The Sagas, the Solstice and the Supernatural, by Anne Lawrence-Mathers

As a medievalist it is always satisfying to point out that many traditions can be traced back to the medieval period – and this applies also to the custom of setting and telling tales of ghosts and monsters at the time of the winter solstice.  It is well known that this time, one of long-established feasts and rituals both inside and outside the Roman Empire, was deliberately chosen as the time to celebrate the birth of Christ.  What may be less well known is that the supernatural conflict between the old religion and the new is a haunting presence within the ghost stories told by the sagas.  Encounters between human heroes and destructive monsters were often set at Yule and in the semi-pagan past.  In this post I shall try to illustrate the point by retelling stories which set lasting patterns for tales of the supernatural.

I. The Saga of Bard the Snowfell God

Helluland, Earthstar Geographics (2021)

First up is the Saga of Bard the Snowfell God, which tells the story of the half-human Bard, son of King Mist, ruler of Helluland in the mysterious far North, and his descendants.  Bard’s mother, Mjoll, was human but Mist was part giant and part troll, and Bard inherited superhuman strength.  He added study of sorcery to this before leading his family to settle in Iceland.  When he grew old Bard disappeared from human society into the glacier at the head of his valley.  He reappeared to give protection to those who called on him, gaining the name of ‘God of Snowfell’.  One such reappearance was to Odd, son of Onund, whom Bard invited to a Yule feast.  Odd fought his way through the gathering midwinter storms and the devious behaviour of enemies, and was rescued from the mountainside by Bard himself in time for Yule.  However, Bard was not always so kind.  He abandoned one of his lovers, with her son, Gest, and only took Gest into the glacier when he was almost an adult.

Gest willingly learnt both law and magic from Bard and was thus well prepared when the troll, Bag, invited father and son to a great Yule feast in her cave.  Like Yule feasts across Scandinavia and Britain this one involved competitive drinking and violent games, during which Gest made an enemy of the ogre, Kolbjorn, but lived to leave the cave with his father.  This was a time when both trolls and ogres preyed on humans and their animals, killing many but also kidnapping women.  Kolbjorn followed this pattern and, as well as causing terrible losses to local farmers, stole and starved Bard’s daughter, Solrun.  During another violent feast in Kolbjorn’s even more terrifying cave Gest rescued Solrun and killed a small army of ogres, despite the intervention of Kolbjorn’s mother, a powerful sorceress. 

Ultimately more threatening for Gest is King Olaf Tryggvason and his energetic promotion of Christianity.  Gest and Solrun are invited to court for Yule, known to King Olaf as Christmas.  Gest refuses to be baptised but attends the Christmas Eve celebrations, where events strongly anticipate the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Into the court strides a tall and evil-looking warrior, wearing mail and armed with a sword, who issues a challenge (of course).  He dares all the assembled company to try to take his treasure – and then disappears, leaving most people unconscious.  Gest identifies this revenant as Raknar, ancient king of Helluland and murderer of his own parents amongst very many others, who was buried alive in his ship along with 800 warriors.  At Olaf Tryggvason’s request Gest, bound by the rules of hospitality and honour, agrees to take up the supernatural challenge.  He is given assistance in the form of two magicians and a priest, though he is not happy about the priest.  Magical equipment is also given – a sword, a piece of cloth and a candle.

In the early stages of the quest the priest is something of a hindrance, killing a pagan who offers more magic and having to be carried on Gest’s back.  However, the priest, unlike the magicians, proves to be immune to magical threats and uses his crucifix to kill a supernatural bull which nearly kills Gest.  The priest is also able to watch through the night, despite terrifying apparitions and ghostly visions.  Gest’s own powers are great enough to enable him to reach the inner depths of the enormous burial mound within which Raknar and his undead army wait to kill him.  Gest cuts off the heads of 500 warriors, seizes the treasure and finds Raknar himself seated on a carved throne.  At this crucial moment the magic in Gest’s equipment becomes exhausted and, as Raknar is about to kill him, he calls upon Bard.  The call is answered but, when the candle burns out and the dark returns, the dead men rise up and prevent Bard from reaching Gest.  It is only when Gest calls upon Olaf Tryggvason and his new God that Raknar is vanquished.  Gest then has no real choice but to accept Christianity, although the decision proves fatal when Bard arrives to punish him. 

II. The Saga of Grettir the Strong

Bjarg, North Iceland, birthplace of Grettir the Strong

The second saga is the better-known story of Grettir the Strong, a heroic but deeply flawed warrior who encountered a series of monsters (human and otherwise) at Yule.  His career can be placed c1,000 CE, at the time when Iceland accepted Christianity.  Even as a child Grettir was noted for his strength and courage – and also his stubbornness and love of insults.  This complex character was demonstrated when, after being shipwrecked, Grettir was taken in by a wealthy landowner called Thorfinn.  This man’s father, Kar the Old, was buried in a mound on an isolated headland but returned to haunt everyone who tried to farm on ‘his’ island.  Grettir could not resist the challenge and broke into Kar’s barrow, opening up its roof, before venturing further in.  Here he found treasure and the bones of an enormous horse, as well as the barrow-dweller himself, sitting on a carved throne.  Like Gest, Grettir was able to seize the treasure but was attacked from behind in the dark while trying to escape.  Unlike Gest, Grettir was able to cut off Kar’s head without assistance.  This exploit, unsurprisingly, was not greeted with unmixed joy by Thorfinn.  Grettir’s next adventure on the island took place while Thorfinn and most of his warriors were away at a Christmas feast on the mainland.  A boatload of Vikings took the opportunity to attack Thorfinn’s hall but were routed and killed by Grettir, thus earning the reward he desired.

The next Christmas season found Grettir at Saltfjord in Halogaland, where an enormous bear was causing havoc.  Only Grettir was able to kill the bear, after wrestling it over a cliff – but once again he made enemies and was forced to move on.  He was now famous enough to go back to Iceland and work for rich men who needed his protection, as well as to pursue old enmities.  One of Grettir’s clients, Thorkell, owned land in a valley which was permanently dark in midwinter and haunted by an ogre-like creature.  This had led Thorkell to hire a Swedish fighter called Glam, who was nearly as gigantic and frightening as the monster.  Glam was perfectly willing to fight ghosts but completely unwilling to go to church, and demonstrated his hostility to the new religion by demanding to be fed on Christmas Eve, when all good Christians were fasting.  Later that night he went out on guard but failed to return.  On Christmas day a search party found his mangled body on the mountainside, with monstrous footprints, splashed with blood, leading away into the mountain.  The body resisted all attempts to take it to church for burial but allowed itself to be buried in a cairn.

Glam himself now became an undead monster, reappearing at night through the winter and causing terrible fear and harm until the return of sunlight forced him away.  A new shepherd was hired but Glam returned with the winter, killed the shepherd on Christmas Eve and left the mangled corpse to be found on Christmas morning as another unwelcome ‘Christmas present’.  Glam then grew even more powerful and destructive than the first monster – at which point Grettir arrived.  Like the monster Grendel in the story of Beowulf, Glam broke into Thorkell’s hall at night, so strong he could tear the building apart and so huge his head reached the rafters.  In the human space of the hall Grettir held his own against the monster, but Glam managed to drag him into the moonlight, where Glam’s strength grew greater.  Grettir managed to overcome Glam, although only after Glam laid a curse on him.  The curse turned Grettir’s own strength against him and condemned him to lifelong bad luck, outlawry and loneliness, as well as constant haunting by Glam himself.

