Marion Bernstein is a relatively unknown woman poet who worked in Glasgow until her death on February 6, 1906. Outside of censuses, public records, and grant applications the only access to her life is through her poetry. However, what is known, such as her move to Glasgow and her health problems, ties her work to newspapers she contributed to. In turn, the topics and opinions expressed through her poetry were influenced by the news, and her poetry was intended to serve a didactic purpose for the working and middle-class newspaper audience.
From Childhood to Adulthood
Born in London in 1846, Bernstein grew up in a middle-class home. She was the daughter of Theodore Bernstein, a Jewish Prussian emigrant and professor of language, and Lydia Pulsford, an Anglican Englishwoman. Bernstein had two siblings, an older sister Lydia and a younger brother Theodore, and their father died in 1861. Census reports show the family moved within England twice before immigrating to Glasgow, Scotland by 1874 when Bernstein was twenty-eight (Cohen and Fleming,  61). Bernstein’s level of education is unknown. There is some suggestion that she is part of the Scottish autodidactic tradition, and some suggestion that she received some degree of formal education (Gifford and McMillan 256). For most of her adulthood she lived a middle-class existence with her mother and sister in Glasgow, and she never married (Cohen and Fleming,  67). Glasgow post office directories confirm that Bernstein worked from home as a music teacher for the general public and a number of students from the respected Park School for Girls (67). Eventually she was unable to teach because of her health, and her living circumstances were reduced as she became reliant on grants from charities (67). From her application to the Indigent Gentlewoman’s Fund of Scotland it is clear that although she was not born in Scotland she felt her residence in Glasgow for over two decades made her Scottish (62). Bernstein’s 1904 application to the Royal Literary Fund and the accompanying letter of recommendation from the Minster of St. Matthews Parish makes her financial need evident, and shows her belief that ill health stunted her poetic production (62-63).
The reference to her health refers to Bernstein’s constant battle with illness. A healthy childhood was abruptly derailed by an illness that left her with recurrent pain, enfeebled, and frequently bedridden. Bernstein’s poetic description of her ailments suggests that she suffered from infant paralysis, often known as polio, but this diagnosis cannot be confirmed (62). She was a devout woman and believed her faith allowed her to cope with her pain (71). Additionally, her health contributed to her reclusive lifestyle, and limited her interaction to a small community of local poets (62). Because she was confined to her home much of her interaction with the outside world came through newspapers and this influenced her subject matter.
Publication, Poetry, and Themes
Bernstein began contributing poetry to the Saturday penny newspapers shortly after she arrived in Scotland (64). She was published frequently in the Glasgow Weekly Herald , which had a distribution of 150,000, and extensively in the Glasgow Weekly Mail (Cohen and Fleming,  1). Both newspapers reported national and regional news, social announcements, and contained heavy advertising. The poets and readers were from the working and middle-classes, and their wide range of interests, reflected by the newspapers content, is indicative of the rising literacy rate in urbanizing Scotland (Cohen and Fleming,  1; Cohen and Fleming,  64). She also published in periodicals such as the Christian Leader, the People’s Journal for Glasgow and Edinburgh, and was reviewed in the Review and Herald (Cohen and Fleming,  66, 63). Bernstein’s poems often derived from current events in the newspapers; therefore, she dealt with social and political topics such as women’s rights, “temperance, anti-slavery, domestic violence, and poor living and working conditions among the labouring classes” (Cohen and Fleming,  64). The dialogue her poetry formed with the newspapers and their readership made Bernstein part of a “shared public discourse of current events” (qtd. in Cohen and Fleming,  64).
