Fiction

 
Summer 2005 [Issue No. 7]

 

Her Curiosity Universal: The Memory of Anna Williams

(Part 1 of 2) ▪► Sarah F. McGinley

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Wednesday, August 28th 1783, Bolt Court, off Fleet Street, London

“Mrs. Williams sleeps now, Dr. Johnson. I pray you do not disturb her.  She has some small relief from this pituitous defluxion as she rests.  I fear she is making haste to die.”

I wonder sometimes if Dr. Brocklesby thinks me deaf as well as blind or if he assumes closed eyes even in a blind woman mean repose?  I am well awake, merely lying as still as I can to keep the pain at bay and the phlegm from rocking in my head.  I hear Johnson huff and hem-haw his way across the room with the boards creaking beneath him.  He settles in the chair beside my bed, and mutters as he does when anxious: too-too-too.  In happier days, I would envision a cranky sagacious owl when he made this unconscious call.  Now I am grieved to know this is the last time I shall hear his dear distress.  We have shared in the communion but a few days ago and I have heard the service for the sick with him.  The physician is right:  I am making haste to die. 

“Ha, hem, ha, Almighty God.”

I shift a little in my bed to allow Johnson the possibility of realizing I am awake—but in all conscience I do not wish him to cease.  The prayers of a good man will do much for my last days. 

“Almighty God,” Johnson repeats, “who in thy late visitation hast shewn mercy to me, and now sendest my companion disease and decay, grant me grace so to employ the life which thou hast prolonged, and the faculties which thou hast preserved, and so receive the admonition which the sickness of my friend, by thy appointment, gives me, that I may be constant in all holy duties, and be received at last to eternal happiness.

“Permit, O Lord, thy unworthy creature to offer up this prayer for Anna Williams now languishing upon her bed, and about to recommend herself to thy infinite mercy.  O God, who desirest not the death of a sinner, look down with mercy upon her: forgive her sins and strengthen her faith.  Be merciful, O Father of Mercy, to her and to me: guide us by thy holy spirit through the remaining part of life; support us in the hour of death, and pardon us in the day of judgement, for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.”

I betray myself: from force of habit, I repeat the “Amen.”

“Ah then, Mrs. Williams, you are awake?” Seldom does he utter an obvious remark, but this is no ordinary occasion.  “Mistress Anna,” he continues in a rush. “I must leave town tomorrow: I go to Heale.  You will be here on my return I am convinced, but should it not be so, Madam, for any misery I have brought you, I do humbly beg forgiveness.” 

He can have no conception of the distress this causes me – that this man of all men would beg my forgiveness.  The man who has given me shelter and sustenance for thirty years, provided me with a life of the mind beyond compare, given dignity and worth to a blind spinster—and for nothing in return but my temper and plaints—that he of all would ask my forgiveness.  It is beyond all else.  How do I answer without causing him equal discomfort?  I cannot see his face, but I know from long years across the tea table that he awaits an answer.  The air vibrates with his anticipation.  A simple reply shall serve. 

“I do not know,” I say in all sincerity and humble truth, “that I have anything to forgive you.” 

There is silence between us for some time.  It moves from calm, to companionable, and at last to uncomfortable.  I know I shall never have his company again, but I must release him from this visit. 

"I am fully prepared to die,” I say, and hear him rock back.  He has such a fear of his own last moments, especially now having come so close with the paralytick blow that came by night and robbed him of speech a few months ago, and I feel it incumbent to reassure him.  “I have set my house in order."

After he has left the room, there is nothing left of him but a lingering smell of dried orange peel, singed wig, and over-worn small clothes.

 

1747, London

The bright palette of the Lord has lain too long in the rain.  The colours have been washed by their passage through the vale of tears into a mud of despair.  The memory of colour haunts the periphery of my mind's vision; I am troubled by a jewel-flash that teases with the promise of delight before I can even name the hue.  I can see nothing and I remember the faded days wishing I had now the memory of light that was allowed me then. 

My eyeglasses bore the encroaching thumbprints of a malicious giant that no polishing would wipe away.  The pallid filtered light teased my memory with the belief I yet had eyes to discern the difference between a curtain and a cobweb.  A carriage and a cart.  Or a man and a horse.  I am told cataracts are not uncommon in the elderly.  If I were elderly, I wonder if my fortitude and resignation to the Lord's will would be greater?  I am but forty, not young by the world’s count, but a stretch from aged.  The world has been fading throughout my life and it has pleased the Lord to grant me many sights that are stowed safe in my mind's seat.  But in the superstitious reaches of the night, I wonder if I have exhausted my allotment of vision?  I know this for a foolish thought, yet I wonder, had I stayed in Wales looking at nothing more exacting than green hills and heifers, would my sight still reign over my senses? 

