Thursday, 6 October 2022

The Two Sisters and the Curse

This sinister story is recorded by John Gregorson Campbell in ‘Clan Traditions and Popular Tales of the Western Highlands and Islands’ (1895). In his notes, Campbell explains that the term ‘dun’, applied to a human being, could be an expression of contempt. He adds that the harvest custom was for the last handful of corn to be cut and taken home by the reaper – usually the youngest – and kept as ‘the harvest maiden’ until the following year; and that old women might go about from house to house begging from the harvesters, and whoever was last to finish reaping would have to maintain one of them for a year. (I wonder if ‘last to finish reaping’ implied ‘more furrows to reap’ and therefore more corn to share?  Lastly, I think ‘my sickle will not cut garlic’ must be taken to mean that the sickle is not sharp.


Two sisters were living in the same township on the south side of Mull. One of them who was known as Lovely Mairearad had a fairy sweetheart, who came where she was, unknown to anyone, until one day she confided the secret to her sister, who was called Ailsa, and told her how she dearly loved her fairy sweetheart. ‘And now, sister,’ she said, ‘you will not tell anyone.’ ‘No,’ her sister answered, ‘I will not tell anyone; that story will as soon pass from my lips as it will from my knee!’ But she did not keep her promise; she told the secret of the fairy sweetheart to others, and when he came again, he found that he was observed, and he went away and never returned, nor was seen or heard of ever after by anyone in the place.

            When the lovely sister came to know this, she left her home and became a wanderer among the hills and hollows, and never afterwards came inside of a house door to sit or stand, while she lived. The cattle herders often tried to to get near her and persuade her to return home, but they never succeeded further than to hear her crooning a melancholy song which told how her sister had been false to her, and that the wrong done would be avenged on her or her descendants – if a fairy has power. On hearing that Ailsa was married, she repeated, ‘Dun Ailsa is married and has a son Torquil, and the evil will be avenged on her or on him.’ And she sang like this:

My mother’s place is deserted, empty and cold,

My father who loved me is asleep in the tomb,

Friendless and solitary I wander the fields

Since there is none in the world of my kindred

But a sister without pity.

She asked, and I told her, out of the fullness of my joy,

There was none nearer of kin to know my secret:

But I felt, and this brought the tears like rain to my eyes

That a story comes sooner from the lip than the knee.

 Then she was heard to utter these wishes:

May nothing on which you have set your expectations ever grow,

Nor dew ever fall on your ground.

May no smoke rise from your dwelling

In the depth of the hardest winter.

May the worm be your store,

And the moth under the lid of your chests.

If a fey being has power,

                        Revenge will be taken, though it be on your descendents. 

Ailsa married and had one son. Her afflicted sister heard of it and added to her song –

Dun Ailsa has married,

And she has a son Torquil.

Brown-haired Torquil who can climb the headland

And bring the seal off the waves,

The sickle in your hand is sharp,

In two swathes you will reap a sheaf.

Whatever other gifts the brown-haired only child of her sister was favoured with, he was a notable reaper, but this gift proved fatal to him. When he grew up to manhood he could reap as much as seven men, and none among them could compete with him. Then he was told that a strange woman was seen coming into the harvest fields in autumn after the reapers had left, and that she would reap a whole field before daylight next morning, or any part of the field that the reapers could not finish that day, and in whatever field she began, she left the work of seven reapers finished after her. She was known as the Maiden of the Cairn (Gruagach a’ chúirn), from being seen to come out of a cairn over opposite.

            One evening then, brown-haired Torquil, who desired to see her at work, being later than usual returning home looked back and saw her beginning to reap in his own field. He turned back, and finding his sickle where he had put it away, took it and went after her. Resolving to overtake her, he began to reap the next furrow and said,  ‘You are a good reaper, but I will overtake you;’ but the harder he worked, the more he saw that instead of getting nearer to her, she was drawing further away from him. Then he called out,

            ‘Maiden of the cairn, wait for me, wait for me.’

            She said, answering him, ‘Handsome brown-haired youth, overtake me, overtake me,’

            He was confident that he would overtake her, and went on after her till the moon was darkened by a cloud; then he called to her,

            ‘The moon is cloud-smothered, delay, delay.’

            ‘I have no other light but her, overtake me, overtake me,’ she said.

