The poem ‘Charlotte O’Neil’s song’ was written by Fiona Farrell in the 1980’s. Fiona Farrell originates from New Zealand. This poem comes from a group of poems called passengers, passengers consists of three poems and a song. These poems were set in 1871 and were inspired by 19th Century ship records. Charlotte O’Neil is a real person, she’s 17 years old and she travelled on the ‘Isabella Hercus’ in 1871 from Britain.
Farrell stereotyped charlotte’s situation on what she knew about lower class women in the late 19th Century. Charlotte left Britain for New Zealand in search of a job to escape from servitude, to find a better life. The poem tells us about Charlotte’s strenuous lifestyle and the manner in which her mistress treats her. The poem itself consists of five stanzas; each verse has five or more lines accept for the third. The theme of the poem is of Charlotte O’Neil’s bitterness and hatred towards her mistress. She is addressing her opinion of her wretched lifestyle to her mistress. Judging by her tone, she has plenty of courage and knows how to answer up for herself, she might even be described as cheeky.
The poem begins with the line “You rang your bell and I answered.” From this line you immediately get the impression that Charlotte is being treated like a pet animal in the sense her mistress calls her and she comes running. It is as if Charlotte is being summoned by her mistress to work. The fact she’s being summoned to work is the reason this line comes before the rest of the first verse.
Charlotte seems as much upset by the loss of her freedom as she is by the hard physical labour. In this verse Charlotte describes the labour she finds herself doing. It varies from washing the dishes to scraping the open fireplace. You can see that the work Charlotte did was almost entirely physical. Charlotte refers to the fact she has to polish the parquet floor. This is the first example of contrast between the lifestyles of Charlotte and her mistress. Parquet flooring is usually associated in rich households, so this represents the wealth of the mistress.
“I scrubbed till my hands were raw.” The word raw emphasises the suffering and pain Charlotte is going through. The fact she scrubs until she is physically in pain is quite harrowing and you feel quite sorry for her. The word raw could reflect the mistress’s temperament in the sense she is possibly forcing Charlotte to work until she is in an incorporable state. The rhyming pattern for this first verse is A, B, C, C, B.You can see that there is a great difference between a ‘silken pillow’ and andattic cot’. A cot would have been very hard, narrow and uncomfortable. The fact she sleeps in an attic suggests her mistress wanted her out of the way away from family and guests.
It sounds as if the employer held the view that people were destined to be in a certain social class, which is why the lady refers to “the poor girl’s lot”, possibly implying that there was nothing she could do about it. Ironically Charlotte is doing something by leaving the country. Charlotte’s employer would be considered an arrogant and selfish woman if she behaved like this today but she would have taken all of Charlotte’s services for granted at the time and no one would have thought badly of her. The rhyming pattern for the second verse is A,B,C,B,D,D
The third stanza tells us how Charlotte had to empty ‘the chamber pot’. The upper class used a chamber pot instead of going to the toilet at night, so it would have been Charlotte’s job to empty the contents in the morning. Charlotte’s employer clearly felt it her duty to ‘educate’ her. “The rich man earns his castle, you said, the poor deserve the gate.” This is a reference to a popular hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. This verse is usually omitted nowadays because of its undemocratic sentiments.
There is an entire social attitude attached to this comment. The wealthy and privileged believed that they were by birth deserving of the wealth, possessions and position that they inherited, and that in some way they had ‘earned’ these things. They believed equally of the poor that they ‘deserved’ their miserable circumstances. These lines also refer to the story of Lazarus in the Bible. Lazarus spent his life begging at a rich man’s gate but went to heaven, whilst the rich man went to hell. In this verse, Charlotte describes what seems to have been the most humiliating of her work experiences, showing ‘respect’ to her social superiors. And it is in this verse that she turns the tables on her employer.
“But I’ll never say ‘sir’ Or ‘thank you ma’am'” Charlotte had to call upper class men ‘sir’ and women ‘ma’am’, and she had to curtsey to show respect and to be mindful of her own lower status, probably when she opened the door to them. Now she will “never” have to address anyone in this way again. This shows an attitude of determination and a conviction that she has changed her life for good. This shows that Moniza had experienced an education unlike Charlotte O’Neil who would have come from a very poor background. It also shows that the school friend doesn’t seem willing to accept things which are different and from other culture’s. This emphasises how difficult life would have been for Charlotte.
The tiny mirrors sewn onto the material seem to be a way of recreating herself in the country she left. She tries to recall her parent’s story of her journey to England by boat and uses photographs to help her visualise her birthplace. The conflict in Pakistan brings it alive via newspapers. Sometimes the mirrors reveal her aunts and how they live and finally herself, “of no fixed nationality”, actually in Pakistan looking at the famous Shalimar Gardens.
” I pictured my Birthplace From fifties photographs.” The gifts encourage the speaker to think of her family’s journey to England and to try to picture her birthplace which she doesn’t remember. Pakistan is made more real by news of wars there and the speaker tries to imagine returning to a place, which is not quite home. Much of the English background in the poem is assumed but generally it seems dull and safe compared with the vibrant and violent Pakistan.
It is all very well, the poem suggests, for people from different countries to admire what is different there, but what if you have both sets of desires within yourself? Beyond the story of the presents and the speaker’s reactions to them lies the dilemma of many people who have no certain identity or nationality. While they may grow up in one country, family and other links mean they never lose the impressions and reality of their country of birth.