“Stick to the facts!” said the dictatorial Thomas Gradgrind in trying to teach their reliability to the schoolchildren in his class, “the little pitchers before him’, in the 1854 novel Hard Times by Charles Dickens.
The question of interpreting a well-publicised fact is very much the centre of the latest find at Beamish Museum, County Durham, a handwritten letter by one of the railway pioneers, George Stephenson.
To be specific, the museum acquired two letters, one from George Stephenson, which I shall detail, and the other letter from George’s son, Robert, who was as much a bridge-builder as a railwayman.
Robert’s letter was dated London, May 12, 1836. In it were the moans and groans of a rival, Joseph Locke, a former understudy to George Stephenson.
Railway memorabilia, artefacts and relics had always come in piecemeal over the years such as the nature of retrieval for any museum. Andy Guy, an in-house researcher for Beamish Museum at the time of the letter finds in 1997 said: ‘they had been with an art dealer who had stored them for years.”
In 1996, I undertook my own research into the railway pioneers; my plan was to write a play with songs. In the end, there were more songs than drama. I had written seven song lyrics under a working title: Coupling/Uncoupling. Then when I discovered a local newspaper report on the Beamish letter finds, I wrote another song lyric based upon the George Stephenson letter.
The main figure in the letter was his second wife Elizabeth, who was usually known by her nickname Betty. Her maiden name was Hindmarsh. She was a farmer’s daughter from a large farm at Black Callerton near Newcastle upon Tyne. As to George’s love life, her parents were not keen on their daughter marrying a grimy pitman and so they had to meet in secret in the family’s orchard. The relationship was doomed to failure. Soon George took a fancy to a domestic servant called Ann Henderson at another nearby farm and it was reported ‘there was no dowry to add to the attraction’. Still resilient, he next made a move towards her older sister and he married Frances Henderson in 1802. Robert was born a year into the marriage. But George’s wife died three years later in 1806.
Meanwhile, as Hunter Davies recounted in his biography on George Stephenson, ‘she [Elizabeth] declared she would never marry anyone else – and she didn’t’. There was a 13 year gap until he married Elizabeth. By that time, George was a ‘big catch’ as Hunter Davies goes on to say:
‘… [he was] an important engine-wright, earning over £200 a year, with a large cottage, several hundred pounds in savings and investments, turning down offers and jobs all over Tyneside’.
When the letter in question was written George was living at Tapton House, a Georgian mansion near Chesterfield, Derbyshire, a property he had bought in 1838. By then George Stephenson was a household name, known for winning the Rainhill Trials with his locomotive The Rocket. He received dignitaries from home and abroad and many other wealthy friends, but also some hangers-on. They all had to participate into one of his many hobbies, for he built a contraption for taking the fingerprints of his invited guests and visitors. Such were his suspicions that his favourite saying ‘Never judge a goose by its stuffin’ I made as the title to one of my song lyrics.
Here is some idea of how was living then as Hunter Davies recalled:
When his sister Nelly [Eleanor], the one who’d brought up Robert, came down to visit her famous brother, the first thing that amazed her were the number of windows. She counted 90 – 89 more than the whole family had had when they’d slept, all of them, in one room at Wylam. It seems a ridiculous size for a canny northerner, with only a wife to help him occupy it, but by now he had rather a large domestic staff, including an old farmer from Killingworth who in earlier years had helped him read and write.
The letter was addressed to a “William Hardcastle, Esq, MD, Westgate Street, Newcastle upon Tyne”, a reply to his recent social visit. He was a surgeon and physician to George Stephenson and his family.
It must be assumed from the opening paragraph that Mrs Stephenson had left early to go into Chesterfield. On the way she had stopped by the railway station, but, unfortunately, she had misread the train timetable, and it was made all the more amusing as she was the wife of the famous railwayman. George wrote: ‘[She had] only got down to the bottom of the park when the train passed’. Evidently, Mrs Stephenson had prolonged her shopping expedition in Chesterfield and, considering their visitors, she had decided to buy a basket of strawberries ‘and a most beautiful melon for old Mrs Hardcastle’, which George described in a business-like manner ‘[that it] came under my management after dinner and I assure you it was most luxurious’. The fact that the melon was bought for Mrs Hardcastle made it clear there was an arrangement to hand over the fruit to the doctor and his wife at Chesterfield station and for them to eat both fruits n their journey back home to Newcastle.
So this opening paragraph was nothing but a confession to Doctor Hardcastle and his wife as to why Mrs Stephenson was unable to meet them as arranged and to tell them about their missed fruit.
But that wasn’t the end of it: what was essentially a man’s letter to a man and generally patronising to women.
At the beginning of the second paragraph, much longer than the first, it closed the letter. George commented on his wife’s other shopping in Chesterfield that day with her buying a bonnet for herself, and what turned out to be:
‘… two pounds for such a thing! I suppose a nice straw bonnet might have been got for 5 or 8 shillings – what a waste of money for taste, and taste for what? For something for other people to look at, that you don’t care one fig about – comfort and decency ought to be considered but nothing more’.
George ranted on about domineering women in biblical hyperbole, and what would today be described as sexist:
‘Eve coaxing Adam to eat the forbidden fruit she engendered into her female offspring the controlling power over man, and I suppose we must quietly bend to their wishes: to attempt to turn them is like turning the tide in the Ocean’.
George ended things by carping on again about the cost of his wife’s bonnet, highlighting it with a romantic set of double exclamation marks.
Andy Guy had filed the letter find as The Husband’s Lament and added: ‘He [George] always had a strong dislike for “showy” dress’. This may in part be explained by his upbringing.
George had a sense of pride though in things he had done for himself on a practical level. As Andy Guy noted further about his time at Tapton House. ‘In these later years, he was interested in growing fruit and vegetables and gave great time and trouble to the problem of producing straight cucumbers’.
It seemed George never lost his inventive spirit and could turn his hand to many things.
As to the letter as a whole, it didn’t have the vocabulary usually associated with a pitman’s background. George was illiterate until he was 19 and started to have lessons on reading and writing from a Killingworth farmer. Some of his letters still showed misspellings. But he got help, for instance, from the likes of engineer Nicholas Wood in the battle over the Safety Lamp with Sir Humphrey Davy, and, of course, living off his son Robert’s knowledge about engineering when he was able to pay for his formal education. Now George had his Killingworth mentor living in at Tapton House, he could be called upon to help him out, even his signature changed into a well-developed business-like “Geo” and not “George”, something he had continued to do ever since he signed the register for his second marriage.
Overall, the idea of ‘reading it right’ was evident in the secondary source over my interest in writing my song lyric. The local newspaper report that first gave me the idea was brief and had gaps in the story. For instance, it read ‘… Mrs Stephenson [was] buying a bonnet and missing a train after looking at the wrong timetable’. It begged the question: Had she missed her own train? Was she on her own as there was no mention of the Hardcastle couple, and nothing about buying strawberries or a melon? It was only after my further investigation and re-reading that the truth was established.
Although I wasn’t writing history, I decided to keep to what had actually happened.
