by Zoë Strachan

Glasgow’s Forgotten Feminist

November 26, 2013 | by Zoë Strachan

Hillary Clinton concluded her keynote speech at the 2013 Women in the World Summit by saying that ‘Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights’. A neat soundbite, and exactly what Catherine MacKinnon was getting at when she posed the question Are Women Human? back in 2006. Now, as then, it seems the answer is no. So let’s be glad that Clinton has reiterated the point, offering an idiot’s guide for those unable to grasp that feminism is a simple matter of equality.

Marion Bernstein, writing in the late nineteenth century, would not have been familiar with the term feminism but she was quite certain that women’s rights were human rights. She wrote about it in poem after poem, imagining how emancipated women would ‘give fair play, let come what might, / To he or she folk, black or white, / And haste the reign of Human Right’ (‘Human Rights’). Bernstein’s views were public too. Published mainly in the Glasgow Weekly Mail and Glasgow Weekly Herald, her poems could reach an audience in excess of 200,000 readers (the circulation of the Weekly Herald in 1880). Scottish newspapers today – and Scottish poets – can but dream, and yet Marion Bernstein has a good claim to being the greatest Scottish feminist we’ve never heard of.

That women have often been written out of history, literary and otherwise, is no surprise. That it is still happening is outrageous. In the Herald recently Rosemary Goring reacted with ‘disbelief’ and ‘the sort of fury that fuels volcanic eruptions’ to the announcement of a flagship arts programme for the BBC. In The Men Who Invented Scotland, Andrew Marr will tell us the story of Scottish literature; or at least the three chapters of it that relate to Boswell, Scott and MacDiarmid. Thank heavens then for scholars like Edward Cohen, Anne Fertig and Linda Fleming. The trio has been working for years to put together A Song of Glasgow Town. 

Bernstein collected some of her work within her lifetime, publishing a handsome volume titled Mirren’s Musings in 1876. There are only six known extant copies. One of these, in Paisley Central Library, came to the attention of the poet Tom Leonard when he was Writer in Residence there in the 1980s. He included seven of Bernstein’s poems in Radical Renfrew, saving her from obscurity and inspiring Cohen, Fertig and Fleming to begin trawling through the newspaper archives for uncollected poems. The seven pieces Leonard selected are forthright in their opinions, political, and accessible without being patronising; the perfect foil to his opening statement that, ‘poetry has been so defined in the public mind as usually to exclude the possibility of social conflicts appearing. The belief is widespread that poetry is not about expression of opinion, not about “politics”, not about employment, not about what people actually do with their time between waking up and falling asleep each day.’ Notable immediately is the theme of women’s rights as human rights: ‘Our claims are oft misunderstood; / We would but share with man / The human right of doing good / In any way we can’ (‘Women’s Rights and Wrongs’).

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Leonard’s rediscovery of Bernstein quickly won her another fan. When Edwin Morgan gave a lecture on Glasgow’s poetic heritage at the University of Waikato, New Zealand in 1992 (published as Glasgow Poets Past and Present: The Story of a City), he took care to mention Marion Bernstein as an ‘interesting exception’ to the sentimental verse of the later nineteenth century: ‘this is sharp, clearcut, clear-eyed poetry, much concerned with the place of women in society, & putting forward an early feminist point of view.’

High time then that we get to read her works in full. In A Song of Glasgow Town, we also learn that Bernstein’s advocacy of human rights may have resulted partly from circumstance. She was born in London in 1846 and her father, a Prussian émigré, struggled to earn a living as a tutor, translator, and finally, tobacconist. By the time Marion was nine years old he had appeared in court as an ‘insolvent debtor’ and he died penniless, in an asylum, aged just forty five. For a while Marion lived with her mother and sister Lydia in Hastings, where the girls somehow managed to train as music teachers, and by 1874 the family had arrived at Paisley Road, Glasgow. Marion’s life was further complicated by illness; as a child she was affected by some kind of paralysis (possibly polio) that was to persist through adulthood.

Despite often being confined to her bed, unable to walk, Bernstein found plenty to write about in Glasgow, ‘Where wealth and want abound’ (‘A Song of Glasgow Town’). When her health allowed she supported herself by teaching music; otherwise she tried to secure grants from the Royal Literary Fund, The Royal Society for the Relief of Indigent Gentlewomen of Scotland and Colquhoun’s Bequest for Incurables. La plus ça change, and the glimpses of her writing life resonate too: the worry that the muse has left her (‘And, oh, in many dreary hours / I’ve missed thy sweetly soothing powers’); her tongue-in-cheek but nonetheless serious efforts to promote her forthcoming collection (‘And a host of kind friends and assistants I’m needing, / To insure the success of my present proceeding’).

