Wednesday, April 23, 2008

If God Were a Sixteen-Year Old English Girl

Navvies at work, in a painting by Ford Maddox Brown.

During our year in England, I spent many happy hours walking along the Grand Union Canal between Hatton and Warwick, or along the Stratford Canal between Wilmcote and Stratford. In the nineteenth century, when these canals were being built to connect the major flashpoints of the Industrial Revolution, they were sometimes called "navigations," and the laborers who built them—with pick, shovel, and wheelbarrow—were referred to as "navvies." In E. Arnot Robertson's novel Ordinary Families, the narrator is remembering herself as a sixteen-year old—at a time when she had lost a belief in God and gained an appreciation of the physical appearance of the opposite sex. These two things come together in a wonderful scene in which she watches navvies walking down the road after a hard day's work: "They stacked their picks and came swinging down the road past us; lovely men, bare-armed and earthy. Fancy anyone believing in a God Who made ordinary things so unnecessarily beautiful and then remained coy with proofs of His existence! If I had produced anything as stupendous as a navvy, I thought, waving back to one I knew, I would have finished off the job by seeing that everyone gave Me due credit."

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