But this is ingratitude.  It has been granted to me to see many things in my life, and to use my eyes in more fruitful endeavours than many, and if the loss of vision before I am half way through my threescore and ten is the price, why then, it is a heavy price, but the price nonetheless.  And my memory is still here—how strange it is—memory resides in the body too.  I find my fingers still can sew tiny, fine, straight seams and hems and find their accustomed way through a set of buttons.  My needles continued to earn us a pittance even after sight left. 

The adventures of my life have been hard, but the ways of providence have ensured that I have never been truly destitute.  Surely there has been enough in my life to test a temperament more placid than mine and enough to delight a character less given to wonder.  On the balance, how can I be dissatisfied or ungrateful?  But, Lord, in the recesses of my heart, dissatisfaction and ingratitude are settled like a black tarry mass, sinking down, down, to form the sediment of my soul and I fear they muddy the waters and I fear what happens when the waters are stirred. 

I have overheard those who mutter that I am overbearing and peevish.  I can account for their spite for they detest a woman of ability.  I am not of the blue-stocking crowd who push their names forward and I pray that I know my place in the scheme of things, but I am a woman of learning and, unlike many of those women who puff their learning, I have the experiences to match the books.  They also sneer at my managing ways, which are not from nature, but from necessity.  My father, an unrecognized genius of the first water, sadly abused and maltreated by those who should acknowledge him, has no time for the daily details of life, and it is I, Anna, who support our little family and arrange our affairs.  I do what must be done and consequently those who know little and envy me call me "demanding" and "harridan." 

This tiny room constrains me so.  It is what we can afford but I wonder if the landlord thinks a blind woman needs no space?  Does he think I cannot tell how cramped these quarters are?  A pace and a turn and there is the bed.  A turn and two paces more to the end of the bed and the wall blocks me.  The geography of this unseen room is etched in my life.  My feet never err and my hands find whatever I seek.  No trick this!  The room is easily memorized—perhaps they thought it a kindness to give me little to learn, but I assure you it is a great cruelty.  I cannot see and so they think all else has gone. 

But my body yearns for space and my mind aches for a challenge beyond this circumscribed round.  I have nothing to do but stitch away at a straight seam and what, pray, has that ever done to occupy a mind?  I have my memory, which is a solace, yet such a one Tantalus himself would shudder to receive.  I fret over my father's progress and anxiety for our lodgings and meals gnaws at me worse than the hunger pangs, which, please God, I will not experience again. 

Yet, boredom torments me.  Is all my studying and writing at end?  Am I doomed to form half-shaped couplets in my head which go nowhere for lack of a scribe?  How can one compose without paper?  I know now how the action of pen on paper aids the mind.  The soothing fit of the pen in the hand, the scritch against the fibre of the paper, the rub of the wrist against the desk as the black orderly words march across the sheet.  Lord, how I miss the sight of a blank sheet of paper: so full of promise and so perfect.  Surely, ideas do not depend for their formation upon their inscription?  I cannot allow it to be so.  History tells us that great ideas and poems have come to us without benefit of literacy.  Why, then, I must learn a trick or two from the illiterate.  My memory must be my parchment.  A mind that has delved into chemistry, electricity, navigation, languages, history, and literature can surely write a poem without a piece of paper.  I find my knowledge is safely carried with me and not dependent upon books—and indeed much is not found in books, for it was new when I learned it.  So then: old knowledge needs no paper and new knowledge can demand no more.

Ah, but how hard the revision of a line becomes when it no longer stares back from the page.  How the words slip and slide away from me.  What a bitter word “revision” is for one who never sees.  Nevertheless, I know the Lord will grant me the perseverance to pin these lines down.  How the look of a word matters, I find.  Its grace upon the page influences as much as the sound upon the ear.  How I strain to remember how a word is.  How I long to see print. Handwriting.  A letter.  The sight of a ragged laundry list would soothe my heart as much as this invisible volume that I run my fingers over.  I cannot bear the feel of paper.  I put this book aside—I do not know what it is—Pamela, perhaps, or a work of devotion.

To read a psalm myself.  If I were rich ... how much more easily this could be borne if I had someone to read for me when I willed it and not the stolen moments some kind friend or my father can spare.  How much of reading, I discover, is stopping when one chooses to mull a point or drift awhile or to frame an objection.  The drone of one's benefactor goes on over all.  If I were rich, I should have a very patient amanuensis who would write down and rewrite at my minutest desire.  Now the business letters I must write are an agony.  I find I can speak a letter of business as well as I need to and make little ado about it, but still I hear the sighs of my scribe.  I worry whether what I say is written.  I imagine the rolling eyes and faces across the room.  I worry about these things even in those who do me charity. 

These thoughts weary me.  I am blind.  I am poor.  My father's discoveries are mocked.  We have been maltreated by those who should have sheltered us.  My best efforts are not enough.  Lord, grant me the patience for another day in this solitary room and I pray that faith, hope, and charity will help me defeat the sin of despair.

