MONTHLY BLOG 122, PROPOSED ROOTS PROJECT FOR TEENAGERS

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2021)

Line Drawing of Tree & Roots:
© Vector Illustrations (2020)
65691748

It’s important for individuals to know about their personal roots, Humans all live in Time-Space (also known as the Space-Time continuum).1 And knowing a bit about personal family roots helps to locate people in their own individual spot in history and geography.

So this short essay speculates about a possible School Roots Project for children in their mid-teens. (Perhaps in a Civics class; or a part of a contemporary History course). The aim is not in any way to encourage family- bragging, whether for ‘lofty’ aristocratic lineage or for ‘authentic’ proletarian roots. Instead, the value is chiefly for the individuals concerned, to know more about themselves – and to have the chance to talk seriously about their roots with parents/ grandparents/ influential family members/ and/or any others who played a significant role in their upbringings.

Clearly teachers need to organise all such Roots Projects with great sensitivity. Not all families are happy ones. Not all older relatives will be at ease talking about the past with people of a younger generation. And thoughtful arrangements have to be made for students who are adopted, who may know little or nothing about their biological background – but who share the same human need to be socially well rooted in Time-Space. Indeed, it can well be argued that those whose position is, outwardly at least, relatively unsettled have the greatest need for this exercise in rooting, both with their adoptive families and/or with their biological families, if they can be traced.2

The more that individuals know about their personal background, the more secure they feel – the more they understand their connections with others – the better their sense of self-esteem – and the more they feel in control of their own lives. Rootedness is a prime indicator of emotional health and happiness. And the more that people are secure in their own skin, the better they can relate to others.3 They can simultaneously see their own role as part of a wider human history, set in unfolding Time which links the generations.

What then should a Roots Project for teenagers entail? The details are best left to be specified by teachers who know the relevant age-group. There’s no magic formula. Just a desire to get children talking to their parents/ grandparents/ or any other significant figures in their upbringing. At infant school level, there are many good storybooks about families; and there are projects which invite children to ask grandparents (say) simple questions, such as ‘What sort of toys did you have as a child?’ For teenagers, the discussion can be more probing – but may be hampered by years of not talking about personal matters. Therefore Projects should start modestly: asking children which adults influenced them as they grew? And then asking the youngsters to think of questions to ask the grownups in their lives?

Students should also be briefed on asking for family help with their Roots Projects. It must be stressed that all information will be used exclusively by the students. These talks will not be ‘on the record’ – here contrasting with what can happen to taped interviews as the result of formal Oral History exercises.4 Instead, the Roots Projects are intended as launch-pads for informal chats, enabling the students to write a short account of one or more significant adults who influenced their upbringing.

Afterwards, the class can be invited to share their experiences of the process. Some families will already be talkers. Others not. In every case, there is always more to be learned. Did the students find it easy or difficult to get the adults to talk? If difficult, why was that? Was it that they themselves were embarrassed? Or the parents shy? Did the talking exercise make things any easier? Did they learn anything surprising? What might they ask next time that they have a family chat? To stress again, the exercise is not a competitive exercise in bragging about comparative social backgrounds. Instead, it is an exercise in Rooting – taking specific steps in what may become a longer series of family discussions.

Generally, it’s very common for people to exclaim, at the demise of a parent, grandparent or any other significant relative or carer: ‘I wish I’d asked them more about themselves, when they were alive to tell me’. Death locks the doors to personal memories of a shared past. Rooting Projects help to open the conversations while all the protagonists are alive to relate their own histories.

ENDNOTES:

1 Whether the chosen terminology is Time-Space or Space-Time, the proposition is the same: that Time and Space are integrally yoked. For further discussion, see P.J. Corfield, Time and the Shape of History (2007), pp. 15, 9-11, 17-18, 218, 220, 248-52; and PJC current research-in-progress.

