the 1840s onwards, with the importation from Germany of specially manufactured garden gnomes.6 In 1847 Sir Charles Isham imported a batch of these terracotta figures to adorn his garden at Lamport Hall, at Lamport, Northamptonshire. Today one gnome, named Lumpy, still survives on display. He is only an indirect descendant of the eighteenth-century hermits. But the fashion for statues and gnomes shows how people continue to add human images to complement a garden design – long after the real-life human hermits disappeared. To recap: the light-housekeepers accepted their solitude, as it was embraced for a good cause, applauded by all. But a lonely life as someone else’s invented hermit did not prove at all appealing.

ENDNOTES

1 T. Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1751).

2 T. Nancollas, Seashaken Houses: A Lighthouse History, from Eddystone to Fastnet (2018).

3 See the invaluable study by G. Campbell, The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome (Oxford, 2014).

4 R. Hutton, Blood and Mistletoe: The History of the Druids in Britain (2009).

5 A, Kelly, Mrs Coade’s Stone (Upton-upon Severn, 1990).

6 T. Way, Garden Gnomes: A History (2009).

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MONTHLY BLOG 114, SELF-ISOLATION EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY STYLE

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Fig.1 Engraving (1808) of Lord Rokeby (1713-1800),
a famous eighteenth-century self-isolator,
who looked like a wise old wizard
but whose actual message was obscure.

It’s not original to note that humans are a highly social species. But it’s only now becoming generally appreciated just how damaging a period of prolonged and enforced isolation from others can be. Basically, it’s bad news for both physical and mental health.1 Of course, some individuals do embrace silence and seek solitude. Maybe for spiritual reasons. Yet such conscious choices, which can be revoked at any time, are very different from enforced solitude, not of an individual’s seeking.

The eighteenth century in Britain provided two quirky individuals who famously created their own isolated lifestyles, cushioned by their private incomes. So what can be learned from their stories? No great revelation of enlightenment emerges. Instead, the two men have been slotted into the history of zany English eccentricity.2 They certainly both fitted into that category plausibly enough. Yet do their lifestyles convey some further message for humanity in the early summer of today’s special virus-avoiding Lockdown?

One of these isolates was the well-connected Matthew Robinson, 2nd Baron Rokeby (1713-1800). He was a landowner, with legal training and literary interests. In his thirties (1747-61), he became MP for Canterbury. There was nothing to suggest his impending eccentricity. Anyhow, at a certain point, he developed a passion for daily immersion in water for hours on end. At first, he walked from his country estate near Hythe (Kent), on the edge of Romney Marsh, to swim in the sea, bathing for hours until he was exhausted and had to be rescued. Then he constructed a private pool in a glass-house attached to his country mansion, which he refused to heat. Again he stayed for hours in the water, refusing company. He got nourishment chiefly from an infusion of beef tea; refused to see doctors; and claimed that he could best worship naturally, in the water and under the stars. Occasional visitors were treated to readings of his lengthy poems.

When Rokeby (rarely) appeared in public, he was taken for a foreigner, on account of his flowing locks and massive beard. Anecdotes circulated about his lifestyle; and prints were engraved (as shown above), to illustrate his hirsute appearance. His younger sister, the highly sociable literary lady and bluestocking Mrs Montagu, wrote sardonically that her brother had become a modern Diogenes: ‘he flies the life of London, and leads a life of such privacy and seriousness as looks to the beholder like wisdom’.3 Ouch. Evidently his nearest and dearest were not impressed. His two younger sisters remained busy and productive: Elizabeth Montagu (1718-1800), later dubbed ‘Queen of the Blues’, and Sarah Scott (1723-95), the novelist and translator, whose Millennium Hall (1763) envisaged a harmonious community of women without men.4

For his part, Rokeby wrote and said nothing memorable, despite looking ever more like a wizard in his later years, He did not do anything to foster swimming or sea-bathing. His eccentric pastime remained a purely private matter, which ended only with his peaceful death in bed, unmarried and childless. His estate and the barony passed to a cousin.

What did all it mean? Rokeby’s lifestyle suggests a personal quest for ecological simplicity, before there was an ecological movement to join him or for him to join. He does not seem to have been personally unhappy; or, at any rate, did not announce any disquiet. Yet his story seems at very least to have been one of unrealised talents, particularly when contrasted with his siblings.