Although I pray thus nightly, I should have learned by now: some of my hardest lessons have been in Charity's school.  I pray now, dear Lord, to learn to separate the virtue of Charity from those who use her name to torment those who need her mercy and who perpetrate deeds in her name that ought to be anathema to her.  How well I remember my father's treatment at the hands of those who were entrusted with his welfare.  No. 6 Charterhouse was promised as a "safe and comfortable harbour for gentlemen of shipwrecked fortunes"—curiously apt, for my father had run aground on the reef of the Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty.  Impoverished and disappointed, my father and I separated—he to the Charterhouse and I to mean lodgings to ply my needle.  I was then still able to see and knew not how to reckon my fortune.  But for my father's situation, those days were days of wonder and delight for me.  Can you imagine how it was to be young in London away from a father's direct control?  My curious mind ran away down every conceivable avenue of investigation.  But I am astray—I was complaining 'gainst the situation my father found himself in—all in the name of Charity.  He entered the Charterhouse with hopes undamaged.  His plans might be laid aside, but only to gain strength to again attract a patron who would present his discoveries.  It is an impediment to the progress of our nation that discoveries must battle for the attention of those in power.  Science must battle in the polite waiting rooms of milord to gain a hearing.  And when attentions are granted, why, we are politely brushed aside, given "thanks," and find ourselves still penniless and our knowledge stored in some dusty archive while sailors continue to set their courses awry. 

Admirable—the initiative and scheme to seek a method of determining longitude!  Our wise rulers have created a prize for such a discovery.  But oh how reprehensible the mechanisms of a committee that refuses to hear the answers it seeks or takes wisdom and files it away!  My father has patiently toiled and studied to discover the answer to their question.  If they would but listen to him, the mysteries of magnetism would save lives and enhance trade.  But he is unheard.  We should not be surprised—was not Galileo mocked and abused?  We face no such direct opposition as he, but how subtle and effective are the sterile patronage and slow hunger meted out to the scientists of our enlightened day.

And the face of Charity covers over my father's tormentors.  The good offices of our old Welsh connections gained my father the singular privilege of having Sir Robert Walpole concern himself with our plight and he nominated my father as a pensioner to the Charterhouse.  Oh! if people knew what that venerable name conceals.  Old gentlemen lying in cold rooms and a bucket of coal provided only when the poor souls yield to the extortion of their keepers.  Nurses who will not nurse and a salaried doctor who demands his patients' money.  My father bravely insists he is but there for a "period of retirement" to prepare his materials afresh.  How can an old man grow strong on cold rooms and salt-beef?  Every week some of the elderly folk die and their mortal remains are thrown in a hole should their relatives be delayed in arriving to claim them. 

 

Wednesday, August 28th 1783, Bolt Court, off Fleet Street, London

This thought comes too close to my own situation… I shall not, I trust, be thrown in a hole for I have means, small enough, but means enough to be buried decently and leave what I have to aid others.  Such morbid thoughts… I suppose a deathbed is the place for such, but I have ever strived to live fully and with hope of a brighter future in the world to come.  These thoughts come seeming at random yet they follow the chain of memory.  I should, however, attempt some semblance of order as I review my place in the great chain of being.  Here, from the end of her life, this weak link should surely use the lessons learned to take good and orderly stock of her life.  Yet, the memories skitter like escaped mercury on a tray, beading and dancing where they will.  Enough then—I shall recall things as they flash by and as they choose to come.  The essence of life escaping from its mortal container shall be quicksilver, but like the darting beads still obedient to the boundaries of order and laws of the physical.  

 

1730, The Charterhouse

No good will ever come of this habit of loitering in coffee houses engaging others in conversation.  It is foolish in the extreme, but how can I say that to my father?  Every week he has met a new gentleman who is fascinated by his scheme, but it is all idle talk, or a desire to exploit his genius.  Not a true benefactor among them. 

“Anna, my dear,” he said with enthusiasm. “I have met the most learned gentleman.”  My heart was eased to hear his spirits, and to hear his voice full of its perennial excitement.  His dedication to knowledge can thrive even as his means are straitened and circumscribed. Yet, a small corner of my disloyal heart sighs at this new passion.  “He does me the honour of discussing his work by the hour.  He is an electrick investigator!”

Knowing it the prudent thing to do, I sat, for my father was beginning to discourse at length.  I confess I grew intrigued by his talk of Mr. Grey, who has been awarded the gold Copley Medal by the Royal Society.  He is not to be labeled merely another of my father’s eccentric fellows.  He has shown much about the passage of the electric phenomena from one place to another.  It is not impeded by water, yet passes not through resin.  Its passage can be directed: he has caused the charge to travel along a line for 870 yards.  And, mysteriously, it can pass without contact!  For all these things, the Royal Society honoured him.  Curious that two such learned men, both deserving of the Society’s attention, should be here as mere pensioners. 

 “Mr. Grey!” my father cries, and I am jolted from my reverie, for he is announcing the approach of the gentleman himself.  “Mr. Grey, allow me to present my daughter, Miss Anna Williams, herself a woman of scientific learning and my own invaluable support and assistant.”

 

Wednesday, August 28th 1783, Bolt Court, off Fleet Street, London

Mr. Grey was impressed enough by my father to offer me, a woman, the task of assisting him in his electrical endeavours. Together we strung lines and sent charges. We paid an orphan from the Charterhouse some pennies to be suspended in the air while we sought to see what would be conducted through him.  Since then, much more has been discovered about the electric flame.  I hear that the colonial Franklin furthers our work with electricity by playing with children’s toys and uses silk on frames called kites.  I was amused to hear that I was born in the same year as he.  Franklin is, at least, less disreputable than the other gentleman with whom I share my birth year:  the infamous Dick Turpin.  He, however, has already gone these forty or more years to his final reward. 

Alas, fate conspired to combine the peaks and troughs of memory: the pinnacle of experience was being the first person to see an electric spark issue from a human; and then came the depths, as recording this scientific sight was the last new thing of import my eyes saw.  I was but nine and twenty and my eyesight was fading fast.  Over the next five years, I saw sights certainly more dear, but already long familiar: the last view of my father’s face haunts me, for memory cannot quite recreate it.  I do remember the last time, but details elude me – was he frowning? Rapt in a text?  I cling to the knowledge of his countenance, but there are those dear to me that I have never seen.  I have spent nearly half my life blind.  By forty, all vision had been lost to the implacable advance of cataracts.  Implacable, but kind in strange ways.  The harsh edges of the world were softened and veiled by the blurring of my vision.  The stained glass in churches became incredible explosions and whorls of light.  Curiously London with its low light and dim air was better than the clear green grass-illumined hills of home.  The cataracts, even as they stole light from me, served me best with less light.  Too much, and I suffered from glare spots as the light refracted and danced so that I could not see.  A grey day gave no starburst and allowed me to discern an outline.  While I fought to keep the light, I cherished the days that lacked it.  Kind, indeed, in strange ways.

In those days before the operation, I succumbed to many foolish thoughts.  I allowed faith in prayer to slide into a heathenish form of magical thinking.  I thought if I imagined it enough, that it would come true.  My hopes were raised, and I imagined many things I should do when I could see again.  Chief among them were the dreams of seeing my benefactor’s face.

 

1752, Gough Square, London

Mr. Sharp obliges me to sit astride the bench—an indignity in itself—and now I feel another body behind me to prevent me fighting backwards or recoiling away.  How grateful I am in this moment for my lack of sight as the scalpel comes toward my eye.  I have prudently visited the jakes or my bowels and bladder might void during these moments.  My heels drum the floor and my hands try to be wings to take me flying away as they flail futilely and almost disastrously.  The attendant clamps my arms just above my elbow and my feathers are clipped.  How I pray it is only strangers who hear me scream, hear the desperate escape of gas from my watery bowels, hear the low animal moan from between my teeth after the first eye is done and I wait like prey gone to ground for the touch of the metal again.  A breath of air, a feather-touch on my eyelash and I recoil again. 

A calm, exasperated voice is protesting, “If Mrs. Williams will pray keep still then all shall be accomplished.” 

O, here lurks an inner daemon unknown to me before...some cythraul wants me to shriek such blasphemies!  And there, but for the grace of God, would go my tongue ,,, but a pious whisper to the Ysbryd Glan banishes the filth of the cythreules.  The vixen gone to earth in pain curls her tail around her and cries her foxy thought to sleep and I, Anna, am back and the strange dark red thoughts fly before my Saviour’s presence and I devoutly offer my suffering up to He who gave his life for me.  Here in my pain should I not most recall His sacrifice and should I not most honour His glorious death for such an unworthy one as I?  And here should I least defile that saving death with a curse for the pain I should better endure. 

“It is crystalline.  It will be not a success.”  Even as the pain hazes my mind, I hear these words.  My own lenses from God are destroyed and in such a way that the planned eyeglasses will be of no virtue.  The surgeon talks as if I am not here, explaining my fate to the others in the room with not a comforting touch upon my shoulder nor courtesy of direct speech.  He pronounces:  “Blind Miss Williams must remain.” 

 

