The Peppered Moth

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The prize-winning author of The Dark Flood Rises offers an “absorbing” portrait of three generations of women—inspired by her own family (The New York Times Book Review).
 
In the early 1900s, young Bessie Bawtry grows up in a mining town in South Yorkshire, England. Unusually gifted, she longs to escape a life burdened by unquestioned tradition. She studies patiently, dreaming of the day when she will take the entrance exam for Cambridge and leave her narrow world. A generation later, Bessie’s daughter Chrissie feels a similar impulse to expand her horizons, which she in turn passes on to her own daughter.
 
Nearly a century after that, Bessie’s granddaughter finds herself listening to a lecture on genetics and biological determinism. She has returned to Breaseborough and wonders at the families who remained in the humble little town where Bessie grew up. Confronted with what would have been her life had her grandmother stayed, she finds herself faced with difficult questions. Is she really so different from the plain South Yorkshire locals? As she soon learns, the past has a way of reasserting itself—not unlike the peppered moth that was once thought to be nearing extinction but is now enjoying a sudden and unexplained resurgence.
 
With The Peppered Moth, the acclaimed author of The Seven Sisters conjures a captivating work of semi-fiction, grappling with her memory of her own mother and the indelible mark of family and heredity.

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Publié par
Date de parution 29 mars 2012
Nombre de visites sur la page 2
EAN13 9780544002968
Langue English

