I’m thrilled to welcome such a multi-talented lady into the attic this week. Christine Eyres not only has a gift with words but is also a very accomplished artist. In this post, Christine tells the story of her Scottish great-grandmother, Agnes, a courageous woman whose legacy might have been lost to history but for Christine’s research.
‘Agnes refused to let me go. She demanded that her story be told, that I investigate further.’
Originally a teacher, Christine Eyres studied art at WA Institute of Technology (now Curtin University) and worked as a visual artist in WA and Queensland. She developed a passion for writing while undertaking post-graduate studies at James Cook University. Research for an exhibition and a thesis about the mother/daughter relationship led her to write a creative non-fiction work, The White Apron. Christine self-published this, but is now redrafting it into fiction.
Christine’s second manuscript, Dark Enough for Stars, was long-listed for the 2015 Mslexia Novel Prize. She’s now re-working that story, which portrays the far-reaching consequences of the forced separation of children and parents.
You’ll find more of Christine’s art and writing on her website.
WRITING WITH AGNES
It was never my dream to become a writer. I wrote from an early age but, to my mind, never well enough. It was finding Agnes that set me off.
As a kid from a country town I seemed to drift through school, missing many of the basics of English. I was brought up on a diet of broad Glaswegian accents and a dialect that none of my friends understood. Perhaps this was the reason spelling completely escaped me. Despite the despair of my teachers, I managed to make it to tertiary level. I do remember writing a story set in my hometown of Albany and a lecturer urging me to submit it to a magazine. I dismissed that idea as barking mad. I now wonder at the lack of confidence in that girl that made her reject the lecturer’s encouragement.
Later, as a visual artist, I wrote—probably very bad—poetry. Not that I cared if it was good or bad. I wrote to identify and condense my thoughts and feelings and hopefully find metaphors that would feed into my artwork.
Eventually I undertook post-graduate studies, which involved mounting a solo exhibition and writing a thesis. What to choose as a subject? My supervisor wisely steered me, over several sessions, away from wanting to tackle the whole gamut of the female condition to an investigation of the topic at a more personal level. I came back to her, in trepidation, with: The Mother/Daughter Relationship.
‘That’s the one,’ she said, pointing her pen at me and gazing over the top of glasses that always sat halfway down her nose.
I went home in a state of benumbed dismay. My relationship with my strong, clever mother had been complicated. How to even start? When I picked myself up, I sensed I needed to go back through the matrilineal line. I needed to trace the source of attitudes and anxieties that were passed on through generations of women in my family. These women had lived through the industrial revolution and the clearances: the forced eviction of thousands of small tenant sheep farmers, which brought upheaval and misery to much of Scotland. Thousands of families had to leave the crofts they had occupied for as far back as anyone could remember. The land was enclosed and stocked with sheep to supply wool for the mills and factories that sprang up in the cities.
During my research I discovered a fact that shook me. My genteel, Victorian grandmother, Christina, had been born in a poorhouse. How the hell did that happen? It was then that Agnes popped her head up and said: What about me? And I realised that I knew nothing about my matrilineal great-grand mother. She had only been spoken of in one story that portrayed her, towards the end of her life, as something of a hero. We knew the stories about the great-grandmother on the paternal side of the family, how she came from Glen Coe in the romantic highlands of Western Scotland and spoke only Gaelic. How she was over six feet tall and was thought to have descended from the Vikings.
‘I could almost swear that several times, when I came to a dead end, Agnes tapped me on the shoulder and pointed the way.’
Agnes led me to see that what had happened in Scotland during the latter half of the nineteen century was anything but romantic. The overcrowded cities saw as many as fifteen people living in a one-roomed house. Disease and the capitalists were the only things that thrived. What I uncovered in Agnes’ life’s story started to help me to understand the hang-ups and anxieties that were apparent in our mostly female family. It was a time when I finished the artwork and the thesis, but Agnes refused to let me go. She demanded that her story be told, that I investigate further.
I travelled back to Scotland and spent two months following Agnes around. I am not usually given to fancies (as my mother would call them), but I could almost swear that several times, when I came to a dead end, Agnes tapped me on the shoulder and pointed the way. I found the estate outside Edinburgh where Agnes had lived in one of the cottages. Hers would have been a life of hard work but one full of security and peace as the ploughman’s daughter. It was after she married that her life descended into indescribable poverty, including being reduced to the poorhouse.
Shortly after their marriage, Agnes’ soldier-husband was pensioned from the army with an eye disease contracted in India. From being a proud Gordon Highlander stationed at Edinburgh Castle, he returned to his father’s profession as a cobbler and the evidence seems to say he sank into depression and the dram shops. It was a time when alcoholism was endemic in the clotted slums of Scotland. It was a time when any sense of community was hard to maintain but the class system was strengthening. There was an opinion, promoted by church and state, that the suffering of the slum dwellers was due to their moral failings. To be poor became a deeply shameful condition, and I believe the tears of this shame washed down through the generations.
‘To be poor became a deeply shameful condition, and I believe the tears of this shame washed down through the generations.’
Over the years seven children were born, and four died. Agnes and her family moved from the squalor of Edinburgh to the degradation of the tenements in Glasgow. Resilience must have been tested in an age deemed the slaughter of the innocents, due to the number of young children who died of typhoid, tuberculosis and a myriad of other illnesses relating to appalling working and living conditions. When her eldest daughter died of consumption, Agnes took in young women banished from homes because of the disease. Her home became a refuge for these girls whose fate would have been prostitution or starvation.
By the time I pieced together Agnes’s story as a creative non-fiction, I had a tome of 150,000 words. I received some encouraging feedback, but to be published it needed to be shorter. Wanting to keep the integrity of the story for future generations, I decided rather than chop events, names and dates, at this stage I would self-publish for my family. After taking a break to work on another novel, I have now set about condensing and converting the story into a more fictionalized account.
At a time in my life when I frequently travel to visit my scattered family, I am grateful to Agnes for leading me to writing. Besides being enormously satisfying, it is wonderfully portable.
If you’d like to write a post for Writers in the Attic, please contact me here. The topic is anything to do with writing—your writing life, what writing means to you, or what has influenced your writing. 600-1000 words is a good length, and I acknowledge the time and effort involved in writing these pieces by sending a small gift as a thank you.
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