The newspapers that published Bernstein’s work were a rich source of inspiration too. Many of her poems about women’s rights were prompted by news stories, as the opening stanza of ‘Married and ‘Settled’’ attests:

 

Oh! I have sighed to read

The trials of this season;

Wife-murder seems indeed,

An everyday transgression.

 

The editors of A Song of Glasgow Town note that if we are to judge by reports in local newspapers, ‘instances of wife beating reached epidemic proportions in Britain’ during Bernstein’s lifetime. In the first half of 1874, ‘the Weekly Mail reported more than sixty accounts in which wives were pushed, punched, or pummelled by their spouses. In one case a woman died after she was kicked repeatedly and then thrown by her inebriated husband down a flight of stairs. Almost as appalling as the details of these assaults were the inconsequential penalties meted out to the perpetrators.’ Even in this awful context Bernstein gives the lie to the notion that feminists are humourless. In ‘A Rule to Work Both Ways’ she channels her anger into wit, exhorting her ‘sisters’ to employ the ‘kitchen poker’ when ‘husband-curing’:

 

And if you cannot cure them, ‘Kill!’

As coolly teaches the Wife-beater;

In widowhood no doubt you will

Find your existence somewhat sweeter.

 

One of the great pleasures of A Song of Glasgow Town is the picture it paints of lively prosodic debates, conducted in the Weekly Mail in particular, with its ‘interplay amongst poetry editor, the poets, and the readers’. On a wider scale, the editors suggest, these columns offer, ‘a unique snapshot of the public culture of Glasgow, for the poets and readers alike were chiefly Victorian working-class and middle-class men and women and their verses shaped – in Natalie Houston’s words – ‘a shared public discourse of current events.’ We might return to Tom Leonard, and his belief that Literature is ‘based on universal equality of human existence’, ‘the dialogue between one human being and another’.

Bernstein defended men too: to ‘labour beyond one’s strength / Turns work from a joy to pain’ (‘A Song for the Working Man’) and may be downright dangerous, as in the case of the railway pointsman obliged to work eighteen hours a day. Industrial action by the riveters of Govan receives shorter shrift. She condemns those ‘Who stay at home at ease, / And live upon the ‘strike fund’ / As idle as you please’, hence risking the trade success of Glasgow; I dread to think what she would have made of the situation at Grangemouth. Radicalism makes a welcome return in her support of land reform. ‘The Scottish Marseillaise’ urges Scots to rise together, ‘To set your native mountains free; / For wealth and greed, in base communion, / Enslave the land from sea to sea.’ Nor is she content with demands that the land be given back to tenant farmers: ‘’Tis yours; ‘take’ back the land!’

Although much of the interest in Bernstein derives from her subject matter and context, her poetry is accomplished and for the most part strong enough to stand alone. Much of it follows the pattern of the quatrains quoted above, with their emphatic rhymes and perky enjambments. ‘Characteristic of newspaper verse,’ according to Cohen et al, the poems also possess a ‘conversational quality that one associates with the best nineteenth-century English and Scottish poetry.’ Intensive reading may result in foot-tapping iambic overload, but the more personal poems often mark interesting shifts in form. While ‘Mirren’s Autobiography’ labours through couplets (with one extra line), the penultimate poem in the collection, ‘Sonnet: The Rainbow’, reiterates the faith that fuelled her social beliefs using an adventurous and atypical rhyme scheme. She is adept at Victorian melancholia too, and those verses dedicated to summer passing, the dread that the dark winter holds for the invalid, and friends now deceased, are extremely moving. Bernstein was dedicated to her craft, and wrote until the very end of her life. ‘Song of a ‘Shut In’’, her third last poem, repeats the line ‘Sweet summer comes, but not for me’ to poignant effect. She died in 1906, aged fifty-nine, having published 198 poems.

The best-known of these, again thanks to Radical Renfrew (now itself out of print), is ‘A Dream’. It presents a vision of the end of the nineteenth century heralding ‘a more advanced / And very much brighter day’ in which women’s rights are established, with (more than) equal representation in the Cabinet and the House of Commons, an end to war, and agreement between religious sects ‘That an erring opinion was not so bad / As a false word or wicked deed.’ In her chapter on Scottish women poets of the nineteenth century in the History of Scottish Women’s Writing, Valentina Bold sees ‘A Dream’ as emblematic of Bernstein’s ‘radical streak’, reworking ‘the visionary tradition of Ramsay, Burns and Hogg from a woman’s perspective’. It is a pity that Marion Bernstein’s dream is yet to come true, but the editors of A Song of Glasgow Town have done a great service in preserving and making available her words. Her voice – neglected for so long – is just the kind we need to hear as we consider the writers who invented Scotland, and the hopes we have for our country in the future.


A Song of Glasgow Town: The Collected Poems of Marion Bernstein

Edited by Edward H. Cohen,

Anne R. Fertig and Linda Fleming

Association of Scottish Literary Studies, £12.50,

ISBN 978-1-906841-13-3

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