A second case of self-isolation was that of John Tallis (1675-1755). As reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine, he stayed in bed for the last 30 years of his life, swathed in coverings and with a peg on his nose, in a darkened, draught-proof room in a country inn at Burcot (Worcestershire).5 He saw no-one but a few occasional visitors, impelled by curiosity – and his servants, who replaced his bed annually.

Insofar as he justified his strange lifestyle choice, Tallis claimed, to general bemusement, that his morbid fear of fresh air was triggered by an old beldame’s curse. Evidently, he had sufficient funds to pay for his lodging and minimal keep. And no family intervened to try to change his mind. Throughout, Tallis declined to seek medical or even spiritual help for what seemed to be a prolonged and debilitating physical and/or psychological malady.

By the end of his life, he was becoming classed among the ranks of great British eccentrics. His sad tale probably provided the inspiration for William Wordsworth’s later ballad The True Story of Goody Blake and Harry Gill (1798). That jingling poem recounted a malediction directed at a wealthy but hard-hearted farmer, who had no compassion for a poor old woman gleaning in his hedgerow.6 His penalty for an icy heart was then to lie abed, forever chilled:

Oh!  what’s the matter?  what’s the matter?
What is’t that ails young Harry Gill?
That evermore his teeth they chatter,
Chatter, chatter, chatter still.
Of waistcoats Harry has no lack,
Good duffle grey, and flannel fine;
He has a blanket on his back,
And coats enough to smother nine.

Wordsworth’s imaginative evocation was much more vivid than anything communicated by Tallis, who gave no further explanation of his condition. The poet’s moral was that a flinty heart brought its own penalty. Property-owners should not begrudge the poor who gleaned in the fields and hedgerows, Wordsworth concluded pointedly.7

Tallis’s own inert self-isolation baffled everyone during his lifetime. Such a fatalistic belief in a personal curse already seemed like a relic of a bygone age, if that was indeed his motivation. It may simply have been an excuse for doing what he wanted, although his 30 year bed-rest did not seem very enjoyable. Certainly no witnesses to Tallis’s fate made any move to get him exorcised or the notional curse removed.

However, thanks to the transmuting power of poetry, this eccentric case of self-isolation prompted Wordsworth’s appeal for liberal warm-heartedness. ‘A-bed or up, by night or day;/ His teeth they chatter, chatter still,/ Now think, ye farmers all, I pray,/ Of Goody Blake and Harry Gill’. It’s always open to self-isolates to explain themselves to the wider world. But, if they don’t, then others will have a stab at doing so for them. After all, the moral is that isolates are not actually alone. The human community is watching, trying to detect a message.

ENDNOTES:

1 K.T. Rowe (ed.), Social Isolation, Participation and Impact upon Mental Health (New York, 2015); R. Fiorella, R. Morese and S. Palermo, Social Isolation: An Interdisciplinary View (2020).

2 J. Timbs, English Eccentrics and Eccentricities (1875); E. Sitwell, The English Eccentrics (1933); D. Long, English Country House Eccentrics (Stroud, 2012); S.D. Tucker, Great British Eccentrics (Stroud, 2015).

3 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Robinson,_2nd_Baron_Rokeby.

4 J. Busse, Mrs Montagu, Queen of the Blues (1928); S.H. Myers, The Bluestocking Circle: Women, Friendship and the Life of the Mind in Eighteenth-Century England (Oxford, 1990).

5 Gentleman’s Magazine (March 1753), p. 123.

6 J.A. Sharpe, A Fiery and Furious People: A History of Violence in England (2016), pp. 251-2.

7 W. Wordsworth, Poetical Works, ed. T. Hutchinson (1920), pp. 536-7.

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MONTHLY BLOG 113, LIGHT FROM THE LAMP OF EXPERIENCE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Fig.1, A hand-held eighteenth-century lantern, its lighted candle providing an immediate pool of light.

‘The Lamp of Experience’ is a marvellous phrase. A lantern throws light. It does not insist dogmatically but instead conveys sufficient illumination for good judgment. ‘Experience’ is also a vital component of the phrase. It implies not just a list of facts from history but also the capacity to cogitate about past events and to learn from them. Moreover, experience can be gleaned not just from each individual’s personal life but from the collective experiences of humanity as a whole.