2 See e.g. J. Rees, Life Story Books for Adopted Children: A Family-Friendly Approach (2009); J. Waterman and others, Adoption-Specific Therapy: A Guide to Helping Adopted Children and their Families Thrive (Washington DC, 2018); A. James, The Science of Parenting Adopted Children: A Brain-Based, Trauma-Informed Approach to Cultivating Your Child’s Social, Emotional and Moral Development (2019).

3 R. Coleman, ‘Why We Need Family History Now More than Ever’, FamilySearch, 26 Sept. 2017: https://www.familysearch.org/blog/en/family-history-2/

4 Oral History, professionally undertaken, provides a wonderful set of original resources for historical studies: among a huge literature, see e.g. A. Zusman, Story Bridges: A Guide for Conducting Intergenerational Oral History Projects (2016); F-A. Montoya and B. Allen, Practising Oral History to Connect University to Community (2018). These Schools Rooting Projects can be regarded as early stepping stones in the same process of tapping into the powers of the human memory – and sharing them with others.

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MONTHLY BLOG 121, BEING ASSESSED AS A WHOLE PERSON – A CRITIQUE OF IDENTITY POLITICS

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[PJC Pdf/58]

One of series of Dissected Photographs by New York artist
© Michael Mapes

Friends: I want to be taken seriously as a whole person, assessed in the round. It’s positively good to feel part of a universalist personhood.1 Something that is experienced in common with all fellow humans. But how is that attitude to be encouraged, whilst simultaneously acknowledging the benefits that separatist identity politics can bring?

Social groups who have been marginalised – victims of an oppressive history – obviously gain a great deal by asserting their claims to general appreciation. Black Lives Matter. Of course they do: unequivocally and absolutely. It’s a proposition that draws strength from its utter truth.

One among the many challenges of identity politics, however, is the question of definition. Who decides who is or is not aligned with which particular identity? What happens when others persistently allocate you (for example, because of your looks) with a group with whom you personally feel little or no affinity? People of mixed ethnic heritage sometimes feel doubly excluded: their skins perhaps not dark enough for a ‘real’ Black identity, but not pale enough for a ‘real’ White one. Or perhaps children of mixed marriages may physically resemble one parent, whilst emotionally identifying with the other. What chance do such individuals have of asserting their inner sense of identity, when society instantly classifies them with the parent they physically resemble?

That point highlights another related problem of definition. An individual may have – indeed most do have – multiple identities. In my case, I could be described (variously) as a white, middle-class, heterosexual, childless woman, living in a stable partnership; as well as a Yorkshire-born Londoner, with English, British and/or European affiliations; as well as: an older person; as tolerably well-off; as a home-owner with a pension; as a coeliac (with a chronic gluten-allergy); as someone with short sight; as a professor; as an academic historian; as a bibliophile; as a left-winger; as an agnostic, reared in a cultural tradition of secularised Protestant Dissent; as a keen swimmer; as a music fan; as an amateur gardener; as a cat-lover; as someone with a sense of humour; … as an optimist …  Any of those characteristics might be used to ascribe to me a cultural identity. Some of them I would warmly endorse. Others would leave me cold, as being true (childlessness) but not being at all central to my self-definition. And yet another of those terminologies would fill me with horror. I am (or so the calendar tells me) an old woman; but I emphatically don’t self-identify as such.

There are clearly differences between what one might term ‘objective’ personal identifiers and ‘subjective’ ones. There are also different experiences in a person’s lifetime when some affiliations might assume more importance than others. For example, a sense of patriotic resistance is likely to be strongly aroused if one’s own country suddenly comes under unprovoked attack from a hostile overseas tyranny. And a sense of internationalism is conversely likely to be strengthened if one’s own country is engaged in aggressive and bloody militarism against a harmless and defenceless overseas people, whose sole act of provocation lies in their happening to inhabit strategically important or resource-rich territory.

In other words, people have multiple identities. Some of these are more important at some points in a lifetime than are others. And, indeed, some identities might seem to clash with others. For example, it is sometimes assumed that all people with capital assets should always strive to gain the maximum from their investments and to pay as little tax as possible. (Tax advisers often assert that explicitly).

