Thursday, 5 October 2017

Agnes Miriam Bald: windows to her mind

The previous item about Agnes Miriam ‘Nan’ Bald outlined her life. This item describes some of her writing with a few examples to illustrate her preoccupations and mood.

The following are excerpts of some of her poems as they appear in her short book, Pencil Poems. They were written before about 1925 and the earliest may date from 1919, though there is no indication of the dates for specific poems. The book is dedicated to her mother whom she cared for after the death of her father in December 1925.

A sentence which represents a strong theme of the book is on page 15:

‘It would be nice to feel when ends life’s weary way,
We’ve done our best!’

There is another celebrating a betrothal which may reflect the experience of her youngest sister Ruth or perhaps her eldest sister Evelyn on page 20. The theme of betrothal is the subject of a number of poems and though none seems to refer specifically to herself it is clearly a topic which occupied her mind. 

One gets the impression that this theme comes from a personal experience which was too painful to describe directly. Apart from this, she is consistent in making clear when speaking about herself, which is helpful in identifying other aspects of her life.

‘The Bruised Reed; to a war hero’ tells of a soldier, Bill, who though wounded in the [First World] War and permanently confined to bed, dictates words of beauty which are printed in a newspaper to cheer and ‘comfort half the race’. The story seems to be of someone she knows about as the focus is a nurse copying down his words to send to an editor – whose name is unknown to the author. Her sister Ruth was a nurse during the War so could be based on her experience.  

The poem follows the title of a book by Richard Sibbes (1567–1635) published in 1630 to help struggling Christians see their Saviour as a tender shepherd. Sibbes is best remembered for his little book that draws from Isaiah’s description of the coming Messiah who will not break a bruised reed nor snuff a faintly burning wick.

Another poem called ‘The Proposal’ describes a proposal of marriage and might be the story of a female friend of hers.

‘You are young Mary meadows’ is a kind of tribute to ‘You are old Father William’ and though it shows genuine verbal fun – possibly the only poem to do so - there is the theme of marriage again which obviously preoccupied her. ‘You Are Old, Father William’ is a ‘nonsense poem’ written by Lewis Carroll and appears in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), recited by Alice. The poem was popular with my mother and I guess widely enjoyed at the time and was itself a parody of a now ignored didactic poem by Robert Southey ‘The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them’ published in 1799 and once well-known and loathed by children. 

The first two verses of ‘You are old, Father William’ (1865) by Lewis Carroll are:

“You are old, Father William,” the young man said,
“And your hair has become very white;
And yet you incessantly stand on your head –
Do you think, at your age, it is right?”

“In my youth,” Father William replied to his son,
“I feared it might injure the brain;
But, now that I’m perfectly sure I have none,
Why, I do it again and again.”

The first two verses of Agnes’ poem are as follows;

You are Young Mary Meadows
“You are young Mary meadows,” the young man said,
“And your eyes are as bright as the stars,
And yet you refuse charming fellows to wed
You seem to prefer their papas!"

“In the days of my childhood,” she said to the youth,
“I used to like young men like you;
But since I’ve grown up, I must say of a truth,
I seem to like older ones too!”

'Raggles' celebrates the Tibetan Lhasa terrier she had in India. The only picture in Pencil Poems is of this dog. Raggles also appears as an ‘extra’ in a family photo in front of her parents’ home at Tukvar shown in the previous post.

Raggles gets star billing as the only picture in Pencil Poems.

A glimpse of her love for India is in the poem of that name.

‘India, thou land of sheer delight!
Land of my birth, I know I love thee quite.
How many years have I spent on thy shore?
I think they’d reckon up to half a score.’

When you near home, and your verandah see,
You will be longing for some home-grown tea…’

The poem remind me of the following picture taken at Tukvar which shows Nan's sister Evelyn, mother Margaret and sister Jessie. The picture was probably taken by her father Claud.

Taking tea at Tukvar.

There are two poems about her nieces who visited in August 1922, my mother Joan and her sister dubbed ‘Maya’. We learn from the poem that it was Maya’s ayah who dubbed her thus. Joan ‘is a very bright wee spark, as clever as can be!’ and Maya is ‘a charming little child.’ 

Nan was delighted when the girls did come to join her and her mother a few years later. The phrase ‘wee spark’ reminds me that her parents were both Glaswegian and must have retained that accent through their lives.

Joan the 'bright wee spark' and her mother
 at the time she met Nan and her Bald grandparents for the first time.

The final poem returns to a theme which is consistent throughout the book; a life of pain which others cannot understand and in which she gained strength through her faith.  The title is ‘Be Strong’ and final verse reads;

‘When weariness and weakness is my lot,
What would I do if I ever forgot
These words as through this life I go along,
“Quit ye like men, be strong”’

The last phrase, like others in Pencil Poems, is from the Bible and illustrates her faith which persisted through her life. The phrase is a call to ‘man up’, take responsibility for yourself and do what you need to do. The Apostle Paul uses it in the context of what might be called a moral fight. The phrase had a military application in World War I, consistent with its Old Testament usage where the against the odds the Philistines took this approach and defeated the lax Israelite army. The approach is one my mother adopted though she did not have a specifically Christian sense of faith.