            He did not, nor could he overtake her, and on seeing again how far she was in advance of him, he said, ‘I am weary with yesterday’s reaping, wait for me, wait for me.’ She answered, ‘I ascended the round hill of steep summits, overtake me, overtake me,’ but he could not. Then he said, ‘My sickle would be better for being sharpened, wait for me, wait for me.’ She answered, ‘My sickle will not cut garlic, overtake me, overtake me.’ At this she reached the head of the furrow, finished reaping and stood still where she was, waiting for him.

            When he reached the head of his own furrow, he caught the last handful of corn to keep it, as was the custom, it being the ‘Harvest Maiden’, and stood with it in one hand and the sickle in the other. Looking her steadily in the face, he said,

            ‘You have kept the old woman far from me, and it’s not my displeasure you deserve.’

            She said, ‘It is an ill thing on Monday to reap the harvest maiden.’

On her saying this, he fell dead in the field and never more drew breath. The Maiden of the Cairn was never afterwards seen, or heard of; and that was how the sister’s wishes ended.



Picture credit:

A Cornfield by Moonlight with the Evening Star (c.1830) - sketch by Samuel Palmer, British Museum

Tuesday, 13 September 2022

Defending VILLETTE


Way back in June 2016 I took part in an event for the Brontë Society at Haworth Parsonage called ‘The Great Charlotte Brontë Debate’. Up for friendly yet heated discussion was the question, ‘Whether  Brontë’s greatest book was Jane Eyre or Villette?’ Jane Eyre was ably defended by Joanne Harris and Claire Harman, while Lucy Hughes-Hallett and myself took the part of Villette and its heroine Lucy Snowe. Tracy Chevalier presided and saw fair play, while the wonderful Maxine Peake read extracts from both novels. The audience, members of the Brontë Society, were asked to vote for their preferred title before the debate, then vote again afterwards to see if we had changed any minds. This was my contribution, and I began by reading a couple of paragraphs from about a third of the way through Villette, when a violent thunderstorm breaks over the town one night. While her colleagues and pupils in the seminary wake in panic and pray, Lucy reacts differently. ‘Roughly roused and obliged to live,’ she dresses, gets out of the window and sits on the outer ledge with her feet on the sloping roof below.

It was wet, it was wild, it was pitch dark. [...] I could not go in: too resistless was the delight of staying with the wild hour, black and full of thunder, pealing out such an ode as language never delivered to man – too terribly glorious, the spectacle of clouds, split and pierced by white and blinding bolts.

            I did long, achingly, then and for four and twenty hours afterwards, for something to fetch me out of my present existence, and lead me upwards and onwards. This longing, and all of a similar kind, it was necessary to knock on the head, which I did, figuratively, after the manner of Jael to Sisera, driving a nail through their temples. Unlike Sisera, they did not die: they were but transiently stunned, and at intervals would turn on the nail with a rebellious wrench; then did the temples bleed, and the brain thrill to its core.

                        Villette, Chapter 12

This is an absolutely fabulous passage. Dramatic though it is, the thunderstorm Lucy climbs from her window to experience is less terrible than her mental anguish and that extraordinary simile of ‘turning on the nail with a rebellious wrench’. For the really striking thing is that Lucy’s communion with the storm, her delight in the wildness of nature, is not cathartic. It awakens more pain. And the only way she can deal with the pain is to try and kill something in herself: that awakening, that emotional response. There is no room in her cramped life for it: it cannot take her anywhere. It must be kept down. It will not quite die, but while it’s under control she can exist, and existence, not life, is all she can hope for.

            ‘I, Lucy Snowe, was calm.’ That’s the first thing this heroine tells us about herself, but of course she isn’t calm at all. ‘I had feelings’, she says... She just never allows herself to express them. Why? Because no one cares. She is just as passionate as Jane Eyre, but where Jane from her very childhood lets it out, Lucy shoves it all down out of sight – even out of our sight, for unlike Jane, Lucy makes no bid for our sympathy. If anything her opinion of us is low. She is abrasive and witty. She mocks, keeps secrets from us, makes wry, bitter comments about the gap between her experience and our illusions, satirises our complacence and naïvety.

On quitting Bretton [...] I betook myself home, having been absent six months. It will be conjectured that I was of course glad to return to the bosom of my kindred. Well! the amiable conjecture does no harm and may therefore be left uncontradicted. Far from saying nay, indeed, I will permit the reader to picture me, for the next eight years as a bark slumbering through halcyon weather, in a harbour still as glass [...] A great many women and girls are supposed to pass their lives something in that fashion; why not I with the rest?