Drangey Island, Grettir’s place of death

The curse took effect and Grettir found himself almost alone when facing an enemy named Thorbjorn and his foster-mother, Thurid.  Thurid was human but retained great powers of sorcery, despite being baptised.  Once again the power of the supernatural increased in the darkness of winter, and Thurid took advantage of this to carve enchanted runes into the trunk of a fallen tree, chanting spells while walking widdershins and filling the runes with her own blood.  Grettir had seized Drang Island, where he hoped to hold off his enemies, but the enchanted tree trunk reached the shore, against wind and tide, and was fatally taken as firewood by his servant.  Under the power of the curse Grettir’s own axe caused a festering wound in his leg, making him vulnerable to his enemies.  He died at Christmas, supported only by his brother, Illugi, despite all the people he had saved.  It was only after death that he was reconciled with Christianity and was buried in a churchyard. These stories, like their heroes, reflect supernatural conflicts on many levels.  The new religion triumphs and its enemies are identified with sorcery.  And yet Christmas remains a time when feasts are threatened by many kinds of darkness and when the cold of the solstice reduces most humans to huddling around their fires, telling stories of heroes and monsters until light and warmth return.  The sagas of Bard, Gest and Grettir, like many others, make it clear that elements of the old religion retained their powers – even if only in the forms of barrow-dwellers and undead warriors – and their stories can still bring a sense of darkness and cold to a midwinter’s night.

Anne Lawrence-Mathers is a Professor of medieval history at the University of Reading, specialising in medieval magic and science, and the interfaces between the two. Anne’s latest monograph, Medieval Meteorology, is available here.

Posted in A Very Ghostly Christmas (2021) | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

A Ghostly Christmas Tale, by Professor David Stack

Charles Dickens loved Christmas and he loved a good ghost story too. His first attempt at a seasonal story, A Christmas Carol (1843), combined these two passions.

The tale of Scrooge’s haunting and redemption was subtitled A Ghost Story of Christmas, and its four ghosts, the remorseful Marley shackled by the chains he has forged in life; the gentle Ghost of Christmas Past; the jolly Ghost of Christmas Present; and the ominous Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, are the organising points that structure and drive Dickens’s narrative.

He followed it with four further Christmas novellas:The Chimes (1844), The Cricket on the Hearth (1845), The Battle of Life (1846), and The Haunted Man (1848). But whereas A Christmas Carol endures in popular culture, and even sits proudly on the GCSE English Literature curriculum, defying the efforts of Gradgrind educationalists and examination boards to drain the joy from its message, his four follow-ups are now rarely read.

Dickens undoubtedly peaked early with A Christmas Carol, but his subsequent efforts all sold well in their day, and enjoyed stage adaptations. The critical reception was sometimes mixed, but Dickens’s readership delighted in the way all four books took up and developed themes from A Christmas Carol, including the power of ghosts to deepen human understanding and bring about a character’s redemption. In the fiercely anti-Malthusian The Chimes, goblin spirits persuade the lead character, Trotty Veck, to shake off his debilitating assumption that the poor are ‘born bad’. But it is in the last of his stories, The Haunted Man, or the Ghost’s Bargain, that Dickens achieved his most interesting take on a Christmas ghost story.

‘Frontispiece’, John Tenniel, The Victorian Web

The man haunted in the book’s title is Professor Redlaw, a ‘taciturn, thoughtful, gloomy’ academic, who we first meet on a darkening winter’s night, ensconced in his study, and staring into a fire that sends ‘a crowd of spectral shapes’ dancing across his wall. These, however, are not the phantoms that haunt him. Redlaw’s tormentors are the ghosts of his memories, of ‘sorrow, wrong, and trouble’ past that play upon his mind and are etched in the sunken eyes and hollow cheeks of his face. He yearns for release from this pain and towards the end of the first of the book’s three chapters, ‘The Gift Bestowed’, he makes the bargain of the book’s subtitle.