During the current pandemic, for example, people can learn instructive lessons from comparable past global disasters. Factual histories provide suggestive evidence of what was done, what was not done, and what could have been done better.1 And imaginative literature allows people to share the range of subjective emotions and reactions which may be triggered by great and unexpected disasters.2 It allows for a sort of mental rehearsal. Needless to say, imaginative fiction is not written primarily for utilitarian purposes. And far from all happenings that can be conjectured will actually transpire. (Time Travel provides a pertinent example). Nonetheless, imaginative literature, even when imagining things that are technically impossible, contributes to the stock of human creativity. And thoughts and dreams, as much as deeds and misdeeds, all form part of the human experience.

There is additionally a pleasant irony in on-line references to ‘the Lamp of Experience’. Various web-lists of famous quotations attribute the dictum to Edward Gibbon (1737-94), Britain’s nonpareil historian. The full statement runs as follows: ‘I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging the future but by the past’. But that formulation does not accord with Gibbon’s impersonally magisterial and often ironic style. The words are spikier, and more personalised.

In fact, their true author is also credited on the web; and maybe with time the accurate citations will crowd out the error. True, the general observation does not lose its force by being misattributed. Yet credit should go where credit was due. The reference was first made in a celebrated speech by a Virginian planter-turned-lawyer, named Patrick Henry (1736-99).3 He was an exact contemporary of Gibbon. But they differed in their politics. Henry was an American critic of British rule. In 1765, he used his knowledge of legal precedents to argue that the Westminster government’s attempt at imposing the unpopular Stamp Tax upon the American colonists was unconstitutional.4

Lawyers, like historians, were accustomed to weighing and pondering evidence before making judgments. In this case, Henry was using the ‘lamp’ of past experience for radical purposes. His arguments, while rejected by Britain, were popular in the American colonies; and in 1776 Henry became the first Governor of Virginia post-Independence. Manifestly, his appeal to experience had not produced universal agreement. As already noted, studying history provides options, not a universal blueprint for what it to be done.

Fig.2 Engraved portrait of the intent figure of Patrick Henry (1736-99), his eye-glasses pushed up onto his lawyer’s wig: a Virginia planter who turned to law and politics, Patrick Henry served as first and also sixth post-colonial Governor of the State of Virginia.

What, then, is the appeal and power of the past? The truth is that Henry’s dictum, while evocative, does not go nearly far enough. Experience/history provides much, much more than a pool of light. It provides the entire bedrock of existence. Everything comes from the past. Everyone learns from the past. The cosmos, global biology, languages, thought-systems, the stock of knowledge, diseases, human existence …  arrive in the present from the past.5

All that is because Time is unidirectional. Humans live in the present but have to rely upon the collective databank of past human experience. That great resource is not just a lamp, sending out a single beam. Instead, collective experience provides the entire context and content of surviving successfully in Time. All humans, as living histories, are part of the process, and contribute their personal quota. The better, fuller and more accurate is that collective knowledge, the better the long-term prospects for the species.

Humans in history are restless problem creators. Yet they are also impressive problem solvers. It’s time, not just for renewed human escape from an obvious viral danger, but equally for urgent collective action to halt, and where possible to reverse, the accelerating environmental degradation, which is damaging the global climate and global biodiversity – let alone the global habitat of humans.

Now needed – not just a Lamp but a mental Sunburst, drawing upon experience and transmuting into sustained action. Stirring times! What comes from the past will have a mighty effect on the future. And decisions taken in the present contribute crucially too.
1 See e.g. M. Honigsbaum, A History of the Great Influenza Pandemics: Death, Panic and Hysteria, 1830-1920 (2013; ppbk 2020)..

2 D. Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1722; and many later edns); A. Camus, La Peste (Paris, 1947), in Eng. transl. by S. Gilbert as The Plague (1960).

3 P. Henry, ‘Speech at 2nd Virginia Convention, 23 March 1775’, in L. Copeland and L.W. Lamm (eds), The World’s Great Speeches (New York, 1999), pp. 232-3; T.S. Kidd, Patrick Henry: First among Patriots (New York, 2011).

4 P.D.G. Thomas, British Politics and the Stamp Act Crisis: The First Phase of the American Revolution, 1763-9 (Oxford, 1975); E.S. and H.M. Morgan, The Stamp Act Crisis: Prologue to Revolution (1974; 1995).

