Openings: A Poet’s Encounter with Elizabeth Fry

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Autumn 2008 No 23 – 05/11/2008

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Author: Julie C Robinson

Document Code: ISSN 1368-9614

Description: Elizabeth Gurney was born into a Quaker family in Norfolk towards the end of the eighteenth century. Her early life in this rural setting contrasted markedly with her life when she married Joseph Fry, a Quaker businessman, at the turn of the century and moved to London. In the city she missed the natural rhythm of life and welcomed visits to her family home. In her poems Julie Robinson encounters Elizabeth in many different places and stages of her life including being alongside the women in Newgate prison. She is drawn particularly to Elizabeth's spiritual journey and the inner life, especially the experience of a power directing her life which is greater than herself.

In the 21st century Julie is struggling to understand an early nineteenth centure woman, of a different class and living in a different culture. Both are Quakers, but there is not a shared theology and although there are some common beliefs the language used by Elizabeth creates much discomfort today. But in the conversations, opening herself to Elizabeth's words and thoughts Julie was ready to be transformed by it. Taking the advice of Jane Hirshfield 'to be transformed it is necessary first to stand in the open.' Julie spent three months at Woodbrooke: a poet abandoning herself to her subject.

This journal brings together a selection of the poems Julie wrote during her Eva Koch Scholarship alongside a reflective prose account of the experience of her encounter with Elizabeth Fry. I was privileged to be part of this journey here at Woodbrooke when a small group of women met with Julie and shared with us some of her struggles and questions. Julie read some of her poetry one evening in July; it was quite amazing as the rain poured down outside, thunder and lightening moved around the dark sky to recall that Elizabeth herself wrote of spectacular thunder storms racing across the Norfolk countryside.

Judith Jenner

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