Collaborating with the Thomas Hardy Society

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The last blog post introduced why we created GCSE resources, while this one explains how we’ve used them in events with teachers and students.

Knowing that Thomas Hardy’s works lent themselves well to the themes of Diseases of Modern Life, and that the Thomas Hardy Society had good links with educators in the area, we decided to team up to produce two free workshops: the first for teachers of GCSE English Language, the second for students. Dr Karin Koehler, Lecturer in 19th Century Literature at Bangor University, and Andrew Hewitt, who is undertaking a PhD on Thomas Hardy at the University of Hull, worked with Dr Catherine Charlwood of the Diseases of Modern Life project, to make these events happen.

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With teachers…

Our workshop for teachers, held on 12th April, was called ‘Engaging Students in Nineteenth-Century Prose: Research-Based Resources for Teachers’ and was held at the iconic Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Central Dorchester. Originally built in 1797, (much) later Hardy served as a magistrate at the court, and Martha Brown – whose hanging in 1856 Hardy witnessed – is said to be the inspiration for Hardy’s Tess.

The free seminar directly addressed the potential lack of familiarity with C19th non-fiction texts, and the resulting lack of confidence teaching them, by emphasising the overlap between fiction and non-fiction and hence the possibility of using similar methods to approach them.

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Using Post-Its to capture what students say about non-fiction and the challenges/anxieties in teaching this aspect of the GCSE course

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Never let it be said that the DoML team aren’t passionate about engaging others!

The workshop placed extracts from scientific and medical texts alongside selections from Hardy’s novels and poems. For example, an extract from Mantell’s Wonders of Geology was juxtaposed with the cliff-hanger scene from Hardy’s A Pair of Blue Eyes. Teachers were invited to use techniques familiar to them from teaching fiction and poetry to approach the non-fiction.

Karin periodicals

Dr Karin Koehler explaining the intermingling of literary and scientific texts in Victorian periodicals like The Athenaeum Journal of Literature, Science, and the Fine Arts

We were joined by a team from the University of Exeter headed by Professor Angelique Richardson outlining the range of resources for schools developed as part of the Hardy and Heritage project which support the teaching of 19th- and 20th-century non-fiction. PhD student, former secondary school teacher, and Hardy Society member, Stephanie Meek, led teachers through exercises to begin planning ways of using the resources in their own lesson plans and schemes of work, while Head of English at King Arthur’s School, Wincanton, and incoming PhD student, John Blackmore, related the importance of working with the archives of cultural institutions and university researchers to new Ofsted demands for a knowledge-rich curriculum and the interweaving of cultural capital.

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Stephanie Meek leading teachers through tasks

An important factor Steph highlighted was that as a teacher she didn’t know that universities wanted to work with schoolteachers, and I had the same experience. When universities reach out to schools it is rarely to the individual English teacher. If you’re lucky, there is a page with a staff list with email addresses on a school website, so that you can direct your enquiry to the Head of English. Increasingly and understandably, there is often only a school office/reception email. As a plea to anyone in schools receiving invitations to work with a university: please forward them to all of the relevant staff – even if you can’t attend yourself, someone else might like to. It’s all too easy to ‘give up’ on working with schools as the reply rate is always low. However, that can – I hope – change, and those who do reply will always make it more than worth your while!

After lunch, Catherine Charlwood introduced the Diseases of Modern Life GCSE resources, explaining the thinking behind their creation, and how they might support learning in the classroom. Then teachers had to get hands-on, attempting a sample exam question themselves in relation to a source using extracts from art critic John Ruskin’s letters:

03 You now need to refer only to Source B from lines 40 to 50.

How does the writer use language to describe  the experience of being on a steam-boat?