5 P.J. Corfield, ‘All People are Living Histories’ (2007), available on PJC website www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk/essaysonwhatishistory/pdf1

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MONTHLY BLOG 112, ON RECONSIDERING THE (INTERRUPTED) FUTURE

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Fig.1 Silhouettes of grass in fog

It is not possible to learn from the future that has not yet unfolded. The unidirectional nature of Time forbids it. So when people assert airily: ‘We don’t learn from the past’, I am incredulous. What? Of course, humans must learn from the past because they can’t learn from the future – and the unstable present, in which they learn, is constantly morphing, nano-second by nano-second, into the past.

However, while humans can’t learn from the future, it is certainly pertinent to think again about future expectations, now that routine life has been so suddenly interrupted. Diaries that were full of engagements and plans have suddenly been voided. The clear future has become foggy. It’s disconcerting but educational, particularly for those, like myself, living voluntarily under something near to house-arrest for the duration of the health emergency.

In fact, humans have a lot of advance knowledge about the long-term future. One certainty, confirmed by universal past experience, is that all living creatures will, sooner or later, die. Generally, however, humans manage to live their daily lives without dwelling on that thought. But, in the middle of the Coronavirus pandemic – a contemporary plague – an awareness of the reality and ubiquity of death is sharpened. It’s a valuable jolt. Remember to finish projects; to express affection; to help others; to enjoy every immediate minute; to make the mental leap into long-term history which will continue whatever; and to breathe deeply.

Then there’s the immediate future. That’s much more under personal control. Coming through the fog more clearly. Living indoors and making minimal trips outside heightens appreciation of the usefulness of daily routines. It helps to have a structure to the day, without over-organising. Remember to exercise; to laugh; to contact friends; to eat healthily; to think about others; to do a daily crossword; to study history; to tend the plants; to listen to music (sometimes to sing); and (vital for me personally) to write.

Yet the most problematic area of the suddenly interrupted future is the uncertainty of the intermediate span of the soon-to-follow weeks, months and years. Very far ahead will look after itself. Close at hand can be managed. But the intermediate future is the foggiest of all. Very disconcerting. For how long will the lockdown continue? Will the containment policy work? For how long will the population consent to the current state of affairs? Will historians judge the government’s efforts kindly or unkindly? Will the laid-back Swedish approach to the health emergency prove to have been the right one? How far will life in Britain be radically changed once the crisis is over? No-one knows.

Informed guesses can be ventured, based upon past experience. One pattern suggests that the people – and particularly those at the ‘foot’ of the social hierarchy – will want major reforms, after the great upheaval and sacrifices of a collectively fought war. Yet the actual outcome is unknown.

The foggy shapelessness of the intermediate future contains threats and promises. Remember to roll with the punches; to keep a measured optimism; to avoid being disconcerted by history’s capacity to spring surprises; to recall also the staying power of history’s deep continuities; to be ready to resume life outdoors and on the move; to enjoy hugging friends and family again; to look for the wood in the trees – the big picture in the daily details – the pattern emerging from the fog; and, above all, to embrace the unknown future, which will become the past from which humans can learn. Unseen, social energies are being recharged. Through the fog,  community options are emerging. Yet only Time will reveal the precise story, as it always does.

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MONTHLY BLOG 111, THREE RULES FOR WRITING A REGULAR BLOG

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

 

Fig.1 After Henry Robert Morland,
Writing by Candlelight (mid-C18)

Firstly and inevitably: have something to say.1 No point in writing just to fill the blank page. And, more particularly, decide on the topic at least two or three days in advance. That system gives a good chance to mull over ideas, phrases, and half sentences, in quiet moments well before writing. (Such cogitations are good subjects to think about while on a long, non-taxing walk, or while swimming up and down in a quiet pool). Lateral thinking and inventiveness is a great prelude to the sequential progression of writing. And the more that ideas have been mulled over beforehand, the easier the writing becomes. It flows as if from inner dictation. A good style should then be conversational, not didactic.