A doppelgänger phantom, ‘an awful likeness of himself’, emerges from the gloom and offers Redlaw the chance to cancel all painful remembrance. He agrees, and only then learns that this gift, once bestowed, is contagious, and that he will involuntarily bestow the same destruction of painful memories on all he meets.

The consequences of this power are explored in chapter two, ‘The Gift Diffused’, where Redlaw sees the kind, and previously happy, Tetterby and Swidger families become mean, selfish, and argumentative as they lose the ability to recollect painful and sorrowful memories. In the final chapter, ‘The Gift Reversed’, Redlaw sees the memories restored to those around him, and reaches the realisation that our sorrows, as much as our pleasures, are necessary for our happiness. ‘[M]y point’, Dickens explained to his publisher John Forster, ‘is that bad and good are irredeemably linked in remembrance, and that you could not choose the enjoyment of only recollecting the good. To have the best of it you must remember the worst also.’

‘Redlaw on the landing of the staircase’
Frank Stone, The Victorian Web

When Dickens had first conceived the story, in Lausanne in the summer of 1846, whilst still writing Dombey and Son (1846), he descried it as a ‘very ghostly and wild idea’.  But by the time he returned to it in the early winter of 1848, the ghostly element was more allegorical than supernatural. This is consistent with much of Dickens’s other work. Despite what Forster called his ‘hankering’ after ghost stories, and Dickens’s delight in reading them, he never seemed entirely comfortable with his own ghostly creations. At the end of A Christmas Carol Dickens teased his readers that it might not have been ghosts haunting Scrooge  after all: ‘He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards’. And he did something similar at the end of The Haunted Man, commenting that some thought Redlaw’s ‘Ghost was but the representation of his own gloomy thoughts’.

His readers, however, and more particularly the audiences who came to see the theatrical renderings of his Christmas novellas, had fewer qualms: they wanted ‘real’ ghosts! They got one in the first production of The Haunted Man, which opened at the Adelphi Theatre in London on 20 December, 1848, two days after the book’s publication. (Dickens had provided advance proofs and advised on the final stages of rehearsal.) But it was another production of The Haunted Man, fourteen years later in an 1862, that proved more significant in the history of theatre.

This featured the first performance of the technique known as ‘Pepper’s Ghost’, in which a brightly lit figure below the stage was reflected in a pane of glass placed between the actor playing Redlaw and the audience, to make it appear as if he were interacting with the ghost. This technique, which took its name from its inventor, science populariser John Henry Pepper, has been credited with launching the fashion for later-nineteenth century ghost-themed plays. It also, perhaps improbably, laid the basis for the technology which, in recent years, has been used to bring a number of deceased rappers, such as Tupac Shakur, Easy-E, and Ol’Dirty Bastard back to the stage.

The Haunted Man itself had no comparable literary legacy. Although some scholars have identified it as a staging post in Dickens’s development towards his mature masterpiece, Bleak House (1853), it is better read simply as another example of his insatiable fascination with Christmas. From his early essay, ‘A Christmas Dinner’ in Sketches by Boz (1836), through Magwitch’s Christmas Eve appearance in the graveyard in Great Expectations (1861), and the Christmas Day murder in his final, unfinished novel The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Christmas was a constant in Dickens’s writing. Ghosts gave him a tool with which to explore this theme, but as with so many of us, it was memories of his youth, good and bad, that made the season for Dickens.

David Stack is a Professor of History at the University of Reading, specialising in the inter-relationship of ideas and politics in the history of Britain and beyond.

Posted in A Very Ghostly Christmas (2021), News | Leave a comment

Christmas at Sea: 400 Years of the Festive Season Afloat, with Dr Richard Blakemore

Dr Richard Blakemore gave this talk as part of an event on ‘Christmas at Sea: 400 Years of the Festive Season Afloat’ on 7 December 2021, organised by the Royal Museums Greenwich and Institute of Historical Research Maritime History & Culture Seminar. We are grateful to the seminar convenors for recording this session, and for their permission to share this video.

