[from W Ralph Hall Caine Isle of Man]
THE literature of the Isle of Man grows apace. Never has the island figured so largely on the printed page, in verse and in prose, as within the last twenty years. The remembrance might well dissuade me. Life, scene, and story on the Isle of Man are, however, like so many facets of a diamond, only one of which fills the eye of the observer.
My point of view may not be the best, it may not be always true; but I think I may fairly claim it to be individual, sincere, and wholly unfettered. Whatever has been hitherto said, I believe that the reader will not have travelled with me far without making the discovery that I have here wide ground of historic fact, deduction, and observation, wholly untouched by kinsman or friend, and yet entirely necessary to an understanding of our island, our people, and our institutions.
I recount with great brevity, admittedly, but I think with sufficient completeness for my purpose, history, legend, tradition, and the growth of our language and literature. I have endeavoured to afford some glimpse of our hopes, some shadow of our fears. I try to realize aspects of the free and enlightened form of government, of which we are, or were, the favoured inheritors. I have endeavoured to show the crude notions which our alien governors, lay and clerical, have from time to time attempted, and too often succeeded, in engrafting upon a social organization as much superior to their own as it was above their intelligence or powers of appreciation.
The reader need not have a drop of Manx blood in his veins, and yet find that Man presents an absorbing story, wholly out of proportion to its importance in its relation to the larger world or its mere geographical area-full of significance, too, in the light of problems agitating the public mind of England at the present hour, or entering the realm of what is called practical politics.
We have, for instance, no land agitation. That question was satisfactorily disposed of as long ago as 1704. Neither have we any suffragist agitation, while the marriage problem, as so ably and fearlessly expounded by Lord Gorell, can hardly be said to exist.
In the Isle of Man women 'enjoy' the vote, and every woman, woman-like, values least that of which she. is the secure possessor. On marriage, a woman's legal identity (together with her worldly possessions) is very largely merged in that of her husband. ' I call that thraldom,' says her sister in England. But is it so?
Wise old heads solved these complexities ages and ages ago, and rigidly excluded the priestly touch. Marriage law, therefore, in the Isle of Man, whether of custom or of statute, is a brave, fair, and sane effort to hold the scales of justice. A wife in Mona has inalienable rights in the possessions of her husband, and in widowhood it recognizes that a wife was just as much a bread-winner as her late husband, though her duties have remained, for the most part, within the four walls of her home.
Every household must have a head, and the law recognizes that head to be the husband. Thus are the statutes framed to hold the tie sacred, and as free as possible from the temptation to severance by refusing to admit of any dual authority. Divorce has in some strange way disappeared from our ken. Nothing short of all the trials and difficulties of an Act of Tynwald can sever the bond, and even that is denied to the wife whose spouse has, without a grievance and without a word, just passed out of sight and gone hence-to Canada, Argentina, or Australia-leaving no trace and no explanation, though it is not unfair to assume that he is making a home abroad, utterly regardless of the torture of suspense he has left behind.
We have no justice to meet such a case, and men of judgement and intelligence otherwise are to be found ready to defend such iniquities, and to talk of the ' sanctity' of a contract thus cruelly broken and defiled.
In the absence of all legal textbooks on the subject, I doubt not that the chapter dealing with this aspect of our law will be of interest and not without value. Another chapter-nay, many chapters-might be written of the curious customs that precede marriage. A girl has her tests with thimblefuls of salt, with ashes spread round the grate or near the kitchen-door. On Hollantide Eve, by the old calendar, she may solve a question that possesses every maidenly heart. Filling her mouth with water and her hands with salt, she stealthily steals out into the darkness, and listens at the door or the window of the house next but one to her own. The first man's name she hears is the name that will be for ever memorable in her life!
But there may be more than one possible suitor of that name. Then she must eat a salt herring, head, tail, bones and all, lifting no eyes, uttering no word as she makes her piquant repast. Retiring to bed backwards, she lies down to sleep, and not less certainly to dream. She will quickly identify the features of her future husband in the apparition that approaches, bearing a pitcher of water to moisten her parched tongue and throat.
The imaginative fancy of Mr. Gladstone was quickened by these old customs and old folk-tales as much as by scenery and cherished institution. I take the reader in Mr. Gladstone's company over ground otherwise untouched in these pages. In the same way, when the King and Queen came to Man, they saw as much of the island during their all-too-brief visit as could be possibly crowded into one day. In such honoured company does the reader refresh his memory of our little land.
On the other hand, the summer life of the island receives scant attention, and though I have widely overstepped, in mere volume of words, the limits set to my task, I cannot forbear to say that, despite all detractors, Douglas, in the height of the season, is one of our greatest sights. Indeed, a gala night at the Palace, with the 'Shadow Dance' in full swing, is a spectacle it would be difficult to outmatch in all Europe.
The men are in the easiest summer dress, the women in muslins and hats. Half the company hail from Lancashire; all are workers who toil and moil in factory, colliery, or mill. Yet no London ballroom could show dancers who could excel these workers from weaving-shed or coalpit.
The introduction to the Veleta has barely sounded before the immense floor-space is filled. The great arc-lamps overhead are extinguished, the band starts, and the swaying throng moves forward and backward to the dreamy languor of the violins, the roll of the great drums. Gleaming colours shoot out through powerful lenses, colour gives place to colour, and every shade in combination. And so the company pass round. The tone of the orchestra is lowered; it becomes no more than the murmur of a summer breeze through the trees. All that is heard above the faint cadence of the music is the muffled glide of the dancers' feet on the polished floor.
Look down upon the scene from the vantagepoint of the northern gallery. Was there ever a more realistic picture of dancing elves in fairyland? No smile seems to brighten any face; it is an experience too intoxicating for mere amusement. The tension for the moment is over all. Relief comes suddenly. The dancers discover a harmless joke. The baton is beating time, but the orchestra is dumb. A roar of laughter goes up in that instant, as the great arc lamps once more flood the immense glass house with light.
But this is not the Isle of Man; we must seek that neither in the Palace, nor in Douglas, nor in the great houses of the rich, nor the great houses of the ultra-proud who are not rich. A distinguished lady, who had unusual opportunities of knowing the lowly and the mighty of our ' lil oilan',' was asked, on her return to London, her impression of the island, of the classes, and of the masses.
' Oh, the island is beautiful, and the people are remarkable,' was the reply. 'In the Isle of Man all the common people are ladies and gentlemen, and all the ladies and gentlemen are common people.'
Need I say that this terse and cutting commitment reached the island on the wings of the wind ? In the cottage, therefore, the plain, homely, and hospitable Manx people must be sought, and, best of all, after the last straggling tripper has resigned our shores.
' You must summer and winter a stranger before you can know him' is one of our many proverbs of caution. Let me turn the phrase round: ' A stranger must summer and winter the island before he can know either island or people.' To the reader, however, to whom such leisurely study is denied I trust these pages will not be without advantage.
Candour compels me to admit that much of our history is unworthy of the name. Prior to the twelfth or thirteenth century we are practically in the domain of mere speculation, while of documentary evidence we have nothing of earlier date than the fifteenth century. If it is true, therefore, as Johnson declared, that all history that is not supported by contemporary evidence is mere romance, the Isle of Man presents an almost unrivalled field to the fictionist masquerading in the guise of historian.
To these admissions I need not add another qualifying word.
W. R. H. C.
The Hermitage, Limpsfield.