Secondly: dedicate a quiet place and a good slab of unbroken time for the actual writing process. Ban emails, regular mail, phone-calls, texts, real-life visits, and all other distractions for the duration. Press right on to the end. In the event of any necessary stoppage to check sources or for any other reason, keep the break as short as possible – and don’t use it as an excuse to divert into another task, no matter how urgent. Remember the story of Coleridge in 1797, when he had written 54 lines of his enigmatic poem Kubla Khan. He was disrupted by ‘a person on business from Porlock’. When the visitor departed an hour later, Coleridge found, to his mortification, that the muse had left him.2 The poem remained A Vision in a Dream: A Fragment. Whether it would or would not have been an even greater work if twice the length, and/or whether the ‘person’ was a real visitor or a proxy in Coleridge’s mind for his inability to complete, does not matter. ‘Porlock’ is the codeword for an untimely break in literary concentration. So take care to avoid being Porlocked, while in creative flow. (Writing longer works, which cannot be completed in one session, requires a different strategy. Yet the same principle applies: learn to concentrate. It’s a great ability to acquire, in this era of multiple electronic distractions.)

Thirdly: embed the writing in its context, with footnotes or short references in brackets, if appropriate. The point is not to make a show of learning; or, even less, to bore impatient readers. Nonetheless, it’s helpful for them to know when authors are relying on their own invention and when they are using sources or citing information which can be corroborated. (It’s especially important, when fake news and information are proliferating, to know that authors have not simply made up the evidence that they are quoting in support of their case). In other words, citations supply intellectual scaffolding for original thoughts. New insights build upon the existing stocks of knowledge. Retrospectively, indeed literary detectives can unpick the background building blocks of even the most off-the-wall creative works: John Livingston Lowes did just that in inspired style when sleuthing the origins of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan.3 Writers of BLOGs are considerably more earthbound than was Coleridge. But all are using words to communicate. All with a mixture of originality and authenticated information. Then end with a ‘snappy dictum’, such as the following (ten words): Regular BLOGS need uninterrupted time to fuse inspiration and information.  

ENDNOTES:

1 Please note that there are plenty of web-BLOGPOSTS on this very theme.

2 As recounted by Coleridge in Preface to 1816 edition of his poems: see E.H. Coleridge (ed.), The Poems of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1912; in 1964 reprint), p. 296.

3 J.L. Lowes, The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of Imagination (1927; and many later edns).

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MONTHLY BLOG 110, THE (POLITICAL) RED-GREEN ALLIANCE

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)

Call it a political RED-GREEN alliance. Call it a loose political RED-GREEN federation. Even a move towards a full-blown RED-GREEN party merger? But enough shilly-shallying. It’s time for action.

The global climate emergency makes that clear enough. If there are any continuing doubters, then mark the words of David Attenborough to the World Economic Forum in January 2019. Or study the data provided in the 2019 State of the Global Climate report by the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organisation, based in Geneva.Or heed calls from Greta Thunberg and many schoolchildren for urgent action, not distant promises. Or view images of exceptional wildfires in Australia and Spain; abnormally extended droughts in Somalia and parts of the USA; unseasonal floods and rainfall in Brazil, India, Thailand and many other countries; and melting glaciers in Antarctica.3

Everyone needs to take action; and political parties should take a lead. Needless to say, organisations in opposition have less power than those in office. But it is simply not true that those outside Westminster/Whitehall are toothless, fangless lap-poodles. Governments respond to public opinion, public pressure, public lobbying, public agitation, public emergencies. Look at the way that green issues are zooming to the forefront of politics, far ahead of the rate at which Green politicians are gaining control of central government power.4

It’s more than time for political parties to move out of their traditional comfort-zones. And the defeat of the Left in the 2019 general election shows that the electorate is also changing – and not in favour of the opposition in its current form.

What should the Labour Party in Britain do? Keep its proud red flag and its commitment to redistribution of power to the people and the ending of vast and unproductive economic inequalities. But simultaneously it should ally itself politically with the Green Party. And that means an active alliance, with electoral agreements, locally, regionally and nationally.

What should the Greens in Britain do? Keep their proud green flag and their commitment to ecological transformation and the ending of vast and unproductive economic inequalities. But simultaneously it should ally itself politically with the Labour Party. And that means an active alliance, with electoral agreements, locally, regionally and nationally.

Both parties share great swathes of common ground, so that an alliance is feasible as well as desirable. Changes should be made with reasonable speed, to show the electorate and the Tory government that the opposition has woken to the need for fundamental transformation. It’s a pledge of sincerity to begin with self-reform at home. And it strengthens campaigns to bring red-green issues together to the political forefront, which can be done firstly from opposition, and later from government.

