WHEN YOU’RE STRONG, RESIST! WHEN YOU’RE WEARY, RESIST!

Recently, I’ve been spending time in the archives at Girton College, Cambridge, where I’ve been digging into the correspondence of women who worked at the Victoria Press. Some of the same women founded Girton as Britain’s first residential college for women in 1869. Walking through the college’s long red brick halls, the voices of early feminism echo all around you. I can’t tell you how much I loved being glowered at by portraits of Emily Davies and Barbara Bodichon—women who dissented in word and in deed. (TRUE FACT: I have a collection of bitchy-boss-lady-portraits WHICH I TREASURE. They judge all visitors to my apartment.)

Adelaide Procter is a less visible presence at the college, a different kind of voice. As I mentioned in my last, Procter (never Proctor, though it’s frequently misspelled) worked at the center of the Victoria Press operation. The daughter of parents who ran their home as a literary salon, she participated in print culture from a young age. Charles Dickens reported that as a child, Procter carried a handwritten album of literary quotations around the house “as another little girl might have carried a doll.”[1] Procter was smart, businesslike, talented, and physically frail. Perhaps projecting backwards after her death at age 38 from tuberculosis, contemporaries sometimes insist that she had a “doomed” look about her from childhood. But in her letters she is full of life and humor and spark. Consider her laughing assessment of herself at age 30, inviting her friend, EWJ founder Bessie Parkes, to dinner at the multigenerational Procter house:

Papa & Mamma are dining out & Grandmamma keeps her room this week so we shall be – can I say a juvenile party? – a single party – or an old maid party perhaps would be the more correct description.

She relates anecdotes with the kind of present-tense breathlessness that comes from laughing while you’re talking. Below, she fails to visit Bessie Parkes, but it’s not her fault. It’s a ROGUE CRUCIFEROUS VEGETABLE:

There is really some strange fatality about my getting to you – I get up this morning – no headache so that I felt quite safe as they always begin in the morning. & feeling very brisk I go out to church – on my way back a “fiend in human form” perched on a high waggon sends throws with all his force an enormous cabbage – or bundle of cabbages directly on to my head – knocking off my bonnet & stunning me to an extent I wd. not have believed so innocent a thing could do.

A month later she replies to Bessie’s renewed invitation to come visit: “I shall like it very much indeed should no cabbage come in the way.” But despite her humorous tone, the cracks are starting to show in her health, in the mention of those headaches that follow her “always.”

As time goes on references to Procter’s illness in her letters become agonizingly specific. No one ever mentions the possibility of tuberculosis (or consumption as it was commonly known) but at times it feels like denial. You can almost hear it beating like a funeral behind every hopeful diagnosis of “bronchitis” or “irritation,” every insistence that she is getting better, stronger. Procter writes to Bessie: “I have been obliged to have a Doctor & he orders port wine & quinine three times a day – He now pronounces it is decided whooping cough!…” In a more detailed, later letter, she explains, again with humor:

I have another doctor who says it is not whooping cough clearly. But he does not know what it is – he only knows he never heard such a cough! Honest anyhow. But he is clever I believe.

But even a clever diagnostician can’t do much for her. She goes on:

He thought first it was nervous dyspepsia – then nerves of the lung – then spinal irritation. He has tried heaps of drugs….I am very, very weary of it. Opiates did quiet me one day – but they try my head so much the Dr won’t give me any more.

Though she doesn’t shy away from medical detail in her letters, Procter always seeks to reassure her correspondents that she is bearing up. In the same letter she warns Parkes, “don’t croak about me” to friends, to avoid worrying them. As in many nineteenth-century households, illness is omnipresent and debilitating at the Procter home: “The doctor came yesterday and does not promise me a speedy release from my cough,” she reports, “We have had quite a hospital, Mama keeping her room and one of my sisters her bed.”

But every day, despite her cough and the fact that her lungs are falling apart into little pieces, Procter KEEPS WORKING on what she modestly calls her “effusions.” She becomes a popular poet, publishing over 70 pieces in Charles Dickens’ periodical Household Words. Her illness makes her feel useless, but she never succumbs: “I am very very stupid, and not very bright, and must do some work for Household Words – and I feel sure it will be bad,” she writes in a letter. Even if she thinks it’s “bad” (and it never is), she gets it done. In addition to her poetic output, she works in the Victoria Press offices, editing the profitable Victoria Regia anthology and various issues of the English Woman’s Journal. Procter actually LOVES this work. When she’s well enough to get out of the house, she spends hours in the office, even when her boss tells her to take a break.

Emily [Faithfull]… made me promise not to stay much longer – but I like the work & one keeps thinking one will “stop soon” till the time runs on – & Emily has made me have some luncheon…

Above simply enjoying her work, Procter maintains that it is necessary and valuable. An obituary in the EWJ calls her the “animating spirit” of the whole operation. She isn’t some isolated intellectual, but a hands-on advocate for women’s employment and women’s rights:

Miss Procter at all times repudiated the idea that poets fought to be excused the usual duties of life, or were less responsible than others for the use they made of the talents entrusted to them…Certainly she excused herself nothing on this ground, and for two years continued to work on steadily; then her energy somewhat diminished, perhaps her physical strength was beginning to fail, though she remained on the committee for another year, and often took an active part in its proceedings.

Poets are NOT EXCUSED. Academics are NOT EXCUSED. We all have a duty to be active, to make use of our talents. In my last post I wrote about Procter’s sense of obligation, how she tells us to use our privilege to help where we can. She lived the way that she wrote—like millions of women who labor daily in spite of illness, disability, restrictive spouses, or the constant burden of producing more children.