[12 marks]

Do please feel free to play along at home using the online source! Be warned: the experience of your child’s new exam syllabus may inspire a worrying respect for your teenager…

In a session called ‘Thomas Hardy and the Diseases of Modern Life’, we put passages from Hardy’s output alongside the GCSE resources the project has created, as well as providing teachers with some C20th or C21st articles as possible points of comparison. On the theme of ‘The health of desk-bound city-workers’, teachers looked at the ‘Preservation of Health’ resource alongside Hardy’s poem ‘Coming up Oxford Street: Evening’ and the 1891 short story ‘On the Western Circuit’; while the satirical ‘The Health of the Labourer’ resource from Punch was juxtaposed with Hardy’s 1883 essay ‘The Dorsetshire Labourer‘.

Teachers were generous in their feedback and also gave us useful pointers for where we might take such educational outreach work next. For instance, one teacher noted that “Resources to aid with teaching them eg. Syntax and sentences structures that are characteristic of C19th prose would be highly beneficial to us.” We took on board the idea of sentence structure and made that a key feature we kept returning to in our student day. 86% of participants reported an increase in confidence for teaching C19th non-fiction as a result of the workshop, and a range of quotations from their feedback show how valuable it is not just to work with teachers (HE to school), but to bring teachers into contact with each other (school to school):

“It was wonderful to engage with colleagues in a discussion in each section of how fiction and non-fiction are inextricably linked. Many thanks for a brilliant day. ”

“Some useful links across fiction/non-fiction made, especially regarding how people read prose (journals, magazines, etc. – and the crossover between the two. Will definitely be using all of the resources provided 🙂 ”

“As a non-teacher this day has been so insightful to the curriculum and the resources will be a great tool for inspiration for creating learning sessions. ” (from a National Trust Learning Manager)

“This project was an important part of the Hardy Society’s outreach to schools in 2019,” said Andrew Hewitt, Student Representative for the Thomas Hardy Society. “Our outreach programme includes poetry workshops and writing competitions and more. Our next project involves working with teachers to develop a ‘Wessex’ scheme of work to support the teaching of Hardy in his time and place, and we would love to hear from anyone who’d like to be involved.”

 

With students…

On 7th May 2019, we followed this with a workshop for Year 10 students, called ‘Writing about Illness and Well-being in the Nineteenth Century’, again held in the beautiful Learning Room of the Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum, Central Dorchester. Students from the The Thomas Hardye School in Dorchester were joined by peers from Holyrood Academy, Somerset, to exchange ideas and enlarge their thinking. Before the day started in earnest, we played a cracking round of Mind-Boggling Medical History, where some students got to flex their ‘Medicine Through Time’ GCSE History muscles, and others applied critical reasoning to the (seemingly) fantastical statements. Please download the cards from the website to play in your own schools, or homes!

The first session, led by Andrew Hewitt, took students through a series of passages and poems from Hardy on the theme of nature and well-being. Students were encouraged to think critically about what we mean when we say ‘nature’ and to attend to the text at the level of the line or sentence, to prepare the AO2 skills we’d be bolstering throughout the day. All students were given a booklet of extracts to keep them thinking and possibly writing about Hardy, nature and well-being long after the workshop. That said, there was already impressive student knowledge of The Woodlanders in evidence!

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Andrew Hewitt leading the Nature and well-being in Thomas Hardy session

Catherine Charlwood then led students through notions of illness and well-being from the point of view of science and medicine, using foundational quotations from the Diseases of Modern Life project, as well as sample GCSE resources. For instance, students read either the first or second half of an extract from Benjamin Ward Richardson’s 1872 Diseases of Modern Life about train travel, and explained to their peers what Ward Richardson’s opinion of trains was and – crucially – how they knew. This encouraged students to teach each other, and to show how they were coming to their analytical decisions.

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Student assumptions/initial reactions to the idea of “scientific and medical writing”

After lunch, Karin Koehler looked at fiction versus non-fiction, this time eliciting Year 10 responses to the separate categories of fiction and non-fiction. Using examples from Hardy’s own writing practice, she showed students how Hardy used non-fiction sources as inspiration for his novels and stories and – by having them analyse a fiction passage first – showed students how the same language devices and careful vocabulary choices are at work in both fiction and non-fiction.