A PERSONAL NOTE: This BLOG is written by someone who has been a member of the Labour Party since 1959 and remembers the days when the party had millions of card-carrying members. During the years, she has been at times in accord with the Labour leadership; at other times not.    But the point of being a persistent grass-root is not to be perfectly happy at every moment.

Instead, party members make whatever personal contribution they can to a long-term movement, which is bigger and more important than them. Keir Starmer is right that the Labour Party needs to be seen as a continuing force for good. And, in these turbulent times, the big next step is to work hand-in-hand with the Greens. In alliance – in federation – in merger: the details matter less than the urgent need to renovate the Left and cope with the climate emergency.

1 https://www.coolearth.org/2019/01/the-garden-of-eden-is-no-more-sir-david-attenborough.

2 https://public.wmo.int/en/our-mandate/climate/wmo-statement-state-of-global-climate

3 www.theguardian.com/world/2019/jul/09/glacial-melting-in-antarctica-may-become-irreversible.

4 For a recent overview, see ‘Pathways to Power’, Green European Journal (2020): https://www.greeneuropeanjournal.eu/pathways-to-power-how-green-parties-join-governments/

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MONTHLY BLOG 109, HONOURING VERA BÁCSKAI (1930-2018)

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2020)
Vera Bácskai

Vera Bácskai in 2016 in image taken from Youtube Interview in Hungarian:
© Tabudöntök: Bácskai Vera a Petőfi Körrol (2016)

Behind the invariably calm, genial and ecumenical welcome accorded by Vera Bácskai to her many friends and colleagues around the world, there was a hit of something darker. ‘Melancholic’ would not be the right word. Nor would ‘bleak’. Those adjectives are far too negative. A better description would be a hint of inner stoic fortitude, indicating someone, who had faced a complex trauma of political failure and personal deprivation at the age of 26, and come through determinedly and, eventually – but only after the passage of many years –  triumphantly.

Is it saying too much, to detect all that in the personality of Vera Bácskai? I don’t think so. We live our own personal histories, which are imprinted in our personalities. Vera not only lived through turbulent times but, for a moment in November 1956, she herself was literally present in the eye of the Hungarian storm, when the Soviet army invaded Budapest.

For my part, I first met Vera Bácskai in the later 1980s, through our shared interests in urban history. We talked animatedly about research, politics, our mutual friends, our families, and our shared interests in classical music and detective stories. Not for a moment did Vera allude to her own past history, whether to exult at her youthful daring or to complain at the outcome or simply to convey basic information. She was affable but reserved. I later realised that this tough, deep silence was Vera’s way of coping with trauma. As a response, it is a well known one among veterans, particularly in earlier generations, who have faced bitter experiences in wartime or other forms of conflict.2

In the early 1950s, Vera Bácskai had been one of many youthful enthusiasts in Hungary for liberal/radical explorations of socialism and internationalism. She joined an influential network of like-minded activists, known as the Sándor Petőfi Circle.3 This debating club was so named after their national poet, the hero of the 1848 Revolution who died young in 1849 at the age of twenty-six.4 ‘Liberty and love/ These two I must have’ … Petőfi’s most famous verse couplet represented the romance and the enthusiasm of the movement. It was part of the flowering of national and cultural idealism which defined itself after World War II as renewing socialism – but was not so defined by the Soviets. The army was dispatched to crush what was termed the Hungarian Uprising or Revolution,5 just as in 1968 it was sent into Czechoslovakia to crush the Prague Spring.

Faced with absolute crisis on the streets of Budapest, the Hungarian leadership with a core of supporters retreated for safety into the Yugoslav Embassy (now the Embassy of the Republic of Serbia). It is a solid building at the conjunction of two major roads, Andrássy út and Dózsa György út, sited immediately opposite to what is now the imposing Heroes Square, celebrating the historic Magyar origins of Hungary. The situation then was tense and utterly chaotic, as bullets flew. The Hungarian Prime Minister, Imre Nagy, and numerous close colleagues in government, were ‘persuaded’ into leaving the Embassy and were promptly taken into captivity by the Soviet army. Most were immediately sent into exile, although the Hungarian leader, Imre Nagy (1896-1958), was recalled to Budapest, where he was arrested, put on trial and executed in 1958.6 (Today the confrontation between the Soviets and the Hungarian insurgents is commemorated by a modest plaque on the front wall of the building).