                       Villette, Chapter 4

            Villette is a book about constant mental suffering. No one has ever written better about the agony of powerlessness. Lucy is poor and plain. Jane Eyre is poor and plain too, or so we’re told – but we don’t really believe it any more than we believe Rochester is not handsome. We believe it about Lucy, though: she’s too painfully conscious of it. This lack of beauty, her social status and her sex require her to remain silent when she wants to speak, restrain herself when she wishes to act: there is no one even among her few friends in whom she can confide, for that would be to presume upon their affection – which is only affection, not love. She longs for love but she’s clear-sighted and knows the difference. To her friends the Brettons she’s ‘quiet Lucy Snowe’, not so much calm as nearly invisible. She can be drily funny about it, though never without pain. Handsome Dr John Bretton is smitten with shallow Ginevra Fanshawe and imagining Lucy to be hurt by her neglect, he feels the need to assure Lucy that ‘at heart, Ginevra values you’.

‘You are very kind,’ I said briefly. A disclaimer of the sentiments attributed to me burned on my lips, but I extinguished the flame. I submitted to be looked upon as the cast-off and now pining confidante of the distinguished Miss Fanshawe: but, reader, it was a hard submission.

Soon afterwards Lucy does lose patience and breaks out, ‘There is no delusion like your own. [...] On this exceptional point you are but a slave. I declare, where Miss Fanshawe is concerned, you merit no respect, nor have you mine.’ All this does is to cause coolness in their unequal but real friendship and she soon asks his forgiveness, which he warmly grants. But it’s a socially impossible relationship. When you can’t say what you want to say, you can’t be known. Out of kindness, Dr John promises to write to her: when she receives his first letter she draws out the happiness – saves up it for later. Will it be long or short? Cool or kind? She lives from letter to letter, but what’s vital emotional nourishment to her is little to him, and when the letters stop for weeks and she doesn’t know why and can’t ask – she’s  like a starving animal in a cage desperate to be fed…

            Villette is an extraordinary book. The heroine is in love with two different men at the same time and not a hint of censure. Charlotte Brontë looks us straight in the eye and dares us to blink. ‘This is how it is,’ she seems to say. ‘Accept it.’ Lucy buries Dr John’s letters in a casket in the garden, but is haunted by an image of golden hair growing irresistably out though the cracks of a coffin... Like the image of Sisera ‘turning on the nail with a rebellious wrench’, her feeling for Dr John cannot be killed. It’s folded up tight like a magical tent from the Arabian Nights which, released, could open into a vast pavilion... and at the same time, she’s growing into a different kind of love with her fellow teacher M. Paul Emanuel, the crotchety, fiery little man who sees her, who perceives the fire, the strength and the soul that no one else sees. Perhaps not even herself.

            Villette is a pressure-cooker of a book, boiling with desperate, contained, suppressed passion. Every time some of the steam escapes, every time there’s a moment’s relief, it all gets battened down again. Close to the end, Lucy believes she’s lost Paul Emanuel, that he’s sailed for the Indies without a word of farewell. Wandering desolate among lively crowds at a midnight fete in the park, she suddenly glimpses him, and listen to this –

I clasped my hands very hard, and I drew my breath very deep; I held in the cry, I devoured the ejaculation, I forbade the start, I spoke and I stirred no more than a stone; but I knew what I looked on; through the dimness left in my eyes by many nights’ weeping, I knew him.

No sniggering please, at a word that did not then carry the only meaning it seems to have now. Not for  another seventeen pages does the pressure cooker finally explode. At last, after she’s waited and waited and waited for him, Paul Emanuel comes to speak to Lucy but  Madame Beck tries to prevent him from doing so, and the pressure can’t be contained any longer. Lucy cries aloud,

            ‘My heart will break!’ 

Four short, almost banal words: in a burst of anguish Lucy Snowe lets go her iron grip on herself and is recognised, acknowledged. ‘Trust me’, says Paul Emanuel, and his words ‘lifted a load, opened an outlet. With many a deep sob, with thrilling, with icy shiver, with strong trembling, and yet with relief –  Lucy weeps.

The overflowing fountain of Lucy’s deeply repressed emotion, and the fiery banishment of Madame Beck by Paul Emanuel, which follows, form the climax of the novel. There is no ‘Reader, I married him’. There’s a brief, very brief interlude of happiness, followed by the famously ambiguous ending, which of course isn’t ambiguous at all unless you want it to be. As if speaking to children, Lucy Snowe says to us, ‘I know you can’t cope with the truth, so here’s the lie. Believe it if you wish. Human kind cannot bear very much reality.’ And she withdraws from us: ‘Farewell.’ 

