I’m always in two minds about explaining songs – I try not to explain too much, because I don’t like to bring a song into rigid focus for others – that’s not what music is for. I sometimes wish I knew less about other people’s songs so that I could feel about them how I did on first listen, drawing interpretations that meant the most to me. I’ll explain things if people specifically ask, but in general I try to keep it vague. However it feels different in this instance – it’s a commission, a literature project, something I researched. So I’m going to explain the lyrics. If you don’t like your songs thoroughly explained, stop reading now!
So starting with Anne, and this isn’t the first song of mine she has appeared in. ‘Agnes’ from 2012’s Roman Radio is named for the protagonist of Anne’s first novel, Agnes Grey, and paraphrases a line from the book: “Who would hang their hope on so frail a twig?” That song was about me though, not Anne; about the anxiety and self-doubt of starting again after MSTU (based on real anxiety dreams I was having), which is what quite a lot of that album is about. For this song, I was looking straight at Anne.
When I was first commissioned for this project, an image formed quickly in my mind – that of the small dining room at the Parsonage becoming overgrown as the three great minds of the sisters affected their environment as they wrote. The image that would start this process was that of Anne, returning to the room and laying her frustrations about women’s lack of intellectual opportunity on the dining table, like a bunch of flowers.
Anne, the Gardener (element = earth / liberty = women)
“Here was Arthur left to me at last; and rousing from my despondent apathy, I exerted all my powers to eradicate the weeds that had been fostered in his infant mind, and sow again the good seed they had rendered unproductive. Thank Heaven, it is not a barren or a stony soil; if weeds spring fast there, so do better plants.” – Helen Huntingdon, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Anne had to be earth. She wears her heart on her sleeve when it comes to her writing; we know what she wants and what her opinions are. We know she feels acutely the unfairness of the lack of opportunities for women at that time, and a woman’s lack of voice to protest against this unfairness. At the start of the song, Anne is returning home from her unhappy spells as a Governess, where she has been made to feel invisible, unworthy and irrelevant. She is guided home by her strong connection to the homestead and her family, and by her God. She is bursting with frustration from her experiences, and knows that her need to vent about it makes her somewhat ‘out of the colour scheme*’; she will not be silent as she is expected to be:
Let out like a scream, you don’t fit with the scheme:
An orange hawkweed among the blues and yellows,
the bells and primrose that line the way home,
Where you’re drawn by and by by invisible tie, a hand in the sky
You’ve been gritting your teeth until your release and you stole truth like a thief
Back in the Parsonage dining room, Anne lays down her botanical burdens as she starts to set down her frustrations in writing. The truth of what she has seen begins to spread as plants around the room, both wild but honest, a little like Anne’s writing; untamed but heartfelt:
Sister, lay your burdens on the table in a bundle of blooms, let em grow
Twisting tendrils, oh tormentil your roots running over to the edge
Your wretched vetch stretching out, heading boldly down the table leg to flagstone bed
Your honest seeds are sown
Through her novels, Anne wants to first show her readers what a poor garden society is, and then educate them on how to improve it; presenting a model garden where women can flourish in roles other than mother/wife/governess. She recognises her own situation in the disorder and madness of the ungoverned plants, and builds a trellis to help guide her plants, herself and others; a more ordered and fairer layout. Here I mention that the melody/guitar/rhythms/rhyme scheme, particularly in the verses, were intertwined in a trellis-like manner – the guitar as trellis, the vocal melody as the plants being trained by Anne’s efforts, the rhyme scheme as dependable and steady as Anne felt things should be. “Come forward” she calls to the flowers, to the women who have been lost in an overgrown world of men.
Now like your own self before, watch them climbing the walls
Build your trellis according to new rules
Try to train them in lines, prune the faith-strangling vines
As her garden grows around her, Anne considers the diifficulty of the task ahead. The idea of the resistance she faces – despite the trust she has in her own virtues and ideals – only winds her up more and makes her more determined to speak her mind. Harebells, yellow rattles, self-heal, foxgloves and adders-tongue are all flowers and plants you can find on the Haworth moors:
Sister, grow your garden
Though your soil is pure and giving, your work’s never done
Every harebell you get ringing they hide from the sun
Every yellow rattle shaken, self-heal nettle-stung
But wear your foxgloves with that perfect love
Don’t hold your adders-tongue
I hand the voice over to Anne herself at this point and let her rave; rave against women being regarded as pets, told what to do, expected to be content being curled up by the fire while men hoarded opportunity and did whatever they wanted with no consequence. There was no law at that time to allow women to divorce – through Helen Huntingdon, Anne argued for women’s rights. Anne presents her model garden; a place where men are considerate of women’s intellectual needs, where opportunity is for everyone. Her optimism also reflects the hope she found in gazing upon the sea**
“You tell us curl up, dear creatures*** beside the fire at night
While you hedge this heaven’s pleasures to indulge your appetite
But here in the garden you must walk a straighter edge
You can really smell the roses if you cut back the excess
There’s an expansive future like the Scarborough sea
With all its hope and possibility
Anne, perhaps the least naturally gifted writer – or maybe the least confident, needs help from her sisters. The difference between Agnes Grey – essentially a long moan – and the far superior The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, I partly put down to Emily’s influence – Emily’s clear-eyed, freshwater talent is contrasted with Anne’s tentatively optimistic seawater and tears of unhappiness and frustration. The whole story within a story of TTOFW, the better balance of light and dark, comedy and tragedy, must surely have been a result of Emily and Anne discussing technique. And without Charlotte’s driving force, neither Anne nor Emily would ever have sought publication for their writing:
“And dew from my sister gives my plants their Yorkshire tea
Untasted, unsalted, unkept, inspiring me
And the breath of my sister to spread my sprouting seeds
Taking our plans in our own hands
Working the land”
I really admire Anne. It makes my heart hurt to think how she didn’t want to die when she felt she had so much more to do and say. ‘A dreadful darkness closes in‘, she wrote in her small hand – her final poem. Tiny lettering, gigantic sadness. I like how she sees real love as a burning coal fire, not a fire of twigs. I like her zest for life and truth and justice, her dissections of nature and nurture, her honest soul.
Next time: Emily, the Diver
*Many of the flowers that grow in Haworth are pinks, yellows, blues, purples and whites. Agnes Grey loves bluebells and primroses, which remind her of home. Anne herself feels conspicuously different from the silent woman she is expected to be – an orange hawkweed is one of the flowers that grows in the area whose colour stands out as different
** Anne delighted at the restorative, exhilarating powers of a seascape, feeling a renewal of her strength and hopes (e.g. see Agnes Grey, chapter XXIV ‘The Sands’:’the unspeakable purity and freshness of the air…feeling as if I had wings to my feet’.) Anne is buried near the sea at Scarborough. You can see her beach pebble collection in the Parsonage museum.
***”It is a woman’s nature to be constant – to love one and one only, blindly, tenderly, and for ever – bless them, dear creatures! and you above them all; but you must have some commiseration for us, Helen; you must give us a little more licence, for, as Shakespeare has it – However we do praise ourselves, our fancies are more giddy and unfirm, more longing, wavering, sooner lost and won than women’s are.”- Arthur Huntingdon, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall