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
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.
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, colleague of the Pre-Raphaelites.
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. Don't get me wrong, I have good friends here, and
elsewhere, and this corner of Britain is picturesque, but I mean
something more fundamental.
Plus, 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: