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A Scottish Dozen: Uncollected Poems by Marion Bernstein

Linda Fleming and Edward Cohen

[This essay was originally published in The Victorians Institute Journal, Volume 37 (2009): Victorian Scotland.]


In Glasgow, in the summer of 1876, Marion Bernstein published Mirren’s Musings, a collection of one hundred poems upon which her reputation rests. Among these were her most radical feminist compositions—“Woman’s Rights and Wrongs,” “Wanted A Husband,” “A Dream,” and “A Rule to Work Both Ways”—often included today in studies and anthologies of nineteenth-century Scottish verse.@ Bernstein announced in an advertisement in this book that she intended “to publish another volume, containing an equal number of entirely different poems, in about a year.” But no such volume ever appeared. She continued to write and to place her verse in the public domain, however, and the purpose of this study is to present a modest selection of the uncollected poems that she composed over her last thirty years. We have chosen twelve that reflect her increasing interest and engagement in Scottish affairs.
Little is known of Bernstein’s early life. She was born in London in 1846, to a Jewish father from Preußen and an Anglican mother from Marylebone, was stricken in childhood with a debilitating infirmity, and spent her adult years in pain and poverty. By 1874, she had relocated to Glasgow with her widowed mother, her brother, her married sister, and her brother-in-law. To support herself, when she was able, she gave private music lessons. She also embraced the Saturday Sabbath and apparently hosted religious meetings in her parlor at 5 Dunrobin Place, Paisley Road. She published her first poem in the Glasgow Weekly Mail on 28 February 1874 and joined a coterie of regular contributors to the paper. In the poems that she submitted during the ensuing months, she addresses a number of social issues—including gender inequity, wife beating, and poor living and working conditions among the laboring classes—but only occasionally does she reveal an investment in Scottish life. When the editor of the Mail complained that he had tired of receiving conventional poems on country life and encouraged submissions on city scenes, Bernstein responded with “A Song of Glasgow Town,” in which she writes scornfully of the “foul” Clyde, the “giant chimney stalks,” and the schools filled with “starving bairns.” But she addresses “the Glasgow people” from an outsider’s perspective. Her literary productivity declined sharply after the publication of Mirren’s Musings. Yet we have identified more than eighty poems—comic verses, religious verses, and occasional verses on social themes—that she published in various newspapers between 1876 and 1903. As her life in Scotland lengthened, she began to write increasingly and perceptively on topics of interest to Scots.
From the time she arrived in Glasgow, Bernstein found a cordial audience for her poetry in the pages of the local weekly newspapers, and in the poetry columns of these papers she created her own space of agency and identity. Of her extant poems, nearly a quarter were published in the Glasgow Weekly Herald and half in the Glasgow Weekly Mail. The Weekly Herald, with a balanced coverage of local, national, and international news, was the more conservative of the two papers. In every issue there appeared a column of “Original Poetry” with two or three pieces, contributed predominately by men, on topics of general human interest. In the 1870s the poems Bernstein published in these columns were chiefly expressions of her Christian faith. But it was in the Weekly Mail that she first made her mark. She wrote many of her poems on current events and on topics of general interest suggested by the paper. Published every Saturday, with a circulation of 150,000 copies, each eight-page issue cost one penny. The first page was devoted to regional or national news of a social or sensational propensity. In the issue in which Bernstein’s first poem appeared, the leading stories were an account of a “terrific gale” in the west of Scotland and a report on the ongoing trial of the Tichborne Claimant in London. There were also excerpts from other papers on events of singular interest: “Painful Suicide in Dublin,” “Horrible Murder in Paris,” and “Shocking Atrocities in the South Seas.” Other pages reported Scottish news, including incidents in Glasgow and in other cities and towns: a drowning in the Kelvin, a miners’ strike in Falkirk, and an outbreak of smallpox in Wigtown. The paper also listed recent local births, marriages, and deaths. On 28 February, these included twenty-nine births, ten marriages, and forty-four deaths. The lion’s share of the Weekly Mail was given over to advertisements, which frequently occupied a quarter of page 3, half of page 5, and all of page 8. Wanted were dyers, painters, teachers, servants, wagon makers, cabinet makers, boat builders, workmen, machine men, oil distillers, and stereotypers. Among the products for sale were cocoa and chocolate, “inexpensive hair restorer,” Scotch tweeds, wedding dresses, mangles, sewing machines, venetian blinds, and “fine old whisky for toddy.” Services offered included hat cleaning, watch repairing, and “blood purifying.” Several columns were regularly devoted to shipping and to opportunities for emigration. News and features of this sort, both in the Weekly Mail and the Weekly Herald, suggest that the Saturday papers were aimed at readers with wide-ranging interests and modest expectations; the content also reflects the rise in literacy among a bourgeois class concentrated in an increasingly urbanized Scotland.
In the last quarter of the nineteenth century, poetry held a consistent place in the pages of the Glasgow Weekly Herald and the Glasgow Weekly Mail. The poetry column in the Weekly Herald appeared on page 2, where the verses competed with installments of novels by Mayne Reid, Wilkie Collins, Rider Haggard, Anthony Trollope, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon. The poetry column in the Weekly Mail appeared on page 3 or page 7. There were always five or six poems, often submitted by Jessie Russell, William Penman, James Nicholson, and other regular contributors. Unlike the staid Weekly Herald, whose editor never infringed upon the literary domain, the Weekly Mail often printed a column adjacent to the poetry in which its editor offered criticism or consolation to authors whose verses he rejected. To one, for example, he wrote: “You are fortunate in having more time to write than we have to read.” But from the first he admired Marion Bernstein’s wit, and he quickly admitted her to the Mail’s fold of “correspondents.” Indeed, it was the Mail that playfully gave her the name “Mirren”—evidently after the patron saint of Paisley—which she embraced and eventually adopted for her collection of Musings. The poetry in these papers offers a unique snapshot of the public culture of Glasgow in these years, for the poets and readers alike were chiefly middle- and working-class men and women. The regular meter and alternating rhyme typical of Victorian newspaper verse made writing and reading these poems easy processes, and the result was often a poetic “shared public discourse of current events” (Houston 239).
In the 1880s the editorial policies of the Glasgow Weekly Mail and the Glasgow Weekly Herald changed abruptly. The good-natured bantering between the Mail and its contributors ceased, and the poetry column was headed by a curt notice: “We cannot undertake to correspond with persons who send us poetry for insertion. If pieces sent to us do not appear in our columns within a few weeks after they are received, our correspondents may understand that they are rejected.” There was no further interaction among the poets. And there were fewer poems by women.@ On the other hand, the number of poems written by women increased in the Herald, and the new editor, William Canton, was inclined to accept poems on subjects that reflected significant changes in the social landscape of Scotland.@ Of the selection of Marion Bernstein’s poems that follows, three were published in the Glasgow Weekly Herald and seven in the Glasgow Weekly Mail. The topics include the death of a fellow poet, the fight for women’s suffrage, the sorrows of Robert Burns, the crofters’ conflicts with the landlords, tensions between workers and masters, and a rare moment of “calm delight” in the commonplace life of the city.