Autobiographical Sketches/Chapter V


The spring ripened into summer in uneventful fashion, so far as I was concerned, the smooth current of my life flowing on untroubled, hard reading and merry play filling the happy days. I learned later that two or three offers of marriage reached my mother for me; but she answered to each: "She is too young. I will not have her troubled." Of love-dreams I had absolutely none, partly, I expect, from the absence of fiery novels from my reading, partly because my whole dream-tendencies were absorbed by religion, and all my fancies ran towards a "religious life". I longed to spend my time in worshipping Jesus, and was, as far as my inner life was concerned, absorbed in that passionate love of "the Savior" which, among emotional Catholics, really is the human passion of love transferred to an ideal—for women to Jesus, for men to the Virgin Mary. In order to show that I am not here exaggerating, I subjoin a few of the prayers in which I found daily delight, and I do this in order to show how an emotional girl may be attracted by these so-called devotional exercises.

"O crucified Love, raise in me fresh ardors of love and consolation, that it may henceforth be the greatest torment I can endure ever to offend Thee; that it may be my greatest delight to please Thee."

"Let the remembrance of Thy death, O Lord Jesu, make me to desire and pant after Thee, that I may delight in Thy gracious presence."

"O most sweet Jesu Christ, I, unworthy sinner, yet redeemed by Thy precious blood.... Thine I am and will be, in life and in death."

"O Jesu, beloved, fairer than the sons of men, draw me after Thee with the cords of Thy love."

"Blessed are Thou, O most merciful God, who didst vouchsafe to espouse me to the heavenly Bridegroom in the waters of baptism, and hast imparted Thy body and blood as a new gift of espousal and the meet consummation of Thy love."

"O most sweet Lord Jesu, transfix the affections of my inmost soul with that most joyous and most healthful wound of Thy love, with true, serene, most holy, apostolic charity; that my soul may ever languish and melt with entire love and longing for Thee. Let it desire Thee and faint for Thy courts; long to be dissolved and be with Thee."

"Oh, that I could embrace Thee with that most burning love of angels."

"Let Him kiss me with the kisses of His mouth; for Thy love is better than wine. Draw me, we will run after Thee. The king hath brought me into his chambers.... Let my soul, O Lord, feel the sweetness of Thy presence. May it taste how sweet Thou art.... May the sweet and burning power of Thy love, I beseech Thee, absorb my soul."

To my dear mother this type of religious thought was revolting. But then, she was a woman who had been a wife and a devoted one, while I was a child awaking into womanhood, with emotions and passions dawning and not understood, emotions and passions which craved satisfaction, and found it in this "Ideal Man". Thousands of girls in England are to-day in exactly this mental phase, and it is a phase full of danger. In America it is avoided by a frank, open, unsentimental companionship between boys and girls, between young men and young women. In England, where this wisely free comradeship is regarded as "improper", the perfectly harmless and natural sexual feeling is either dwarfed or forced, and so we have "prudishness" and "fastness". The sweeter and more loving natures become prudes; the more shallow as well as the more high-spirited and merry natures become flirts. Often, as in my own case, the merry side finds its satisfaction in amusements that demand active physical exercise, while the loving side finds its joy in religious expansion, in which the idealised figure of Jesus becomes the object of passion, and the life of the nun becomes the ideal life, as being dedicated to that one devotion. To the girl, of course, this devotion is all that is most holy, most noble, most pure. But analysing it now, after it has long been a thing of the past, I cannot but regard it as a mere natural outlet for the dawning feelings of womanhood, certain to be the more intense and earnest as the nature is deep and loving.

