Compassion in 19th Century England and Today

1000speak

Today, 20th February, bloggers are taking part in the 1000 Voices for Compassion initiative, by blogging on the topic of compassion. Have a look at #1000Speak on twitter to read more about what other bloggers are writing about compassion in our lives today.

I’ve been thinking about compassion over the last two centuries, and how the concept has evolved, and finally what it means to me in my daily life.

There was little in the way of social security in the Georgian or Victorian era. In fact, the orphans, homeless, and unemployed of the time, were in danger of losing their health and their lives, by literally dying of cold and starvation. Another option was stealing, which they often inevitably had to indulge in, and could lead them to prison or the workhouse. Another option, especially for women, was prostitution, which would most often be a protracted death sentence.

 

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Dickens at his desk, 1858, by George Herbert Watkins

 

Compassion was the only option. Families, friends, neighbours, and generous and compassionate people had to be understanding, feel empathy, and assist those in need.

There are plenty of literary examples in fiction in novels many by Charles Dickens (Bleak House, Oliver Twist), Elizabeth Gaskell (Mary Barton, North and South), and Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre).

Other international authors such as Emile Zola, Balzac, Tolstoy, and Mark Twain, were also writing novels based on social issues.

There are also history books which sadly confirm these fictional accounts such as: Ideas of Childhood in Victorian Children’s Fiction: Orphans, Outcasts and Rebels  The Workhouse  Social issues in Victorian England

Nowadays we take the welfare state for granted. The social benefits we all share in Europe, by giving into the system through our taxes, and later redistributing it back into the system, with unemployment benefits, pensions, national health system, education system, etc., have greatly improved the quality of our lives.

This does not mean the system is perfect, or that we can shrug off our responsibility by saying, ‘I pay my taxes, I don’t need to be compassionate.’

So many people in the world, even in our own, developed countries, are experiencing the harshness of the economic recession. We cannot close our eyes to the severe social deprivation and injustices happening around the world. On the other hand, we cannot solve all the world’s problems.

But we can all do something which can help to make the world a better place. If we each do a little, we’ll all do a lot. In Spain people say, if we each add a grain of sand, we’ll all build a mountain.

 

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Everyone needs to be compassionate, and everyone will be in need of compassion at some time.

The great thing about compassion is that you don’t need to go out of your way to be compassionate. It’s not something you have to do outside your daily life, because compassion is part of our lives.

I’m fortunate to be able to help many people every day in my job. I help adults who didn’t finish school, to get their secondary school-leaving certificates and learn some basic English. I also help others who have completed their Secondary education to pass their university entrance exams and improve their English, and thus their job prospects.

First I need to walk in their shoes, and then I need to help them reach their goals. None of them have had, or have, easy lives. Many are unemployed, have very low self-esteem, or serious learning difficulties.

It’s my job to teach them, but it’s my vocation to be compassionate, encouraging and caring.

We’ll all need compassion at some moment in our lives. We’ll all need a compassionate doctor, teacher, friend, colleague, etc., If we each care for those near us who need some, hopefully someone will also care for us, when our turn comes.

Why I love romantic novels with Byronic Heroes

I love reading romantic novels with Byronic heroes, on occasions, because they are emotionally gratifying.

The reader enters an ideal world with young, beautiful, rich, and powerful people, and it all ends well, which is satisfying after a hard day facing the real, sometimes boring, and often ugly world.

There’s a likeable heroine who eventually makes an unlikeable hero, very likeable, leading to a happy ending. What’s there not to like?

There are many novels following this timeless pattern, recurrent in many love stories throughout literature, all of them immensely popular.
Put simply:

1- Bad guy meets good girl.
2.a- Bad guy tries to seduce, dominate and/or spoil good girl, making her bad, too, but he fails because she’s stronger or cleverer, or better, so good conquers evil. Or
2.b- Good girl tries to make bad guy into a good guy.
3- Finally he becomes a good guy and they live HEA (which usually includes marriage and/or children).