My song lyric is part of a set of 11 northern sketches, including Pitman’s Ditty about George’s skills as a shoe repairer. They are to be performed by schoolchildren at a Newcastle school concert in June 2013 for The Great North Festival, with music by Katie and Rosie Cochrane, the former, an Oxford University music student. To give it some authenticity, I have based my lyric on the tune to the Victorian comic song by Jacob Beuler: Shiverand Skakery, The Man That Couldn’t Get Warm. My song lyric is written with elements of Geordie:
The Tale of Betty Stephenson
The Stephensons they did invite
The Hardcastles, doctor an’ wife
One day to taste their mansion life,
Come taste their mansion life.
The Hardcastles they came by train
To stay wi’ them all day remain
An’ catch the same train back again,
The same train back again.
La, la, la, la, la, la la,
Afore they gan, Betty must gan
To shop in toon an’ buy some scram
Some scram for them – take hyem.
Now to the station Betty’s gyen,
The timetable her eyes would scan
An’ found the train that hyemward ran,
The train that hyemward ran.
She’d warked oot there was time t’ kill,
She’d buy some claes, her husband thrill,
His railway money would pay the bill,
His money would pay the bill.
La, la, la, la, la, la, la,
She’d forget the money that was not hers;
She’d make her George look up t’ her,
Our George look up t’ her.
So to the shops she felt the need,
A draper’s shop her greatest need;
A bonnet that would grace her heid,
A bonnet to grace her heid.
She tried one on wi’ laces fine,
She tried one in another line,
“This’ll look good when I wine an’ dine,
Look good when I wine an’ dine’.
La. la, la, la, la, la, la,
She went to every shop she knew;
An’ that was how her hunger grew,
That was how her hunger grew.
She’d have to leave, she couldna stay,
She bought a melon on her way;
But soon there came another delay,
There came another delay.
For loads of strawberries she did buy,
A basketful to satisfy
The Hardcastles all theirs to try,
For it’s all theirs to try.
La, la la, la, la, la, la,
An’ to the station Betty’s gyen,
To keep on track what she had planned,
On track what she had planned.
She stood upon the platform there,
No Hardcastles or train was there,
No train will come; she felt despair,
Oh, dear, she felt despair.
So what will George, he think of her?
The train she should have knaan afore
Had gyen away some time afore,
Away some time afore.
La, la, la, la, la, la, la,
For Betty she had lived the lie
An’ time how it had passed her by,
How it had passed her by.
The book referred to in my article is George Stephenson: A Biographical Study of the Father of the Railways, Hunter Davies, Quartet Books, 1975.
The George Stephenson letter appears by kind permission of Beamish Museum, County Durham.
‘Tapton House July 26th, 1844
‘My dear Sir,
‘I hope you and Mrs Hardcastle got safe home – Mrs Stephenson expected to have met you at the Station as you passed, she had unfortunately looked at the wrong time table and only got down to the bottom of the park when the train passed: she had a basket of straw berries for your party which would have saved you eating I think all the way to Newcastle and a most beautiful melon for Old Mrs Hardcastle which came under my management after dinner and I assure you it as most luxurious.
‘Mrs Stephenson is delighted with her bonnet; but only think of two pounds for such a thing! I suppose a nice straw bonnet might have been got for 5 or 8 shillings – what a waste of money for taste, and taste for what? For something for other people to look at, that you do not care a fig abut – comfort and decency ought to be considered but nothing more. But I suppose from the time of Eve coaxing Adam to eat the forbidden fruit she engendered into her female offspring the controlling power over man, and I suppose we must quietly bend to their wishes: to attempt to turn them is like turning the tide in the Ocean. However notwithstanding all their faults they can certainly sooth man when the world frowns upon him: and I suppose it is best to let them go on having their own way to a moderate degree – but only think of two pounds for a bonnet!!
‘I am my dear Sir,
‘Wm. Hardcastle Esq.’
G. F. Phillips
Published in Vintage Script: The writing magazine for all things vintage historical retro, edited by Emma Louise Oram. Winter 2013.
Nearly four years and counting, with almost 1,000 visitors a day, it’s enough time and support to review the spoken word site: listenupnorth.com.
The owner of the site, Rachel Cochrane, is a published author who has sent her work out in the past to well-established publishers, only to come to a commercial full stop – as she told me, ‘I was continually frustrated by the commissioning process.’ Hers was a typical reaction, and with the advent of digital media, she began to look at the pros and cons of setting up a spoken-word site as an alternative to the printed text. She went through the necessary financial and legal obligations of insurance (about £1,300 per annum) and a data protection fee; other key areas were publicity and finding a suitable recording studio. At last, satisfied with the technical back-up of the right web designer, she conducted a mock-run of the site before going ahead within two months from her home in Stocksfield, Northumberland.
To begin with, the site featured writers mainly from the North East because that was her home base. Then things developed through groups of writers who had grant-aided projects, such as my own involvement with a book of poetry, short stories and photographs on North Tyneside landmarks called ‘From Segedunum to the Spanish City.’ The site’s geographical area soon expanded. As Cochrane says, ‘Although it’s called listenupnorth, it’s not restricted to writers in the north. I have taken on writers from other parts of the country. To save writers travelling to record their work here, I even accept podcasts as pre-recorded material.’
Preparation is vital. First, it’s selecting the writers and their text. Whether it’s poetry, a short story or the writer or others out a piece of drama, it has to be read well and sound clear; as this is audio the work needs a strong narrative, little dialogue and no digression. After that it’s necessary to have a contract to allow the written work to be recorded. Then a profile of the writer, complete with photo, goes on the site, before a recording time is booked. This all takes time and money.
Finding writers for the site is, as Cochrane notes, ‘all about the quality of content, which must be challenging as well as down-to-earth.’ Any editorial decision is always going to be highly subjective, but she gets good feedback from other writers, and her site has not been of interest only to the budding or early career writer. Its eclecticism means an author’s age, style or track record is no barrier to being accepted. Having people read their own work is a financial consideration, but it’s also a learning curve for the writers as performers, and in hearing their own voices played back on that first take, it gives them the opportunity to appreciate what the listener hears at the other end.
The inclusion of the interview on the site is a godsend for both writer and listener – this was certainly true for me. I have been involved in a sideline of writing lyrics for several composers over the years. Also, as an adult education tutor in creative writing and literature, and giving special courses on writing lyrics and poem set to music, the interview meant free advertising. It’s a great opportunity for proven writers to discuss their interests and ambitions, and to promote their recent publications. More than anything, it’s an excellent way to raise an author’s profile. For the listener, it’s a clue to understanding the person behind the writing, and because you listen close up, it’s an intimate portrayal.
Cochrane has also moved out into the community to record writers and their work. This has often been the result of community leaders and administrators of community projects responding to the listenupnorth monthly blog, a diary of who, where, when and what has been covered on the site. For example, Cochrane recorded a women’s writing group from Easington, County Durham and duologues from Live Theatre Workshops. Writers have also come via the New Writing North Agency’s newsletter and subscribers to Facebook and Twitter.