Wednesday, August 28th 1783, Bolt Court, off Fleet Street, London

Ah.  The past can still pain me—I find my eyes are screwed tight and that I tremble.  I reach out a hand to touch the warm bundle on my counterpane.  Little Lily is instantly upon me purring and nudging her head against my hand.  A few moments of idleness stroking a cat are a great pleasure.  I shall exchange some ear fondling for the comfort of her small weight upon me.  Lily has curled into a tiny tight ball.  I can trace her shape and tell she has neatly placed a paw across her eyes and tucked her tail around herself.  How different from Hodge, who would sprawl across a lap as if he owned it.  He was a fine cat.  Even Johnson would say so.  I confess Hodge and Johnson once infuriated me, and all from a good-natured thought.  It was a strange kindness:  he bought oysters for Hodge and while at the cart had thought of me and purchased some fine potted laver, knowing it to be a dish I savoured in my youth.  How base to be enraged at being an afterthought to a cat’s errand!  Yet, I felt ranked with Hodge as one whom the master shopped for rather than insult the black servant with the chore.  Poor Hodge—he ailed and Johnson sought to tempt his appetite with a treat.  I grasp that he thought Barber would take it amiss to be sent into the streets for a cat’s meal, but why else should one keep a blackamoor in employment if not for the lesser chores?  Pah!  I am angered again in memory.  I should remove this rankle from my soul and not dwell on being classed with the cat as beneath a Negro’s attention.  I know in my heart that it was his kindness that led him to tempt an old cat’s taste, preserve a servant’s dignity, and think of a blind woman’s delight as he stood at the monger’s cart.  And rolled in oats and fried with bacon, that laver was good and brought back a rush of tide pool wading and childhood.  On Saturday afternoons when the maid had her half-day, Father would take me and Mother to the shore so Grandfather could polish his sermon with no one in the house.  I would scramble ahead on the rocks, a little wild Celt, Mother would say, and pull off my warm knitted hose so I could wade in the pools, my skirts disgracefully hiked.  By the time Mother and Father reached me I would be shivering with cold, and ready to be lifted from the salt water with its tiny brine shrimp, waving anemones, and slow moving hermit crabs.  Sometimes Father would chisel off mussels for us to take home, but usually we would trim prime tender pieces of seaweed.

 

1714, Rosemarket, Wales

“What is this one, Anna?”  Father asks as he slices a frond from its stem. 

Porphyra leucosticta, Father."

“And this?”

Porphyra umbilicalis.” My pride must shine too bright, for Mother rebukes Father for filling my head with knowledge that will do a girl no good. 

“Zachariah, she is to be a wife in a Welsh village.  Why fill her mind with Latin and science?  The children in the village school mock her already for her unseemly reading.” 

“Hush wife, what is cooking but chemistry disguised?  She can prepare this seaweed into laver bread as well as any—and ’tis chemistry that teaches how to make it pleasing to the palate.” 

I am wise enough to duck my head and pay meek attention to rinsing some sand from the delicate pale tendrils of the weed.  I want to ask how such a tender pink and purple plant becomes a black sticky mass when it is cooked, but I hold my tongue.  Mother will scold us all the more.

“She should pay attention to her milking and baking, not to her books.”

“Martha, come now.  The child sews as fine a seam as any, and she tends to my father’s heifer as if it were her own.  The girl is only eight – time enough for her to think of a husband when she has turned fourteen.  When we get home she shall stew the weed free of its bitterness and make the laver ready for you to fry up for supper.” 

Mother knows to say no more for Father’s voice has a firm tone, but I know neither of them thinks any different from when they began to speak. 

“This basket is full enough, Zachariah, I shall walk back with it and stoke the fire so the water will be boiling when you and Mistress Anna here are home.”  Mother gives me a sharp look and I know she expects us back no more than twenty minutes after she is home.  I smile because I know this is her secret way of leaving Father and me alone together.

Father knows too, for he waits until Mother is out of earshot before he begins to quiz me on the lore he told me last week. 

“Now Anna, where does the name laver come from?”

“From the Latin, Father.  ’Twas Pliny who was recorded using it, but he used it merely for a water plant, and our botanists of the last century took the name for our seaweeds.”

“An excellent memory child.  Maintain it and it will serve you throughout your life.  Now, my dear, the tide is turning, let us start walking home.  Your mother is still in sight—it will please her vastly if we catch her and share the journey back.” 

“Look Father—a sail!” We both pause and watch the distant vessel move along the horizon.  It must have left Pembroke and be heading down the channel past Milford Haven to the open sea.  “How do they know where to go, Father?  Once the land is gone from view, I mean?”

“Why child, they use the stars, their charts, and instruments.” 

“Do they not get lost?”

“Many a time, Anna, many a time.  The man who solves the riddles of navigation will be a rich man indeed.  And the saviour of many a seaman’s life.” 

“Rich, Father?”

“Indeed, my dear, there is a great prize offered for he who can reliably compute the longitude.”

“Longitude?”

“My dear, we must hasten—your mother draws far ahead.  Tomorrow afternoon we shall ask your grandfather to allow us the use of his globe and I shall show you the lines of latitude and longitude, and instruct you in the use of the globe.  I shall explain why the wealth of nations depends on reliable sea navigation.”

Wednesday, August 28th 1783, Bolt Court, off Fleet Street, London

When I think of the simple rhythm of my days in Wales, church with grandfather, tending the heifer, trekking to the shore for laver, every basic need assured, I have to wonder how I am ending my days in darkness in this heaving city, companion to a literary genius, having skirted destitution by the narrowest of margins.  How have I come so far?  Yet I know those very days sparked the adventure.  As promised, my father begged the use of his father’s globes and we sat in grandfather’s study that Sunday afternoon.  Mother stayed in the kitchen with the maid reading aloud from Scripture.  Grandfather snoozed in his great chair by the fire, recuperating from the morning sermon and conserving his energy for the evening services.  It had been my childish curiosity that prompted the lesson in longitude, but ‘twas my father who was enthusiastic and his fascination long outlasted mine. 