This formula has been successful in literature for centuries. It started with Mr. B in Henry Fielding’s Pamela (1740), and can be seen again in  Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice (1813), Captain Wentworth, in Persuasion (1817), Rochester, in Jane Eyre (1847), Heathcliff, in Wuthering Heights (1846), Max de Winter, in Rebecca (1938), Edward Cullen in the Twilight Saga (210-2011), Christian Grey, in Fifty Shades of Grey (2011), to name a few of the most well-known.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not comparing the literary quality of any of the previous novels mentioned, I’m merely pointing out that the main romantic plot arc in these novels is almost identical.

This moody, and self-assured, male protagonist, who is finally tamed by the heroine, came to be known as the Byronic hero, named after the English Romantic poet Lord Byron, and described by Lord Macaulay as ‘a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.

Portrait of Lord Byron by George Henry Harlow. Circa 1816.

Byronic heroes are brooding, darkly handsome, and they have a secret, hidden past, which makes them behave antisocially. They are usually worldly, rich, cynical, destructive, and resentful. They have difficulties identifying and even expressing their emotions, and women find them extremely alluring. They are idealized yet flawed characters, who need to be recovered and repaired by the perfect heroine.

Many readers enjoy these novels. I enjoy them, no, I love them. Although I often wonder why I liked them in the first place.

I think it’s because I’d like it to be true. I’d like to believe, even if it’s for a few hours, or minutes, that good can conquer evil, that love can soften resentment, and cure all ills. I want to be optimistic….for a while.

One of my favourite contemporary romance writers is Roberta Pearce. The Value of Vulnerability is the third novel I’ve read by this author who specializes in romantic novels with strong female leads and rich and handsome, alpha males, with HEA endings.

What makes her novels worth reading or different from other similar novels?

Well, I haven’t read all the others, but I’ve read a few, and what makes Roberta Pearce’s novels different is that they are impeccably written, with economical, precise prose, and the characters are well portrayed.

Ford is perfectly depicted from page one. After leaving a girl he’s just slept with, he says;
“You mentioned having difficulty with some finances. Now you have fewer.”
She licked her lips, staring at the scattered hundreds with an expression he had seen dozens of times: greed combined with humiliation, and underwritten with gratitude.
He’s a real baddie, with the usual Byronic defects, and he develops, and grows out of them as the novel progresses, and the reader expects.

The reader’s interest is in discovering who’s going to make him change, and how she’s going to do it.

She is Erin, beautiful, young, intelligent, generous, friendly, loving, and far too good a person for him.

In the real world, if she were my daughter, or a friend, I’d say, ‘keep away, he’s no good’, but this isn’t the real world. I’m escaping from reality. It’s a romantic novel, and I know it will be all right in the end. I keep turning the pages impatiently, and I know there will be ups and downs, twists and turns, but I know I won’t suffer…too much, because it will have a happy ending.

Why do I recommend it? Because it’s well written, the characters are authentic, the story is beautiful, and it’s a welcome break from a real, hard day!

A Poem for the Second Day of Summer. Rereading Christina Rossetti’s Summer

I have a very soft spot for Christina Rossetti’s poetry, especially her short, intense verses, full of symbolism and feeling. Summer was published in The Prince’s Progress, and Other Poems, in 1866

Rossetti cover yes

Summer

Winter is cold-hearted,
Spring is yea and nay,
Autumn is a weathercock
Blown every way.
Summer days for me
When every leaf is on its tree;

When Robin’s not a beggar,
And Jenny Wren’s a bride,
And larks hang singing, singing, singing
Over the wheat-fields wide,
And anchored lilies ride,
And the pendulum spider
Swings from side to side;

And blue-black beetles transact business,
And gnats fly in a host,
And furry caterpillars hasten
That no time be lost
And moths grow fat and thrive,
And ladybirds arrive

Before green apples blush,
Before green nuts embrown,
Why one day in the country
Is worth a month in town;
Is worth a day and a year
Of the dusty, musty, lag-last fashion
That days drone elsewhere.

I love the way she starts by comparing summer to the other three seasons, telling us it is her favourite. In the second and third stanzas she elaborates on her reasons, which are based on the natural elements which abound: robins, wrens, larks, lilies, and insects, all ‘grow fat and thrive’. The final stanza concludes that these wonderful summer days should be enjoyed in the country, where these wonderful plants and animals can be appreciated, and not in the ‘dusty, musty, lag-last fashion’ city.

Christina_Rossetti_ by dante

Christina Rossetti was born and brought up in London in an artistic family of Italian parents. Her father was the poet Gabriele Rossetti, a Dante scholar who became professor of Italian at King’s College, London. Her brother Dante Gabriel Rossetti, also a poet and a painter. The four Rossetti siblings were educated by their mother, Frances Rossetti, a former governess.

She was a precocious poet, whose poems were privately published by her grandfather in 1842, when she was twelve! At the age of twenty, she published seven poems in the Pre-Raphaelite journal The Germ, founded by her brother William Michael Rossetti) under the pseudonym, Ellen Alleyne. Read more about Christina Rossetti and the pre-Raphaelites

Rossetti’s best-known work, is her long poem, Goblin Market and Other Poems, which was published in 1862, and established her as a significant voice in Victorian poetry.

 

Christina rossetti and mother

Christina Rossetti and her mother

 

By the 1880s, recurrent illness restricted her social life, although she continued to write poems. In 1891, Rossetti developed cancer, of which she died in London on December 29, 1894. Rossetti’s brother, William Michael, edited her collected works in 1904, however the Complete Poems were not published before 1979.

RossettiPoems penguin

Her poem Summer refers to her happiest childhood memories which were the summer holidays spent in her Grandfather Polidori’s home, Holmer Green, in Buckinghamshire. The Rossetti children spent their days discovering the landscape around them and the animals that lived there. It must have been a welcome change from industrial and overcrowded Victorian London, where she lived for most of her life.

Rossetti was a fervent Anglican, and she was aware of women’s underprivileged place in society. This led her to spend some years working with “fallen women” at Highgate institution, run by the Diocese of London, where they received religious education and were instructed in housework, to enable them to secure employment as maids. Her experiences at Highgate are a likely source of inspiration for “Goblin Market“, as well as a probable purpose for the poem, which she probably read to the women as a means of moral instruction.

I agree with many scholars, that she was, no doubt, a Victorian intellectual, subject to sexual, religious, and patriarchal repression. It is therefore in her poetry that we can attempt to glimpse and the power and contained feeling she kept under lock and key in her disciplined mind.

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Summer is one of her few optimistic poems, unfortunately, it has a pessimistic counterpart.

Summer is Ended

To think that this meaningless thing was ever a rose,
Scentless, colourless, this!
Will it ever be thus (who knows?)
Thus with our bliss,
If we wait till the close?

Though we care not to wait for the end, there comes the end
Sooner, later, at last,
Which nothing can mar, nothing mend:
An end locked fast,
Bent we cannot re-bend.

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A wilting rose in my garden

 

Summer is Ended was published in her 1881 volume, A Pageant and Other Poems. Its title is derived from a passage in the Old Testament book, Jeremiah:
The harvest is past,
the summer has ended,
and we are not saved.
(Jeremiah 8:20)

By this time in her life, she was overtaken by recurrent and invalidating illness. She had also refused several suitors,  wishing to remain a spinster. This poem is melancholic, and nostalgic. it reminds us that the splendid summer must end, and give way to a wilting rose, in the same way as our lives, too, will come to a close.

I didn’t intend to end on this ‘sad’ note, so let’s remember that today is the second day of summer, and we still have about ninety days of lazy, hazy, long sunny days ahead of us, and when the summer is gone, I have another delicious poem waiting for you.

I love autumn, and I’m sure it’s partly due to John Keats poem, Ode to Autumn, but that will come in September…

 

20th June, 1837. The Birth of an Era: Victorian Britain

On Tuesday, 20th June 1837, at 6 o’clock in the morning, Princess Victoria was awoken by her mother, the Duchess of Kent, because the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain wished to see her. She greeted them in her dressing-gown and slippers, and they informed her that her Uncle, King William IV had died a few hours earlier, without any legitimate heirs, therefore, she was to become the Queen of England.

Princess_Victoria_and_Dash_by_George_Hayter

Princess Victoria and Dash by George Hayter

She wrote in her diary:

‘Since it has pleased Providence to place me in this station, I shall do my utmost to fulfill my duty towards my country; I am very young and perhaps in many, though not in all things, inexperienced, but I am sure that very few have more real good-will and more real desire to do what is fit and right than I have.’

Queen Victoria was an avid diarist. You can read more extracts from her diaries, here.

The Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne arrived at nine o’clock with the Declaration which the young Queen was to read to the Council accompanied by her two Uncles, the Dukes of Cumberland and Sussex. Her coronation was held at Westminster Abbey a year later on 28 June 1838.

When Victoria was born at Kensington Palace, in London, on 24 May 1819, nobody would have imagined she would be Queen of England, and Empress of India. She was the only daughter of Edward, Duke of Kent, fourth son of George III, who died shortly after her birth. She became heir to the throne because her three uncles, who were ahead of her in succession, George IV, Frederick Duke of York, and William IV, had no legitimate children.

Industrial and Technological Expansion

Queen Victoria is associated with Britain’s great age of industrial expansion, economic progress and, especially, Empire. At her death, it was said, Britain had a worldwide empire on which the sun never set.

While Queen Victoria’s reign was a time of great material prosperity and economic growth, industrialization and urbanization brought new social difficulties. Urban poverty and the poor treatment of many in the working classes were major results of the newly capitalized and industrialized economy, and political pressures mounted throughout the nineteenth century to address such problems before they amounted to a great crisis.

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The voyage of the Beagle, 1831–1836

The Victorian Era was also a time of tremendous scientific progress and ideas. Darwin took his Voyage of the Beagle, and posited the Theory of Evolution. The Great Exhibition of 1851 took place in London, displaying technical and industrial advances of the age in medicine, science and technology.

Modern psychiatry began with men like Sigmund Feud toward the end of the era, and radical economic theory, developed by Karl Marx and his associates, began a second age of revolution in mid-century. The ideas of Marxism, socialism, feminism gained strength at this time.

Britain’s overseas trading surpassed that of Italy, France and Germany combined, and in 1870 it was nearly four times the size of the American overseas markets, and at home industry was flourishing.

Britain was called “the workshop of the world.” The hard-working and industrious Victorians represented the cutting edge of the Industrial Revolution: the railway, the postal service, telegraph, telephone, steam ships, spinning machines; steam engines, electricity, photography, antiseptic surgery, vaccines, stethoscope, among others.

Reading and Writing in the Victorian Era

In the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, reading had been a privilege available to the upper-class elite. Books were very expensive and most of the population were unable to afford them. Jane Austen’s England of the turn of the century had very little to do with the country in which Charles Dickens lived.

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Charles Dickens by Daniel Maclise

In the 1830s and 1840s a new form of printed text emerged: a lengthy prose fiction serialised in one-penny or two-penny weekly parts. These were usually stories involving adventure or Gothic-like elements. Many had no planned, pre-written end; they just continued until the public were no longer interested in the story. Some penny weekly novels in the 1850s and 1860s were serialized over four or more years.

Reading became less of a privilege of the wealthy and more of a pastime of the common British citizen, as a result, magazines provided monthly installments of news articles, satiric essays, poetry and fiction, enabling many authors to easily share their work with the public, and helped launch the careers of prominent Victorian writers such as Dickens, Eliot, Tennyson, and the Brownings.

Have a look at this list of Victorian authors

I would compare these technological advances and this change in literary market to the present day digital technology, self-publishing industry and Social media.

The Victorians were avid readers of serialized and popular fiction, much as we are readers of ebooks and blogs!

 

Pictures used are in the Public Domain.