One very practical and mischievous result of this religious feeling is the idealisation of all clergymen, as being the special messengers of, and the special means of communication with, the "Most High". The priest is surrounded by the halo of Deity. The power that holds the keys of heaven and of hell becomes the object of reverence and of awe. Far more lofty than any title bestowed by earthly monarch is that patent of nobility straight from the hand of the "King of kings", which seems to give to the mortal something of the authority of the immortal, to crown the head of the priest with the diadem which belongs to those who are "kings and priests unto God". Swayed by these feelings, the position of a clergyman's wife seems second only to that of the nun, and has therefore a wonderful attractiveness, an attractiveness in which the particular clergyman affected plays a very subordinate part; it is the "sacred office", the nearness to "holy things", the consecration involved, which seem to make the wife a nearer worshipper than those who do not partake in the immediate "services of the altar"—it is all these that shed a glamor over the clerical life which attracts most those who are most apt to self-devotion, most swayed by imagination. I know how incomprehensible this will seem to many of my readers, but it is a fact none the less, and the saddest pity of it is that the glamor is most over those whose brains are quick and responsive to all forms of noble emotions, all suggestions of personal self-sacrifice; and if such later rise to the higher emotions whose shadows have attracted them, and to that higher self-sacrifice whose whispers reached them in their early youth, then the false prophet's veil is raised, and the life is either wrecked, or through storm-wind and surge of battling billows, with loss of mast and sail, is steered by firm hand into the port of a higher creed.

My mother, Minnie, and I passed the summer holidays at St. Leonards, and many a merry gallop had we over our favorite fields, I on a favorite black mare, Gipsy Queen, as full of life and spirits as I was myself, who danced gaily over ditch and hedge, thinking little of my weight, for I rode barely eight stone. At the end of those, our last free summer holidays, we returned as usual to Harrow, and shortly afterwards I went to Switzerland with some dear friends of ours named Roberts.

Everyone about Manchester will remember Mr. Roberts, the solicitor, the "poor man's lawyer". Close friend of Ernest Jones, and hand-in-hand with him through all his struggles, Mr. Roberts was always ready to fight a poor man's battle for him without fee, and to champion any worker unfairly dealt with. He worked hard in the agitation which saved women from working in the mines, and I have heard him tell how he had seen them toiling, naked to the waist, with short petticoats barely reaching to their knees, rough, foul-tongued, brutalised out of all womanly decency and grace; and how he had seen little children working there too, babies of three and four set to watch a door, and falling asleep at their work to be roused by curse and kick to the unfair toil. The old man's eye would begin to flash and his voice to rise as he told of these horrors, and then his face would soften as he added that, after it was all over and the slavery was put an end to, as he went through a coal-district the women standing at their doors would lift up their children to see "Lawyer Roberts" go by, and would bid "God bless him" for what he had done. This dear old man was my first tutor in Radicalism, and I was an apt pupil. I had taken no interest in politics, but had unconsciously reflected more or less the decorous Whiggism which had always surrounded me. I regarded "the poor" as folk to be educated, looked after, charitably dealt with, and always treated with most perfect courtesy, the courtesy being due from me, as a lady, to all equally, whether they were rich or poor. But to Mr. Roberts "the poor" were the working-bees, the wealth producers, with a right to self-rule, not to looking after, with a right to justice, not to charity, and he preached his doctrines to me, in season and out of season. "What do you think of John Bright?" he demanded of me one day. "I have never thought of him at all," I answered lightly. "Isn't he a rather rough sort of man, who goes about making rows?" "There, I thought so," he broke out fiercely. "That's just what they say. I believe some of you fine ladies would not go to heaven if you had to rub shoulders with John Bright, the noblest man God ever gave to the cause of the poor." And then he launched out into stories of John Bright's work and John Bright's eloquence, and showed me the changes that work and eloquence had made in the daily lives of the people.

With Mr. Roberts, his wife, and two daughters, I went to Switzerland as the autumn drew near. It would be of little interest to tell how we went to Chamounix and worshipped Mont Blanc, how we crossed the Mer de Glace and the Mauvais Pas, how we visited the Monastery of St. Bernard (I losing my heart to the beautiful dogs), how we went by steamer down the lake of Thun, how we gazed at the Jungfrau and saw the exquisite Staubbach, how we visited Lausanne, and Berne, and Geneva, how we stood beside the wounded Lion, and shuddered in the dungeon of Chillon, how we walked distances we never should have attempted in England, how we younger ones lost ourselves on a Sunday afternoon, after ascending a mountain, and returned footsore and weary, to meet a party going out to seek us with lanterns and ropes. All these things have been so often described that I will not add one more description to the list, nor dwell on that strange feeling of awe, of wonder, of delight, that everyone must have felt, when the glory of the peaks clad in "everlasting snow" is for the first time seen against the azure sky on the horizon, and you whisper to yourself, half breathless: "The Alps! The Alps!"

During that autumn I became engaged to the Rev. Frank Besant, giving up with a sigh of regret my dreams of the "religious life", and substituting for them the work which would have to be done as the wife of a priest, laboring ever in the church and among the poor. A queer view, some people may think, for a girl to take of married life, but it was the natural result of my living the life of the Early Church, of my enthusiasm for religious work. To me a priest was a half-angelic creature, whose whole life was consecrated to heaven; all that was deepest and truest in my nature chafed against my useless days, longed for work, yearned to devote itself, as I had read women saints had done, to the service of the church and the poor, to the battling against sin and misery. "You will have more opportunity for doing good as a clergyman's wife than as anything else," was one of the pleas urged on my reluctance. My ignorance of all that marriage meant was as profound as though I had been a child of four, and my knowledge of the world was absolutely nil. My darling mother meant all that was happiest for me when she shielded me from all knowledge of sorrow and of sin, when she guarded me from the smallest idea of the marriage relation, keeping me ignorant as a baby till I left her home a wife. But looking back now on all, I deliberately say that no more fatal blunder can be made than to train a girl to womanhood in ignorance of all life's duties and burdens, and then to let her face them for the first time away from all the old associations, the old helps, the old refuge on the mother's breast. That "perfect innocence" maybe very beautiful, but it is a perilous possession, and Eve should have the knowledge of good and of evil ere she wanders forth from the paradise of a mother's love. When a word is never spoken to a girl that is not a caress; when necessary rebuke comes in tone of tenderest reproach; when "You have grieved me" has been the heaviest penalty for a youthful fault; when no anxiety has ever been allowed to trouble the young heart—then, when the hothouse flower is transplanted, and rough winds blow on it, it droops and fades.

The spring and summer of 1867 passed over with little of incident, save one. We quitted Harrow, and the wrench was great. My brother had left school, and had gone to Cambridge; the master, who had lived with us for so long, had married and had gone to a house of his own; my mother thought that as she was growing older, the burden of management was becoming too heavy, and she desired to seek an easier life. She had saved money enough to pay for my brother's college career, and she determined to invest the rest of her savings in a house in St. Leonard's, where she might live for part of the year, letting the house during the season. She accordingly took and furnished a house in Warrior Square, and we moved thither, saying farewell to the dear Old Vicarage, and the friends loved for so many happy years.

At the end of the summer, my mother and I went down to Manchester, to pay a long visit to the Roberts's; a very pleasant time we passed there, a large part of mine being spent on horseback, either leaping over a bar in the meadow, or scouring the country far and wide. A grave break, however, came in our mirth. The Fenian troubles were then at their height. On September 11th, Colonel Kelly and Captain Deasy, two Fenian leaders, were arrested in Manchester, and the Irish population was at once thrown into a terrible ferment. On the 18th, the police van containing them was returning from the Court to the County Gaol at Salford, and as it reached the railway arch which crosses the Hyde Road at Bellevue, a man sprang out, shot one of the horses, and thus stopped the van. In a moment it was surrounded by a small band, armed with revolvers and with crowbars, and the crowbars were wrenching at the locked door. A reinforcement of police was approaching, and there was no time to be lost. The rescuers called to Brett, a sergeant of police who was in charge inside the van, to pass the keys out, and, on his refusal, there was a cry: "Blow off the lock!". The muzzle of a revolver was placed against the lock, and the revolver was discharged. Unhappily, poor Brett had stooped down to try and see through the keyhole what was going on outside, and the bullet, fired to blow open the lock, entered his head, and he fell dying on the floor. The rescuers rushed in, and one Allen, a lad of seventeen, opened the doors of the compartments in which were Kelly and Deasy, and hurriedly pulled them out. Two or three of the band, gathering round them, carried them off across the fields to a place of safety, while the rest gallantly threw themselves between their rescued friends and the strong body of police which charged down after the fugitives. With their revolvers pointed, they kept back the police, until they saw that the two Fenian leaders were beyond all chance of capture, and then they scattered, flying in all directions. Young William Allen, whose one thought had been for his chiefs, was the earliest victim. As he fled, he raised his hand and fired his revolver straight in the air; he had been ready to use it in defence of others, he would not shed blood for himself. Disarmed by his own act, he was set upon by the police, brutally struck down, kicked and stoned by his pursuers, and then, bruised and bleeding, he was dragged off to gaol, to meet there some of his comrades in much the same plight. The whole city of Manchester went mad over the story, and the fiercest race-passions at once blazed out into flame; it became dangerous for an Irish workman to be alone in a group of Englishmen, for an Englishman to venture into the Irish quarter of the city. The friends of the arrested Irishmen went straight to "Lawyer Roberts", and begged his aid, and he threw himself heart and soul into their defence. He soon found that the man who had fired the fatal shot was safe out of the way, having left Manchester at once, and he trusted that it would at least be possible to save his clients from the death-penalty. A Special Commission was issued, with Mr. Justice Blackburn at its head. "They are going to send that hanging judge," groaned Mr. Roberts when he heard it, and we felt there was small chance of escape for the prisoners. He struggled hard to have the venue of the trial changed, protesting that in the state of excitement in which Manchester was, there was no chance of obtaining an impartial jury. But the cry for blood and for revenge was ringing through the air, and of fairness and impartiality there was no chance. On the 25th of October, the prisoners were actually brought up before the magistrates in irons, and Mr. Ernest Jones, the counsel briefed to defend them, after a vain protest against the monstrous outrage, threw down his brief and quitted the Court. The trial was hurried on, and on October 29th, Allen, Larkin, Gould (O'Brien), Maguire, and Condon, stood before their judges.