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Contents
Title Page Contents Copyright Dedication Epigraph Prologue The Peppered Moth Afterword Reading Group Guide About the Author Connect with HMH
Copyright © 2001 Py Margaret DraPPle All rights reserved. No part of this puPlication ma y Pe reproduced or transmitted in any form or Py any means, electronic or mechanical, inc luding photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without p ermission in writing from the puPlisher. For information aPout permission to reproduce selec tions from this Pook, write to trade.permissions@hmhco.comor to ermissions, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt uPlishing Company, 3 ark Avenue, 19th Floor, New York, New York 10016. www.hmhco.com The Library of Congress has cataloged the print edition as follows: DraPPle, Margaret, 1939-The peppered moth/Margaret DraPPle.—1st U.S. ed. p. cm. ISBN 0-15-100521-4 ISBN 0-15-600719-3 (pPk. ) I. Title. R6054.R25 4 2001 823'.914—dc21 00-050568 eISBN 978-0-544-00296-8 v3.1017
For Kathleen Marie Bloor
On Remembering Getting Into Bed with Grandparents It’s amazing we got that far, loveless, As you were supposed to be, yet suddenly I have a longing for your tripeish thigh; Swallows, thronging to the eaves; a teasmade Playing boring Sunday news and all sorts of Rites and rituals which seemed noteable but Were really just trips in and out of the Bathroom, the neurotic pulling back of Curtains, stained-glass window at the top of Hall stairs; dark chocolate like the secret Meaning of the world in a corner cupboard: Three-quarter circle smooth as a child’s Dreams and as far above reach... ‘Loveless’, the daughters said, years later when The slow-lack peppered in their brains like a dust, And life had grown as troublesome as thought. Yet just tonight, I am dreaming of your thigh, And of the unconscious swallows thronging to the ea ves.
Rebecca Swift, 1993
Prologue
It is a hot summer afternoon, in the hall of a Wesleyan Methodist chapel in South Yorkshire. Here they gather, the descendants. Where have they all come from, and who has summoned them? Is this a religious occasion ? Are we about to hear a sermon? Sermons hang heavy in the air, for in this hall the ancestors endured decades of almost intolerable boredom. But we don’t have to put up with that kind of thing these days. We have moved on. If it’s a sermon, we’ll lea ve quickly, by the side door. It’s surprising this chapel is still available for functions at all. It’s surprising it hasn’t been privatized. The Primitive Methodists down the road in Bank Street have been turned into a modest dress shop, and the chapel at Cotterhall is now a warehouse. In other parts of England, churches and chapels have b een deconsecrated and turned into private houses, public houses, restaurants. Bu t there isn’t the money for that kind of thing round here. There isn’t the call. It’s quite a large gathering. There are sixty or so people here, many but not all of them elderly. Tables are spread with refreshments c oncealed beneath white cloths, just as they might have been in the nineteenth century. But it’s not the nineteenth century. It’s the present, or possibly even the future. The hall is dominated by a large screen, set up for communal viewing, but this isn’t going to be an illustrated talk with slides on ‘Flora and Fauna of the Rocky Mountains’ or ‘The Li fe Cycle of the Honey Bee’, such as the ancestors used to watch before television wa s invented. It’s much more modern than that. This is the electronic, digital age, and that screen is the very latest of its kind. The walls, if you look more closely, appear to be c overed with charts and family trees. Diagrams of brightly coloured molecules and double helices are on view. This is some sort of genealogical assembly. The letters DNA appear upon a large banner. It is a computer-designed and computer-printed banner. No body has time for cross-stitch and herringbone and tapestry now. There may still b e some worn dusty old hassocks amongst the pews next door, and some of those gathe red together here may once have knelt and prayed upon them. But the mood of th is meeting has nothing to do with prayer. It is a scientific meeting, and microbiolog ist Dr Robert Hawthorn is about to address his flock upon the subject of mitochondrial DNA and matrilineal descent. The descendants have been lured here by free refres hments and by curiosity and by boredom. There is not much to do of an afternoon in Breaseborough, and they are willing to give Dr Hawthorn a hearing. Some of them are locals who have dropped in on the off chance of hearing something interesting abo ut their own family backgrounds, or about the discovery in the cave. Others have come from further afield, summoned by Mr Cudworth, convenor of the Cudworth One-Name Society. A few look as though they have no place here at all. Cast your eye around, and see if you can discern a pattern amongst these descendants. Can you tell from whom they may descen d, can you discern the form of their common ancestor? Will Dr Hawthorn be able to reveal their origins to them, and if he can, will they want to know? It’s wonderful what science can tell you these days . It can tell you all sorts of things you’d be better off not knowing. That’s what some o f the old folk are thinking. You were better off in ignorance. But you can’t turn the clo ck back, can you? The big old plain-faced wind-up clock on the wall, which had seemed to stand still through long hours of tedious Sunday school during Bessie Bawtry’s long-ago childhood at the beginning of the century, now stan ds still for ever. It is stuck at twenty-
eight minutes to eleven. Nobody bothers to wind it now, though it might start ticking again if someone were to bother to try. They made things to last, in the old days. You could probably get it to go again. But why bother, when everyone has a watch or a mobile telephone? When you can tell the time from the microwave on the draining board in the kitchenette? When Dr Hawthorn’s computer screen tells you in large glowing green digits that it is 15.27 hours precise ly? The seconds pulse onwards towards the next minute, and the digits flick slickly and silently to 15.28 hours. The show is due to begin a t half past three, and most of the descendants are already waiting expectantly. The si de door opens, and in shuffles a short stout old woman. She has been out to the toilet. People nod at her as she makes her way back to her seat. She is well known to most of the congregation. She ignores their signs of recognition and concentrates on rega ining her chair at the end of the second row. She sits down on it, heavily. Next to the stout old woman sits a beautiful young woman. What on earth is she doing here? She is radiant with light. She dazzles. She is a bobby-dazzler. She has surely walked in out of some other plot. She cannot be the daughter of that old woman, can she, although they are sitting close together a nd whispering to one another? She is too young. The granddaughter, perhaps? But the old woman is single, and has no children. Her spinster status is both known and man ifest. So who is the beauty with the huge eyes and the golden earrings and the lipstick? Is she the one from London? Is she one who got away? Is she a freak, or is she the future?
The Peppered Moth
Back in the slow past, Bessie Bawtry crouched under the table, in an odour of hot plush and coal dust. Her painted bobbin perched upon its secret shelf, and she alone could see it. It was her friend. She was safe in her wood en cave. She could look up at a roof of nails and notches and splinters. They could not see her here. She was doing no wrong here. They were not angry with her when she s at in here. Beyond the bronze tasselled fringe of the cloth, a dull gleam of bras s shone from the fender. The firelight reflected from the wicked tall fire-irons, and glin ted upwards from the safe smooth blunt pedals of the silent piano. A thick dirty warmth filled the small close room and her smaller cavern. This was the coal belt, and coal was its bed and be ing. Coal seamed the earth, coal darkened the daytime air, coal reddened the night s kies. Bessie hated the coal. She was fastidious and rare. Smells offended her, grit irritated her. How could they live, up there, in such coarse comforts, so unknowingly? She was alien. She was a changeling. She was of a finer breed. She could hear her father sucking on his pipe. Spittle, dottle, wet lungs, wet lips, wet whiskers. Unutterable revu lsion had set up its court in her small body. She was hiding in her underground cell with its fluted pillars, and already she was plotting her escape. Would she make it? The odds would seem to be agains t her. Her ancestors had bred upon this spot for eight thousand years of as yet u nrecorded time. The recording angel will attend, with folded wings, by the glimmering s creen, waiting for Dr Robert Hawthorn to press the Start Button. Dr Robert Hawthorn, a little shining man of the future, as yet unborn, will be a direct matrilineal connection of Bessie Bawtry, however unlikely that connection might seem. Dr Hawthorn will make it part of his mission to track the Bawtrys back to prehistory, taking in on the way Be ssie herself, and all her descendants and ancestors. They will cluster, the B awtrys, one day in the future, to hear the tidings from the past. Technology will gli tter and reveal them to themselves. But little Bessie, under the table, knows nothing o f this, though she smells the deep thick primeval mud of the past. Bessie does not lik e mud. The Bawtrys had stuck in Hammervale for millennia, mother and daughter, through the long mitochondrial matriarchy. Already Bessie s ensed this, and already she feared it. She sensed inertia in the Bawtry marrowbone. Others had shouldered their packs, taken to the road, fled with dark strangers, enlisted, crossed the seas, crossed their bloodlines, died foreign deaths, spawned foreign broods. The Bawtrys had stuck here through the ages. Cautious and slow, they had not e ven crossed the grimy brook. And how should she, a puny sickly child, find the stren gth to loosen the grip of this hard land, these programmed cells? Yet already she knew that, whatever the cost, she must escape or die. The structure of DNA had not been discovered when B essie Bawtry crouched under the table and brooded upon flight and murder. Genes were not then the fashion, as they are now. The Oedipus complex, in contrast, was alre ady much discussed, in Vienna, in Paris, in London, if not yet in the South Yorkshire coal belt. (The son of a Midlands coal miner was even then writing about the Oedipus compl ex, but his works would not reach Bessie Bawtry for some years.) Both parent-murder a nd genes, however, had been around for a very long time, awaiting formal recogn ition. The revolutionary discoveries of molecular biology and digital electronics would, in a matter of decades, bring Dr Hawthorn to his Start Button, as he waited to impre ss the wonders of genes and
genealogy upon his patient audience. Bessie Bawtry could not foresee this future, or this past. But under that table her infant molecule s yearned and jostled and desired. Or so we may, retrospectively, fancifully, suppose. So mething had set her apart, had implanted in her needs and desires beyond her stati on, beyond her class. Will Dr Hawthorn diagnose and analyse the very gene that provoked her to attempt mutation? And will she succeed in her escape? To answer these questions we must try to rediscover that long-ago infant in her vanished world. Bessie Bawtry, from her earliest memories, thought of herself as special. And so she was. Most children are special to themselves. But B essie had an unusual determination, and an unusually strong desire to im pose her own view of herself upon others. She had a precocious intelligence, but she was also a delicate child. She enjoyed ill health. It was her earliest source of pleasure and indulgence. She suffered, as did many of the inhabitants of that small town, from th e usual respiratory diseases that plague an industrial population. Each winter they i nflamed her throat and constricted her skinny chest and infected her sinuses and bronc hioles. Bessie was also endowed with an unusually refined digestive system, and a s ense of smell so acute that an unpleasant odour could make her retch and gag and o n occasions vomit. Bessie, as her mother complained with forced and grudging prid e, was always being sick. These sensitive attributes may have seemed ill-suited to survival in South Yorkshire in the early years of the twentieth century, when pollutio n was so pervasive that it provoked no comment. Only strangers from the soft south or the rural northern dales noticed its pall. The natives lived in it, coughed in it, spat it out, scrubbed at it, and frequently died of it. They did not much question it. A delicate ch ild like Bessie Bawtry might be expected to die young. Perhaps only the coarser strains had bred and multiplied amongst the slag heaps and the quarries and the pitheads. Bessie may be an evolutionary mistake, a dead end, a throwback to th e clear valleys. Natural selection may deselect her. Time will tell. Dr Hawthorn, with his electronic trees and tables, will tell. Meanwhile, under the tablecloth, Bessie Bawtry sat and rotated her painted cotton bobbin and rehearsed phrases from hymns and from th e lessons from the Bible. She could already read, for she was precocious, and had learned several skills at Morley Mixed Infants on the Oxford Road. But the words she now muttered to herself were not the short clean words from the school primer, nor the jingling little verses that accompanied Sunday school collection at chapel— Hear the pennies dropping Listen as they fall Every one for Jesus He shall have them all. Already, though yet an infant, she despised such stuff, as she despised Mr Beever’s sermons, which took on the mean colouring of the me an streets. Mr Beever preached docility, acceptance, littleness, the second-rate. But the Bible was different. It was grand, extreme and horrid. It spoke damnation and d arkness, it sounded cymbals and trumpets, it flared its nostrils and it sniffed ano ther air. Deserts and mountains, valleys and springs, pits and entombments, cedars of Lebano n and roses of Sharon, fishpools of Heshbon and vineyards of Samaria. Its polysyllab les had nourished famished poets