Yet it can equally be argued that property-owners with a civic conscience – and also acting out of enlightened self-interest – should want to pay more taxes in order to reduce inequalities, relieve poverty, reduce environmental degradation, and promote a more harmonious and just society. These are matters of judgment, clearly. Not simply a reflex response to owning property. (One complaint about so-called ‘identity politics’ is that the concept may encourage electors to vote purely for their own immediate personal benefit rather than for wider civic considerations.2 But, in practice, voters have a multitude of concerns in play at any given point).

Identities are actually so intricate and simultaneously so personal that any cultural politics based upon stereotypical assumptions is offensive to the individuals involved. It’s annoying to be told what one is likely to think ‘as a woman’. It’s infuriating to be told that one is intrinsically and automatically a racist oppressor because of one’s light skin colour. That assertion leaves no scope for moral growth and change. White people in many societies may, for example, be initially unaware of their ethnic privileges and may share inherited prejudices about their fellow humans. Yet such views can be overturned, sometimes dramatically, sometimes gradually. As the former slave-trader John Newton wrote movingly from personal experience, in Amazing Grace: ‘My eyes were blind, yet now I see…’3

Furthermore, before getting back to the universalist concept of personhood, let’s also acknowledge that identity politics are not just invoked these days for the purpose of warm, affirmative rectifications of historic injustice. Separating people by group classification may well provoke a serious backlash. Black Lives Matter is currently opposed by a number of far-right white supremacist groups. Interestingly (on the theme of complex identities), the all-male Proud Boys in the USA include members of mixed heritage, including the current leader who identifies as Afro-Cuban, while their collective ethos is one of aggressive pro-Western, anti-feminist and anti-socialist masculinity.4

Underlying these divisions, however, there remains the universalist concept of common personhood. There are communal human characteristics and communal interests. It is thus not always relevant to enquire about the detailed personal circumstances of each individual. Being a person is enough.

Such a view was expressed with clarion force in 1849 by the young author Charlotte Brontë. She first published as Currer Bell, deliberately choosing a name which concealed her gender identity. Writing to her male publisher, she urged him to forget the conventional courtesies between the sexes.5 Those niceties too often implied condescension from the ‘superior’ male to an ‘inferior’ female. She wanted to be judged on fair terms. So Brontë urged upon him that:

to you, I am neither Man nor Woman – I come before you as an Author only – it is the sole standard by which you have a right to judge me – the sole ground on which I accept your judgment.

It was a spirited invention from a budding novelist to an established figure in the world of publishing. Charlotte Brontë’s claim thus falls within the history of personhood, and within the history of meritocracy too. And these are themes of great relevance and topicality today. Interest in individual personhood (or self) is coming up on the ropes, alongside the huge publishing boom in studies of ‘identity’. Evidence can be found in debates within philosophy,6 ethics,7 animal rights,8 theology,9 politics,10 psychology,11 law,12 anthropology,13 social welfare,14 economics,15 electoral history,16 literary studies,17 even contemporary poetry18

Becoming vividly aware of past and present injustices – and the need for systematic redress – is certainly a necessary stage in today’s identity politics. It’s understandable that people who have been stigmatised for their gender; sexuality; religion; nationality; ethnic identity; class position; personal disability; or any other quality need to express solidarity with others in like circumstances – and to get respect and contrition from the wider society, It’s also true that sometimes a counter-vailing mantle of universalism can be used as a smoke screen to hide sectional interests. Yet it is to be hoped that, in the long run, a celebration of truly shared and egalitarian human personhood will prevail. In the meantime, dear friends, please judge this communication as coming not from someone representing any one of the separate descriptive categories listed in paragraph four (above); but from a whole person.

ENDNOTES:

1 A slightly shorter version of this text appears online in Academia Letters (Jan. 2021): ; and it also constitutes PJC Pdf/58 within personal website as item 4.3.9. [Items 4.3.6 and 4.3.7 have earlier meditations on the same theme].

