The unrecorded and entirely unexpected life of Edith

So after writing this post I continued, in odd web-connected moments, to look for scraps about Edith Moggridge, as a much more pleasant alternative to the latest thing Twitter was getting angry about.

And I also  – just for the sake of it – got hold of a copy of her book, the one that was privately printed in 1972. The copy that the web-market turned up first for me is one that was presented to Girton College library “by the author”. That’s not what shocked me when I opened the very slim package. What shocked me was the ascription.

“Selected Poems by Sister Edith Moggridge”.

It turns out that the reason Edith disappears from the web-available records between about 1915 and 1972 is that she decided to “disappear” from most of the world. From a little more fishing around, and some clues in the poetry book (like a whole section on the “Ascent of Mount Carmel”), I’m pretty sure that from her early thirties onwards she was a member of the group of enclosed Carmelite nuns who live (still) at Fulwood near Preston.

Her death record is from that district. She died in 1974, aged about 88, two years after she gave her old college – and who knows who else – this very slim book of poems.

The book contains a short section of “Early Poems” (including the butterfly orchids poem); a prose “proem” with (what I think are) some intriguing theological reflections on the overwhelming and excessive beauty in nature; a very large number of poems on devotional themes; and then a few almost childish nature poems at the end. From the prose section, I still think her degree might have been Natural Science. She writes with a mixture of precision and reverence about natural phenomena. (Actually the prose, in my not-particularly-qualified opinion, is a whole lot better than the poetry. The poetry’s not really my kind of poetry).

It’s a very odd discovery to make. It’s hard to overcome a slight sense of disappointment. Which says a lot about my prejudices, I think. Turns out that I had an idea of what success would look like, which didn’t incorporate Edith’s idea of success.

If this were a certain kind of novel, it would be easy to write an explanation for Edith’s decision to enter the convent; clearly she would have lost her only true love in the war, and decided that a vowed celibate life was now the only option for her. And I suppose it’s not impossible that some of the vocations of nuns in the early twentieth century were linked to that kind of experience. But in the story I’m writing about Edith I’d like at least to try for a reason that’s about her own development rather than about the men in her life (or the lack of them).

In the early poems she included in the collection, there’s a very striking and very sad one called “Inaction”. It’s basically about the waste of her life and her inability to find anything useful she can do with it (this must be in her mid-twenties, while she’s living in London “on private means”); that her energy and desire to do good in the world is like a stream that’s found no channel and is soaking away into marshland.

It makes a kind of sense; one can imagine that woman ending up in that situation. And it then makes a kind of sense – even if still not a sense I can fully relate to – when she takes her energy as well as her intellect and her education into the convent. The energy’s all there in the later devotional poems, and she’s found a direction for it.

And of course she’s also back to living in a highly structured community of women (many of whom besides her are probably highly educated). But without the mixed-sex political conversations.

More or less, that is. Allow me a moment of self-indulgent improvisation on history. I found a great story about a very hard-fought by-election in Preston North in 1964. The Conservative incumbent, chasing every last vote, makes a stop at the isolated and enclosed Carmelite convent in Fulwood, to try to secure the postal votes of the 14 nuns then in residence.

The incumbent eventually retained his seat by 14 votes.  The author of this TES article, understandably enough (and because it makes such a good story), assumed that all the nuns – normally forbidden television and radio and rarely remembered by local politicians – cast their postal votes for “the only candidate they definitely knew existed”.

But I’d like to think that, if she got to talk politics with him during his visit, the elderly ex-Fabian Girtonian nun gave the MP a run for his money. And it’s just possible that he had to get his 14th vote somewhere else.

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