Recently, there has been an increase in collaborations such as the site’s pairing with Writers’ Block, new publishers from Middlesbrough, with the prize winners being published in an anthology and a contract to record their work through listenupnorth.
Such joint ventures gives recognition to the authors and their work, whether it’s through the printed page or the listen-and-be-heard personal touch that Cochrane has always insisted on as crucial to her spoken-word site. She wants the way in which the site is listened to kept flexible – through a PC, downloads to an MP3 player or in a car.
The site started out at the owner’s expense. Now Cochrane admits, ‘it has become bigger than me.’ The high volume of manuscripts means a £20 reading fee has had to be introduced. As to recording, the sound production has been centralised with a move to a Tyneside studio, which is more expensive but provides greater technical support.
But Cochrane says, ‘now I am in the process of changing the way that listenupnorth operates. Plans are afoot for even greater collaboration with writers on projects that will attract funding or sponsorship to enable me to keep the website going. This new way is in the early stages and a positive step both for projects and individual writers and larger projects alongside workshops. Attracting advertising and local sponsorship is a must. Two local advertisers already support the site.’ That said – she intends to keep up the community work, and perhaps publish CD versions using the site’s archives – anything to spread the word, so to speak.
Listenupnorth has featured over 200 pieces of audio content by 69 writers including radio plays, monologues, short stories, poetry and book extracts plus author interviews. It’s been an experiment so far which has given writers the opportunity to have their work encouraged, and, for some, the all-important interview has enabled the writer behind the work to gain a wide and listening audience, not just in points north. The natural progression fort the future is to go from sole trading to a partnership of some kind.
G. F. Phillips is a member of the Society of Authors, PRS and adult education tutor.
Rachel Cochrane’s blog on setting up the site can be found at www.listenupnorth.typepad.com.
(Published in the Winter edition of The Author, 2011 and The New Writer, 2014. Another version was published on Thresholds at the University of Chichester, 2012).
A short song as part of the WEA NE at 100 years.
It’s standin’ room only in the bar
An’ the lads are full o’ glee
For we’re bound ower for the year
An’ sup as one big family.
Saturday neet is our neet oot,
Saturday neet for us lads;
An’ we’re all here for a good sing-song
An’ a good crack t’ be had.
Our pit shaft’s sunk an’ doon we gan,
We’ve dug it oot a–plenty;
An’ what we’ve won is man for man,
Like our jars they’re never empty.
Saturday neet is our neet oot, etc.
Our pianist chap he loves Woodbine
For a drink or two he’s in;
He knocks oot a tune we aal knaa
So he’ll play it ower again.
Saturday neet is our neet oot, etc.
Saturday neet is our neet oot,
Saturday neet as ever;
Then oot o’ the blue somebody shouts:
(recit) “Haven’t ye all got hymes te gan te?”
G. F. Phillips
- Saturday Night by Oliver Kilbourn. As William Feaver puts it in relation to the Mass Observation Unit’s documentation of the pitmen in the 1930s ‘the diffident photographer, always on the threshold of other people’s worlds, feeling intrusive, couldn’t hope to match [this painting’s] friends and neighbours informality.’
- (pp 90, Pitmen Painters The Ashington Group 1934-1984, William Feaver, Carcanet Press, 1993).
A version of this song was recorded for a film on the work of the WEA in its centenary year: A Century of Learning by World Sight Media Ltd, 2012.
ALTERNATIVE VERSE 4
Our pianist chap won’t play for cash
For a drink or two he plays;
The songs he knaas he won’t make flash
Because he knaas nay other way.
Saturday neet is our neet oot,
An’ we’ll sing with aal our might;
Saturday neet an’ the more we sup
Then the more we put the world t’ reets.
A short song as part of the WEA NE at 100 years.
Wi’ me an’ me pony there’s this tub,
It’s time again for haulin’;
An’ as black nuggets smash and fall,
It’s grit and sweat I’m tastin’.
Oh, Bait time is a long time comin’.
Bait time is a long way doon.
Bait time is a long time comin’.
Bait time cannot come t’ soon.
This tub is empty the filler fills,
An’ there’s little time t’ spare;
It’s thirsty work – it seems nay end
In this foul an’ dirty air -.
Oh, bait time, etc.
Now it’s our tub we must haul away
An’ it rolls an’ squeaks in the dark;
But I knaas when it’s time t’ stop
Wi’ me belly’s rumblin’ tark.
Oh, bait time, etc.
Well, me sarnies have their rich fruit seam,
Me pony grabs a bit;
An’ when it’s broken off for him
He makes short wark o’ it.
Oh, bait time was a long time comin’.
Bait time man and beast must choose.
Bait time was a long time comin’.
Bait time there’s nay time t’ lose’.
- F. Phillips
* based on a painting by Jimmy Floyd, Bait Time, 1946.
‘Experience gives to Jimmy Floyd’s Bait Time its air of complicity as the pony reaches over to take a bit of jam sandwich.’
(from Pitmen Painters: The Ashington Group 1934-1984 by William Feaver, Mid-Northumberland Arts Group, Carcanet Press, 1993).
A version of this song was recorded for a film about the work of the WEA in its centenary year: A Century of Learning, Part 2 by World Sight Media Ltd, 2012.
A short piece called ‘Eastwind’
Background to the East Wind song:
Librettist: G. F. Phillips.
Music: Michael Szpakowski.
Extract from an interview with Michael Szpakowski by Nathaneil Stern, March 2006, Rhizome Net Art News.
NS: I hadn’t seen your “Five Operas” Shockwave works (5 Operas ) , and they kind of blew me away. When were these made? Can you talk a bit about the collaborative process? The combination of Kurt Weill-like music with Brechtian themes, a bit of fluxus style- …
Can you tell me about your choices for visual representation of the sound?
MS: This project was a coming together of two lives: a personal project & a massive collaboration, which included arts outreach work. The end product is online, the original material & collaborators were gathered & recruited online, but lots of stuff happened in the real world in between.
I issued a call for opera libretti exactly 100 words in length & received a large number of submissions. Heartbreaking choosing, but I narrowed it down to five that I thought were unequivocally great. I set them to music & found singers–a chorus from a local Primary School & soloists from a Further Education (16-19 yrs) college.
It was a long series of rehearsals– the music is difficult and demanding to sing. We did a performance of the pieces one night for the kids’ parents and friends & recorded everything the next day. Then I created the visuals. A lot of these consist of found or appropriated stuff – my drawing skills are rudimentary, but I can cut & paste with the best of them…
(From East Wind, a tempera panel by Harry Wilson, one of the Pitman Painters of Ashington, 1935.)
‘In the panel, disposed around a street corner that represents all the essentials of a two-point perspective, saplings whip in the wind, figures are tugged, a newsboy blows on his fingers and, to leeward, three becalmed shoppers look at a shoe display.’
William Feaver, Art Critic of the Sunday Observer
TWO WOMEN SHOPPERS
CHORUS OF CHILDREN
(Everyone is dressed in heavy clothes for winter).
