The Unmothering Class by Anne Ryland (Arrowhead Press, 2011)
Reviewed by Linda Black
In her note preceding the sequence ‘Haunting my Daughter’, Anne Ryland states her desire to give voice to those hard-working, working-class women of the early 19th Century who had ‘neither a spoken or written voice’ – women who were her ancestors. A ‘ dearth of information’ allowed her to invent versions of their lives, stories emerging from ‘silences and absences’: of Ann, Sarah, Ellen, Bessie, Sarah Ann, Rebecca, Ann, Sarah Elizabeth, Eliza Emily, Mary Alice, Mabel Grace and Annie ( a family tree is included) ; some were merely bairns when they died – of typhoid, whooping cough, or other fatal illness.
These are heartfelt poems, reflecting on the probable lives of women granted neither status or education, nor the vote, whose occupations inside and outside the home, in fields or mills, as washerwomen, seamstresses and the like, were deemed not worthy of recording on any kind of register, including the census. In her review of Nicola Verdon’s book concerning 19th Century women workers1 the academic Karen Sayer notes, ‘ the comfort, even the survival, of working class families often rested on women’s ability to manage the home, their participation in the shifting worlds of ‘making do’ and ‘muddling through’. These women, often sad, often longing for freedom, got on with it – they had no choice, suffering many losses along the way.
The Unmothering Class is divided into three sections, ‘Haunting my Daughter’, well-placed in middle, being the one I came to first, reading one and three subsequently and finding them all the richer for it, each part informing the other, casting light and shadow back and forth. The opening poem in the book, ‘The Ruin Withholds it’s Secrets’, foreshadows the sequence, bringing past into present, as the poet ‘immerses [myself] in brokenness’, loving ‘the silences of the ruin’s story’, a ruin that, as with the sequence, ‘dares to be an outline’, and so with ‘Rebekah’ (poem two) who ‘composed her own map for each land’.
On first reading the sequence, I was immediately reminded of those women forced to abandon their babies to the Foundling Hospital, their plight – the leaving of scraps of fabric for identification in the hope they may one day reclaim their child – only to come, towards the end of the collection, to a strong poem ‘Go Gentle’, inspired by a note left by one such mother; Go gentle and all thy life be happiness and love:
Every time I dropped my daughter like a foundling,
I ran back to reclaim her, to bring her home.
Her soft name.
‘Dropped’, we are told in the end notes, became the term used for the act of leaving a child in the care of the hospital.
Theirs was a hard lot, to say the very least. From ‘Baptising One Day, Burying the Next’:
Picture me, already bark-tanned and tallowed,
spiking holes with my awl, stitching tongues to uppers.
Loud, hard, cold.
Until Andrew my firstborn.
My, softest work, made in a place I didn’t know
he was my satin skin
But then I left a son
in every parish…
Ellen Wright (born 1847) was only 5 days old when she died, her mother Sarah planting in the fields, ‘ Still bleeding’, bemoans her loss, taking the blame:
I should’ve carried her on my back,
resting her below a hedge.
I did not need God to scold me that I lost my daughter
because of the potatoes.
(Stone-picking in a Mist)
Ellen too is given a voice:
… Before I was here
I was gone
I was forever
under her skin…
Some remained childless. Rebecca Wright (1853 – 1941) laments, ‘I sewed a rag doll for every niece…’
The consolation being:
while I dragged along the babies we couldn’t have,
… I never had to worry
about them or bury them in white boxes
with lily-of-the valley sprinkled on top
Mabel Grace Wright (1895-1897), imagines the life she could have led:
… I might have boarded the trams as a clippie…
I would’ve gone to France, jolted the well-sprung Wolsely,
(Jolting the Well-sprung Wolsely)
The theme of infertility recurs in the more personal final section, along with that of genetic inheritance. In ‘Motherland’, ‘The baby is no more than a cobweb / It brushes off as I flurry past…’ ‘Our Letters’ speaks of ‘Neither son nor daughter, not even a niece/ to pass them on to…’
Embracing, befriending, imagining the past, The Unmothering Class is a well-crafted and elegiac collection, with several poems in the last section about the fading of the poet’s own mother. An overall cohesion binds the poems together, each finding its own form. The language is plain, measured, empathetic and unstrained, infused with gentle imagery:
I watched you struggling to pluck
the daisies printed on your skirt
I breathed lace over windows
The longest poem in the ‘Haunting my Daughter’ sequence, ‘Thrashing the Holy Linens’, has five stanzas and is in the voice of Bessie Trought (1850-1895) looking back on her life as she moves towards her death, from marriage as a young woman of twenty, through disappointment:
How was I to guess I’d ride on a train just once?
Northwards to his home town, Hull. To Rose Terrace –
not a petal in sight…
By Thursday it was bread and treacle. I sometimes
went without. We kept off poor relief, I saw to that …
and finally, death. Short clipped sentences emphasis reality. Her husband suffering ‘Heart-rot.’ drunk, slips into the river: ‘Gasps and shrieks.’ A schoolteacher son, ‘my pride, my eldest..’ succumbs to typhoid: ‘He died’. Bessie herself ‘lifted [me] at last to the sanatorium’, welcomes death: ‘I sighed the taste of a delicious mist. I smiled.’
‘Exploring the undertow’ of her life, Anne Ryland writes strong sad women, strong sad poems.
 Rural Women Workers in Nineteenth-Century England: Gender, Work and Wages (Boydell Press; 2002)