We drove up to the court; the streets were barricaded; soldiers were under arms; every approach was crowded by surging throngs. At last, our carriage was stopped in the midst of excited Irishmen, and fists were shaken in the window, curses levelled at the "d——d English who were going to see the boys murdered". For a moment things were uncomfortable, for we were five women of helpless type. Then I bethought myself that we were unknown, and, like the saucy girl I was, I leant forward and touched the nearest fist. "Friends, these are Mr. Roberts' wife and daughters." "Roberts! Lawyer Roberts! God bless Roberts. Let his carriage through." And all the scowling faces became smile-wreathen, and cheers sounded out for curses, and a road was cleared for us to the steps.

Very sad was that trial. On the first day Mr. Roberts got himself into trouble which threatened to be serious. He had briefed Mr. Digby Seymour, Q.C. as leader, with Mr. Ernest Jones, for the defence, and he did not think that the jurymen proposed were challenged as they should be. We knew that many whose names were called were men who had proclaimed their hostility to the Irish, and despite the wrath of Judge Blackburn, Mr. Roberts would jump up and challenge them. In vain he threatened to commit the sturdy solicitor. "These men's lives are at stake, my lord," he said indignantly. At last the officers of the court were sharply told: "Remove that man," but as they advanced reluctantly—for all poor men loved and honored him—Judge Blackburn changed his mind and let him remain. At last the jury was empanelled, containing one man who had loudly proclaimed that he "didn't care what the evidence was, he would hang every d——d Irishman of the lot". In fact, the verdict was a foregone conclusion. The most disreputable evidence was admitted; the suppositions of women of lowest character were accepted as conclusive; the alibi for Maguire— clearly proved, and afterwards accepted by the Crown, a free pardon being issued on the strength of it—was rejected with dogged obstinacy; how premeditated was the result may be guessed from the fact that I saw—with what shuddering horror may be estimated—some official in the room behind the judges' chairs, quietly preparing the black caps before the verdict had been given. The verdict of "Guilty" was repeated in each of the five cases, and the prisoners were asked by the presiding judge if they had anything to say why sentence should not be passed on them. Allen spoke briefly and bravely; he had not fired a shot, but he had helped to free Kelly and Deasy; he was willing to die for Ireland. The others followed in turn, Maguire protesting his innocence, and Condon declaring also that he was not present (he also was reprieved). Then the sentence of death was passed, and "God save Ireland"! rang out in five clear voices in answer from the dock.

We had a sad scene that night; the young girl to whom poor Allen was engaged was heartbroken at her lover's doom, and bitter were her cries to "save my William!". No protests, no pleas, however, availed to mitigate the doom, and on November 23rd, Allen, Larkin, and O'Brien were hanged outside Salford gaol. Had they striven for freedom in Italy, England would have honored them as heroes; here she buried them as common murderers in quicklime in the prison yard.