Bernstein’s poetry is didactic and persuasive, and she is known for her support of women’s rights. Gifford and McMillan, editors of A History of Scottish Women’s Writing, characterized her as “a poet of some power and anger” (256). Bernstein’s decisive style is seen in “A Woman’s Logic” which responded with violent threats to editorial choices in the Weekly Mail that she felt disparaged women’s rights (256). Furthermore, in her most well-known poem “A Dream” her radical side is evident in the first three stanza’s portrayal of an alternate world run by women (257). However, she often coached her arguments for women’s political empowerment by drawing on the feminine connection to religion, and language that supported women’s natural desire to help others (Cohen and Fleming,  68). For example, in “A Woman’s Plea” she reasons “for freedom to do good [women] plea” (23 Cohen and Fleming,  7). Bernstein proved to be a very persuasive poet even when she encountered backlash. Jessie Russell, another regular contributor to the Weekly Herald, contradicted one of Bernstein’s poems calling for women’s suffrage with “Women’s Rights Versus Women’s Wrongs,” but Bernstein’s retaliation persuaded Russell to write “Recantation” where she promised to join the suffrage fight (Brown). Bernstein’s passion for women’s suffrage can also be seen in “On the Franchise Demonstration.” Inspired by a march in Glasgow in 1884 by working-class men for the vote the poem calls angrily on women to do the same, and accuses them of compliance:
Assemble by thousands
In splendid array.
I don’t mean in dresses
Of costly expense;
I mean in the splendour
Of bright common-sense.
(“On the Franchise Demonstration” 19-24)
While many women in the period were hesitant to express radical opinions, particularly under their own name, Bernstein was unhesitatingly outspoken (Cohen and Fleming,  67).
David H. Edwards published “Mirren’s Autobiography” in the first issue of his annual series Modern Scottish Poets which ran from 1880 to 1897. In his introduction to the poem he said Bernstein was vague about her origins and attributed it to vanity (61). In contrast Cohen and Fleming, who have written twice on Bernstein, suggest it was due to shame at not being Scottish (59). However, the only direct statement from Bernstein is line three in “Mirren’s Autobiography” which states, “and what does it signify where I was born?” (59). In “Mirren’s Autobiography” Bernstein claims her faith has allowed her to abandon self-pity and pushed her to focus on the troubles of others (67). She believed faith could carry people through hardship, and this theme can be found in many of her poems. It is prominent in “The Scottish Emigrant” when the emigrant loses his homeland and family, and the only consolation in foreign lands is the comfort of trusting in faith (Cohen and Fleming,  4). Her poetry often took on labour issues such as industrialization, the terrible living and labour conditions of the working-class, and their lack of autonomy (Cohen and Fleming,  67). For example, “Wanted in Glasgow” addresses the effects of pollution, and “An Appeal” protests a law which required sailors to return escaped slaves (Gofford and McMillan 257). Despite liberal leanings Bernstein could be influenced by economic concerns. Her opinion of the riveters strike, voiced in “The Govan Rivetters’ Strike,” accused them of sabotaging the area’s progress and wealth (Cohen and Fleming,  3). The poem met with backlash in the Weekly Mail, and someone contributed a poem which chastised her participation in events she could not understand (3). Characteristically, she wrote back that it was necessary for women to be involved in the work of their menfolk (3).
In 1876 Bernstein’s only volume of poetry was published. It was titled Mirren’s Musings and was comprised of one-hundred poems. ‘Mirren’ likely references the patron saint of Paisley, and originated as a nickname from an early editor of the Weekly Mail who admired Bernstein’s wit (Cohen and Flemming,  64). According to Bernstein Mirren’s Musings was written during a long period of illness which made her immobile, and limited her to intellectual pursuits (62). An intended second volume on an expanded number of topics never materialized, but Bernstein continued to compose and contribute to newspapers (Cohen and Fleming,  1). Bernstein’s poetry initially reflected a critical outsider’s perspective on Scotland, but over time she identified with Scotland and her interest in representing Scottish topics grew (1). Additionally, as she descended from middle-class status Bernstein began to identify with the Scottish bard Robert Burns. In the poem “Robert Burns” she portrays him as a fellow poet who suffered from poverty, lack of recognition during his lifetime, and imagines the strain of these factors on his sensitive nature (Cohen and Fleming,  71-72). Her growing identification with Scotland is evident in “The Highland Laird’s Song” which takes a strong stand against the Highland Clearances by employing an elitist and greedy landowner as the poem’s speaker:
The common people I do not
Like to see, like to see.
A vulgar village is a blot
On propertie, propertie.
Although they say their homes are dear,
I’ll have no vulgar peasants here,
I’ll keep my land for sheep and deer,
All for me, all for me
(“The Highland Laird’s Song” 9-17)
“The Scottish Emigrant,” discussed previously, serves as another example of Bernstein’s sympathetic view of Scotland’s poorer classes’ position, and acknowledges their attachment to Scotland. The poem, written in 1881, also exemplifies how her writing responds to newspaper content, because the newspapers of the 1880s were filled with adverts encouraging emigration (4). “The Scottish Emigrant” paired with the “The Highland Laird’s Song” show Bernstein’s interpretation of the opposing groups relation to Highland Clearances, and intend to convince her audience to side with her in condemnation of the ‘Highland Lairds.’
Bernstein was an assertive poet who supported political causes such as women’s rights, and the working-classes’ rights for three decades. She was involved in Glasgow’s community through the newspapers the Weekly Herald and the Weekly Mail. They served as inspiration for her poetry and a platform for her opinions. Despite her active role in Glasgow’s working and middle-class news she is generally unstudied, but there has been some recovery of her work recently. Scholar’s Ethen Cohen and Linda Fleming have published two informative papers on Berstein, but many details of her life remain unknown. Bernstein’s poem “Wanted a Husband” was one of eight poems used for the 2008 National Poetry Day postcard, the theme was work, by the Scottish Poetry Library (pictured above). Bernstein is notable for her fearless attitude as a woman poet in the nineteenth century.
Bernstein, Marion. Mirren’s Musings: A Collection of Songs and Poems. Glasgow: mcGeachy, 1876. WorldCat. Web. 22 March 2013.
—. “The Highland Laird’s Song.” “A Scottish Dozen: Uncollected Poems by Marion Bernstein.” Ed. Ethen Cohen and Linda Fleming. The Victorians Institute Journal. 37 (2009): Victorian Scotland Edition. NINES. N.p, n.d. (9). Web 6 February 2013.
—. “On the Franchise Demonstration.” “A Scottish Dozen: Uncollected Poems by Marion Bernstein.” Ed. Ethen Cohen and Linda Fleming. The Victorians Institute Journal. 37 (2009): Victorian Scotland Edition. NINES. N.p, n.d. (10). Web 6 February 2013.
Brown, Susan, Patricia Clements, and Isobel Grundy, eds. “Results of Tag Search query on Bernstein, Marion.” Orlando: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press Online, 2006. Web. 31 January 2013.
Cohen, Ethen and Linda Fleming. “Mirren’s Autobiography: The Life and Poetry of Marion Bernstein (1846-1906).” Scottish Literary Review. 2.1 (2010): 59-76. EBSCOhost. Web. 31 January 2013.
Cohen, Ethan and Linda Fleming. “A Scottish Dozen: Uncollected Poems by Marion Bernstein.” The Victorians Institute Journal. 37 (2009): Victorian Scotland Edition. NINES. N.p, n.d. (1-14). Web 6 February 2013.
“From Wanted a Husband.” Scottish Poetry Library. N.d. Web. 6 February 2013.
Gifford, Douglas and Dorothy McMillan, ed. A History of Scottish Women’s Writing. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997. Print.
Bernstein was featured in 2008 on Scotland’s national poetry day postcard, the image is featured in the above article, and there is a short write-up about her on the Scottish Library’s Website accompanying the postcard.
Edwards, David Herschell Ed. One Hundred Modern Scottish Poets: With Biographical and Critical Notice. (1880):51-55. This book is by the editor who published “Mirren’s Autobiography” in Bernstein’s lifetime in the Modern Scottish Poets series mentioned previously.