Stage left, emerging from a CHORUS of children, a NEWSBOY is pushed forward, carrying a heavy bag of newspapers. He stops, putting his heavy bag down beside him and blows on his fingers, feeling the cold. The CHORUS OF CHILDREN push him forward again. Eventually he is left to move forward on his own. He stops, looks behind him, stands stage left. He looks towards stage right.
Stage right, TWO WOMEN SHOPPERS, one rubbing her gloved hands together, the other shopper, wearing no gloves, puts her arms inside her coat, trying to keep warm.
Then stage left, the NEWSBOY, watches a WOMAN BYSTANDER move her way past him, clasping her gloved hands around her coat.
Meanwhile, the NEWSBOY picks up his heavy bag, pulls a newspaper out, before moving slowly near to her. He sings:
Get your papers!
Get your papers!
The WOMAN BYSTANDER turns to look at him.
Huh! Them papers!
They make us or break us,
Whatever way they want us t’ be
They just talk doon t’ ye an’ me.
The NEWSBOY goes to hand the WOMAN BYSTANDER a folded newspaper. She rummages deep into her coat pocket, taking her time to find some coins to give to him.
Ta, bonny lad.
The WOMAN BYSTANDER folds the newspaper into the opposite coat pocket from which she produced her coins.
Aw! Me pins are feelin’ bad
While ye stand cold an’ snivellin’
I’m gannin’ hyem a –shiverin’
CHORUS OF CHILDREN:
In that East wind
Branches bend west,
Breakin’ what’s old,
Leavin’ what’s best.
The NEWBOY moves back to shelter in front of the CHORUS OF CHILDREN stage left, putting his heavy bag down, blowing on his fingers again.
Stage right, TWO WOMEN SHOPPERS wave the WOMAN BYSTANDER over to join them. She goes to shelter with them.
TWO WOMEN SHOPPERS:
But we’ve had t’ find shelter
Round this shoe shop corner.
1ST WOMAN SHOPPER:
Lookin’ at shoes.
2ND WOMAN SHOPPER:
Just for something t’ do.
ALL move forward toward centre stage, the NEWSBOY pushed forward again by the CHORUS OF CHILDREN, with his heavy bag of newspapers dragging along the ground.
For that East wind
It gives us trouble;
But let’s not forget
It’s the same for us all.
G. F. Phillips
One of 5 Operas, East Wind was first performed in Epping, Essex at 7 pm on Friday 17th June 2003 with a group of singing students from Epping Forest College as principals and a chorus of year 5 students from Chipping Ongar Primary School. It appeared online on 27th June, 2003.
Extra recit. and verse:
The damn wind gans where I gan;
I gan where the damn wind gans.
TWO SHOPPERS (recit.):
So yous still complain.
Yous still complain.
Oh, how this East wind,
Bitter an’ raw,
Gusts more an’ more.
It is a collection of poems as song lyrics that has been set to music by folksong composer, John Bushby. The sixteen songs run chronologically and follow the compass point from North, North East to North and tell of the island and the nearby land’s history.
‘What happened over those years between 1722 and 2006 on St Mary’s Island maybe slight, being its little narratives, but it gave those folk a voice, their incidents, however brief, of lives lived, now written and sung about.’
Here are two extracts:
At compass point North, North East Last Drop of Ale is a tall story in the tradition of gallows humour.
Michael Curry’s had his last drop of ale (2)
He had this rage and he killed the landlord
So they hung him up; he’s as stiff as a board.
Now one man’s wager is another man’s pledge (2)
And four pints of ale can be yours all free
If you ask of the corpse, “How are you Curry?”
At compass point West South West a dispute breaks out in Dodging Bullets:
Old Ewen blames Joe Patterson
For letting out his field
That Joe is in the army’s keep
If anyone gets killed
Old Ewen says they fly his alehouse way.
On stepping stones over the island stray.
COMING IN MID SEPTEMBER: A CD and booklet of my lyrics.
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She is a nameless woman in the garden. Yet it can hardly be called a garden because no gardener comes to tend it. Like her its wildness is a refusal to be tamed. The garden has remained wild for an epoch, but no matter, she knows the lengths folk would go to in trying to claim its borders as their own. She would not betray it, even for the trading of a kiss. Here she dreams a little without recrimination, her reclining body is suitably refreshed as an unconquerable territory. Whenever she has to leave it she carries with her the desire for this uninhabited soil.
There are so many doorways; there are so many entrances and exits and so many figures passing in and out of your life. Yet there is a need to refer to them from time to time. Who possesses this doorway? Who consolidates this space to show willing or are dragooned into it? Who is there? Who is standing next to whom in this hierarchy of kith and kin, height and generations?
Look! Not even the eye of the camera will frighten them away.
It was raining no harder than any wet evening in Wicklow, the late night lamps fuzzy as this little man lost. He saw a porter, a blessing in the circumstances, for sure. “The Waterford train?” he asked. “Waterford be blowed!” replied the porter, hurriedly, assuredly. “That’s a fine place to want to go to on such a wet night.” “But which train?” the man enquired further, somewhat dampened by the porter’s response, and shaking some persistent drips off his coat. “The train be over the far platform.” “Oh! I wouldn’t say that… No, it’s not due out till mornin’.”
(Published in And Then magazine, New York, 2010)
Mobs are indiscriminate. They’re no different in Mashonaland except they’re poor and war-weary. But no excuses: you either leave your farm or you don’t. But even though you knew they were coming, it didn’t make it any easier. Those vultures in Harare called it ‘the popular will.’ We called it ‘pigs’ swill’. Still, I knew a little bit about the art of survival. I had a smattering of Polish from both my parents. Yet Hebrew has given me an undying love for my father and the seven crops of his groves. And in the desert war of ’73 a pinch of Arabic taught me to always keep an ear to the ground, stony or otherwise. So now it’s good to be in England in this safe house amongst comrades – oh you’re so lucky to have a big guardian angel protecting you. Since their independence in 1980 I’d been a man of the soil again. My wife is from Mashonaland too; my two sons are a grateful harvest. I had one hundred workers under me. We were set up for life.
But mobs play it by their own rules. Over the years those vultures passed laws that gave them the right to grab their land back, anyway, anyhow. One day, last month, ten of them came and smashed down part of the wire perimeter fence. They chased away a few of my workers, breaking the arms and legs of those holed up in the sheds. The fear was if the other workers helped out the victims, they’d get the same treatment themselves. And your last breath is always your last breath. The screams and shouts were a warning to us all right. They’d come again, and most likely at night, when most bad things happen under occupation. We’d be the last to expect punishment; we were the owners and so a bit special. There was no choice. We left the very next day. But my right-hand man as chief guard was rounded up by the mob.