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Post Its detailing student expectations of fiction texts and – separately – non-fiction texts.

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Dr Karin Koehler leading students through fiction and non-fiction texts

 

We were very fortunate to be joined by the Thomas Hardy Society’s Academic Director, published novelist and poet Dr Faysal Mikdadi, who led a creative writing session. Using two brief extracts from Darwin on the humble origins of human creatures and Hardy’s poem ‘An August Midnight’, Dr Mikdadi used a tried and tested way of engaging learners with poetry. He shared the very short prose pieces and the poem with them, asked simple factual questions, extended the questions to a search for surface meaning, elicited deeper meanings from the students and, finally, suggested that they could write their own poem either emulating Hardy’s, reacting to his poem or writing anything inspired by him or by Darwin. As the students composed their poems, Dr Mikdadi, and other adults present, engaged with any who needed support, encouraged those who were reluctant and primed three potential readers to prepare to read their poem. They did so really well. Once the poems were read, students gave positive responses and critical friend suggestions on ways forward.

Faysal

Dr Faysal Mikdadi leading the creative writing workshop

In our final session, students and teachers collaborated on answering an AQA exam-style question 3 for Paper 2 (the 12 mark ‘How does the writer use language to…?’ analysis question). While everyone had the same text, describing medical students watching an operation, half the room focused on one section of the text, and half the following section. This way, when we fed back, students got to annotate further and see how peers had approached the task. The questions are below if you would like to replicate this with your own students:

03 You now need to refer only to Source B from lines 17 to 27

How does the writer use language to describe the preparations for the operation?

[12 marks]

 

03 You now need to refer only to Source B from lines 28 to 39

How does the writer use language to describe the operation?

[12 marks]

 

Students approached this task with confidence, and – with reference to the mark scheme on the PowerPoint throughout – upped the ante in their written responses. Giving feedback on the experience of the whole day, we were delighted to read students note such things as

“It has given me the idea that English is more than just analysing language”

“I wanted to take English Literature for A-level and this has given me more inspiration to do so.”

“It’s made me more open to explore historic events through English texts rather than through history textbooks while at school.”

“It has made me think of multiple ways to answer GCSE questions”

Survey data further revealed that 87% were now more interested in the Victorians; 87% more interested in English; 69% more interested in books and literature; 94% more interested in the history of medicine; and 69% more interested in the relationship between literature and science. Never have I enjoyed compiling survey data more!

All of the facilitators agreed that we’d been fortunate to work with such an impressive group of young people, and we’re very grateful to both the Thomas Hardye School and Holyrood Academy for participating and for their work in helping students attend. Thanks must also go to the staff of Shire Hall who provided a fantastic service on both occasions, and who come highly recommended as a venue. Be sure to keep an eye on the Thomas Hardy Society website for future educational outreach initiatives and events: the above hopefully shows quite how important such work with schools is, as well as what fun it can be for all concerned!

 

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Post-seminar delighted/relieved collaborators. L-R: Dr Catherine Charlwood, Dr Karin Koehler, and Andrew Hewitt. All three are proud members of The Thomas Hardy Society.

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Free Teacher Workshop: Engaging Students in C19th Prose

On Friday 12th April, a team of researchers will present a free workshop designed to help teachers of GCSE English Language engage their students in nineteenth-century prose. AQA, the most popular exam board, now have unseen nineteenth-century literary non-fiction as part of Paper 2 of GCSE English Language, so getting today’s 15-16-year-olds on board with nineteenth-century non-fiction has never been more important!

The workshop will take place at Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum in Central Dorchester, and the full programme can be seen below. We have invited all teachers local to the area, but if you happen to be able to come along then please email catherine.charlwood@ell.ox.ac.uk to book a free place – we’d be delighted to welcome you.