 

1714, Rosemarket, Wales

I do my best to attend carefully to his lecture on the navigation lines that segment the globe and the degrees and minutes that describe a location, but my child’s imagination is drawn to the Lord’s lines instead and I trace the massive continents and scattered islands with my gaze.  Father speaks on—to himself, we both know, for his terms have gone far beyond what I can comprehend—and I instead marvel at the great quantity of lands and the many languages that must be spoken there—more than I can imagine ever learning for all that I have a facility for tongues.  Mother is right: the children do mock me already.  They chant in Welsh—the only tongue they have—and scorn me for speaking both English and Latin.  If only they knew of the hidden rudiments of French and Italian that rest in my head, o! how I should be abused. 

As Father spins the globe and his theories, I begin to toy with the objects on Grandfather’s desk.  I know not to put his papers in disarray, but he has many fascinating objects.  Strange creatures seemingly carved in stone, but that once lived and washed ashore on time’s tide; instruments in brass that measure all aspects of the Lord’s creation; the precious-wood box that mysteriously tells you what metal lies beneath its lid.  That is my favourite.  Father is still absorbed, so I lift it to me, and begin to run the telltale device across the lid. 

“Gold, silver, lead ...” I am amazed as always that when I lift the lid the metal hearts are in the order foretold.  However I arrange them, the box knows the answer.  Although obedient and respectful of an adult’s occupied state, I am only eight, and my curiosity overwhelms me. 

“Father, how can this be so?  It cannot be magic, for I know Grandfather would allow no fortune-telling device, but I cannot fathom how else it can be!”

“What, child?”  Father lifts his head.  He has been attending closely to the point of his divider, which spears the intersection of lines nor’west of Lisbon.

“The box, Father, how can it know what metal lies beneath?”

“Simple physics, child, simple.”  He is still off the coast of Portugal in his mind.

“Tell me!”  We are both shocked by my petulant outburst.

“Curiosity is a fine thing, Miss Anna, but patience is a better virtue in a young lady.  Do not make me regret indulging your mind.  An educated woman must always be careful to temper her learning with prudence. Go to the kitchen, and take your turn reading the verses.  Your mother will be pleased to see in your place.”

My face is hot with shame.  A rebuke from Father burns worse than all the scolding from Mother, and all the taunts of the schoolchildren.  His voice is gentle, and cuts all the more.

“Anna, do not scorn the womanly arts.  A well-baked pie is as valuable as all the Latin in your head.  And reading the Lord’s Word is truly better fitted on this day than playing with a toy.”

I wish to cry.  I have a sharp word on my tongue.  I wish to hurl the verse about Mary choosing the better part when she sat at our Lord’s feet while Martha toiled in the kitchen.  I let my feet outrun my mouth and hasten to the door.  It is as well I do not speak, for Mother’s name is Martha … and I know too that even Father would whip a child who used the Scriptures to break the Fifth Commandment.  As I fumble with the door handle, I hear Father say:  “It is magnetism, child.  There is a magnet within each metal sample that causes the device to point correctly.” I turn to thank him, and to beg forgiveness, but he is gazing again at Lisbon and repeating, “Magnetism!” while reaching for the small brass instruments and selecting the compass. 

I go to Mother and the kitchen with a smile, for behind me I hear that Father has awoken Grandfather with an enthusiastic request for his copy of William Borough’s Discourse on the Variation of the Compass or Magneticall Needle

“From 1614, Father, I know it is among your collection.” 

“Compose yourself, my son.  Is this a fitting treatise for the Lord’s Day?  Science on the Sabbath?” 

Wednesday, August 28th 1783, Bolt Court, off Fleet Street, London

I know now that was the fateful moment in Father’s and my joint history.  It was the genesis of his longitude plan, but it was to take a decade to mature.  Not long after that Sunday, Grandfather died after a long and devout life. He had been the incumbent of St. Ismael’s since 1677, and his death left a void in the village and our home.  Father had to attend more to getting our living after that and increased his rounds as physician.  He would be gone all day driving around the hills in a pony and cart.  I know his mind ranged further as he traveled the narrow lanes, but coming home exhausted at night he had little time for books, and his theories grew slowly.

I learned at least not to be afraid of change and adversity.  At first, I would weep as I pressed my face to the side of the heifer as I took care of her.  Grandfather had left me the little red cow in his will.  The living at Rosemarket was scant, and he had but a few shillings and goods to leave us.  Mother died soon after Grandfather, and I began my lessons in household management in earnest.  I am thus long used to the Art of Gentility and no income.  There are some days when I know I appear peevish, but my stock of patience has been consumed by the many trials needed to thread a needle without sight or to negotiate a new geography. 

