Ann the Word by Richard Francis

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Shakers are a lot more interesting than Transcendentalists.  They do not worry about cold showers or manure.  More importantly, there’s the local connection.  Whilst obviously I knew that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, even I wouldn’t have claimed that “American’s most important and successful utopian community” had been deeply influenced by a fight over potato prices on Shudehill.  I’m not sure that I’d have claimed that Ann Lee, the first leader of the Shakers, was the most influential working-class woman since Joan of Arc, either – although I can see the point.  This isn’t a particularly good book, and it says nothing about the influence that Shakers had on architecture, furniture and education, not to mention bonnets, but it makes some very valid points about how the authorities couldn’t handle the idea of a religious community being led by a woman.  And it goes into quite a lot of detail about the geography of 18th century Manchester – which will probably mean nothing to New Englanders, who are presumably the intended audience, but is very interesting if you’re me.

To be fair, it’s meant to be a biography of Ann Lee, not a book about Shakerism; and she died before the Shakers had established their reputation for being skilled farmers, craftspeople and educators.  It’s a shame that something wasn’t said about that, though, especially as the author was quite negative about Shakerism.  OK, it’s hardly most people’s thing, but each to their own!  There aren’t many sources about Ann, other than those written by people who lived and worked with her, so most of what the book says about her time in America is just an account of conversions of different people, and it reads like a novel, with a lot of dialogue and detailed accounts of who took whose arm and who got upset and so on.

The part about her early life in Manchester is much more interesting – probably because there were virtually no sources about it, so it’s mainly about Manchester!  There’s an account of the Forty-Five, and also an account of food price riots in 1757, notably the one on Shudehill – along with comments about how this was all linked to working-class assertiveness.  If you go back to the Civil War era, and look at the Levellers and the Diggers, there’s certainly a link between working-class assertiveness and radical Protestantism: I’d never really thought about it in connection with the Shakers, but it’s a fair point.

Ann was born in Toad Lane, which is now Todd Street – by the side of where Cathedral Gardens, Chetham’s and the National Football Museum are – and, of course, that was the heart of town in those days.  The Infirmary, where Ann worked as a cook, and the “house of correction”, where she was imprisoned for a while, were all in that area.  So was the grammar school, which the author annoyingly doesn’t mention!  The descriptions of town in the mid-18th century are the best part of the book!   Ann’s early life is interesting, too, especially how she suffered from what would now be recognised as depression and eating disorders, and spent some time in an asylum: it was after that that she really got into the religious stuff.

There are also references to Shakers in the Cheshire area – mainly in the Marton area just north of Congleton.  There’s a really nice café there: I sometimes stop at it on my way home from Little Moreton Hall and Biddulph Grange!  And a reference to groups of “prophets” meeting in Great Budworth.  There’s a nice ice cream place there.  Sorry, food on the brain!

The parts about her life and work in America are, as I’ve said, mostly about converting different people: there are a lot of names, which I doubt will mean anything even to someone who’s very au fait with Shakerism.  However, the accounts of how the Shakers were persecuted by the authorities are fascinating, and disturbing.  They were accused of being British spies, this being the period of the American Revolution, and, as they refused to swear an oath of allegiance because they said it was against their faith, many of them were imprisoned.  Suspicion about a woman leading a religious group meant that Ann was horrifically persecuted. OK, there’d have been hostility towards anyone seen as claiming to be some sort of Second Coming, but Ann was seriously sexually assaulted.  It wasn’t just the authorities: the Shakers were attacked by mobs as well.  Think about the treatment of the Yazidis by ISIS.  Was the treatment of the Shakers by other Christians so different?

It’s not the greatest of books, but I very much enjoyed reading what it said about 18th century Manchester, and it made some very good points about hostility towards the idea of women as religious leaders.  It also said a lot about attitudes towards religious minorities in both Britain and America – not just Catholics and Jews, but minority Protestant groups as well.  I think we tend to forget that it’s only very recently that that’s changed, and there are still some issues now.  Anyway, I think that’s enough reading about New England Utopian groups – on to something else now!

Fruitlands: the Alcott family and their search for Utopia by Richard Francis

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I have *not* taken to Transcendentalism: this is for research purposes only.  Fruitlands was the short-lived commune set up by Bronson Alcott, Louisa M Alcott’s father, and his London-born associate Charles Lane. They had an interesting range of ideas, from the admirable, notably supporting Abolitionism and, to some extent, women’s rights, to the offensive – some of their ideas about producing a perfect new generation came unpleasantly close to eugenics – and all sorts of other things.  Opposing organised religion and political parties – wouldn’t life be so much more peaceful …?   Following a vegan diet. Trying to avoid cooking anything.  Opposing individual property ownership. Drinking nothing but water, not using artificial lighting, showering and bathing using only cold water, not using any form of animal labour, not using even natural fertilisers (they said that manure upset the weather), practising celibacy except as “necessary” to procreate; and one of them was into nudism because he thought that clothes stifled the spirit.

Some of it seems rather extreme; and their experiment didn’t last very long.  After only a few months, Lane and Alcott fell out, Lane joined the Shakers – everyone knows that Shakerism originated in Manchester and Bolton, yes 🙂 ?!  – , Mrs Alcott put her foot down, and Fruitlands was abandoned. But certain aspects of their theories and practices held some appeal at the time and afterwards, and do resonate in our own age of concern about environmental issues and religious and political extremism.  But, as so often happens, it wasn’t thought out properly – trying to live entirely off natural products on land that wasn’t really arable wasn’t the greatest of ideas – and those in charge were so repressive and dictatorial and determined to force their views on everyone else that they created more discord than harmony.  Louisa wasn’t impressed … and yet there are certainly some aspects of Fruitlands in Plumfield.