2 M. Lilla, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, London, Hurst & Co., 2018; A. Stoker, Taking Back Control: Restoring Universalism in the Age of Identity Politics, Sydney, NSW, Centre for Independent Studies, 2019; T.B. Dyrberg, Radical Identity Politics: Beyond Right and Left, Newcastle upon Tyue, Cambridge Scholars, 2020.

3 Words from the hymn Amazing Grace (written 1772; published 1779) by John Newton (1725-1807), reflecting the personal experience of this former slave-trader turned evangelical Christian clergyman and abolitionist.

4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Proud_Boys.

5 C. Brontë, Letter dated 16 August 1849, in M. Smith (ed.), The Letters of Charlotte Brontë, Vol. 2: 1848-51, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, p. 235.

6 D. Parfit, Reasons and Persons, Oxford, Clarendon, 1984; E. Sprague, Persons and their Minds: A Philosophical Investigation, London, Routledge, 2018.

7 G. Stanghellini and R. Rosfort, Emotions and Personhood: Exploring Fragility – Making Sense of Vulnerability, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013.

8 C. Hutton, Integrationism and the Self: Reflections on the Legal Personhood of Animals, Hong Kong, Routledge, 2019.

9 E.L Graham, Making the Difference: Gender, Personhood and Theology, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2016.

10 F. Brugère, La politique de l’individu, Paris, La République des Idées, Seuil, 2013; A. Giddens, Modernity and Self-Identity: Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, Cambridge, Polity, 1991.

11 R. Jones, Personhood and Social Robotics: A Psychological Consideration, London, Routledge, 2015.

12 J. Richardson, Freedom, Autonomy and Privacy: Legal Personhood, London, Routledge, 2015; W.A.J. Kurki, A Theory of Legal Personhood, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2019; L.M. Kingston, Fully Human: Personhood, Citizenship and Rights, New York, Oxford University Press, 2019.

13 L.P. Appell-Warren, Personhood: An Examination of the History and Use of an Anthropological Concept, Lewiston, Edwin Mellen Press, 2014.

14 P. Higgs and C. Gilleard, Personhood, Identity and Care in Advanced Old Age, Cambridge, Polity, 2016.

15 N. Makovicky, Neoliberalism, Personhood and Postsocialism: Enterprising Selves in Changing Economies, Farnham, Ashgate, 2014; reissued London, Routledge, 2016.

16 M. Lodge and C.B. Taber, The Rationalising Voter, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013; L. Mechtenberg and J-R. Tyran, Voter Motivation and the Quality of Democratic Choice, London, Centre for Economic Policy Research, 2015.

17 J.L. Gittinger, Personhood in Science Fiction: Religious and Philosophical Considerations, Cham, Switzerland, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

18 Z. Olszewska, The Pearl of Dari: Poetry and Personhood among Young Afghans in Iran, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 2015.

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MONTHLY BLOG 120, ISAAC NEWTON, WORLD RENOWNED PHYSICIST & INVENTOR OF THE CAT FLAP!?

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Downloaded from https://www.catsbest.eu/catsbest_en (Nov. 2020)

Nothing wrong with a special cat-sized doorway, of course.1 A cat flap is a handy device. But was it really invented in the late seventeenth century by Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727), the renowned physicist and mathematician?2 He was certainly a man of great ingenuity, with practical as well as theoretical powers. One important invention reliably attributed to Newton was his construction of the world’s first reflecting telescope. It incorporated specially-ground mirrors instead of refracting lenses, to remove even the slightest distortions of vision. The result was a sharper, clearer image. Today the Newtonian telescope bears his name, in tribute to its parentage.3

But Sir Isaac Newton, inventor of the cat flap? It was not that the great scientist was too grand for small matters of moment in the daily life of his contemporaries. He was for many years an energetic Master of the Mint, personally tracking down counterfeiters and dealers in clipped money.4 Indeed, Newton was a polymath, making interventions in physics, mathematics, optics and mechanics, as well as in theology and alchemy. For such a busy man, a moment spent devising a cat-flap would seem all in a hectic day’s work.