This workshop – and its upcoming partner event, a workshop for GCSE students themselves on Tuesday 7th May – is the result of a collaboration between Diseases of Modern Life and the Thomas Hardy Society, specifically Dr Karin Koehler of Bangor University, and Andrew Hewitt, who is undertaking a PhD on Thomas Hardy at the University of Hull. For the teacher workshop we are delighted to be working also with a team of three researchers from the University of Exeter, headed by Prof Angelique Richardson.

 

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ENGAGING STUDENTS IN 19TH-CENTURY PROSE: RESEARCH-BASED RESOURCES FOR TEACHERS

 12th April 2019

Free English GCSE Teaching Workshop for Teachers at Shire Hall, Central Dorchester

 

11.00-11.30 Arrival and registration

Tea and coffee will be provided.

11.30-11.35 Welcome and Overview of the Day
11.35-12.20 Fiction and Non-Fiction: Reading Nineteenth-Century Prose with Thomas Hardy

Based on the example of Thomas Hardy, who used non-fiction sources as an inspiration for his novels and stories, this initial session will show that fiction and non-fiction were less separate in nineteenth-century culture than now.  It will suggest that by acknowledging the close relationship between fiction and non-fiction, we can make the analysis of nineteenth-century prose less intimidating and more engaging for pupils.

12.20-1.15 Free lunch
1.15-2.15 Hardy and Heritage Project – Resources for Schools

Professor Angelique Richardson, Stephanie Meek, and John Blackmore will introduce educational resources developed at Exeter University, related to the teaching of nineteenth- and twentieth-century non-fiction. Short presentations will be followed by the opportunity for conversation and Q&A.

2.15-2.45 Diseases of Modern Life Project – Educational Resources

Dr Catherine Charlwood (St Anne’s, Oxford) will introduce resources for teachers and students developed as part of the European Research Council funded ‘Diseases of Modern Life’ project.

2.45-3.00 Afternoon break

Tea and coffee will be provided.

3.00-4.00 Thomas Hardy and Diseases of Modern Life

Dr Catherine Charlwood, Andrew Hewitt, and Dr Karin Koehler will lead a workshop that explores how teachers might draw on the important local heritage of Hardy’s writing to teach nineteenth-century non-fiction. This session will also look ahead to a follow-up event planned for students on 7 May.

4.00-4.30 Feedback and Ways Forward

The day will end with a session in which we discuss what sort of resources and input teachers would like from universities and cultural organisations such as the Thomas Hardy Society and the Hardy Country Consortium.

 

Teachers and students of English Literature at GCSE, IB or A Level might also be interested in the Thomas Hardy Society Essay Competition, which has a deadline of 30th April. As well as a £50 Amazon voucher, you could end up being published in a Thomas Hardy Society journal!

All about those ballads (ft. Oskar Cox Jensen)

Dr. Oskar Cox Jensen is an Leverhulme Early Career Fellow in the History Department at QMUL, an expert in British song of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and a novelist. And that list isn’t even exhaustive… Importantly, he is also a singer of ballads: and he’s recorded a couple for us – make sure you click the links below to listen! Here I (CC) talk with him (OCJ) about the intersections between balladry and nineteenth century notions of health.

OCJ curious 2to3

Dr. Oskar Cox Jensen. Photo: Niina Tamura

 

CC: Now while I’m happy with what ‘ballads’ are, Oskar, I was wondering if you could define ‘broadside ballads’ for us?

OCJ: OK! That sounds like a simple question, so I’ll pretend it is, and say: any set of singable verses printed on a single-sided piece of paper. In Britain, these began in 1550 and continued until around 1900. The songs of the people, in short, made accessible by cheap print – you could buy a single song (on a ‘slip’) for a halfpenny, and a ‘broadside’ sheet, often with several songs printed on the same side, for a penny – a price that remained stable for centuries. Crucially, we’re talking about a medium here, not a genre, because all kinds of songs found their way onto these sheets.