This is for research purposes, as I’ve said – it’s not really bedtime or holiday reading.  But there’s some interesting stuff in it – plenty of food for thought.

Transcendentalism’s usually said to be an offshoot of Romanticism, combined with religion, and then taken off in the direction of separating yourself from wordly things and sticking closely to nature. I get myself all tangled up with Romanticism. It’s a Lancastrian thing – we’re very proud of the Industrial Revolution, but we also want to keep the Lake District unspoilt so that we can wander about dreaming of hosts of golden daffodils!

I do not get tangled up with religion, but some of the Transcendentalists did – Eve eating the apple was apparently a bad thing because, although apples work with veganism, she was looking for knowledge instead of just looking for an apple. This is not my department. If someone says “The Fall”, I assume they mean the late, great, Mark E Smith & co. It had links to aspects of Unitarianism, and also to the Shakers – who’ve always interested me because of the local connection.  I’m so parochial!  It’s linked to Hinduism and Jainism as well, and I find those links easier to follow, because they don’t get everything mixed up with the creation story.  Anyway, this is not my department, as I’ve said: I’m just doing some research into the history of New England, and this particular area of it appealed because of the Alcott connection.

Louisa M Alcott’s own take on it was that the men did a lot of waffling whilst the women tried to keep body and soul together.  I feel so sorry for Abigail Alcott, Louisa’s mother. Some observers commented that the Transcendalists – like 17th century Puritans – thought that no-one should be allowed to be happy; and remarks made in Abigail’s letters and diaries suggest that that was how she felt. Bronson, like a lot of idealists, conveniently ignored the practicalities of real life, so they were always in debt. He also nearly ended up in prison for refusing to pay his tax so that he could distance himself from the state – a bit like that Australian couple who were in the news recently, for refusing to pay their property taxes because they said that their property actually belonged to the Good Lord. (Presumably they were quite happy to use all the public services paid for by everyone else’s taxes.)  And he didn’t want to get a job because he thought that being a wage slave was bondage, but he thought it was fine to tap friends and relatives for money because that was encouraging them to be charitable!  A very far cry from Jo March writing penny-dreadfuls in order to pay her way in life.

Abigail suffered from both physical and mental health problems, as well.  A vegan diet is obviously fine if you’re getting the proper nutrition, but they didn’t have the requisite knowledge about that and so she was existing on fruit, bread and water, and consequently felt ill for a lot of the time. And the ideas about producing perfect offspring meant that Bronson blamed her when they had a stillborn baby. Even the domestic postbox idea, which she introduced and which sounds like such good fun when Laurie introduces it in Little Women, came about not as a bit of fun but as a way of trying to relieve domestic tension – write your issues down instead of bottling them up or yelling at each other about them. I don’t wonder she had enough. It can’t have been very nice for either her or the children … although it’s interesting that the Bhaers’ Plumfield, which was supposed to be so wonderful, was probably named after Plum Tree Meadows, the previous name for the area where Fruitlands was situated.

On a more positive note, the Anglo-American links are fascinating. I always think that with 19th century movements. Considering that letters must have taken quite a while to cross the Atlantic, the amount of communication and sharing of ideas is fascinating. The nudist guy was British, incidentally.  There was even an Alcott House, predating Fruitlands, in Surrey, named after Bronson Alcott. He seems to have been obsessed with the idea that American women were better than British women, though! That probably explains the rather offensive way that Louisa portrays Kate Vaughn, which always annoys me. And their contacts, or at least Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane’s contacts, with some very well-known names on both sides of the Atlantic, are worth nothing – Carlyle, Hawthorne, Thoreau. Louisa M Alcott’s probably better known than any of them these days: I wonder what Bronson would have made of that!

If Bronson Alcott were around today, he’d probably be one of those people who, whilst some of his ideas would be too extreme for most people, would have many ideas which made a lot of sense, especially with all the current concerns about the environment … but who alienate others with their lecturing tone, their refusal to respect or even listen properly to other people’s views, their lack of humour, their failure to consider practicalities and their constant attempts to guilt-trip everyone.  I don’t know why it always seems to get like that.  It’s a great shame.

Also, as the author points out, they didn’t really get involved with the Abolitionist movement, and they didn’t seem very concerned about all the other social and political issues of the day.  Marmee and the girls taking their Christmas breakfast round to the Hummels (this is my comment, not the author’s!) might not have changed the world, but at least they tried to help people in need!

It seems very likely that Plumfield was Louisa’s attempt at showing a gentler side of it – one which might have worked.

There’s a lot of philosophy in this book, so it’s quite heavy-going, but the author’s done a very good job with the subject matter.  Some of the ideas are quite outlandish, and he’s very critical of how self-obsessed they were, but he doesn’t mock them – yet, at the same time, he shows the impracticability of Alcott and Lane’s particular experiment, and its negative impact on Abigail Alcott and others.  And he gets a few Little Women/Little Men references in there, whilst resisting what must have been a strong temptation (well, it would have been to me!) to include dozens of them in a book which isn’t actually about them.  I wouldn’t say that this was an entertaining book, but it was quite interesting.

And, whilst I’m certainly not suggesting that we all start running around starkers, or avoiding eating potatoes because they grown downwards rather than upwards, some of the ideas are certainly relevant to today.  Avoiding buying clothes or other items known to have been produced unethically.  Being careful when it comes to artificial substances getting into the food supply. Not being cruel to animals.  The Fruitland experiment just wasn’t viable, and I don’t think I’d have liked Bronson Alcott or Charles Lane very much, but, as I said, there’s some food for thought here!