There is also a humorous side to the story. It seems to date from the early nineteenth century, and was recounted by a scholar in Newton’s Cambridge College, Trinity.5 There were apparently two holes in the stout wooden door to the rooms inhabited by the great physicist in the early 1660s. It was there that Newton had, apparently, his eureka moment. Annoyed at being disturbed by a cat repeatedly seeking to enter and leave, he cut one hole for the adult cat and, next to it, a smaller one for her kitten.6 (One version of the story has Newton cutting three small holes for three kittens). Aha! ‘Even Homer nods’, as the saying has it. Later generations could laugh indulgently at the great scientist, who had apparently overlooked the obvious fact that her kittens could easily pass through the mother cat’s aperture. Even a Newton, while gazing at the cosmos, can make simple errors on his own doorstep.

And so was born an urban legend. There is in fact no evidence that Newton, who was a self-sufficient intellectual and psychological loner, had any close physical relationships either with his fellow humans (whatever his private desires) or with domestic pets. Nonetheless, urban legends variously provide him with a cat, named Spithead; and, for good measure, a dog, named Diamond. These ‘facts’ are regularly repeated on the web, despite much debunking. And, as with all legends, they are continuously embroidered and developed.

Newton is likely therefore to retain his web-title as inventor of the cat-flap for some years to come. The fact that various apertures cut for scavenging cats in barn- and farm-doors had existed for centuries – even for millennia – does not manage to halt the mythology. One venerable cat-hole survives at the Chetham Library, Manchester, built 1421;7 and some others are still to be found.French carved oak door with cat hole, c.1450-1500: from Wikimedia Commons

French carved oak door with cat hole, c.1450-1500: from Wikimedia Commons (2020).

Nonetheless, people like to have specific dates and details for specific developments.8 So Sir Isaac Newton provides a neat time-line for the feline-friendly cat-flap. Moreover, the homely invention humanises his glittering but distinctly remote genius. It brings the international sage down to earth – and salutes him with a hint of ironic laughter too. All very well, as long as the Newtonian cat-flap is recalled purely as unverified urban legend – without the specificity of the Newtonian telescope or the Newtonian laws of gravity.

ENDNOTES:

1 This is my fourth and last BLOG on eighteenth-century cats. They are collateral outputs from detailed research, on which 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

2 Among a huge literature, see I.B. Cohen, The Newtonian Revolution (Cambridge, 1980); J. Gleich, Isaac Newton (2003); R. Iliffe, Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (Oxford, 2017); N. Guicciardini, Isaac Newton and Natural Philosophy (2018).

3 For context, see G. Andersen, The Telescope: Its History, Technology and Future (Oxford, 2007).

4 J.H.M. Craig, Newton at the Mint (Cambridge, 1946).

5 ‘A Trinity-Man’ [J.F.M. Wright], Alma Mater: Or, Seven Years at the University of Cambridge (1827), Vol. 1, p. 17,

6 https://3milliondogs.com/catbook/did-you-know-issac-newton-invented-the-cat-flap/.

7 https://library.chethams.com/.

8 A verified development in recent times is the invention of the microchip cat-flap after years of research (2005-7), by Dr Nick Hill, like Newton a Cambridge physicist:

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MONTHLY BLOG 119, THE FELINE MUSE IN THE LONG EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY

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Fig.1: William Hogarth’s alert cat, ears pricked, teeth bared, claws unleashed, and intent gaze fixed upon its notional prey (a caged bird)– revealing the feral cat within the domestic pet. Source: detail from Hogarth’s Portrait of the Graham Children (1742).

Fig.1: William Hogarth’s alert cat, ears pricked, teeth bared, claws unleashed, and intent gaze fixed upon its notional prey (a caged bird)– revealing the feral cat within the domestic pet.
Source: detail from Hogarth’s Portrait of the Graham Children (1742).