Dr Richard Blakemore is a historian and lecturer of the Early Modern Atlantic World at the University of Reading. His research explores the social history of seafarers in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. If you would like to find out more about Richard’s work on the maritime world of Early Modern Britain, you can do so in his recent edited collection here.

Additional Readings:

Journal of Edward Barlow, 1656-1703: https://www.rmg.co.uk/collections/archive/rmgc-object-1129351

Merry Boys of Christmas, 1660: http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/30942/image

Four Choice Carols for Christmas Holidays, 1700: http://ebba.english.ucsb.edu/ballad/31130/image

On Cromwell and Christmas: https://www.cromwellmuseum.org/cromwell/did-oliver-cromwell-ban-christmas

On Christmas dinner in Tudor and Stuart England: https://manyheadedmonster.com/2016/12/14/at-christmas-we-banquet-the-rich-with-the-poor-christmas-dinner-in-tudor-stuart-england/

On Father Christmas: https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2018/12/in-comes-i-old-father-christmas-surprising-history-of-a-christmas-icon/

Posted in A Very Ghostly Christmas (2021) | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gothic ‘Other’ at Christmas, by Dan Renshaw

The tradition of telling scary stories at Christmas is an old one. Tales of ghouls and goblins during the festive season, dating back to the Elizabethan period, have become part of Christmas tradition. In the years before the First World War M.R James, provost of King’s College Cambridge, would in December invite a select few of his undergraduate students to his rooms, where, over a strong drink and by a crackling fire, he would recount his own accounts of the supernatural. These stories would eventually be published, and their author acknowledged as the primary exponent of the modern ghost story. To this day, it is rare for a Christmas to pass without James’s work being featured on radio and television.

But the relationship between the gothic and yuletide goes beyond M.R James. A number of writers of horror fiction at the turn of the century used Christmas as a suitable background for their work. One vampiric example is ‘The Old Portrait’ by Hume Nisbet, set on Christmas Eve, where an artist acquires a second-hand painting of a beautiful woman who, as he dozes and dreams, emerges from the frame to drink his blood.[1] However, the two short stories I will look at in more detail are Christmas horror tales which reveal contemporary late-Victorian and Edwardian concerns about the presence of the ‘ethnic other’, migration, and violence, in the British Empire, and in Britain itself; one set in rural India, and the other in a country manor, blanketed by snow, in the English countryside.

Dâk Bungalow

It is no coincidence that the gothic genre experienced an upsurge in popularity at the end of the nineteenth century, at a point when British colonial power was at its peak, but also a time where it was widely felt that the imperial juggernaut, and the wider society, were entering a period of decline, cultural as well as geopolitical. The gothic, not always consciously, dealt with these fears – of sexuality, of the position of women in society, of the results of technological change, and of ethnic difference.[2] It was also concerned with events in the empire – and India was a particular focus. Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle, both enthusiastic exponents of British colonialism, were fascinated by the South Asian ‘other’- the former using the Raj itself as a setting, whilst the latter often wrote of the Indian supernatural intruding on a British domestic tableau.[3] The story I will discuss, however, is by the British author B.M Croker, ‘The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’ (1893).[4] Croker herself was from the (closer) boundaries of empire, born into a Protestant family in Ireland, but spent many years working and writing in India.[5] ‘The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’ is notable for featuring two female protagonists, who are journeying across Gujarat to join their husbands for Christmas Day. These two Englishwomen are warned against doing so – a friend suggests they equip themselves both with quinine and with revolvers. The journey initially passes without incident, until the women stay for two nights in a house in a village on the route. Here, in the early morning, they have an encounter with a restless spirit, and witness his murder, which took place years before, played out again before them. At the conclusion of the story, they find his body, buried in a shallow grave, and resume their travels, in time for Christmas dinner with their partners.

This story reveals some of the assumptions, and fears, underpinning British control in the Indian Empire, as well as gender roles in both India and Britain. Firstly, Croker intends her heroines to be self-sufficient, despite others attempting to dissuade them, they travel independently (and armed), and solve the mystery of the haunted bungalow without male involvement. But crucially, they feel protected, and confident enough to traverse the Indian countryside, because of their white British identity. They are not in truth alone on this journey, they are accompanied by an Indian guide, Abdul, but they are unaccompanied by white men. Nevertheless, there is sufficient confidence in British hegemony and control in imperial India for the journey to be attempted, their Britishness and their whiteness giving them the right to travel where they please, without fear of injury or impediment. But in the second half of the gothic narrative this confidence is called into question. The man who is murdered is a white, British colonial administrator; his killers are both Indians, ‘othered’ in the text, portrayed as treacherous and avaricious, and one is described in the following terms: ‘a strange servant in a yellow turban, with cruel greedy eyes.’[6] Croker is suggesting that the assumptions that provide the basis for this sense of security are partially false – the British elite in India are resented by the Indian population, including that section of the society employed by or collaborating with the colonial administration, and this antipathy can potentially be expressed in extreme violence. The story might end with the women eating plum pudding in the company of their husbands, but this tale is not as cosy or as straightforward as it might initially appear.

The second gothic ‘othering’ to be discussed here that takes place over Christmas is set in Norfolk. This is the now obscure ‘The Terror in the Snow’ (1904) by B. Fletcher Robinson. Robinson is almost forgotten today, but was a close friend of Arthur Conan Doyle, and their discussions inspired the latter author to write The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902).[7] The adventure, partly horror and partly detective story, occurs in a palatial mansion in the countryside, where it appears that the bloody killing of a financial magnate as Christmas Eve turns into Christmas Day is supernatural in nature, and possibly the work of a werewolf. In the end it is ambiguous whether a lycanthrope is responsible or not. The murdered man is called Baron Steen, and it is made clear that he is a shady entrepreneur, who has made his money by nefarious means and ‘played a bold game on the Stock Exchange’.[8] Indeed, on the night he is torn to pieces he is about to flee the country by boat, with the police circling. It is also heavily implied, although not explicitly stated, that he is Jewish. This characterisation grows out of a contemporary antisemitic stereotype that depicted Jews as corrupt businessmen, and also as arrivistes. Baron Steen has bought the country estate from an aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times, and in a classic gothic plot device, have been cursed for several generations by a beast that haunts the environs of the mansion on snowy winter nights. The Baron represents modernity, but also the widespread Edwardian trope of Jews financially supplanting non-Jews (especially the old landed gentry), as well as being ‘vulgar’ and ‘flash’. Ultimately, he pays for this with his life. The sentiments that informed these depictions resulted in political change; the year after this tale was published, the Aliens Act was passed, which allowed for restriction on entry into the United Kingdom (and was particularly concerned with Jewish migration from Eastern Europe), and also facilitated deportation.[9]

Christmas is often accompanied by spooky tales. But it is not solely the ghosts of Christmas past who are there at the festive celebrations with clanking chains and cold draughts. In the fin-de-siècle gothic narrative contemporary prejudices lurk, sometimes acknowledged, and sometimes suppressed, but always present, and haunting the society in which they were formulated.

Dan Renshaw teaches modern British and European history at the University of Reading, and is particularly interested in migration history and the overlap between migration, minority identity and the gothic.