According to reports, the men came in an old Mercedes Benz into the farmyard. They abandoned it – how do you say? It was clapped out. They were all armed with catapults and iron bars, straightforward weapons, and most effective at close quarters. They stripped the place clean and then, no doubt, those vultures would sell the assets and in return feed off a few more dollars. As for our escape route, not even my right-hand man knew. So if he confessed anything under torture, it would be a lie. But he knew I’d go my separate way. But now I’ve got word that my wife and two sons have been tailed to South Africa. In the morning I am flying from Heathrow to Jo’burg. We must meet up, re-plan; start again. So I don’t know where home will be tomorrow or the next day or even the day after that … not when you’re on the run, and trouble always follows you.
G. F. Phillips
(Broadcast on listenupnorth.com in 2013)
Nearby, the watching birds, hanging upon the statue, immediately got the message, and went homing in on the straightest flight towards what was now their recognised target. They were the vanguard (mostly pigeons), swooping in to surround him. In the midst of these birds he was anchored to his chosen spot, his legs felt wedded to the ground, a cap rounded off his head. The fact that he was well-prepared suggested he had done this before. There was nothing like encouraging the birds, these infiltrators from sky to earth.
The stonework on nearby buildings had taken its toll of bird droppings. But he never thought of this end result in feeding them. His sense of giving was drawing a small crowd of onlookers, amazed at the number of birds in the vicinity. There were more pigeons flying in from all directions, rapidly increasing in numbers for their daily sustenance. There were now two swarms of feathery bodies, only the main flock concentrated solely on the bigger bits of bread, grabbing what they could, holding onto it; fighting each other off with an occasional peck or dive to try and frighten a rival away. He was well under siege. One pigeon flew up and took a bigger bit of bread from his right hand and flew off into a handy free space to gorge alone on its edible prize. Several pigeons circled around him to see what was left for them to grab. Come to me, he seemed to say. Such a solitary figure, with his clothed arms outstretched, and as still as could be, he could have been a tree in a former life.
(Published in And Then magazine, New York, 2015)
Yep! Guys ‘n’ gals, Winesburg is a small town in the middle of nowhere, an isolated backwater in the American Midwest, but it’s ours and we need some guy to try and figure us folk out. That ain’t asking too much, goddamit! That’s why we have our own George Willard, a cub reporter at the Winesburg Eagle on our side. No, it ain’t paper-talk! We have our own stories to tell. Okay, our George was a greenhorn at first, but his coming of age was just like it was for us folk, trying to find our true selves. Just think, one hundred of us have confided in him about our hopes and fears and our place in this goddam town. Yep! And I’ve just been talking with two townsfolk about George on the corner of Buckeye Street. Kate Swift our school mom had told him: “You must not be a mere peddler of words. The thing to learn is to know what people are thinking about.” But then, Doctor Parcival surely spoke for us all when he reminded George that “If something happens perhaps you will be able to write the book I may never get written.”
In fact, the book did get written by Sherwood Anderson. He began writing it in 1915 and it was published in 1919 as Winesburg, Ohio. It is a rite of passage book based upon the author’s own childhood experiences of growing up in a real place: Clyde, Ohio. There are twenty five short stories, if you include both The Book of the Grotesque, which acts as a general prologue and Godliness, a Tale in Four Parts.
In the introduction to Penguin’s reissued 1976 collection, Malcolm Cowley refers to the townsfolk as ‘emotional cripples.’ So what kind of truth did they hide behind the facades of Winesburg, Ohio? That was Sherwood Anderson’s raison d’être.
The general prologue acts as a fable ruminating in how the men and women were ‘grotesques’ on account of their misrepresentation of the truth. The storyteller is an old man, the fabulist in this rather self-reflexive story who
had listed hundreds of truths in his book … there was the truth of virginity and the truth of passion, the truth of wealth and of poverty, of thrift and profligacy, of carelessness and abandon [and] his notion that the moment one of the people took one of the truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood.’
In the first story, Hands, Adolph Myers, alias Wing Biddlebaum (whose adopted surname is a construct after seeing a freight box of goods at a railway station) was once a young schoolteacher from a town in Pennsylvania and ‘was meant by nature to be a teacher of youth.’ But his reputation preceded him. He had got into trouble at the local school with his fondness for virginal boys; so much so, after ‘a half-witted boy of the school became enamoured of the young master’ the paedophiliac was hounded out of town by an angry band of men. Then, having an aunt in Winesburg, he has spent his twilight years living alone with her and working as a day labourer in the fields outside the town by fruit picking and other odd jobs. George tries to read his mind because the truth of his background sticks to him like a limpet mine that can explode any minute. Here is the ‘pathetic fallacy’ of the character’s mood reflected in the setting:
When the rumble of the evening train that took away that took away the express cars loaded with the day’s harvest of berries had passed and restored the silence of the summer’s night, he went again to walk upon the veranda. In the darkness he could not see his hands and they became quiet. Although he still hungered for the presence of the boy, who was the medium through which he expressed his love of man, the hunger became a part of his loneliness and his waiting.
Two other stories, The Strength of God and The Teacher are interlinked and relate to another quirk of passion. The voyeuristic Reverend Curtis Hartman sees the naked and praying teacher, Kate Swift, as something she is not, when ‘the minister proclaimed the woman George had only a moment before held in his arms an instrument of God bearing a message of truth.’
In Godliness, Louise and Jesse Bentley both suffer for their love of religion in their search for an ideal love and maker. In part four of the story there is the ritual sacrifice of the blood put on the head of the boy, a near killing and initiation into manhood takes place. Then Jesse sums up his grandson David’s disappearance as “… I was too greedy for glory.”
For Doctor Reefy in Paper Pills, the truth is found not in scripture but in his own testament of knowledge and experience. His random thoughts were written down on what are now rolled-up bits of hard paper. Reading them to his wife before her untimely death, they turn out to be delusions of grandeur for
Out of many of them he formed a truth that arose gigantic in is mind. The truth clouded the world. It became terrible and then faded away and the little thoughts began again.
The influence of the past overshadowing the present is a constant theme. In The Thinker, Seth Richmond, living with his mother, has to come to terms with his father’s early death, and their small income, a result of their grandfather’s lack of inheritance, but the truth of the matter was it had been ‘squandered in speculation and in insecure investments made through the influence of friends.’
As is often the case, folks leave for the big cities like Chicago or New York to make money. For instance, this happens to Elmer Cowley, Enoch Robinson and Ned Currie. The latter ends up as lonely as his left behind wife-to-be, Alice Hindman, whose ‘… desire had grown vague. She did not want Ned Currie or any other man.’ The truth was ‘she wanted to be loved’, and yet, she didn’t know how it was exactly going to happen.
For Enoch Robinson, who got married in New York, he fell out with his wife because in his words ‘I wanted her to see how important I was.’ ‘His absurd air of importance’ got the better of him, and with their separation he returned to live in Winesburg, realising belatedly that what he had said to his wife had contributed to his downfall, yet accepting ‘that’s how it is.’ Perhaps he never knew what he really wanted from life.
But for Elmer Cowley, farmer’s son turned merchant, the fact that their business of trading had been ‘queer’ for so long by buying more than their sold, well, it just got to him. The unhappy Elmer would leave Winesburg to make a life for himself and he would do it by proving how bold he was to his father by stealing twenty dollars from his father’s barrel of cash in the family store then tell George Willard to hand them back to him. Not only an act of honour, it shows his willingness to be true to his word. Of course, it also shows his father’s carelessness in choosing an easy spot for cash to be stolen by thieves. So Elmer imagines his future:
He could get work in some shop and become friends with the other workmen and would be indistinguishable. Then he would talk and laugh. He would no longer be queer and would make friends. Life would begin to have warmth and meaning for him as it had for others.
In other stories, Winesburg is a place for outsiders. It is either seen as a sanctuary or retreat or hopefully, a place to cure someone’s habit of a lifetime.
There is Wash Williams, the telegraph operator, who ironically, for a communications guy, is very much a loner. He is described as ugly, his wild imagination, according to George Willard, has made him one of his stand-out characters for he resembles
a huge, grotesque kind of monkey, a creature with ugly, sagging, hairless skin below his eyes and a bright purple underbody.
There is an unnamed stranger with a drink problem (one of three drunkards elsewhere). It appears drink has become a substitute, once again, for someone who needs to be loved. His ‘Tandy’ as he calls it, is that ‘something men need from women and that they do not get.’ Telling this to Tom Hard’s little daughter, the unnamed stranger wonders whether she can be the future healer of his dreams.
Many of the characters feel lonely or abandoned; they have to try and gain the respect of the townsfolk. For Joe Welling, the Standard Oil agent is someone who is always looking to make money on the side from his ideas. With his latest big idea about a new vegetable kingdom he hopes will impress the love of his life, as he tells George Willard;
“Wait till you see Sarah, she’ll get the idea. She’ll be interested. Sarah is always interested in ideas.”
The townsfolk, surprised by his success in courtship, his making of the local baseball team, are awaiting his first tragedy, but to date it has never happened.
George Willard, too, has his own stories to tell. In An Awakening his own demise in love causes him to be confronted by his rival for Belle Carpenter, Ed Handby in a scuffle. Another infatuation, Louise Trunnion tells him a home truth that “You think you’re better than I am.”
This idea of betterment rings true because at eighteen when George’s mother died he knew all about
the eight hundred dollars the dead woman had kept hidden so long and that was to give George Willard his start in the city, it lay in the tin box behind the plaster by the foot of his mother’s bed.
The story that stands out most in this collection is The Untold Lie. It is about two farm hands: Ray Pearson and Hal Winters and told from Ray Pearson’s point of view. When Hal Winters tells his workmate that “I’ve got Nell Gunther in trouble” Ray is also told “… you keep your mouth shut.” For Ray, who has to put up with his wife’s nagging and scolding has a sudden epiphany moment when
the whole world seemed to Ray Pearson to have become alive with something just as he and Hal had suddenly become alive when they stood in the cornfield staring into each other’s eyes.
Thinking about his own relationship compared to Hal’s, Ray concludes with these crucial lines that
What he [Hal] wanted she [Nell] wanted. Why should I pay? Why should Hal pay? Why should anyone pay? I don’t want Hal to be worn out.
In the end, Hal steals Ray’s thunder, keeping a sense of duty and thereby keeping the status quo. But then, had Ray given his advice, either way, it would have exposed the contradiction in how Ray leads his married life.
These Winesburg stories have an overall atmosphere of disillusionment. With their occasional epiphany, the book is not a far cry from their use with the paralysis of Joyce’s Dubliners (1914). Written in the third person, Anderson’s collection of stories is not unlike Knut Hamsun’s novel Mysteries (1892), where the mysteries became the actual interactions between the various characters.
Anderson took the idea a stage further by augmenting his characters’ previously told histories through a central character whose trade was flushing out stories. Here was the sceptical journalist, George Willard, brought up in the family’s ‘shabby hotel’ whose mother only wanted the best for her son, free of their own family’s business failings. Here, too, the towns folks’ truths were felt close-up and predominately through the characters’ colloquial language.
G. F. Phillips
For Lawrence, the struggle between the creative and destructive elements in class, gender, work and home are highlighted by possessiveness. Crucially, they are all interlinked to the industrial system of supply and demand. In this respect, an embedded narrative, ever-present, impinges on the lives of Lawrence’s industrial workers, so that the domestic squabbles are nearly always about work-related problems, like money or strikes, or associated problems, as in the working man’s drinking habit at the end of his shift, or after pay-out. Often, these characters live a life of falsehood or misconception, or are victims who have the need to accumulate wealth.
This domestic discord is what makes the embedded narratives in many of Lawrence’s mining stories work, causing tensions between the characters as they look to better themselves, or look to leadership as a way of forgetting or combating their present unsteady predicament. For instance, this idea of bettering oneself is the psychological aspect behind Lawrence’s ‘Fanny and Annie’, in which Fanny believes she can be more than the lady’s maid in her premarital adventure with Harry, the foundry worker. In ‘Her Turn’, the utilisation of money becomes an act of revenge for Mrs Radford.
As is often the case, the stories highlight social divisions. In ‘A Sick Collier’, the neighbourhood gossip sums up Mr and Mrs Horsepool bluntly: ‘she was too good for him’. This is because, as a cook, she is socially superior to a pitman. Then, in ‘Daughters of the Vicar’, the focus instead is on two women – Mary who married for money, against Louisa marrying for love.
Moreover, these relationships are all about power relations as a result of mismatches, some of which are sexual taboos; the modus operandi of Lawrence’s fiction.
More than anything, though, Lawrence speaks up for men over women. Here is the opening scene of ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’:
It appeared round the corner with loud threats of speed … a woman, walking up the railway line to Underwood, drew back into the hedge, held her basket aside, and watched the footplate of the engine advancing. The trucks thumped past, one by one, with slow inevitable movement, as she stood insignificantly trapped behind the jolting black wagons and the hedge…
From the beginning, Lawrence’s words are deeply ingrained in the ‘entrapped will’ that encompasses the lone woman. The railway crossing itself acts as a division between entrapment and will; she is entrapped by one of the forces of industry, of progression – the locomotive, which has superseded the horse – and it reduces her into submission. The adverb ‘insignificantly’ coldly describes the woman’s entrapment, while the adjective ‘inevitable’ further conveys her fragility, alongside the ‘loud threats of speed’.
Author: D. H. Lawrence.
Later in the story, Lawrence then insinuates these ‘threats’ are all in the woman’s mind. Passing miners see nothing out of the ordinary about a freight train that ‘trundles’ up to the pithead, yet the woman has seen this as something to fear.
A comparable scene from Women in Love has Gerald Crich control his mare’s nervousness of a noisy passing train. Sisters Ursula and Gudrun Branwen look on with sympathy for the suppressed mare. The figure of Gerald Crich and the bulky locomotive in both ‘Women in Love’ and ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ can remind the reader, as David Lodge has said in The Art of Fiction, that ‘industry has been imposed on the countryside by the masculine power and will of capitalism…’
The entrapped woman in the opening scene of ‘Odour of Chrysanthemums’ acts as a counter-point to the masculine power. Further, she is the precursor to the central character, Elizabeth Bates. The entrapped woman has her own embedded narrative; she is a frame figure, someone who leaves the story as soon as she has arrived, and yet, she helps establish a Schopenhauerian air of pessimism in the subsequent main narrative. As cited in Christopher Janaway’s Schopenhauer: A Very Short Introduction, Lawrence, who greatly admired Schopenhauer, utilised the idea that ‘the vanity of women is bad because it is centred entirely on material things and hence society is so very much their element’. In this story, the idea of pessimism is further enhanced by the dishevelled images of chrysanthemums, which signal the theme of decay and approaching death.