Cats in Britain changed their roles decisively in the course of the long eighteenth century.1 They switched from being rat-catchers-in-chief into much treasured domestic pets. Of course, the changeover was not absolute. There were pet cats before this period; and there were rat- and mouse-catching cats long afterwards. Nonetheless, this era was a prime time of change, as Britain launched into its new history as a world leader in terms of urbanisation, commercialisation and (later) industrialisation. Families in town houses increasingly cultivated the companionship of cats not as on-site pest controllers (though that might be an agreeable by-product) but as domestic pets.

Two quick pointers confirm the process of adaptation. One was the growing number of men who worked as professional rat-catchers, undertaking the task more systematically than did domestic cats, which tended to fall asleep after dining well. And the second was the emergence of a regular market in pet food. Vendors known as ‘cat’s-meat men’ (who actually included a few women) walked the town streets with barrows of chopped horsemeat, purchased from the knackers’ yards. Such supplies preceded the tinned catfood which took over the market from the 1920s. Owners wanted their sleek, well-fed pets constantly on hand – not hungrily prowling in garrets and basements in search of food.

In this changed domestic environment, it was not surprising that many felines, snugly ensconced indoors, provided welcome companionship to authors sitting for long hours at their sedentary profession. Much the most famous eighteenth-century cat is the black-coated Hodge, which patiently kept Dr Johnson company while he toiled over his great Dictionary of the English Language (1755). This animal was not in fact the only feline pet in the household. But he was considered to be Johnson’s favourite. (In 1997 a sympathetic statue to Hodge was erected in Gough Square, outside the London townhouse which Dr Johnson rented between 1748 and 1759. Sometimes tourists place coins on the plinth or hang ribbons on the statue, for good luck).2

Other literary figures who were known as cat lovers included the writer and art connoisseur Horace Walpole; the mystic poet Christopher Smart; the legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham, who was one of the first protagonists of animal rights; the Poet Laureate Robert Southey, whose home at Greta Hall in Keswick was full of cats; the ‘Gothic’ author Mary Shelley; and the novelist Sir Walter Scott, whose tabby named Hinse (sometimes spelt Hinx) reportedly tyrannised over his pack of dogs.

Moreover, at least fourteen eighteenth-century poets were inspired by the feline muse. Their ranks included (chronologically) Anne Finch; John Gay, James Thomson; Thomas Gray; Christopher Smart; Percival Stockdale; Anna Seward; William Cowper; William Wordsworth; P.B. Shelley; Joanna Baillie; John Keats; John Clare – and (out of chronological sequence because his feline theme was somewhat exceptional) William Blake. His beautiful and enigmatic ballad saluted the ‘Tyger, tiger, burning bright’ (1794).3 But all the rest, however surprising it may seem (the ‘romantic’ Wordsworth? Keats? Shelley?), wrote poems about domestic cats.

Sometimes they wrote about specific animals. So the poet and anti-slavery campaigner Percival Stockdale wrote verses to commemorate Hodge, the favourite cat of his close friend Dr Johnson. While others wrote about archetypal cats. The poet and hymnodist William Cowper used a feline example to point a moral. His poem to The Retired Cat (written 1791) told the tale of a cat which was shut by mistake into a chest of drawers and left for long hours without food. It taught the imperious puss the invaluable lesson that the world did not revolve around her. But the moral was universal, as Cowper explained: ‘Beware of too sublime a sense/ Of your own worth and consequence!’ 4

Having enjoyed all these poems, my award for the weakest of these effusions goes to one by P.B. Shelley. His epigrammatic Verses on a Cat (c.1800) stress that the causes of suffering among all living creatures are diverse: ‘You would not easily guess/ All the modes of distress/ Which torture the tenants of earth’.5 In one specific case, however, the problem was clear:

But this poor little cat
Only wanted a rat,
To stuff its own little maw

It’s unfair, however, to laugh at Shelley’s plonking verse. It was an example of his very youthful wordplay, at the age of 8 or 9; and not written for posterity. Indeed, for a neophyte poet, the sentiments were impressively mature. Anyway it was saved by Shelley’s sister and published after the poet’s early death aged thirty, when no doubt all mementoes were being treasured.