Post-script: Which side won the Great Debate? Well, the votes cast before it began strongly favoured Jane Eyre as Charlotte Brontë’s greatest novel, but the votes cast at the end showed a distinct swing towards Villette. Although Jane Eyre still came out top, Lucy Hughes-Hallett and I can claim that we changed some minds, that evening. The Bronte Society's own post on the occasion can be read here:


Lucy Hughes-Hallett, Katherine Langrish, Maxine Peake, Tracy Chevalier, Joanne Harris and Claire Harman

Picture credits

Lucy Snowe at the door of the Pensionnat de Demoiselles - by Edmund Morison Wimperis

Photo of the Great Charlotte Bronte Debate team - Brontë Society

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

Dunsany on the Comma


Another brief extract from the first of the three ‘Donellan Lectures’ which Dunsany gave in 1943 at Trinity College, Dublin. Here he amusingly bewails the tendency of 1940s printers to add superfluous commas to texts. (Modern copy-editors are more likely to remove them!)


[Commas] are little things, but to ignore these fatal pests when speaking of prose is as though I were to speak of the splendours of Africa and never mention the malarial mosquito. Between the African traveller and the ends of all his journeys hovers a veil of these nearly invisible insects, often only irritating, sometimes thwarting his enterprise; so, between every writer and his readers come these little commas bred in the printer’s office, as the anopheles breed in marshes. Certain words are like treacle to them, and any writer who makes use of the word perhaps, must expect them to come to him in swarms. Perhaps I exaggerate, but certainly two will come. The writer puts down, ‘I am going to Dublin perhaps, with Murphy’. Or he writes, ‘I am going to Dublin, perhaps with Murphy’. But in either case these pestilent commas swoop down, not from his pen, but from the darker parts of the cornices where they were bred in the printer’s office, and will alight on either side of the word perhaps, making it impossible for the reader to know the writer’s meaning; making it impossible to see whether the doubt implied by the word perhaps affected Dublin or Murphy.

I will quote an actual case that I saw in a newspaper. A naval officer was giving evidence before a court, and said, ‘I decided on an alteration of course’. But since the words ‘of course’ must always be surrounded by commas, the printer’s commas came down on them, as surely as the mosquito upon a man’s ear, and the sentence read, ‘I decided upon an alteration, of course’. [...] I saw not long ago a story of my own in a New Zealand paper, where the commas seem to have bred more abundantly than they even do in our climate. I read for instance the words, ‘breathing, of course, ceased, too.’ Although this flight of commas looks absurd, it does no actual harm, but ... further on in the same story I had written, ‘for the surgeons had got his heart going again, and however the soul knew, it returned and got back in time’. But the word however is one of those sticky words which attract the printer’s commas, so down came two of them. It then read, ‘for the surgeons had got his heart going again, and, however,’ but I need read no further, for it is now merely nonsense.

Once when I had written upon this subject in some paper there came a hoot of triumph from a printer’s reader, or one of his friends, and he described how printers had ruined a line of Gray’s Elegy: he said that Gray had written a comma after the third word, the curfew tolls, but that a printer had improved the line by leaving the comma out. I don’t know how he knew, but the moment I read what he wrote I saw the harm the printer had done, and saw for the first time that Gray would never have opened his elegy in the solemn hour when the curfew tolled for the dying day with so jingling a line as the one that has been handed down to us: 'The curfew tolls the knell of parting day'.

This must have been, as that friend of printers stated, what Gray wrote:

 'The curfew tolls, the knell of parting day'.


NB: I'm sceptical about this. (And how Dunsany can suggest that line is remotely 'jingling', I do not know!) It's true that adding the comma slows the pace to something more stately, transforming the second half of the line into a reverberant adjectival clause. (The tolling curfew does not produce, but IS 'the knell of parting day'.) However, the first lines of almost all the other verses flow smoothly and comma-less: 'Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight' - 'The breezy call of incense-breathing morn' - 'Full many a gem of purest ray serene'...  Still, it's interesting to see the difference that can be achieved by the placement of one little comma. [KL] 


Picture credit:

Designs by Mr. R. Bentley, for Six Poems by Mr. T. Gray (1775)