I think the crucial factor of Nan's life which the family memory may have missed is the devastating impact of the first world war.

Women's Army Auxiliary Corps tend the graves of fallen British soldiers.
Abbeville, France, 9 February 1918. Imperial War Museums

Nearly three-quarters of a million young British men died in the first world war. Their loss was also that of a generation of young women who had expected to marry. Virginia Nicholson's book Singled Out: How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War details the phenomena of the single women of the 1920s and 1930s. Even before the war, there were more women than men, but the 1921 census revealed that in Britain women exceeded men by 1.75 million.

Nicholson shows how difficult it was for women who viewed marriage as their birthright to adjust. They had not only to manage their own disappointment and reduced expectations in a climate that pushed homemaking to the fore but do so in the face of both pity and condemnation.

‘Surplus Woman and spinster’, she says, were terms of 'crushing weight'. While her book celebrates women who did climb out from underneath the weight, others would have simply found it very difficult. Nan had a tough time adjusting but was buoyed somewhat by her faith and perhaps her sister Jessie struggled more. In a strange twist, Jessie imagined that men were always chasing her.

For the Bald sisters, a clandestine affair would have been out of the question given their upbringing. This was underlined in the climate that life for the single woman meant enforced celibacy or the loss of respectability.

We have no information on how Nan was employed after her mother died in 1935, though the stipend her parents will provided for her may have meant finding a menial task was the necessity it was for many single women.

Her debt to her parents’ in this provision was significant and in recognition of this I suspect she is the person who organised arrangements for their grave which consists of a pink granite Celtic cross and a grave edging also in granite with the words

‘Their children and grandchildren record their deep gratitude for loving service and noble example.’

By this time her nieces Joan and Maya had returned from India to Worthing for their schooling and Nan spent much time looking after them as well as her ageing mother.

After her mother’s death, her nieces spent summer holidays with their Aunt Ruth and her husband Arthur Campbell in Bangor, North Wales or stayed on at School. 

Nan threw herself into a variety of organisations; she was a founding member and or honorary secretary to the Worthing branches of the Lord's Day Observance Society, Women’s International Fellowship, Protestant Alliance and Women’s World Day of Prayer. 

In 1938, she took up a position as leader of the Sunday Defenders, the children’s section of the Lord’s day Observance Society, based in Brighton, though had returned to Worthing after a year.

In late 1941 she suffered a breakdown in her health and resigned from some of these roles for what turned out to be a short time and returned to her various roles of public advocacy.

In these roles (before and after her break), she was a frequent writer to the editor of the Worthing Herald and spoke at public meetings in support of ‘The great need for women’s influence and responsibility’. She was not shy in offering public expositions of her views of the Bible for example.

In July 1936, no doubt still mourning the loss of her mother, she wrote on the topic of ‘The Pacifist and the burglar’ concluding in a characteristic way;

‘It is this spiritual freedom to serve the unseen Deity which our country still retains, for which we owe the deepest debt of gratitude to our heroes of the Great War, Jesus Christ commends watchful defence of property in Matthew 24:43.’

The tone of her writings had become combative, her feelings are often raw, bitter and unhappy and they often invited cynical responses.

Her apparently joyless advocacy of sacrifice in later life may have been a subconscious expression of bereavement not only at the loss of her mother but also of the married life she dreamed of as a younger woman. She would have been reminded of her loss regularly at the sight of couples with children and in a society increasingly interested in enjoyments such as Sunday cinemas instead of sacrifice. Her inability to regulate her emotions would have reduced her ability to maintain social relationships which would have exacerbated her sense of loss.

Nan’s faith may have provided some buttress to sanity and the absence of such belief, in the case of her sister Jessie, may have made her isolation complete.

Though the first world war deprived many women of potential husbands, it enabled the pioneering few to establish careers. A Bald cousin, Dr Marjory Amelia, dedicated her life to the study and teaching of women’s literature and supporting missionary work and is worthy of recognition for this. Her major work was Women-writers of the nineteenth century and it remains a go-to text for that study and her life a positive example.

The collection of Pencil Poems provides a fascinating glimpse into a part of Nan’s life. A more careful examination of the poems may identify all the people mentioned, the references made to other writings, and the circumstances referred to, though we may never know the name of the person whose loss caused her deepest sense of isolation.

Nan died on 4 May 1950 in a Worthing nursing home and was cremated.

Nan in happy times.
Taking nieces Joan and Maya to school in Worthing.

Let me know if you would like a soft copy of Pencil Poems.

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