 

CC: Where would these ballads be performed and who would likely be in the audience?

OCJ: In the first instance, on the street, by ballad-singers. This was how people learnt the tunes: by ear, from the person – man, woman, or child – who was selling it. In cities and towns, and in the country, especially at fairs, races, and markets, groups of pedestrians would gather round singers on street corners, first to listen to, and then to buy the song. These printed sheets thus became the blueprint for amateur performance: in the pub, at home, at work . . . Of course, many of these songs had begun life in other contexts before becoming broadsides, so many of the words – and the vast majority of the tunes – had already been performed in theatres or pleasure gardens, or even less likely occasions such as the church, the parade-ground, the opera, or the country dance. Records indicate that, although the bulk of street audiences was made up of the poor of both sexes, and the young in particular, ballads were also heard and purchased by the middling and the elite – though these people would be far less likely to admit it! The same songs could often be accessed in other ways too, so that a street ballad might be encountered in a respectable journal or a concert programme. We’re really talking about an almost universal musical culture here: ‘pop music’ in its widest sense, something I’ve come to think of as ‘common song’.

 

Hear Oskar sing ‘In a Fog’!

 

CC: I think of ballads as often comic, or bawdy, but Thomas Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ is poignant and quite heart-rending. The woman ‘Plying her needle and thread – / Stitch! Stitch! Stitch!’ put me in mind of William Blake’s ‘The Chimney Sweeper’ (1789) who ‘Could scarcely cry ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!’. In your work, how far have you found that ballads have more of a political or social purpose than we might first think?

OCJ: Hood’s ‘The Song of the Shirt’ is a great example – there are lots of ‘broadside ballad’ editions, but the first edition, published with the musical score for voice and piano written by one J.H. Tully, appeared in an 1844 issue of Punch magazine, and was subsequently sold on its own for two shillings and sixpence, a price that put it out of reach of the masses, few of whom were musically literate anyway. And yes, it’s heart-rending, though I’ll admit that, for me, the original tune rather overdoes the sentimental tone in a very typically Victorian way!

But, to answer your question: so far as professional historians have been interested in ballads, at least since the 1960s and the work of E.P. Thompson, it’s been for their political and social purpose – academics have always been drawn to the ‘issues’ addressed in these songs. My own work on ballads began with a political question: in Napoleon and British Song, my first book, I look at more than four hundred ballads and their culture to try and get at popular politics at the lowest level during the Napoleonic Wars. And since the sixteenth century, ballads have always been used to contest the controversies of the day. In the Victorian period, this is still going strong, so everything from cruelty to animals to Catholic emancipation is written about in song – often very, very badly. One thing political activists rarely learnt was that a song was neither a sermon nor a stump speech, so that the best and most affecting political songs are those that tell a personal story, rather than advancing an explicit argument. That’s something both Hood and Blake sometimes got right: start with the individual, not the abstract.

 

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The Beggar Girl 1802
2010,7081.835,
AN962980001. Credit: The British Museum

 

CC: Thomas Hardy grew up with a knowledge of local ballads, but also saw them slipping out of the dominant culture. In this famous passage from Tess of the D’Urbervilles, he marks the contrast – the chasm, even – between Tess and her mother, Joan:

‘Between the mother, with her fast-perishing lumber of superstitions, folk-lore, dialect, and orally transmitted ballads, and the daughter, with her trained National teachings and Standard knowledge under an infinitely Revised Code, there was a gap of two hundred years as ordinarily understood. When they were together the Jacobean and the Victorian ages were juxtaposed.’

Oskar, what do you see as the place of ballads within Victorian society and culture, and why do you choose to perform historical ballads today?