My passage from Wales was as a dutiful spinster—I accompanied my father, the physician and inventor, to London to pursue his claim to the longitude prize.  Yet, beneath the pious bonnet, Zachariah’s daughter thrilled at the thought of London.  The journey was long – cart, ferry, carrier, and at last a stagecoach – carrying little but father’s instruments and our clothing.  I wonder now if I knew I would never come back to Wales.  I cannot recall.  Certainly, I prayed a final time in Grandfather’s church.  Churches forever after were that simple Welsh church in Rosemarket; I have never seen most of the London churches in which I worship.  I know they are grander for they echo so, but my mind always gives me an image of St. Ismael’s.

We spent the journey full of dreams—the reward was great, we would be the heroes of commerce and navigation.  We tempered our dreams of a fortune with pious thoughts, talking of the charity we would do, little knowing we would instead be its recipients. 

 

1746, The Charterhouse, London

My father is a man of genius.  Forgive the partiality of a daughter who has followed her father’s dreams, but he is indeed a man of learning and invention.  Yet, from his days as a Hebrew scholar and de facto physician for our village to his present predicament, his genius has been disregarded.  What a boon his device for converting the undrinkable salt water of the ocean to drinking water for sailors would have been!  How enriched we would have been had he been granted his lease to mine coal in Llangunnor! 

I see I have exaggerated the lack of attention given him—he has gained the attention of many great men, but fails to obtain the rewards he is due.  The great Halley has reviewed his work and not found fault.  No less a man than Newton was asked to review the calculations, but was obliged to decline because of his advanced years.  A Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty has attempted to copy his instruments.  A perverse compliment, for he will not acknowledge the merit of Father’s theory, but seeks to steal it. 

With what excitement my father progressed through our first year in London—our glittering hopeful time, but soon our hopes faded near as rapid as my eyes dimmed.  I would hear ridicule heaped upon seekers of the prize and burn hot with family pride.  Who is Swift to pour scorn on the longitude with his immortal Struldbruggs?  Yet, the sad image presented by Hogarth lingers: I cannot but compare his beaten, deluded scientist forming a mere backdrop to the rake’s last days to my poor father languishing in his Charterhouse misery.  And all this time I am surrounded by alien voices.  The London accent is harsh after the Welsh hills.  Further, there is no horizon in London. The buildings choke the view.  How I hate my sight to be circumscribed—I am losing enough as it is and here brick is my vista.

Father languishes in this mockery of charity.  I attend him as often as I can, but with every visit and stay even I can feel basilisk glares from the wardens and hear the gossips mutter as I enter his room.  I am seen as a slut who co-habits when I am naught but a dutiful daughter.  I do not have the luxury of sinking into despair: instead of being protected, I must be the protector.  It is hard though as my sight goes: I am as a child again learning to button my clothes, and my father too must depend upon a nurse to minister to his basic needs.  We are children together.  Something must be done.  For all I dislike the seeming ingratitude, I must complain to the administration. 

To Mr. Mann. August 1746

Sir,

It is with great Reluctance I am obliged to undertake a Task which I already fear will prove too hard for me to perform without shewing a Resentment, which will unavoidably arise when we suppose ourselves injured; but I beg you’d believe me, that to give you any Offence is far from my Intention …

 

Wednesday, August 28th 1783, Bolt Court, off Fleet Street, London

Ah, I cannot continue this memory.  No good came of it.  We humbled ourselves and petitioned to no avail.  I had the indignity of being tumbled into the street, and, later, friends found Father lying on the floor amid the remains of his broken instruments.  It is as though I pick a scab.  Father lying on the floor, cold, hungry, his dreams shattered around him.

 

July 1755, Gough Square, London

“‘On Saturday the 12th, about twelve at night, died Mr. Zachariah Williams, in his eighty-third year, after an illness of eight months, in full possession of his mental faculties.  He has been long known to philosophers and seamen for his skill in magnetism, and his proposal to ascertain the longitude by a peculiar system of the variations of the compass.  He was of industry indefatigable, of conversation inoffensive, patient of adversity and disease, eminently sober, temperate and pious; and worthy to have ended life with better fortune.’”

There is a silence.  I can think of nothing to say.  Johnson has summarized my father’s life into a paragraph.  It is an act of kindness, but somehow I feel the more distraught.  I swallow and summon my Christian reserves.

“Thank you sir, it is an elegant abstract of his achievements.  I am gratified that you should compose it.”

I hear Dr. Johnson creaking and huffing as he rocks back and forth in his seat and I hear the rhythmic rub of his hands against his thigh. 

“Well enough, well enough,” he says.  “Madam, I am to visit Oxford later this year.  I shall insert this in a copy of your father’s pamphlet and place it in the Bodleian.  It shall be my memorial to him.” 