Fig.2 The Serbian (formerly Yugoslav) Embassy in Budapest, showing the windows of the first floor room into which the defiant leaders of the Hungarian government and key supporters had retreated, before they were taken into captivity by the Soviet Army.
Photo © Tony Belton 2019

Among the Hungarian activists who had retreated with Imre Nagy into the Embassy was the young Vera Bácskai. She too was sent into exile at Snagov in Romania, a rural commune 40km north of Bucharest. The move abruptly separated her from her very young daughter without a chance of saying farewell. They did not meet again for several years. Not surprisingly, that break caused Vera feelings of acute guilt and anxiety; and it also strained her relationship with her husband, Gábor Tánczos (1928-79), who had been secretary of the Petőfi Circle and a fellow activist. In 1958 he was sentenced to fifteen years in prison, before being released under an amnesty in 1963. However, these were not matters to which Vera ever alluded in any detail. She buried deeply both her political disappointment at failure in 1956 and her responses to the personal and familial difficulties which followed.

Once, when we were discussing the impact of ‘Hungary 1956’ upon left-wing intellectuals across Europe, I referred to the tensions between the British Communists as they disagreed upon how to respond to news of the Soviet intervention My uncle, the Marxist historian Christopher Hill, found that this event triggered a particularly torrid and unhappy era in his life. He opposed the Soviet move but he hated the disagreements with old comrades, as they argued over how to democratise the British Communist Party. When they failed, many, like Hill himself, then took the wrenching decision to leave the CP. This crisis followed a sad period in his life when his first marriage had disintegrated; and his deeply religious parents were aghast that their much-loved son was getting a divorce, at a time when such break-ups were regarded as dangerous assaults upon societal harmony. All these problems seemed to fuse into a personal and political maelstrom.7 As I spoke, Vera listened intently. And then she remarked, flatly and without emotion: ‘But this is normal, Penny’. It was an understated declaration of: ‘Me too’, but again without vouchsafing any personal details.

From the crisis of 1956 and its aftermath, Vera emerged with strengthened qualities of stoicism, dignity, self-sufficiency and resilience. These traits underpinned her charm and cheerfulness throughout. Perhaps one might speculate about her past of inner tensions from her heavy smoking, which remained a life-time habit long after she realised that it was medically harmful. Be that as it may, Vera’s way of coping with trauma worked admirably well for her. She had no need or desire to wear her heart on her sleeve.

Then in 1958 Vera was reprieved from exile and returned to Hungary. She was at that time banned from teaching. So she found a job in the Budapest Archives. The change was initially regarded as something of a come-down for a brilliant young scholar, who had studied Marxist theory and history in Russia. It provided, however, an intellectual lifeline. Vera transformed herself into an archive historian, with all the strengths which that implied. She learned to read old German, old Hungarian and Latin; immersed herself in the primary sources; and began to write an updated urban/social history that was at once knowledgeable and theoretically informed, yet without Marxist dogma.

Moreover, Vera linked her documentary expertise with topographical understanding. She knew her Budapest. And as Hungary began to open contacts with the wider world in the 1980s, visiting scholars were taken by Vera on guided walks through the old city, to see ancient housing, old churches of many denominations, Turkish baths, an old travellers’ inn with spacious stabling, and a half-built-over but surviving section of the old Pest city walls. The flavour of her work at this time was conveyed in an interview with her in 1996, which I undertook for the Journal of Urban History.8 A characteristic remark on her part stated that: ‘I did not try to be fashionable’.9 It was in this interview that she first explained to me, in very brief and deadpan style, the events of 1956 which led to her exile. I was very surprised at this information and, as I learned later, so were a number of her colleagues at Budapest’s Eötvös Loránd University, where she had eventually gained an academic post in 1991.

International links and international admiration for Vera’s work in due course began then to multiply. By the 1990s, she had become an inspirational figure both within and outside Hungary. Her role as a linchpin of the flourishing European Association for Urban History (founded 1989) was reflected in her election as President in 1996. Indeed, she remained deeply satisfied by her work as an academic; and by her close relationship with her daughter Éva and her two spirited grand-children Gergely (Gergõ) and Judit.