OCJ: Hah – instinctively, I cringe when I read Hardy setting up that dichotomy: no offence to the guy, but he’s buying into this typical later-nineteenth-century fiction of the oral tradition and the rural peasant that the famous song collectors (Cecil Sharp, Francis Child, Lucy Broadwood et al.) fashioned into something of a political ideology that, taken to its extremes, ends up in dangerously fascistic-sounding territory. There was no such thing as purely oral transmission of ballads, at least not after the Elizabethan era: songs circulated in print and by ear together, and flowed endlessly between the town and the country. Probably Joan’s folksy old ballads began on the London stage, even if that was the Jacobean stage, and in that sense nothing had changed by the Victorian period.

But I’ve strayed off-topic again. For Victorians as for previous generations, ballads acted as an essential, lowest-common-denominator form of cultural transmission, enabling all classes in all places to access the same products, in its most basic possible form: cheap print on cheap paper, with an orally-transmitted vocal melody. But as literacy levels increased, technologies developed, ‘stamp’ taxes on newspapers were abolished, and the general standard of musical proficiency rose, ballads became less necessary. Once everyone could engage with politics in the more in-depth form of newspapers and meetings, and get their music from the halls, street bands, domestic pianos and the tonic sol-fa movement, the broadside ballad lost its purpose: there were simply better, cheaper ways to access both music and information, and I see this as a very good thing!

So the last thing I want to do is be nostalgic about broadside ballads: when it comes down to it, they were a compromise born of necessity, not an ideal form of song. By choice, I personally write and perform my own songs, accompanied by guitar or piano, informed by the amazing musical developments of the last two hundred years . . . I perform historical ballads, then, because I study them. They were incredibly important: for fully three hundred years, they constituted the dominant form of cultural participation for the majority of British people. And I don’t believe we can begin to understand what that meant without singing and listening to them: they weren’t simply words on a page, but dynamic, interactive things, to be performed and heard. They come alive in performance, it’s the only way to grasp their strengths and limitations, and get a sense of how people might have reacted to them. Also, I will admit: the best of them, the ones that could cut through the noise of a busy street and electrify a crowd, are really, really satisfying to sing.

 

Hear Oskar sing ‘The Wonderful Pills’!

 

CC: I guess that ballads, or street songs in general, can tell us about how medical or scientific culture filtered down into popular culture and general parlance. Is there a noticeable trend as to when health concerns become more or less prevalent among the ballads you’ve studied?

OCJ: A good question – and a tricky one! Firstly, I’d take issue with that phrase ‘filtered down’, it’s far too passive. Ballads aren’t about things slowly and neutrally trickling down to the consciousness of the masses: they’re provocative, active instances of popular engagement with important issues. If they’re top-down, then that’s because someone has made the decision to take a cause to the masses, and either thinks it will interest enough people to sell, or is important enough to subsidise by printing thousands of songs for free. If they’re written at street level, then they’re indications of the populace demanding to be part of a more elite discourse.

If there’s a chronology here, then it’s one of terminology: you say ‘health concerns’, which is really interesting. Since the Tudor origins of ballads, there have been songs about plague, disease, quack doctors, miracle cures, and dodgy doctors. What distinguishes the Victorian period is probably the vocabulary: the shift of this discourse from a fundamentally superstitious to a scientific basis. That was a slow process, of course, and certainly medical language was adopted in song before an informed medical attitude took hold, so that a lot of Victorian ballads in this area are really reactionary, employing old conventions of quackery, suspicion of experts, and spurious anecdotal evidence, in order to resist what people saw as authoritarian, imposed innovations in public health. But then, you could say that remains the same to this day, with the songs replaced by blogs and tabloids . . .

 

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The Young Ballad Singers c.1790-1798
2010,7081.2456,
AN1018624001. Credit: The British Museum

 

CC: When does balladry begin to disappear as far as you can see? Does it get chased out by such things as advertising jingles and the rise of recording technologies?

