The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future which we are now helping to make. So said William Morris, textile designer, writer, social activist and colleague of the Pre-Raphaelites.
Destiny. The subject has obsessed philosophers and occupied dreamers for as long as mankind has been trying to get a handle on his passage through this world. I don't want to get lost in that loop involving predestination and existentialism, but simply to share a few striking thoughts. These throw up as many questions as explanations, but they do offer new lenses by which our appreciation of daily life may be enriched. Advent is a good season to reflect upon these things.
Anyone who wants to expunge history from the student curriculum is surely driving a nail in the coffin of the human race. Those of us who've ventured into the dense forests of genealogy know well, despite many surprises, the feeling of familiarity and of things making sense, of being part of a canvas that is beyond the scope of our comprehension and influence. How much of memory, instinct, déjà-vu, the sudden atmosphere of other times and places, the very paths we tread, is encoded in our DNA? Do those we are connected with, who have died, guide us? To what extent do our actions and disposition offer hospitality to the roaming 'spirits of the air'? And can the links we forge in this world, even those at a geographic distance, significantly impact our being?
I was born and brought up in Leicestershire, in the UK Midlands, as far from the coast as you can get in England. From earliest years, it never felt right. Neither of my parents was local and they didn't really fit into the community way of thinking with all its lore and historic assumptions. It may surprise Americans and those from other continents, that, although these islands are small, the customs and mythology are area-centred and are, perhaps, roughly defined by its ancient kingdoms, Mercia, Northumbria, and so on. (Hence Thomas Hardy's revival of Wessex consciousness.) The regions have their own character and dialect, arising from the landscape and soil, prevailing climate, and their trades and industries. Consult Ordnance Survey maps and you begin to understand how this has evolved.
The Welsh people nowadays are bi-lingual, but they are proud of their mother tongue and defend their heritage fiercely. The English understand Welsh idioms, but the language is impenetrable and actually more foreign than the languages of Europe and Scandinavia. The Scots, too, are keen on keeping Gaelic alive, particularly in the outlying isles. There is English Gaelic, full of colourful, rugged phrases, with strange words, along with more familiar words that have other meanings and evoke a different experience. Lewis Grassic Gibbon was an author who made profound use of this in his wonderful Scots Quair. Then there is the old Gaelic language you can only crack with a sledgehammer if you're lucky, which invents a plethora of written syllables that actually have little sound when spoken. But maybe that's just to the Sassenach ear! Despite travel and the media, there are still local accents we may struggle with. Glaswegian is a wholesale assault upon auditory nerves! (Sorry, Weegies.)
The point of this digression is to try and explain a compelling feeling of being out of context that had no root in my living experience. Always, when I mentally envisioned a map of Britain, I was standing in the middle, looking South and to the right, which meant the West. Why that was so didn't occur to me until fairly recently. My family tree, on both sides, is rooted in Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset and Devon, with the prevailing gene pool coming from Dorset. Since fate has contrived to bring me close to the Hampshire border, I am beginning to feel a strong pull West, a longing for Hardy's Dorset among people with whom there is an established rapport, in a landscape I seem to know to the core. The sense of peace and 'rightness' in being there is a siren call. I live in a picturesque stretch of the South East among good friends and would be sorry to put distance between us, but the pull is something even more fundamental.
And there are other ways in which I wonder how much we're affected by the lives of those who have gone before. The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation, as the Old Testament says. Are we destined sometimes to 'carry the can' for our forebears in order that the chain of consequences arising from malicious deeds might be broken? The text should be approached in context, but does point to our need for rescue by some external agency. It prefigures the coming of the Messiah who, for Christians, is the Sacrifice for Sin.
Whatever our system of belief, this elemental truth is instinctive to our psyche. The dynamic is immanent in every religion and culture worldwide and inspires their characteristic Art, Music and Literature.
An age-old tradition of former centuries, still occasionally observed, is the concept of 'sin-eating'. This holds that at a person's death, a relative or someone close elects to take on the responsibility for his/her wrongdoings, by prayer and ritual, so that the ongoing fallout might be stemmed and the soul fully released to enjoy eternity.
This is the theme of Mary Webb's legendary Shropshire novel, Precious Bane, set in the Napoleonic era. The heroine, Prue Sarn, is born with a hare-lip and provokes superstitious revulsion. Her brother Gideon has chosen to be the sin-eater for his dead father, scorning the power of the curse on the Sarn menfolk who were believed to have 'lightning in their blood' after one of them was struck dead by lightning during the Civil Wars, two hundred years before. Gideon believes in self-determination and proudly labours to be rich and successful. But in rejecting the momentum of something greater than himself, he invites witchcraft, murder and suicide into the arena.
Prue believes herself beyond the pale, but strives to exorcise her 'bane' with sheer goodness of heart. She blooms with an inner beauty, perceived only by the weaver, Kester Woodseaves, a Christ-like figure. When events conspire to bring a tragic climax and Gideon poisons his own ailing mother who is a burden, Prue becomes the focus of mob-hatred. The community must have its scapegoat. Surely, her ugly defect is a sign that she has been smitten by God as a baneful presence. She is tied to a ducking-stool in preparation for a witch's drowning, but is rescued by her 'guardian angel', Kester, and carried off to wedded bliss.
Precious Bane is one of the most beautiful, powerful and evocative novels in the English language. It rings with deep truth. The title is taken from Milton's Paradise Lost and echoes with many connotations of the work.
Let none admire
That riches grow in Hell; that soyle may best
Deserve the precious bane.
For me, it also brings to mind the felix culpa quoted by Thomas Aquinas when endeavouring to explain how God is able to bring a far greater good out of evil when we apply to him.
O happy fault,
O necessary sin of Adam,
which gained for us so great a Redeemer!
This phrase is usually said or sung at Easter, but in Advent is pregnant with Hope and expectation of New Life.
We are all exiles and outsiders in one way or another. It is good to reflect that, ultimately, we are not in control. We belong to a realm without borders, beyond Time and Space, and our destiny is formed by how we choose to regard that. It both draws and drives us.
We are all exiles insomuch that it almost renders the term meaningless.
Mary Webb has been called a 'neglected genius' and nothing could be so apt. She lived from 1881 -1927. Precious Bane
was awarded the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais
for 1924–1925, given annually for the best work of imagination in prose or verse (descriptive of English life) by an author who had not attained sufficient recognition.
You can learn all about the author via this link:
The Mary Webb Society