I have found, with a keen sense of pleasure, that Mr. Bradlaugh and myself were in 1867 to some extent co-workers, although we knew not of each other's existence, and although he was doing much, and I only giving such poor sympathy as a young girl might, who was only just awakening to the duty of political work. I read in the National Reformer for November 24, 1867, that in the preceding week, he was pleading on Clerkenwell Green for these men's lives:

"According to the evidence at the trial, Deasy and Kelly were illegally arrested. They had been arrested for vagrancy of which no evidence was given, and apparently remanded for felony without a shadow of justification. He had yet to learn that in England the same state of things existed as in Ireland; he had yet to learn that an illegal arrest was sufficient ground to detain any of the citizens of any country in the prisons of this one. If he were illegally held, he was justified in using enough force to procure his release. Wearing a policeman's coat gave no authority when the officer exceeded his jurisdiction. He had argued this before Lord Chief Justice Erle in the Court of Common Pleas, and that learned judge did not venture to contradict the argument which he submitted. There was another reason why they should spare these men, although he hardly expected the Government to listen, because the Government sent down one of the judges who was predetermined to convict the prisoners; it was that the offence was purely a political one. The death of Brett was a sad mischance, but no one who read the evidence could regard the killing of Brett as an intentional murder. Legally, it was murder; morally, it was homicide in the rescue of a political captive. If it were a question of the rescue of the political captives of Varignano, or of political captives in Bourbon, in Naples, or in Poland, or in Paris, even earls might be found so to argue. Wherein is our sister Ireland less than these? In executing these men, they would throw down the gauntlet for terrible reprisals. It was a grave and solemn question. It had been said by a previous speaker that they were prepared to go to any lengths to save these Irishmen. They were not. He wished they were. If they were, if the men of England, from one end to the other, were prepared to say, "These men shall not be executed," they would not be. He was afraid they had not pluck enough for that. Their moral courage was not equal to their physical strength. Therefore he would not say that they were prepared to do so. They must plead ad misericordiam. He appealed to the press, which represented the power of England; to that press which in its panic-stricken moments had done much harm, and which ought now to save these four doomed men. If the press demanded it, no Government would be mad enough to resist. The memory of the blood which was shed in 1798 rose up like a bloody ghost against them to-day. He only feared that what they said upon the subject might do the poor men more harm than good. If it were not so, he would coin words that should speak in words of fire. As it was, he could only say to the Government: You are strong to-day; you hold these men's lives in your hands; but if you want to reconcile their country to you, if you want to win back Ireland, if you want to make her children love you—then do not embitter their hearts still more by taking the lives of these men. Temper your strength with mercy; do not use the sword of justice like one of vengeance; for the day may come when it shall be broken in your hands, and you yourselves brained by the hilt of the weapon you have so wickedly wielded."

In October he had printed a plea for Ireland, strong and earnest, asking:—

"Where is our boasted English freedom when you cross to Kingstown pier? Where has it been for near two years? The Habeas Corpus Act suspended, the gaols crowded, the steamers searched, spies listening at shebeen shops for sedition, and the end of it a Fenian panic in England. Oh, before it be too late, before more blood shall stain the pages of our present history, before we exasperate and arouse bitter animosities, let us try and do justice to our sister land. Abolish once and for all the land laws, which in their iniquitous operation have ruined her peasantry. Sweep away the leech-like Church which has sucked her vitality, and has given her back no word even of comfort in her degradation. Turn her barracks into flax mills, encourage a spirit of independence in her citizens, restore to her people the protection of the law, so that they may speak without fear of arrest, and beg them to plainly and boldly state their grievances. Let a commission of the best and wisest amongst Irishmen, with some of our highest English judges added, sit solemnly to hear all complaints, and then let us honestly legislate, not for the punishment of the discontented, but to remove the causes of the discontent. It is not the Fenians who have depopulated Ireland's strength and increased her misery. It is not the Fenians who have evicted tenants by the score. It is not the Fenians who have checked cultivation. Those who have caused the wrong at least should frame the remedy."