'A Burrell Tapestry and A Marion Burrell Sampler' by Sally Evans (diehard)
Sally Evans has published several poetry collections and there is much to enjoy and admire in her latest one. She comes into her own with narrative storytelling in poetry (as she showed us with her previous books 'Bewick Walks to Scotland,' 'Anderson's Piano' and 'The Bees').
The story told here is that of William Burrell, 1861-1958, and of his family, particularly his daughter Marion. The story begins with his ancestors in Northumberland in 1775 and we are drawn into it by these vividly imagined characters. We can sense their understated nostalgia as they 'bid farewell to country parishes/ with all their ancestry interred/ under the gloomy walls and yews of churchyards.' This farming family did not have enough land to support their two sons who then became traders and in a couple of generations, expanded their business northwards, to Berwick, Leith and Glasgow.
Sally Evans cleverly weaves in the historical story of Grace Darling who will become famous as the lighthouse keeper's daughter who courageously saved the lives of people from the shipwrecked Forfarshire off the Northumberland coast. This demonstrates the polarity of shipping success and the increasing wealth of the owners on the one hand, and on the other, the perilous conditions of the workers and sailors on board the ships. This polarity spins around the axis of the Burrell family. Light cast on success is blemished by lives lost at sea.
Traditions, so easily nourished and praised by the successful, are seen to contain a deep flaw at their centre. Sons (not daughters) are important – as are wealth and success – but not the safety of the seamen, who are instrumental in the pursuit of trade and the wealth accrued. But it was the lighthouse keeper's daughter, Grace Darling, who saved lives and who '...caused the outpouring/ visits to Bamburgh, the folklore feel/ of danger overcome near Lindisfarne./ Let women look towards shipping,/ then something may be put right.' But Marion was Burrell's only child and was not allowed, as a daughter, to 'look towards shipping' as her traditionally-minded father saw her future as being the wife of some equally successful and wealthy man. The need for control was the dynamic at the heart of this family. But William Burrell 'blindly struggled/ against her very existence/ outside his control.'
She was the one who, eventually, escaped control. And it was the denigrated daughter, who thinks she can choose her own life path, who turns out, as is so often the case with the overlooked, the rejected, to be the real success and the true strength. The gorgeous works of art which, thanks to William's donation to the city of Glasgow, we can all enjoy, will lose nothing of their beauty and wonder. 'I bid you: cherish craftmanship/ and love what people made.' But Marion Burrell's legacy was to provide a lifeboat for Girvan which '...curves round the bay/ strong and unsinkable…. May God bless all who sail in her.'
As the title suggests, the stories often invoke the theme of weaving and tapestries. 'My gardener is a good man,/ he tends my flowerbeds quietly,/ a tapestry of begonias/ forget-me-nots and tulips over green.' For Marion, 'At home there are tapestries on the walls/ ...but love is threadbare/ affection is moth-eaten.' And the lifeboat is 'Red and yellow and bright as a tapestry/ on the obliging sea.'
The first part of 'A Burrell Tapestry' shows the sweep of historical time, while the second, the 'Marion Burrell Sampler' cleverly follows the sampler tradition of weaving a piece for every letter of the alphabet. Smaller and more intimate, it evokes an individual's personal experiences – pleasure in life, frustration, humiliation, the tightening of the knot then its unpicking, release and grief, joy and adventure.
Dispossessed of her family's fortune Marion Burrell faced hardships both financial and emotional, yet the texture of her life was far richer in both depth and detail than either of her parents. Perhaps it was because of her difficult experiences that the threads of her family life which never totally unravelled, were loose enough to spread out and embrace care and compassion for others, and donate a lifeboat which would help to save lives. It's a fascinating story which Sally Evans has brought to light, and portrayed with vigour and empathy.