It is passing generous of him, for it was he who wrote the pamphlet.  Father had written an account many years ago at Halley’s encouragement, but it was Johnson’s work, accompanied by Baretti’s Italian translation, that most elegantly expressed his theory.  A truer friend we never had.  True enough to then leave me alone with my renewed grief.  Fortitude is a Christian attribute, and I know our Lord is always with me, yet grief and its desolation must be given house-room or it will come like a thief in the night and lay one low just when one has decided one is secure. 

Wednesday, August 28th 1783, Bolt Court, off Fleet Street, London

Loss upon loss.  I had lost my sight and my father.  What did I have?  No husband, money, family, or sight—it was fortunate that I had the friendship and shelter provided by Dr. Johnson.  Alone in the city I would surely have perished without his assistance.  I am a capable woman, but such circumstances would have sunk me.  He and Tetty had invited me to stay for my couching.  The operation was a failure, but it brought me into a safe harbour that has protected me ever since.   

 

1748, London

My father has come to me again, triumphant over some meeting in a coffeehouse.  Pah!  I am increasingly unable to remain as filial as I would wish over his continued dreams that his scheme for navigation will be taken seriously by any man with the power to help. 

“But Anna, this gentleman is most learned. You will approve, surely: a pious man, and published too!  He has written many instructive essays.  His wife desires most earnestly to meet you.”

“Meet me?”

“Yes, she has heard me speak of you to her husband and was impressed by my account of your piety and trials.” 

“Very well Father, it is as well that I be present at these meetings.  I should much dislike for your good nature to be abused by any charlatan.” 

“Johnson is no charlatan, my dear!  He is a man of the highest virtue and learning.” 

There must be many men in the world named Johnson, and I admit, not a single ripple of anticipation for meeting this pious learned doctor passed through me.  It was one more encounter with a wide-talking, all-knowing coffeehouse denizen that I expected. 

 

Wednesday, August 28th, 1783, Bolt Court, off Fleet Street, London

By the time my father and Dr. Johnson began their work together, Johnson’s wife and I had been friends for several years, such was the dilatory pace of their project.  Once they began, they placed Father’s theories into the doctor’s elegant prose, and consulted with Mr. Baretti on the Italian translation.  The result—An Account of Attempt to Ascertain the Longitude at Sea, by an Exact Theory of the Variation of the Magnetical Needle—made little impact upon the world, which was still led astray by the navigation fools.  They increasingly listened to such strange ideas as advanced by Harrison and his idea that clockworks held the key.  Before, they were convinced by Maseklyn that the stars held the answer; then they trusted to a ticking piece of mechanism.  Could they not see that the Lord’s earth has the solution built into its design?  Johnson paid tribute to the much deferred nature of Father's studies when he placed a figure in the Garden of Hope who was on the "point of discovering the longitude" in a Rambler essay.  This somewhat compensated for a jibe he had previously made in another Rambler issue at the expense of scientists: "He that is growing great and happy by electrifying a bottle wonders how the world can be engaged by trifling prattle about war and peace." 

And through all that toil, Tetty and I grew closer and kept company with each other.  Tetty was a good woman: she had much sensibility and understanding, but she tended to be satirical.  She was much grieved by never seeing her sons, who were disgusted by her marriage.  Jarvis, a navy captain, once did knock on the door of Gough Square while Tetty lay abed ill.  He had not the manners to wait while the maid roused her, for when the girl returned with the message that his mother desired to embrace him, he had gone.  This was the only time he ever did call, and poor Tetty was much afflicted with grief at his departure.  Johnson did much to console her for he was deeply fond of his Tetty, yet he admitted to me later that Jarvis must have been drunk, for he was such a uniformly undutiful son that only a relaxation of pride caused by absent sobriety could have caused him to approach his mother. 

I know others mocked Tetty for her ways, and Johnson for his affection for her, but they are fools, for who should scorn what love and what comforts we can find in this vale of tears?  Tetty may have been vain and silly, but what of it?  Her small indulgences brought her comfort in adversity, and although her expenditures sometimes cost Johnson some embarrassment at the reckoning time, he did not begrudge her.  He mourns her most sincerely and deeply to this day.  I think his compassion to me is in part because we both mourn Tetty, and are both left behind by her.  He certainly extends kindnesses to others for her dear memory’s sake.  Desmullins, for example, is no friend to me, but, while she was yet Elizabeth Swynfen, she was Tetty’s bosom bow, and Johnson has made much of this.  Desmullins never did like me for befriending Tetty and vied with me ever after for Johnson’s attention.  She says Tetty did permit it, but I shall never forgive her for coming to the Doctor’s room at night and caressing him until his conscience could bear it no more and he would thrust her aside.  She was proud to tell this to that slut Poll Carmichael in my hearing.  She is naught but a foul succubus.  She was no friend of Tetty, nor of mine, but Johnson continued to make her gracious concessions.  He even employed her husband to be the schoolmaster of his Negro, although I collect that was no favour to any concerned.  His Negro and Desmullins have been the thorns in my side as I attempt to run his house.

 

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