OCJ: I suppose I’ve already touched on this, in that the Victorian period really is the end of balladry as a significant cultural form, though some street singers persist into the early twentieth century, especially in rural areas, the north of England, and Ireland. It’s less about being chased out than natural evolution: into music hall songs on the one hand, prose journalism on the other, and, as you suggest, advertising jingles, on the – well, the third hand, I suppose? Recording technology has little to do with it: by the time that has any sort of mass impact, the street ballad is long gone. But – to advance a really tenuous analogy – if it were a dinosaur, the ballad wouldn’t have been wiped out by a meteor, so much as turned into a bird . . .

 

CC: Our project focuses on – as the title suggests! – the diseases which not just medics, but ordinary people felt lumbered with by modern life. What are the major ills or scourges of modern life which feature in the ballads you’ve read? What’s the most popular social complaint?

OCJ: I must admit, I had to go looking for this answer – most successful songs tend not to dwell on mundane, unpleasant issues; they tend to be escapist, or aimed at really specific problems. Most people who die tragically do so of broken hearts, drowning, or in battles. The major ‘ills’ are often money-related, with generic ‘poverty’ the biggest culprit. And in general there’s a tendency to avoid the modern – songs aim for a more timeless aesthetic – unless it’s in order to satirise something. Railway disasters, for example, get incorporated within the same epic language as a shipwreck, or the cave-in of a mine.

Ironically, this means the most popular social complaint doesn’t change with the centuries: it’s ‘the times’, with titles like ‘A Touch on the Times’ or ‘The Present Fashions’ cropping up generation after generation, always complaining about how things were better in the old days.

A theme of this blog, of course, has been the gradual decline of balladry, and ballad-singers didn’t necessarily go quietly! So one favourite example of mine is the song ‘The Organ Grinder’. The story is an old one: the singer loses his true love, who goes off with another man. But that man’s identity is topical: he’s an organ-grinder, the ballad-singer’s noisier, new-fangled, more successful rival. The villain of the piece within the song is the meta-villain too – representative of the new technology and accessible music that was making the ballad-singer redundant. For once, the ballad-singer was in sympathy with the great and the good, as the song alludes to Charles Babbage, and the campaign led by him and the M.P. Michael Thomas Bass that led to the Street Music Act of 1864, designed to outlaw the newly-noisy musicians of the London street that epitomised, to these indignant elites, everything wrong with vulgar modernity!

 

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A ballad seller looks longingly at some dumplings in a shop window; a fragment of a larger sheet. c.1830s Hand-coloured lithograph c.1839
1951,0411.4.51,
AN891693001. Credit: The British Museum

 

Thank you so much for talking to us, Oskar, and for sharing both your insights and your singing voice!

On the Subject of Speed… Thomas Hardy

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Thomas Hardy in statue form, presiding over the Top O’ Town, Dorchester. Photo: C. Charlwood

 

Born in 1840 in rural Dorset but writing up until his death in 1928, English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy witnessed dramatic social, scientific and technological changes. Though perhaps not the obvious place to look for evidence of Victorian speed, Hardy’s poetry indicates his perception that the pace of modern life had increased drastically – and that he was out of joint, the ‘time-torn man’ of his poem ‘A Broken Appointment’.

In the poem ‘Places’ – from the ‘Poems of 1912-13’, written on the sudden death of his first wife, Emma – Hardy ends by noting that ‘one there is’ whose ‘mind calls back’ past experiences, and plays the past off against the present by claiming that past occurrences have

a savour that scenes in being lack,

And a presence more than the actual brings;

[…] to-day is beneaped and stale,

              And its urgent clack

              But a vapid tale.

from ‘Places’ (1913)

‘Scenes in being’ are robbed of meaning and depth here, with only the past offering the rich experience for the senses that ‘savour’ indicates. Hardy deliberately uses the archaic ‘beneaped’ to characterise ‘to-day’, satirising modernity’s progress with an image of a ship left aground by the tide: the modern is caught in an old-fashioned linguistic predicament. ‘To-day’ is sonically characterised by an ‘urgent clack’, a mechanised noise which noticeably rhymes with ‘lack’, and whose consonant clusters sound ugly and disrupt the supposed enjambment.