Elizabeth Bates’ embedded narrative emanates from her deep consciousness. The reader gradually receives a full, if not unresolved, picture of the divisions between her and her husband, Walter. Overall, self-preservation is the governing factor, and Elizabeth’s claim of love for her husband is sorely tested by his sudden death in a local pit disaster. Through his death she discovers the truth about their relationship and her part in it.
The reader first learns about their domestic discord before the pit disaster, when the driver of the freight train turns out to be Elizabeth’s father. Whilst Elizabeth gives him a cup of tea at the footplate, her father says, “I hear Walter’s got another bout on”. Her bitter reaction is exacerbated by his comment that “it’s a nice thing, when a man can do nothing with his money but make a beast of himself!”
Elizabeth’s father is only saying what she thinks and what she would not dare to say outright. The fact that she and her children must then ‘… await the father’s coming to begin the tea’ is a sign of obedience, routine and social convention within the patriarchal pit community of the time.
BOOK: Lawrence Chrysanthemums
Stylistically, the suspense of his supposed late homecoming from the pit helps support the idea of her entrapment, as dutiful wife and mother, sewing and seeing the children off to bed. Her will is one of inertia, seen, for instance, in the disrupted narrative, which gives way to a lively setting, where ‘all the life of the room seemed in the white, warm hearth and the steel fender reflecting the red fire’. The stark contrast between how she perceives the glow of the fire and its actual heat is symbolic of the way she feels deep-down towards her husband. She cannot feel the fire’s warmth, and there is a sense in which something in her life has made her feel, metaphorically, burnt out.
From this otherwise homely setting of an English hearth, the story that now unfolds is seen from Elizabeth’s point of view. The building up of the coal fire, the dinner and the washing of Walter’s dead body, are all ceremonial rites. The final cleansing of the body is necessary for her to gain self-knowledge of her relationship: ‘She saw him, how utterly inviolable he lay in himself. She had nothing to do with him.’
Despite her active participation in preparing his body for the funeral rite, Elizabeth is beginning to understand that she has lived in a state of blindness and wishful-thinking:… for his look was other than hers, his way was not her way. She had denied him what he was – she saw it now. She had refused him as himself. And this had been her life and his life. She was grateful to death, which restored the truth. And she knew she was not dead.
The points of separation in their relationship are clear in the contrasts – ‘his way was not her way’, and in her realisation that ‘she was not dead’. She has regained her semblance of will, but there is to be no further story, at least, not for them.
Unwittingly, in living a lie all this time, Elizabeth Bates’ tells us more about her part in ‘the entrapped will’ than Walter’s actions do. All along, it is Elizabeth’s refusal to accept the reality of the situation and the inability to confront him on, say, his drinking til late (which would have typically been the obvious excuse for his late homecoming) that contributes to an embedded narrative of misconception. One good example is in the answer to her child Annie’s query at bedtime, about her father still not having come home:
“Never mind. They’ll bring him when he does – like a log.” She meant there would be no scene “And he may sleep on the floor till he wakes himself. I know he’ll not go to work tomorrow after this!”
This is Elizabeth Bates in characteristic mode, avoiding any involvement, maintaining a quiet existence in her relationship with her husband.
However, needless to say, with Lawrence, it is never too late to discover the truth about one’s self or even one’s partner. One can pluck up the necessary courage to overcome some predicament, misdemeanour or moral dilemma. That he achieved it with such intensity of language and distinct polarity says much about Lawrence and his relationship to gender politics.
Gordon Phillips is an Adult Education tutor in Literature on Tyneside. His poems have been published in school textbooks and anthologies. He has written articles, book and theatre reviews for various magazines and has worked on several collaborations with composers. He is a member of The Society of Authors and the Performing Right Society. This piece forms one part of an extensive study of The Entrapped Will in D.H. Lawrence’s Short Stories.
Franz Kafka commonly used the stark letter ‘K’ in his two novels ‘The Trial’ and ‘The Castle’ as well as some of his tiny tales, and I shall use it likewise in this essay. He was completely at home with the idea of perpetuating a disguise, for instance, he had seen his adventures with a village mole through that creature’s point of view in his short story ‘The Burrow’, and in ‘Investigations of a Dog’ the wandering examination of an individual being, all related to the quest for self.
In the same collection the extended title story ‘Metamorphosis’ has the central character faced with a sudden and overwhelming predicament – and what a predicament – for when ‘… Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed into a gigantic insect.’(9) This leap of imagination has a descriptive force usually associated with the opposite form of opening delivery: the direct address of dialogue. Immediately, Samsa had to come to terms with this startling new discovery in his nature, but, at least, he had the reassuring reality that ‘it was no dream.’(ibid)
If this is a turning point for Samsa, it holds an equally important lesson for me as a writer because it is a story that stands out from the very beginning in how to keep focused on any conflict in a narrative; in this case, a conflict both physical and mentally changing, a fascinating dilemma. Further, it is a lesson in how to pace a narrative and how to establish a key to a narrative’s overall design for structure is everything.
Transported into Samsa’s mind, I read his internal thoughts, at once human, but now, outwardly animal. He is the family’s one provider since the collapse of his father’s business. Altruistically, he has a plan to finance his sister’s education so she can learn to play the violin at a nearby conservatoire, thanks to his promotion from humble clerk to commercial traveller. But now he will be late for work, he will be a financial liability.
Samsa’s first signs are one of total confusion, disbelief and fear of something unknown and, therefore, potentially uncontrollable as a means of human insecurity. Having habitually locked his bedroom door, he will have to explain everything not in person, but by proxy, and in a non-human voice to an abjectly bewildered family. He has to emphasise with what his family and associates might think of his calamity rather than the self-oriented way of a commercial traveller’s typical day of trying to sell samples. It is this back and forth of guessed at human communication which is the emphasis of plight in the story: the need to understand each other’s reasons for thinking and doing what they say they will do or have done.
Clarification is ever a hard task throughout the train of events. Everyone who comes into contact with Samsa acts in their own way to his predicament. The doctor, unable to check him over physically, dismisses his case as the result of any illness; the chief clerk finds his employee going from ‘quiet, dependable’ to ‘obstinate’ and, having no sympathy, resorts to telling him some home-truths about his real abilities at work, which this event has helped bring about; his mother, Anna, repulsed, (as they all are) shies away from her son’s predicament at first, then wishes to see him either out of guilt as well as human curiosity over his affliction. Meanwhile, his father, at first calm, becomes abusive and violent towards Samsa, clouting him with a walking-stick the runaway chief clerk left behind in chapter I, and, ending chapter II by throwing grenade-like apples at his helpless employee. The fact that his son may be physically injured does not enter his thinking, for it seems to me, Samsa who had rescued his father financially, is now declassified overnight, as a dangerous threat, the lowest common denominator of all. It is a grave test for all concerned, questioning and threatening loyalties, the rights and responsibilities between work and family.