At no time did Vera display any interest in a return to politics. Even after the Hungarian regime change in 1989, when many of her earlier associates either returned to politics or (in the case of Imre Nagy) were rehabilitated as national heroes, she did not in any way push herself onto the public stage. Only late in her life (2016) did she did give an important interview on the Petőfi Circle, essentially bearing witness for the historical record.10

Throughout, Vera Bácskai retained her vivid interest in making connections, reaching out to new ideas, new people, new approaches. She believed passionately that knowledge flourishes best with the aid of open exchange and debate. A motif of a circle, composed of many individuals linking hands around the world would well describe her dedicated commitment – from the Petőfi Circle onwards – to an associational life.

Fig.3 Motif: Hands around the World
© WikiClipArt (2019)

To all these shared debates, Vera Bácskai brought her original research, her genial courtesy, her enjoyment of discussion, her freedom from dogma, her optimism, and her underlying deep resolve. She was a proud patriot in her love for her country and its unique language and heritage. Yet she simultaneously enjoyed the role of Budapest as a cultural hub between East and West.

Vera Bácskai herself embodied Hungary’s long tradition of liberal radicalism, which looks not inwards but outwards. She contributed to a persistent community of people striving to reconcile freedom with fairness, liberty with commitment, meritocratic learning with universalism. I honour her – from my heart as well as from my head – as a sincere friend, a wise scholar, and a brave internationalist.

ENDNOTES:

1 This account has been expanded from personal testimony given on 16 May 2019 as part of a two-day Conference in Tribute to Vera Bácskai, held at the Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest: with special thanks to Dr. Erika Szívós and her colleagues for their effective organisation, to all present for their enthusiastic participation, and to Dr. Erika Szívós again for kindly correcting errors in an initial draft.

2 See e.g. M. Ritter, ‘Silence as the Voice of Trauma’, American Journal of Psychoanalysis, Vol. 74 (2014), pp. 176-94.

3 Details in A.B. Hegedüs and T. Cox, ‘The Petőfi Circle: The Forum of Reform in 1956’, Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics, Vol. 13 (1997), pp. 108-33; and S. Hall, 1956: The World in Revolt (2016).

4 See W.N. Loew, Gems from Petőfi and Other Hungarian Poets, Translated: With a Memoir of the Former (New York, 1881).

5 G. Litván (ed.), The Hungarian Revolution of 1956: Reform, Revolt and Repression, 1953-63 (1996); L. Péter and M. Rady (eds), Resistance, Rebellion and Revolution in Hungary and Central Europe: Commemorating 1956 (2008); P. Lendvai, One Day that Shook the Communist World: The 1956 Hungarian Uprising and its Legacy, transl. A. Major (Princeton, 2008).

6 See variously P. Unwin, Voice in the Wilderness: Imre Nagy and the Hungarian Revolution (1991); K.P. Benziger, Imre Nagy, Martyr of the Nation: Contested History, Legitimacy, and Popular Memory in Hungary (2008); J.M. Rainer, Imre Nagy: A Biography (Budapest, 2002) transl. L.H. Legter (2009).

7 P.J. Corfield, ‘Christopher Hill: The Marxist Historian as I Knew Him’ (2018), in PJC website www.penelopejcorfield.co.uk/Pdf/47. For many different perspectives upon debates within British communism in 1956 and thereafter, see: D. Widgery, The Left in Britain, 1956-68 (1976); [Anon.], The Cult of the Individual: The Controversy within British Communism, 1956-8 (Belfast,1975); M. Heinemann, ‘1956 and the Communist Party’, Socialist Register, 1976 (1976), pp. 43-57; D. McNally, ‘E.P. Thompson: Class Struggle and Historical Materialism’, International Socialism, Vol. 2:61 (1993); T. Brotherstone, ‘1956 and the Crisis in the Communist Party of Great Britain: Four Witnesses’, Journal of Socialist Theory, Vol. 35 (2007), pp. 189-209.

8 P.J. Corfield, ‘A Conversation with Vera Bácskai’, Journal of Urban History, Vol. 25 (1999), pp. 514-35. See also, for her further reflections in Hungarian upon her work as a historian, A. Keszei, ‘“Én kíváncsi történész vagyok”: Interjú Bácskai Verával/ “I am a Curious Historian”: Interview with Vera Bácskai’, Korall, Vol. 1 (2000), pp. 7-18.

9 Corfield, ‘Conversation with Vera Bácskai’, p. 532.

10 Youtube Interview: Tabudöntök: Bácskai Vera a Petőfi Körrol (2016).

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