Saturday, 21 January 2012

In search of Martha Edith Shotbolt

Martha Edith Shotbolt

Martha Edith Shotbolt, always called Edith by her family, was born in the Bedfordshire village of Maulden in 1860. Her forebears, working on the land, had lived there for generations and some who bear her mother’s name, Summerfield, live there still.  Her grandmother had been a lace-maker; her mother was a straw plaiter. The plaiting and dying of wheat straw was an important cottage activity in those parts, processing the raw material of the straw hat industry, centred at nearby Luton.

People tended not to leave Maulden. The rector in Edith’s day, the Rev. Charles Ward, held the living for forty-five years. Perhaps it was he or his wife, Susan, who spotted that Edith was a promising girl, for whom something should be done. Certainly, in 1880, the recently-widowed Mrs Ward wrote a testimonial for Edith which described her life’s progress thus far:

"I have known Martha Edith Shotbolt since she was a child and have every reason to speak well of her. She was in the National School at Maulden first as a pupil, then as a monitor, & finally as pupil-teacher till she left to go to the Training College at Lincoln where she will have been two years next Christmas She has almost always obtained a first place in all her examinations and is now I hear head of the Lincoln College — Her Bible knowledge & Divinity are excellent — and she generally succeeds well in what she undertakes — She is a Church woman and Communicant and a well-principled girl."

I think it is likely that the Wards had encouraged her to make a career of teaching and arranged for her to go to Lincoln Diocesan Training School, an Anglican college, rather than to the nearer training college at Bedford. How did Edith view the prospect of leaving her village? Was she like Ursula Brangwen in The Rainbow who sees teaching as a passport away from her overcrowded home and applies for posts in Kent, in Kingston-on-Thames and Derbyshire, but first has to settle job at a local school before she can get a place at the Training College in Nottingham. If so, did Edith experience the same sense of liberation when she started her teacher training? D.H. Lawrence describes how Ursula felt as she began her course:

It was lovely to pass along the corridor with one’s books in one’s hands, to push the swinging, glass-panelled door, and enter the big room where the first lecture would be given …. Curious joy she had of the lectures. It was a joy to hear the theory of education, there was such freedom and pleasure in ranging over the very stuff of knowledge, and seeing how it moved and lived and had its being. (Ch.xv, ‘The Bitterness of Ecstacy’)

Edith started at Lincoln in January 1879. Her training there lasted two years. As she neared the end of her course, the Principal, Canon Hector Nelson, wrote her a glowing testimonial:
Edith’s testimonial from The Diocesan
Training School, Lincoln

"Miss Edith Shotbolt completes her two years training at Xmas next. She has passed her course here with the highest credit and with irreproachable character — She has uniformly appeared first in the College and government examinations — Her health is excellent. She gives good lessons and can teach well. I will gladly answer any questions very frankly and at the same time I know of nothing wh shd be kept back.Hector Nelson, Principal and Canon of Lincoln"

The college records show that Edith’s first post was back in Bedfordshire, at Cubbington near Leighton Buzzard. But within two years, and in a rather dramatic move, she had gone north to the Girls’ National School in Market Weighton, in the East Riding of Yorkshire. Had any member of her family ever gone so far afield before?  Probably not. But Edith flourished in her new school: an undated report by an HMI Inspector, Mr. J. Tillard, noted that ‘M.E. Shotbolt keeps good order and teaches in an interesting style’. Word of her success reached Lincoln, and the College records were updated:

Went to Market Weighton – did excellent work there – gained her Part. [i.e. her Parchment, giving her the status of a Certificated Teacher] and is married. Now Mrs. Dove.

Indeed she was. Edith had met and married Albert Edward Dove, the school master in charge of the village school in neighbouring Cherry Burton. And by 1891, probably earlier, she was looking after the girls’ division in his school of seventy pupils: another HMI report notes: ‘Cherry Burton: Mrs. Dove renders most efficient aid in this school.’ 