An older writer and art historian, Anna Jameson, wrote to Bessie Parkes about the joys and responsibilities that come with having a poetic voice and the privilege to publish it. Naming Procter specifically in her letter, she sought to inspire the next generation to further action:

Remember! I expect much from you – for God has given you the power to rule & kindle other minds to set thoughts as well as feeling to Music! …how I should like to dwell among you – you young bright sprits!

Young bright spirits! Kindle those minds! I EXPECT MUCH FROM US.

 

[1] See Gill Gregory, The Life and Work of Adelaide Procter

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IF I BROKE YOUR IDOLS…

As we begin the year 2017 with trepidation, I’m looking to the past to figure out how to look towards the future. One hundred and fifty six years and one day ago, Adelaide Anne Procter published her poem “The Old Year’s Blessing” in the English Woman’s Journal. (I include the full text of the poem below.)

Like most of Procter’s poems, “The Old Year’s Blessing” is above everything a useful bit of text, like scripture, or an advice column. Procter tries to answer questions that come up at the beginning of every year, which is also an ending. What do we do with our grief and loss when the calendar tells us it’s time for renewal? How do we make a fresh start when there’s no such thing as a clean slate? Procter emphasizes that the old year and the new year “work together.” You can’t have one without the other. You can’t move forward without remembering the pain and joy of what you’ve already moved through. The Old Year, personified, tells us to take intentions and turn them into deeds.

I brought Good Desires,
Though as yet but seeds;
Let the New Year make them
Blossom into Deeds.

For Procter, a Catholic convert, doing good is part of faith. We must turn the “Joy” of the old year into “Praise” in the new year. We must transform “sickness” into pious “patience” within ourselves. We must make “sorrow” into “strength,” “care” into “prayer.” As the rhyme sounds in our bodies like a bell, it warns us to convert our anxiety and worry into meaningful action.

If I brought you Plenty,
All Wealth’s bounteous charms,
Shall not the New Angel
Turn them into Alms?

I gave Health and Leisure,
Skill to dream and plan,
Let him make them nobler;—
Work for God and Man.

I’m not a Catholic, but I feel the pull of Procter’s call to action on this, the second day of our new year. I’ve had a good year, personally. I’ve had Plenty and Wealth, Health and Leisure in abundance. I’ve been surrounded by love, purpose, and burritos. But like many people I’ve been talking to, I feel that any personal gains are insignificant in the shadow of the pain that this year has brought to so many other people, and the prospect that things will only get much worse as we go forward.

If I broke your idols,
Showed you they were dust,
Let him turn the Knowledge
Into heavenly Trust.

Procter urges us to trust in God as a way of moving forward when the “dust” of everything we dreamed and planned is scattered on the dead ground. But trust, or faith, is not enough. We must give alms. We must use every skill we have to make things better for those around us.

Adelaide Procter was not only a poet but also an activist. She used her time, and the income from her poetry, to help people who were suffering. She published her own volume, A Chaplet of Verses, in aid of the Providence Row Night Refuge for Homeless Women and Children in London. She begins her preface:

THERE is scarcely any charitable institution which should excite such universal, such unhesitating sympathy as a Night Refuge for the Homeless Poor… women and children utterly forlorn and helpless, either wandering about all night, or crouching under a miserable archway, or, worst of all, seeking in death or sin the refuge denied them elsewhere. It is a marvel that we could sleep in peace in our warm comfortable homes with this horror at our very door. (vii)

For Procter, every cause should be personal. She can’t sleep in peace when other women are dying in the cold street. She doesn’t want us, her readers, to sleep in peace either. So she uses poems like “The Old Year’s Blessing” to unsettle us, to show us that even in our warm comfortable homes, where we have plenty of hot coffee and all the streaming television we could ever desire, we should feel discomfited. We should be afraid of the horror at our door. If we’re too comfortable, we risk inaction.

“The Old Year’s Blessing” was Procter’s last poem in the English Woman’s Journal before she died of tuberculosis at the age of 38, in the same year the Journal went into bankruptcy and folded. It seems the publication couldn’t live without her: an obituary calls Procter the Journal’s “animating spirit.” The great thing about poems is that they live on when the periodicals in which they appeared are nothing but digital dust. And as long as we can read them, they can still be useful to us. As we move into a year when our “list of Errors” does indeed seem particularly long and dark, I’ll be taking direction from poetry that tells me to be nobler, braver, kinder, and more generous. To always think of the pain of others, even when I’m comfortable. And to turn that sorrow into strength.

 

 

THE OLD YEAR’S BLESSING
Adelaide Anne Procter

I am fading from you;
But One draweth near,
Called the Angel-Guardian
Of the Coming Year.

If my gifts and graces
Coldly you forget,
Let the New Year’s Angel
Bless and crown them yet

For we work together;
He and I are one:
Let him end and perfect
All I leave undone.

I brought Good Desires,
Though as yet but seeds;
Let the New Year make them
Blossom into Deeds.

I brought Joy to brighten
Many happy days;
Let the New Year’s Angel
Turn it into Praise.

If I gave you Sickness,
If I brought you Care,
Let him make one Patience,
And the other Prayer.

Where I brought you Sorrow,
Through his care, at length,
It may rise triumphant
Into future Strength.

If I brought you Plenty,
All Wealth’s bounteous charms,
Shall not the New Angel
Turn them into Alms?

I gave Health and Leisure,
Skill to dream and plan,
Let him make them nobler;—
Work for God and Man.

If I broke your idols,
Showed you they were dust,
Let him turn the Knowledge
Into heavenly Trust.

If I brought Temptation,
Let sin die away
Into boundless Pity
For all hearts that stray.

If your list of Errors
Dark and long appears,
Let this new-born Monarch
Melt them into Tears.

May you hold this Angel
Dearer than the last,—
So I bless his Future,
While he crowns my Past.