[1] Hume Nisbet, ‘The Old Portrait’ in Richard Dalby (ed.), Dracula’s Brood (London: Harper, 1987) pp.275-279

[2] See Stephen D. Arata, ‘The Occidental Tourist: Dracula and the Anxiety of Reverse Colonisation’ in Victorian Studies (vol. 33, no.4, 1990) pp.621-645, Judith Halberstam, Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, (London: Duke University Press, 1995), David Punter, The Literature of Terror: A History of Gothic Fictions from 1765 to the Present Day (London: Longman, 1996)

[3] Ailise Bulfin, Gothic Invasions: Imperialism, War, and Fin-de-Siecle Popular Fiction, (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2018), Darryl Jones, ‘Introduction’ in Arthur Conan Doyle, Gothic Tales, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016)

[4] B.M Croker, The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’ in Roger Luckhurst (ed.), Late Victorian Gothic Tales (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015) pp.96-108

[5] Luckhurst, ‘Introduction’ in Late Victorian Gothic Tales, p.xxiv

[6] Croker, The Dâk Bungalow at Dakor’, p.104

[7] B. Fletcher Robinson, ‘The Terror in the Snow’, in Mark Valentine (ed.), The Werewolf Pack (Ware: Wordsworth Editions Limited, 2008), pp.61-79

[8] Fletcher Robinson, ‘The Terror in the Snow’, p.62

[9] Bernard Gainer, The Alien Invasion: The Origins of the Aliens Act of 1905 (London: Heinemann Educational, 1972), Carol Margaret Davison, Anti-Semitism and British Gothic Literature (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Posted in A Very Ghostly Christmas (2021), News | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Supernaturally chattering teeth: Romanticism and the politics of gathering winter fuel, by Dr Jeremy Burchardt

In recent years I’ve been researching and teaching on rural landscape and the way it has been represented in England since the late eighteenth century.  It is widely agreed that the Romantic movement, and in particular the Romantic poets, played a key role in shaping these representations.  Romanticism is often criticized for purveying a lush, idealized vision of rural life, with much of the hardship and social conflict written out of it.  Poets such as Wordsworth and Keats and painters like Constable are seen by many as progenitors of the so-called ‘rural idyll’ which scholars have devoted much attention to debunking.  However, although there may be some truth in this view, closer attention to some of the foundational texts of English Romanticism and to the social context in which they were written suggests that the simplification and distortion lay more in the subsequent reception and (mis)use of these works than in their original message.  In this blog I want to look at one of the poems published in the first edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), often regarded as the first major Romantic statement in English literature.

Poems by William Wordsworth (1815), Volume I, Wikimedia Commons

The poem in question is Wordsworth’s ‘Goody Blake and Harry Gill’, which tells the story of how a well-to-do farmer, Harry Gill, apprehends a poor woman, Goody Blake, when she attempts to steal some firewood from one of his hedges in the midst of winter.  Goody curses him and, thereafter, his teeth will not stop chattering, however many overcoats he puts on.  Superficially this could be read as a conventional seasonal injunction to the wealthy to show charity to the poor, with a whimsical and even sentimental come-uppance for the hard-hearted, from the same ideological stable as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol (1843) and John Mason Neale’s ‘Good King Wenceslas’ (1853).  But a closer reading and contextualization of Wordsworth’s stanzas show that his social criticism was sharper and more penetrating.

At first sight, Wordsworth’s choice of a farmer as protagonist is surprising.  Farmers were not at the apex of rural society at this time – that place was occupied by the aristocracy.  Farmers were several rungs down the social ladder and most of them rented their land from aristocrats and other landowners.  If Wordsworth wanted to compose a parable to teach charity, it would have been more natural to juxtapose Goody Blake with a wealthy landowner, rather as ‘yonder peasant’ is matched with King Wenceslas in Neale’s carol.  However, Wordsworth was well aware that the rural poor in fact had few points of contact with landowners.  It was farmers who employed most of them, and as population growth depressed agricultural wages from the late eighteenth century onwards, a social gulf opened up between farmers and the rural poor.  Commentators observed that newly genteel farmers were buying pianos and sofas, while there were tales of labourers being paid through holes in farmhouse walls so their employers should not have to sully themselves with direct social contact.  In pitting Harry Gill against Goody Blake, Wordsworth was drawing attention to the human consequences of this widening chasm in rural society, a chasm that over the next half century would spawn repeated outbreaks of politically motivated arson and machine-breaking culminating in the ‘Captain Swing’ riots of the winter of 1830-31.