Albert Edward Dove
Edith’s husband was a Yorkshireman, educated at the Great Northern Railway Company’s School in Doncaster. Like Edith, Albert had graduated from pupil to pupil teacher before going to Cheltenham Training College. His first post as a qualified teacher had been at Percy Tynemouth School in Northumberland, and he had moved to Cherry Burton in 1883. Albert was an unusually tall man, at least a foot higher than his wife. In addition to being the village school master, he was the organist of the parish church, and he and Edith were well liked by the parishioners and the Diocesan authorities. When they applied jointly for another post in 1891 (at Rosedale Updale School, near Pickering in the North Riding), one of the Cherry Burton school managers , William Watson, wrote a strong reference for them both: their leaving, he said, ‘will be a great loss to the village’. His own children had been taught by Albert, ‘and it would be impossible for a better teacher to be found. He has the school in capital order and has wonderfully improved it in every way.’ Mr Watson added, ‘Mrs Dove is also a good teacher and I know by what my children tell me that she takes a lively interest in the school.’ At the same time, the York Diocesan Inspector of Schools, Ernest Barry, wrote a second reference: ‘Mrs Dove I knew before she was married. She is a capital teacher and fond of her work.’

The School House, Denton
In the event, they did not go to Pickering. But by 1895 they had moved, south this time, to Denton in Lincolnshire, their home for the rest of their teaching lives. And what a home! They lived in the school house, a large and elegant early Georgian building. Over the doorway was a fine broken pediment bearing the inscription ‘Learn to know God and thyself 1720’; above that, the arms of the Welby family, lords of the local manor. Here their children - Albert, Vincent, Irene and Vera - grew up. Albert joined the Navy, while Vincent and Vera became teachers. A local clergyman, the Rev. Percival Green, proposed to Vera, who turned him down, so (rather like Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice) he proposed to Irene instead. She accepted, and they were married in St. Andrew’s Church. Sir Charles and Lady Welby were guests at the wedding.

The wedding of Edith and Albert’s daughter Irene, 1913.
Albert, Vera and Edith are seated beside the bride.

The journey from Maulden to Denton is only 75 miles up the A1. The distance between the farm labourer’s cottage and the Denton School House (now a Grade II listed building), however, must have seemed immense, especially on that wedding day. Edith’s life, though, remained firmly rooted in her teaching. She published a book: ‘Evans’s Illustrated Object Lesson Book for Infants and Lower Standards by Mrs. A. E. Dove’. This was a handbook for infant school teachers, in effect a series of lesson plans all based on the principle of taking an object or a picture and getting very young children to look closely at everything they see, and then through a series of questions and answers, learning to describe and understand what they saw. Her objects were the plants, animals and household goods familiar to country children: this was very much a countrywoman’s practical view of what village girls would need to know when they became housewives and mothers. A lesson on bees and beeswax for example has a series of very careful outline drawings (done by her husband, Albert) showing the anatomy of a bee; and the questions and answers lead the child to a precise understanding of how a bee gathered pollen and made honey.
Edith’s book

The next lesson moves on to beeswax: the children bring beeswax from home, the teacher produces a piece of honeycomb:

Beeswax is useful for polishing furniture, making wax flowers and fruit, wax dolls and wax candles. It is also useful for waxing thread and bed-ticks. — How do we like to see our chairs and tables look? (Bright, shining.) How do we make them so? (Polish with beeswax.) What else can we polish besides our furniture? (Floors.) What kind of floors may be polished? (Stained floors and oak floors.) Tell the children that often the middle of the floor is covered with carpet, and a border is stained and polished. Tell them also about the polished floors in gentlemen’s houses.

Edith was well aware that many of the girls she taught were destined for life as servants and all of them would hope to become housewives and homemakers, so her object lessons were always practical:

Who has seen a little piece of wax in mother’s work-basket? What does she use it for? (Waxing her thread.) What good does it do? (Make thread go through work easily.) When does she use it? (When making carpets, bed-ticks &c.) Suppose mother has made a new tick for her feather bed, what will she do when she has finished sewing? (Wax the seams on the inside.) What good does that do? (Keeps feathers from coming through.)

Although Edith’s teaching revolved around the lives of infant girls, her own interests extended well beyond the infant school curriculum.  She was a keen gardener and a knowledgeable botanist. She was also a good mathematician, who delighted in setting herself difficult puzzles in algebra and geometry. In the margins of her hand-written recipe book are equations and theorems that were never part of her teaching life: alongside the  ‘economical recipes’ culled from Denton Women’s Institute and detailed planting schemes for the garden of the new home in South London to which she and Albert moved after their retirement, they reveal a mind always active and never narrow. She corresponded with mathematicians on the continent but at the same time never forgot her roots in rural Bedfordshire. When her daughter Vera had to produce a school project, she helped her put together a beautifully illustrated account, with samples, of ‘The Straw Plait Industry’, drawing on her own memories of cottage life in Maulden. Vera herself trained as a teacher of infants at Whiteland’s College (now part of the University of Roehampton) and began her career at Downhills School in Tottenham, a school in the news only last week – trying to resist Michael Gove’s attempts to turn it into an Academy.

Edith died in 1941, the year her granddaughter, Vera’s daughter Doreen Edith, was married to a south London curate called Norman Barlow. Their wartime wedding service was conducted by the same Rev. Percy Green who had once wanted to marry Vera but had had to settle for her sister Irene.

They say teaching runs in families. Edith Shotbolt was my great grandmother; I owe her, in a sense, everything.  If she and Albert had not married, I should not be here to write this account of her now. But I have to admit that until this week, when I uncovered two large packets of old family papers and photographs, I knew almost nothing at all about her. Looking now at the only clear photograph that survives of her, I see her gaze prefiguring a certain look I recognize as my mother’s. And in Albert’s face and balding head, is that almost me I see? Reaching across from my desk to my shelves, I search for, and find, a half-remembered poem by Thomas Hardy:

I am the family face;
Flesh perishes, I live on,
Projecting trait and trace
Through time to times anon,
And leaping from place to place
Over oblivion.                                                (‘Heredity’)

[I am grateful to Mrs Guenver Moyes, archivist at the Sibthorp Library of Bishop Grossteste University College, for kindly supplying information about Edith Shotbolt from the College archives.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

To Norfolk

To Norfolk. We arrive at the end of an itinerary that has involved commuting between Cheltenham and Yorkshire (West Riding), south Somerset, Yorkshire (East Riding), Lincolnshire and Cambridge. After which, an old flint cottage, a warm fire, two very good friends and two wayward puppies, Peggy and Lily (half cocker spaniel, half shih-tzu) and a well-stocked cellar, offer the perfect retreat.

‘Well,’ asks John, ‘and what do you want to do in North Norfolk?’ I know at once how to reply. ‘I want to walk by the sea, I want to read and I’d like to write.’ John and his wife are writers, biographers both, and their house (a former pub, the name still emblazoned in the stained glass of the front door) is full of books I wish I owned. ‘Then we’ll go to Holkham beach tomorrow,’ says John. And we do.

There’s a heavy sky, and it’s cold enough for snow. We approach the beach through pine woods, and then skirt some prodigious beds of samphire grass. ‘Shakespeare must have got it wrong, don’t you think?’ asks John. ‘Surely there cannot really have been a samphire gatherer plying his ‘dreadful trade’ half way up the cliff face?’ But I am not thinking of King Lear at this moment. As we cross the dunes and onto the great expanse of empty beach, I’ve been trying to think who wrote a novel I know that’s partly set at Holkham. The answer is Hilary Mantel.

I’m surprised it takes me even a moment to recall, for I think A Change of Climate is a great novel, though I suspect it will only be remembered by literary historians - if at all – as an early novel by the Booker Prize-winning author of Wolf Hall. As we head towards the sea, our feet crunching each step on fragments of razor shell, I wonder why I am so sure it is a great and not just a good novel. There are distractions, of course – a colony of star fish, perfectly shaped and all perfectly dead on the sand, a skein of geese in perfect V-formation overhead – but A Change of Climate has, I conclude, the following claims to being called ‘great’.

First, it is a novel in which life and death are refracted and enacted through the eyes and in the lives of children and adults. This is how it begins:

One day when Kit was ten years old, a visitor cut her wrists in the kitchen. She was just beginning on this cold, difficult form of death when Kit came in to get a glass of milk.

Sometimes events and people in the book are seen only through a glass darkly (glass and mirrors are central images) but eventually, with a shattering surprise, the plot reveals an appalling evil which has confounded the lives of people who are only trying to do good. Then the scope of the book, which appears at first to be utterly provincial, is astonishing: its action moves between remote north Norfolk via the townships of apartheid Johannesburg into the silence of a central African hinterland and back to Norfolk. I think its themes are profound and its success, in terms of its construction, its insight and its writing, absolute. It’s a book that has made me think deeply: I have written about it and lectured on it and yet (following Italo Calvino’s definition of a classic) I know it is a book that has still not finished saying everything it has to say to me.

One should of course, not use words like ‘great’ lightly. Still less, ‘greatest’. At the Cheltenham Festival last October, we heard Claire Tomalin and John Carey agree confidently that though Dickens was the greatest English novelist, Vanity Fair was the greatest English novel. They didn’t pause to say why, but they should have done. After all there are plenty of other candidates: Jane Austen or George Eliot perhaps, or Wuthering Heights or Women in Love? Anthony Trollope, writing in his Autobiography, had an unexpected choice, but he was prepared to give his reasons:

I myself regard Henry Esmond as the greatest novel in the English language, basing that judgment upon the excellence of its language, on the clear individuality of its characters, on the truth of its delineations in regard to the time selected, and in its great pathos.

Just last week, Howard Jacobson declared in The Guardian that ‘on account of his bridging the chasm between the serious and the popular’ he ranked Dickens second only to Shakespeare. What’s more, he thought that Great Expectations ‘was up there with the world’s greatest novels’. Here’s why:

It vindicates plot as no other novel I can think of does since what there is to find out is not coincidence or happenstance but the profoundest moral truth. Back, back we go in time and convolution, only to discover that the taint of crime and prison which Pip is desperate to escape is inescapable: not only is the idea of a “gentleman” built on sand, so is that idealization of woman that is at the heart of Victorian romantic love. (Guardian Review 07.01.12, p. 17)

Built on sand …. Here at Holkham the wind has got up and is swishing the sand across the beach.  The cloud is starting to break. For the first time today there is a glimpse of weak sun. John leads us back over the dunes towards the car, and as we go I try to remember the ending of A Change of Climate:

The air held snow. Often it promises, but doesn’t perform. She put her hands in her pockets of her coat, and began to walk uphill to the car park. The cloud had thinned, and as she walked the sun showed itself, fuzzy and whitish-yellow, like a lamp behind a veil.

Just like now.

[photo: Holkham beach, Monday 9 January 2012

My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, is due out in the Spring, published by the Lutterworth Press. You can find details of the book, and read the opening chapters, by clicking here.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Re-reading Julian Barnes (ii): on poetry and 'the poet'

Tony Webster, the central character and narrator of The Sense of an Ending, has a lot to say about poetry in the novel – more than you’d suspect, from a first reading. At school he is taught by a young English master ‘just down from Cambridge’, Phil Dixon, ‘who liked to use contemporary texts , and would throw out sudden challenges.’ One  he throws out is from T.S. Eliot’s  ‘Sweeney Agonistes’:

Birth, copulation and death,
That’s all the facts when you come to brass tacks;
Birth, copulation and death.

He asks, ‘Any comments?’ and indeed the whole novel turns out to be (as we realize by the end) a commentary on exactly this theme. Tony’s school years are the mid-1960s, that groundbreaking era of the Penguin anthology The New Poetry and Ted Hughes’ series on BBC Schools’ Radio, Poetry in the Making: indeed, he remembers

how, when we were discussing Ted Hughes’s poetry, he put his head at a donnish slant and murmured, ‘Of course, we’re all wondering what will happen when he runs out of animals.’

Tony loves this line of Phil Dixon’s and later, at university, tries it out on his girlfriend Veronica. She is not impressed. When he admits, ‘It was just something my English master said,’ she replies, ‘Well, now you’re at university we must get you to think for yourself, mustn’t we?’  Trying to get Tony to think for himself is something she will do again, angrily, later in the novel. Her rebuke at his failure to understand the events of the past, the circumstances leading to the long-ago suicide of his school friend Adrian, reverberates backwards and forwards through the novel:

You just don’t get it, do you? You never did, and you never will.

Poetry is something else that Tony doesn’t get. When Phil Dixon sets his class an unseen poem (in the best I.A. Richards tradition: no title, date, or author) and asks Tony’s friend Adrian Finn to say, in simple terms, what the poem is about, Adrian replies confidently,

‘Eros and Thanatos, sir …. Sex and death. Or love and death, if you prefer. The erotic principle, in any case, coming into conflict with the death principle. And what ensues from that conflict. Sir.’

As with the Eliot quotation, this declaration of Adrian’s neatly foreshadows everything the rest of the novel will be about. But Tony doesn’t get it: when Dixon turns to him – ‘Webster, enlighten us further’ – he can only say feebly, ‘I just thought it was about a barn-owl, sir.’

Here Julian Barnes plays a game with the reader. Which poem did Dixon set his class for practical criticism? It sounds as though it should be one by Ted Hughes, but it isn’t. There’s been some anguished discussion about this on the internet, but no one has yet found a poem about a barn-owl that is apparently about sex and death too.

This ‘spot the poem’ game is only a tease. Much more significant is ‘Spot the poet’.  There is one poet Barnes never allows Tony to name, but from and about whom he quotes throughout the novel. He refers to him simply as ‘the poet’, suggesting not only that he is attached to this one above all others, but also that we as readers should be able immediately to identify him: we just have to pick up the intertextual echoes for ourselves.

The poet is Philip Larkin.

The first echo comes very early. When Tony is introducing himself and explaining why he needs to return ‘briefly’ to ‘some approximate memories which time has deformed into certainty’ he is reversing the key lines from ‘An Arundel Tomb’. ‘Time has transfigured them into / Untruth’, writes Larkin about the earl and countess lying hand in hand on top of their tomb, betraying the ‘stone fidelity / They hardly meant’. The Sense of an Ending is about the unreliability of memory, the dangers of nostalgia and the fallibility of history; the fact that Tony admits from the word go that his memories are only approximate and that they have been ‘deformed’ into certainty is an admission that he will be an unreliable narrator.

But, this novel reminds us, all narrative is compromised. As Adrian will later put it to their history teacher: ‘We need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.’

Later, Tony will quote more directly from Larkin. Talking about the patterns and procedures of courtship in the early sixties he describes the sequence of fumblings and trade-offs that went all the way ‘up to what the poet called “a wrangle for a ring”’. The line comes from ‘Annus Mirabilis’ (‘Sexual Intercourse began in 1963 …')

A critical document in the novel is a page from Adrian’s diary. After University, Adrian had briefly become Veronica’s boyfriend but – to Tony’s dismay – had committed suicide not long afterwards. On this page (which Tony does not see until he is in his sixties – divorced, bald, recently retired, living alone) Adrian had written cryptically about ‘accumulation’, the multiplying responsibilities and consequences of relationships. Tony, who is trying to make sense of Adrian’s suicide, his ending, takes a simpler view of life:

We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories. There is the question of accumulation, but not in the sense that Adrian meant, just the simple adding up and adding on of life. And as the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase.

What the poet actually says is this:

Why did he think adding meant increase?
To me it was dilution.

This comes from ‘Dockery and Son’ where the speaker is disturbed to discover, at a college reunion, that one of his erstwhile contemporaries, Dockery, has a son already at the college while he, like Larkin himself, is still unmarried, still childless. Later, Barnes makes Tony conclude - lamely and mistakenly; he still does not get it - that Adrian had committed suicide simply because, like Larkin,  ‘he was afraid of the pram in the hall’. (This is a quotation not from Larkin but from Cyril Connolly’s Enemies of Promise ,1938: ‘there is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall’ – Larkin, however, admired Connolly and quoted this dictum with approval.)

I think ‘Dockery and Son’ is a crucial text for understanding ‘the sense of an ending’ with which Tony wrestles. It’s one of the most unillusioned of Larkin’s poems and a precursor to ‘Aubade’. Although its final lines are never quoted or directly echoed in Barnes’s novel, they speak all too resonantly of Tony’s failure in life:

Life is first boredom, then fear.
Whether or not we use it, it goes,
And leaves what something hidden from us chose,
And age, and then the only end of age.

In a fit of self-reproach Tony asks himself, ‘What did I know of life, I who had lived so carefully?’ He decides that an appropriate epitaph for his gravestone would be ‘Tony Webster – he never got it’. Unlike Larkin, however, Tony did have a child, a grown-up daughter, Susie, who (as he is fond of saying about other people) ‘is not central to this story’. He contrasts her with a brain-damaged adult he has been shown by Veronica and whom he assumes (mistakenly) must have been the child of Veronica and Adrian, and the reason for Adrian’s suicide. In his final homage to Larkin, he says that having a normal, functioning child is the most any parent should ask for: ‘May you be ordinary, as the poet once wished the new-born baby.’ The poem to which he refers is Larkin’s ‘Born Yesterday’, and the baby was Kingsley Amis’s daughter, Sally, born in January 1954.

I was shocked, before Christmas, to read in the TLS that one reviewer had found The Sense of an Ending ‘hilarious’ (Graham Robb, TLS 2.12.11, p.16). Hilarious it isn’t. Tony Webster may be a poor fool, but he isn’t a buffoon. True, he hath ever but slenderly known himself; but what sense he does finally make of life – of his own mortality as well as of Adrian’s suicide - comes from Larkin’s poetry.  This much, at least, he gets. Unseen and unidentified, ‘the poet’ is Tony’s touchstone, a critical presence in the novel, ‘central to this story’.

 [illustration: photo of Philip Larkin, from the cover of Further Requirements (London: Faber and Faber 2001) and the cover of Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending (London: Jonathan Cape: 2011); cover design by Suzanne Dean.

My new book, Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning, is due out in the Spring, published by the Lutterworth Press. You can find details of the book, and read the opening chapters, by clicking here.