Often, and this is particularly true of Samsa’s predicament, K has created a ‘what if’ in making all the possibilities of reality that could happen at once. His physical transformation into otherness is at best inconvenient, and, at worse, nauseating in the extreme. It has upset the family daily ritual of meal and work times, the household chores; now all that has become a daily challenge, a two way struggle, between victim and carers, with no apparent end in sight.
This separation is most noticeable through the relationship with his sister, who
‘if he could have spoken to her and thanked her for all she had to do for him, he could have borne ministrations better; as it was, they oppressed him. She certainly tried to make as light as possible in whatever was disagreeable in her task, and as time went on she succeeded, of course, more and more, but time brought more enlightenment to Gregor too. The very way she came in distressed him (54).’
So cut-off as Samsa is from little or no human contact, he relies heavy on eavesdropping to ascertain what they plan to do for him. Each new consolidation of action brings constraints upon him. Things have to be learned all over again, his likes and dislikes of food, for instance, milk had once been his favourite drink. So his sister leaves a selection of food on an old newspaper to determine his new-found taste buds. All this has become a problem because he is talked about rather than talked to so that both sides have to speculate what hitherto has been everyday family knowledge. But abject fear of his existence still lives on, which seems to mirror the human fear of the strange and the unknown or ‘to pass the injured by’ that awaits a Good Samaritan.
It is his sister who shows her true colours in the light of Samsa’s predicament for he overhears how she is praised for her efforts to help her brother with sustenance whereas before he knew his family thought of her as lacking in initiative. Now it seems the family have been taking their son for granted in how they relied on him completely to provide for them all.
The trouble is Samsa hears everything second-hand. There is for him the absence of reciprocal human, yet his eavesdropping has heightened his listening skills and, for me, this merits his continuing survival. He must listen and act upon his family’s decisions. This is particularly true some two months on into the story. Samsa discovers that having no speech input within family life and the drudgery of daily routine has clouded his judgment about how clearing his bedroom would mean more space for his newly formed existence. The fact that his mother and sister were at loggerheads about it make their part in his downfall one of a parallel test of endurance, alongside their need to give Samsa some quality of life. The experience leaves his sister to believe that as she has done the most to help her brother she is the expert in decision-making. On the other hand, his mother worries that clearing his bedroom out is one of forlorn hope and leaving his bedroom intact would somehow make him forget this stranglehold on his body, should he somehow manage to free himself of it.
Nonetheless, his sister wins the argument. This clearance of familiar surroundings, his writing-desk, his tools and chest, are symbolic of all that he loves and is a part of him, and for all their good intentions it will destroy his very soul.
But over ‘the picture of this lady muffled with so much fur’ (40) he has had enough, intervening by flying at his mother and sister to try and get them to change their mind about removing his picture off the wall. Instead, it brings his father into the equation, which through the bombardment of red apples at his son results in his second injury given by his father, this time, on purpose.
What does alter is the provision of work in all this; the servant-girl leaves her service, yet a charwoman is not turned off by events, but then, it answers the question: ‘who could find time, in this overworked and tired-out family to bother about Gregor more than was absolutely needful? (46).
The charwoman then becomes Samsa’s closest helper, which means her words match her deeds, even if she provides him with food in a hurried and anxious state.
By now they have all become more fraught, so much so, that they begin selling the family ornaments, objects full of their pride and sentimental fashion. Ironically, they never think of neglecting their property only their son, their one-time provider. Thinking of finance, they decide to gain extra cash from their precarious living by taking in three lodgers (all well-disguised in beards, may I add). Even though they are outsiders (much like Samsa who has become one within his own family unit) the three lodgers feel no affinity with Samsa, only that he is a source of entertainment, a kind of freak show, much more entertaining, in fact, than his sister’s violin-playing, which for her, is a form of solace.
It is ironic that when Samsa has become so much of a burden that he has outlasted his usefulness in the family it is the most loyal-at-times-sister who first decides: ‘we must try to get rid of it.’(56) Yet Samsa, half human, half insect dies on them, sparing further ordeals. The father then resorts to the social norm of crossing himself and the family follow suit, having all been tested to the limit. The story then ends on the sister’s hopes for her future.
Overall, these testing times are a seminal example of how humans are forced to cope with a dramatic physical change in a human being, not from a tragic high personage to low, but in ordinariness: in this way it resembles the parable.
So, K, the writer of dream, allegory, fable and fantasy highlights the moral code of all the individual characters in the story. Of course, ‘Metamorphosis’ is an extreme example of fantasy, but I think it has some of the hallmarks of Émile Zola’s laboratory technique. What Zola did was to put a character into a given situation to see how he or she would behave or work things out, how they would react to the human condition like a moral dilemma, a given set of circumstances or an abiding issue. This is exactly what K has done. But unlike Zola, K is less interested in character. In ‘Metamorphosis’ even the description of Samsa is mainly told second-hand through the photograph of himself taken while on military service, that he sees opposite his bedroom door in the living room. Above all, K wants me to read his story as a state of mind, more psychological and philosophical than revealing an easily recognisable character. All the while I can see that ‘… Gregor has the chance to test the strength of his new resolutions (28). Elsewhere it is seen in terms of a game. Further, the interaction between the various characters suggests to me they keep testing each other out as when his sister
‘… tried to make as light as possible of whatever was disagreeable in her task, and as time went on she succeeded, of course, more and more, but time brought more enlightenment to Gregor too. The very way she came in distressed him.’(34)
Therefore, because the story is a journey from birth to death Samsa must progress as best he can, always having to overcome these tests put in front of him, to show his worth. But, in the end, Samsa’s testing times are also humanity’s in its quest for identity and its sense of belonging within the context of a hostile universe.
G. F. Phillips
(A version of this was published in Thresholds by the University of Chichester, 2013)
‘I have often said I was, still am and always will be a plain country woman, and proud to be a plain country woman.’ Hannah Hauxwell of Low Birk Hatt farm, in Teesdale
With Hannah’s trusty bucket
She trudged down to the burn,
Her stick to break its icy grip,
How living alone she learned
To savour every running drop
To wash in, drink and cook,
The least she’s got – she’s none too proud
To give things a second look.
Long has been her moor-land home,
Her farm’s ancestral seat;
Her dale this one big garden,
And through winter’s slow retreat
Make do and mend they were her ways
Despite her threadbare looks,
The least she’s got – she’s none too proud
To give things a second look.
Now Hannah’s trusty bucket
Hung up it had no worth
For age had loosened all her grip
And ice hardened rebirth;
Though she to village ways was bound,
With keepsakes, all she took
Reminds her that she’s none too proud
To give things a second look.
G. F. Phillips