Elderly Woman Gathering Firewood, The Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading

Wordsworth’s decision to focus his poem on collecting firewood underlines the extent to which he had his finger on the pulse of the tensions racking Georgian rural society.  As Wrigley and others have demonstrated, England was suffering from a growing fuel crisis in the eighteenth century.  Across much of the country, wood was the cheapest fuel but it was in competition with food crops for land, and as population grew, the latter proved more profitable.  Tree cover decreased and firewood became an increasingly valuable commodity, often fiercely protected by farmers and landowners.  In this situation it was coal that came to the rescue, but because road transport was difficult and expensive, only for those with good access to navigable water.  This rarely applied to inland parts of rural counties like poverty-stricken Dorset, where Wordsworth set his poem:

This woman dwelt in Dorsetshire,

Her hut was on a cold hill-side,

And in that country coals are dear,

For they come far by wind and tide.

Nor is it an accident that Goody Blake’s income derives from spinning.  Ironically the Industrial Revolution resulted in a deindustrialization of rural England, especially in southern counties like Dorset, as small-scale, cottage-based industries were out-competed by larger, factory-based enterprises, mainly in urban settings.  The result was that the price of yarn fell and independent producers like Goody Blake, reliant on it for their income, had to work longer hours to earn enough to feed themselves, often having to work long into the night to do so.  But this brought further problems.  It is difficult for us to comprehend the sheer darkness of the countryside in winter before the arrival of mains electricity.  Candles, the only tolerably bright and durable light source, were an expensive luxury.  These issues particularly affected women, who were the mainstay of domestic industry in the countryside, above all widows and ‘spinsters’ (as the name implies), who were unlikely to have any other major income source.  Wordsworth draws attention to these interlinked issues in a few succinct lines:

Auld Goody Blake was old and poor,

Ill fed she was, and thinly clad;

And any man who pass’d her door,

Might see how poor a hut she had.

All day she spun in her poor dwelling,

And then her three hours’ work at night!

Alas! ’twas hardly worth the telling,

It would not pay for candle-light.

Beyond this, the poem addresses a more fundamental change – the hardening of property rights as pre-modern paternalism gave way to a capitalist market economy.  The old ‘moral economy’ whereby the wealthy recognized reciprocal obligations to the poor and property rights were often non-exclusive was rapidly waning in the 1790s and this was felt especially acutely in the countryside.  Firewood like the sticks Goody Blake attempted to take from Harry Gill’s hedge was just one example of the commodification of rural resources.  This was also the great age of Parliamentary enclosure, whereby the commons with their multiple users were fenced and made over to exclusive private ownership, and of the rapid withering away of gleaning, the practice of allowing the poor to gather grains spilled during harvesting for their own use, now increasingly prohibited by farmers.  Wordsworth calls into question the legitimacy of these vast changes in social custom and mores, and the legislative framework that codified them, by framing property rights in relation to two even more fundamental sources of authority: nature and divinity.  Although Harry Blake lays claim to the hedge, it is also a natural object and, especially in the context of other poems in Lyrical Ballads that identify nature as a source of transcendent truth and meaning, the implication is that it resists subordination to ‘unnatural’ purposes such as Harry’s.  Nature in early Wordsworth is often difficult to distinguish from divinity but here the supernatural curse that falls on the young farmer is clear evidence that he has outraged the divine as well as the natural order.  Hence, although Wordsworth’s poem might appear to be no more than a seasonal folk tale enjoining a clichéd conventional moral, once restored to their social history context Harry Gill’s chattering teeth turn out to have a surprisingly sharp political bite.

Jeremy Burchardt is an Associate Professor at the University of Reading, specialising in the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English rural society.

Posted in A Very Ghostly Christmas (2021), News | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment