Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Month: March 2023

The Lozenges, The Chest Tomb, and The Hulk

Great Expectations was always my favourite Dickens, not least for its unrivalled ensemble of characters.

Biddy is surely Dickens’ most loveable female. Unlike his usual heroines who are either vapid, foolish creatures, simpering and affected, or wearyingly saintly and selfless, Biddy alone is credible and attractive. For Biddy is both good and clever. She may love Pip, but she is not deceived, being acutely aware of his weakness and vanity. And if her tone is never acerbic, her words are frequently pointed. She knows that he has no justification for patronising and condescending to her. She may be hurt by his carelessly cruel words, but she maintains her dignity, replying to his arrogant suggestion that despite not being a gentleman, “I should have been good enough for you; shouldn’t I Biddy?” with a disconcerting: “Yes, I am not over-particular.” She counters his vain and supercilious query, “How do you manage, Biddy, to learn everthing that I learn and always to keep up with me?” with a humour to which he is impervious, “I suppose I must catch it – like a cough.” The only time her response borders on the sharp is in defence of Joe when Pip asks her to, “help Joe on …with his learning and his manners. “Won’t his manners do then?” she flashes back at him with real and justified anger.

When she writes to Pip explaining that Joe wants to visit him in London, she reads the letter to Joe omitting with characteristic sensitivity the sentence where, clearly all to aware of the mean-spirited embarrassment with which Pip will greet this proposal, she has written, “I hope… it will be agreeable to see him even though a gentleman, for you had ever a good heart and he is a worthy  man.”

Pip himself  is a study in human weakness, his pride and snobbery fighting with his natural affection. He is ashamed of his home at the forge; he dreads the appearance of Joe, “coarse and ignorant,” before Miss Haversham and Estella; he finds Biddy “common.” His resentment flares when, in response to his own condescending assurance, Joe too readily agrees that he is sure he will never forget him. When Joe and Biddy express wonder at the notion of his being a gentleman he is angry and bitter.

His impatience and embarrassed contempt surface  when Joe visits him in London, and make a sorry contrast with the  quiet dignity with which the latter takes his leave. And the remorse which succeeds soon fades into spurious self-justifications for not staying at  the forge when he next returns to visit Miss Haversham. When he  finally returns for his sister’s funeral  he is annoyed by  Biddy’s silent reaction to his assertion that in future he will  often  visit Joe; she knows, of course, that he will not do so , but Pip takes her silence as an unkindness and injustice to himself.

His abhorrence and repugnance when he  realises that Magwitch is his benefactor, his disgust at his uncouth manners and appearance is not attractive. Yet when the returned convict is hunted down and wounded Pip’s better self emerges and he sees “only a man who had meant to be my benefactor, and who had felt affectionately, gratefully, and generously, towards me with great constancy through a series of years. I only saw in him a much better man than I had been to Joe.” In the end he does not desert Magwitch.

Great Expectations also offers us one of the most delightful minor characters in Dickens: Trabb’s Boy, exuberant and irrepressible, thumbing his nose at pretension and mocking Pip’s  insolence as,  thinking himself above others,  he makes a proud progress down the High Street in his new gentlemanly clothes. As Trabb’s boy impersonates him to the amusement of spectators  it is impossible not to sympathise with Pip’s humiliation in the face of sustained mockery and ridicule.

In Satis House  with its dark rooms and yellow light, we encounter the faded spectre of Miss Havisham, one of Dickens’ great grotesques,  a ghastly waxwork amongst her cobwebs and rotted cake.  Spinning her own evil web like one of the speckle-legged  spiders with blotchy bodies that scurry in and out of the lump of black fungus which had been her wedding cake, she pursues her cruel manipulation of the young Estella and her vengeful torture of Pip.

And through the tragic life of Magwitch  comes a severe indictment of a society which put men in irons and imprisoned them in hulks before transporting them, then condemned them to death if they returned however blameless, industrious, and honest their lives might have been in the intervening years.

As compelling as Dickens’ characters  is his mesmerizing evocation of the marsh country  where the young Pip lives at the forge. It is a “dark flat wilderness,” with a “ low leaden line beyond,”  the river on which stands  a gibbet hung  with chains. A raw wind rushes from its “distant savage lair,” the sea.  Here on a damp rimy morning, “ on every rail and gate wet lay clammy.”  The dismal firing of the great guns  on the hulks , the sound deadened by the thick mist, warned of an escaped convict.

In the bleak churchyard overgrown with nettles Pip traced out the letters on his parents’ tombstone and contemplated the “five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine.” And here he encountered  the terrifying Magwitch, the  convict escaped from the hulks, with a great iron on his leg: “ A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped and shivered, and glared and growled.” Magwitch turned the petrified Pip upside down in search of any food he might have in his pockets. “ When the church came to itself – for he was so sudden and so strong that he made it go head over heels before me…I was seated on a high tombstone trembling.”

Years after I first read the novel  I went in search of the church of St. James in the  village of Cooling on the North Kent marshes. Here, in a small churchyard which, like its environs, has been much tamed since Dickens’ day, are the little stone lozenges which inspired the description in that vivid opening chapter.

Pip contemplated five little stone lozenges but thirteen of these tiny tragic graves surround their parents’ upright stone

Nearby is a splendid chest tomb, surely the one on which Pip found himself seated and trembling.

From the church I crossed the marshes to the river and another graveyard where, anchored in the mud, the skeletal wreck of a hulk lay rotting. I longed to believe that here were the warped remains of the ship from which Dickens drew inspiration, but regrettably I knew better. It is the Hans Egede, a barge built in the 1920s, and converted into a hulk for coal storage in the 1950s after it had caught fire. It was being moved up the Thames from the Medway when it began to take in water; it was beached and abandoned. Besides, even in Dickens’ day the hulks were moored on the Medway  rather than on the Thames.

The beached remains of the one time hulk, Hans Egede

But in my imagination this was the hulk from which Magwitch escaped, and only because the day was so unnaturally bright and sunny was I unable to detect his ghostly form dragging his leg iron across the marshes towards the churchyard and a small boy who would provide him with vittles and a file.

Henry Newbolt and My Abortive Attack on Vitai Lampada

We were dismayed when we heard that for our teaching practice term we were to be scattered all over the country. During our first term we had enjoyed the rarefied atmosphere of Cambridge: observing  in the Village Colleges; reading children’s literature; watching educational films; putting together themed multimedia presentations; filming each other microteaching – Chinese cookery, yoga, origami; mulling over our teaching practice  wardrobes; and discussing “discipline” in an entirely theoretical manner.  The Cambridge Village Colleges were not however, our supervisor informed us, representative of the range of abilities or the standards of behaviour which we might expect to encounter in the real world, and into that world we were now to be dispersed.

And so, I found myself at the wildly inappropriately named Heartsease Comprehensive School in Norwich. This is a little unfair, for Heartsease was  a good school, despite its unwieldy size and disadvantaged catchment area. Indeed, at the time of my arrival it was  shaking off an earlier reputation as a sink school and experiencing  steady improvements. But it takes time to leave behind a problem school label, and I was conscious of benefitting from this, looking  smugly nonchalant when fellow students reported  rumours that mine was a difficult school and wondered sympathetically how I was coping.

My passage was eased further by the exceptional teachers in the English Department who  gave generously of their time and expertise. In handing over the classes which they had carefully nurtured to my inexpert care, they were risking having to make up lost ground in the future and meanwhile putting themselves in the front line for “cover.” This frequently meant periods with the most difficult classes in the school when less scrupulous staff in other departments “went sick,” an event which happened with odd frequency on Friday afternoons.

Not only did they lend me their pupils, but it was also clear that they had briefed them to act with consideration towards The Student. For student teachers are fair game to bored teenagers, and with no malice intended they can easily derail  painstakingly wrought lesson plans and reduce their captives to jabbering, drivelling incoherence. But my charges were clearly honour- bound to respect the moral strictures of their real teachers,  so that even my least successful efforts met with little more than an exchange of indulgent smiles, raised eyebrows and the occasional, “O, Miss,” when my lesson floundered.

So, given a free hand, I embarked with confidence one morning on a comparative analysis of Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting and Henry Newbolt’s Vitai Lampada, ostensibly to illustrate the difference between good and bad poetry.  There was  a hidden agenda, for I was hoping that Wilfred Owen’s heart-rending condemnation of war  would turn them against the jingoism exemplified by Newbolt’s poem.

But to a person my pupils embraced Vitai Lampada: they liked the tempo; they liked the rhythm; they liked the rhymes; they liked the imagery; they liked the emotion, the immediacy, and the vivid metaphor. They liked the sentiments of honour, nobility and selflessness. Useless for me to argue that the poem was maudlin, mawkish, manipulative, banal, cloying, and cliché ridden, that it was disingenuous to compare war with a cricket match, that the cheery tempo they liked so much was inappropriate for a poem about war. Losing sight of the question of literary merit, writ large in my lesson plan, I focused on the values espoused in the poem: hierarchy, unquestioning respect for authority, blind obedience to orders, Imperialism, a public-school ethos, and (this last in a blatant attempt to win over the girls) a toxic masculine culture. My pupils, normally loud in their condemnation of all these attitudes, were unmoved; they liked the poem – a lot.

Strange Meeting on the other hand  met with a stony response: it was gloomy; miserable; did not rhyme properly. I struggled in vain to explain pararhyme, to suggest that Owen used it to promote unease, a bleak atmosphere, melancholy. My pupils were unimpressed. I tried them on realism, on poignancy, on irony, the dead soldier, who could have been a friend, killed by the protagonist. They were impervious to my arguments. Abandoning any pretence that we were debating the quality of the writing I focused on the message: war was arbitrary, futile, wasteful, organised brutality, the battlefield a dehumanising hell of hopelessness and horror. My charges nodded, “Yes, it is a really miserable poem.”  But, I continued, the poem also points to the possibilities of choice, forgiveness, shared humanity, reconciliation. “Preferred the other one.”

I met with wry smiles in the staff room when I reported ruefully on the double failure of both my overt and my covert lesson plans.

Soon after qualifying I abandoned the teaching of English Literature, turning instead to delivering Politics classes. But I remember with gratitude the support of the English staff at Heartsease in the Easter term of 1980 and with amused respect the determination with which my pupils held to their own opinions.

And if I still have no doubt that Vitai Lampada is a deeply flawed poem, I have nonetheless visited Henry Newbolt’s grave in atonement for my attempt to use his poem for my own political agenda. The grave lies at the heart of the Orchardleigh Estate which was owned by the Duckworth family of publishers into which Newbolt married. When I first moved to Somerset it was a romantic lost domain, the grounds gloriously overgrown and the empty Victorian house bewitchingly mysterious. Today developers have cleared the parkland to accommodate a golf course, and revamped the house as a “Fairy-tale Wedding Venue” – three-day packages from £8,699. But the tiny thirteenth century church of St. Mary the Virgin remains untouched. It sits on a lake, protected by trees, and reached via a decorative iron foot bridge across a moat.  Newbolt lies in the  churchyard,  near the edge of the lake under a small, worn, flat stone which describes him tersely as Henry Newbolt, Poet. His view of the lake has been somewhat obscured in recent times by the arrival of more Duckworths with grander stones, but it’s a charming, peaceful spot, with ducklings scuttling across the lake in springtime… and not a jammed Gatling in sight.

St. Mary the Virgin, Orchardleigh
Henry Newbolt, Poet, 1862-1938
and his wife,
their view of the lake a little obscured by more recent arrivals.

A memorial in the church bears a quotation from his own elegy, Mors Janua:

Death is a gate, and holds no room within:

Pass- to the road beyond.

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