The very early poem ‘She, to Him III’, from 1866, hears the speaker feeling ‘Despised by souls of Now, who would disjoint | The mind from memory, making Life all aim’. Forty-seven years before Hardy wrote ‘Places’, the present (here anthropomorphised into ‘Now’) is already ‘urgent’, insistent in its the alliteration on ‘all aim’. While the enjambment preserves the continuity with ‘memory’ and the past, the line break visually enacts the ‘disjoint[ure]’ the speaker feels.

The forward progress inherent in ‘all aim’ is mirrored at the end of Hardy’s poem ‘Old Furniture’, when, after stanzas of reminiscing about ancestors who’d previously handled these objects, the speaker berates himself with

Well, well. It is best to be up and doing,

              The world has no use for one to-day

Who eyes things thus – no aim pursuing!

from ‘Old Furniture’

‘To-day’ is again revealed as a time which does not allow for stationary contemplation, where the mind is busy but the body inactive. Despite the jaunty exclamation, the gross instrumentality of society is glimpsed in its faux horror at ‘one’ who is currently ‘no aim pursuing’. Citizens are of ‘use’ only when engaged in ‘doing’ something.

While ‘doing’ in part fits the rhyme scheme, it also bears on modern notions of an overworked, busy life. There’s been an increased uptake of mindfulness, a therapeutic practice which brings one’s attention back to the present moment. Guided mindfulness meditation explicitly tries to bring people back to a state of simply being, rather than the ‘doing’ that defines our waking hours – and that Hardy felt under pressure to socially perform. The need for mindfulness, and the popularity of mindfulness apps such as Headspace, shows that – for us as for the Victorians – one of the diseases of modern life is the disease of always doing, with its related problems of stress, anxiety and sleeplessness. Learning to do, and feeling under pressure constantly to be productive, leaves us struggling to be in the moment, be human, and ultimately be happy. That is why I’ve always found the end of ‘Old Furniture’ so devastating: the speaker turns from his individual, helpful reflections, back to those actions deemed socially appropriate.

However, if you’re thinking of writing Hardy off as an old stick-in-the-mud who grumbled in the face of modernity, it’s not so simple. Inviting Edmund Gosse down to Dorchester on 18th August 1886, he promises to show him ‘one or two curious places in the neighbourhood recently opened up by the railway’, allowing for the advantages of the railway network in ‘open[ing] up’ previously inaccessible terrain. Hardy recognises the convenience of the trains, even if they didn’t have the same aesthetic qualities as former modes of transport:

I fear that the old type of country waggon, curved & painted on the front & back with conventional flowers, tendrils, &.c, has nearly disappeared, if not quite. A person might find a decrepit one by penetrating into the recesses of the country, away from railways.

Letter to Edward Hudson, April 1921

The technology of the train pushed local, homelier features into obscure countryside according to Hardy’s estimate, and even the most intrepid will still only find ‘decrepit’, rather than working, wagons. Only ‘away from railways’ can one encounter ‘the old’.

Hardy also travelled to London to see the newly-opened London Underground system and reported by letter to his sister on 19th February 1863 that ‘I tried the Underground Railway one day – Everything is excellently arranged’. As a claustrophobe and crowd-fearer, I can only guess that the Underground was a much more palatable experience in those days!

Society’s speeding up had its advantages and disadvantages. While Hardy was sensitive to behavioural changes – when his pace and practice of considered thought was deemed outmoded and unproductive – he more than conceded the benefits of the technological changes which made travel quicker and no doubt more comfortable.

 

Please comment to tell us where you have noticed speed changes in Victorian fiction, non-fiction and poetry!

TH statue back

The Hardy statue, letting the world get on as he sits in the sun. Photo: C. Charlwood