In fact, all these eighteenth-century feline verse tributes are notable in their different ways. They range from tender to comic; from well-observed to schematic. Collectively, they confirm the ubiquity of cats in the eighteenth-century domestic scene.

Standing out from the pack, two poems record particularly graceful tributes to felinity. Best known is Thomas Gray’s Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes (1748).6 It’s wryly witty. And it ends with the poet’s sage observation that covetousness should not be taken too far.

Not all that tempts your wandering eyes
And heedless hearts, is lawful prize,
Nor all that glisters, gold.

Most wonderfully, however, Christopher Smart’s mid-century ruminations on his cat Jeoffry evoke a real living animal. The 74-line section appears within a much longer mystic-philosophical verse outpouring, entitled Jubilate Agno [Rejoice in the Lamb of God]. The work was not published until long after the poet’s death; and these days the Jeoffry section is often extracted as a separate poem. It is too long to quote in its entirety here. But it is written by a cat-lover, who, whilst struggling with personal anguish,7 wanted to record the special charm of his companion Jeoffry: ‘For he is a mixture of gravity and waggery’.8

As cats came to reign majestically upon the domestic hearth, the feline muse was considerably enhanced. No disrespect to other indoor pets. Or to those magnificent outdoor companions: dogs9 and horses.10 But the feline mixture of caution, companionship, and curiosity makes them potent triggers to innovative thought and cultural creativity. As well as featuring in traditional folkloric tales and magical spells, cats are now commemorated in novels, poems, art, cartoons, films, songs, opera, musicals, philosophical debates and scientific concepts (hello/goodbye to Schrödinger’s cat) and, of course, proverbial sayings. It’s seriously enough to make a cat laugh …

ENDNOTES:

1 For further context, 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.

2 But Hodge has rivals in fame. See P.J. Corfield, ‘An Eighteenth-Century Folly Builder, and Cat Lover’, Monthly BLOG 117 (Sept. 2020); and idem, ‘Commemorating Another Feisty Eighteenth-Century Sea-Going Cat’, Monthly BLOG 118 (Oct. 2020).

3 W. Blake (1757-1827), The Tyger (1794), in K. Raine (ed.), A Choice of Blake’s Verse (1970), p. 61.

4 W. Cowper (1731-1800), The Retired Cat (1791) in W. Hayley (ed.), The Life and Posthumous Writings of William Cowper … (Chichester, 1803), Vol. 1, p. 258.

5 P.B. Shelley (1792-1822), Verses on a Cat (1800; publ. 1858), in T. Hutchinson (ed.), The Chief Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley (1907), p. 829.

6 T. Gray, On the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes (1748), in F.T. Palgrave (ed.), The Golden Treasury … (1861; 1959), pp. 138

7 C. Mounsey, Christopher Smart: Clown of God (2001); N. Curry, Christopher Smart (Horndon, 2005).

8 C. Smart (1722-71), Jubilate Agno (c.1759-63; 1st pub. 1939), in idem, A Selection of Poetry, ed. D. Wheeler (2012), pp. 43, 123.

9 F. Jackson (ed.), Faithful Friends: Dogs in Life and Literature (1997); K.W. Chez, Victorian Dogs, Victorian Men: Affect and Animals in Nineteenth-Century Literature and Culture (Columbus, Ohio, 2017).

10 K. Raber and T.J. Tucker, The Culture of the Horse: Status, Discipline and Identity in the Early Modern World (Basingstoke, 2005); S. Forrest, The Age of the Horse: An Equine Journey through Human History (2016).

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

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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.

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.4 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.7 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.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.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’.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.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.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

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

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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