The Twentieth Century Sin-Eater
The Twentieth Century Sin-Eater#
In the years that followed the second controversy, references to the sin-eater started to fade away. An excpetion can be found in the pages of “Precious Bane”, a novel by Mary Webb that appeared in 1924.
Review of “Precious Bane”, Daily News, 1924
Daily News (London) — Thursday 14 August 1924, p6
LIFE IN SHROPSHIRE, MRS WEBB’S NEW NOVEL By ROSE MACAULAY,
” Precious Bane.” By Mary Webb. Cape. 7s. 6d.
Mrs. Webb’s new novel is a romance of Shropshire farm life of a century ago. The story is told by Prudence Sam, a farmer’s daughter, who, besides being unfortunate in her appearance (she has a hare lip, and is never allowed to forget it), is unlucky indeed in her male relatives. Her father, whose custom it was on Sunday evenings to flog his children for forgetting the sermon, dies a violent death early in the story at the hands of his son, who inherits the farm, drives his mother and sister to labour like serfs in the field, and himself toils unceasingly to get rich. It is a tragic tale, for Gideon’s pursuit of gold leads to the sacrifice of all he has held dear (including his sweetheart, whom he seduces and jilts, and his old mother, whom he poisons with foxglove tea) and finally to his own ruin.
The attraction of the story lies, however, not in Gideon’s tragedy, nor in the love story of Prudence, but in its characteristically beautiful telling, and in its pictures of old country customsthe hiring fair, the harvest home, the midnight funeral, with its ancient rite of sin-eating, the rosemary and flaming torches flung into the grave, the tankard full of elderberry wine set on the coffin at the grave-side. ‘Parson came forward and took it up, saying, ‘I drink to the peace of him that’s gone.’ Then everybody came in turn, and drank good health to father’s spirit.”
Whether the funerals of Shropshire farmers in the early years of the 19th century were really like this, we do not know, and do not greatly care. Nor do we know if yokels of any period talked or wrote letters quite as these do; but this is a doubt inspired by the conversation of practically all yokels in fiction. And in this case all improbabilities are made natural by the fact that they are narrated as the memories of her youth by an old lady of small education. No one who has ever heard such old ladies relate past conversations will be surprised at Prue Barn’s no doubt romantic embroiderings. In any case. all fiction about peasants is, for some reason, romantic. Mrs. Webb accepts this convention, but makes of it, as might be expected, a very poetic and charming book.
Most notable for the purposes of our tale is one chapter in particular (Chapter 4: Torches and Rosemary), where a funeral scene recounting the activities of a sin-eater is described. The phrase used by the sin-eater in taking on the souls of deceased in this purely fictional account is given as: ‘I give easement and rest now to the, dear man. Come not down the lanes nor in our meadows. And for thy peace I pawn my own soul. Amen.’ Echoes of “the ease and rest of the soul departed for which he would pawn his own soul” and of being “freed from walking after they were dead” are both clear to see.
See “Precious Bane”, Mary Webb for the text of the relevant chapter.
In the mid-1930s, we also find a mention of a sin-eater character in the Shields Daily News.
Shields Daily News “Wendy Hut” Column
The Wendy Hut column seems to have appeared in the Shields Daily News on Monday, February 13th, 1933, p5:
THE WENDY HUT INTRODUCING THE HUT FOLK
HELLO MY DEARS! Want to know a little about the Wendy Hut and its inhabitants—the folk who are going to amuse you in your own special corner of the paper?
So, you shall ! I’ll introduce us.
The Wendy Hut is in the “Land-of-I-Dunno-Where.” It Is a jolly little hut, with a big garden all around, woods in the background, and a gentle tinkling stream running through it.
Inside the Hut is a big room called “Happy Hall,” where we all meet together, and where our friends are always welcome. Each one the Hut folk has a little separate room opening out of “Happy Hall,” and at the back is our Cookle’s own domain— the kitchen.
I’m telling you about the Hut because I want you to picture it when you write to us, and send in entries for all the Competitions we’re going to organise for you.
Turning to the children’s section of the paper, on page 4 of the edition of Tuesday, September 11th, 193, we find the following rather saccharine tale:
Thus far, I haven’t been able to find any other reference to “Simon the Missionary”, and the tale does rather take the form of a parable that might be used as the basis for a children’s sermon. For example, Simon as a child seems unconcerned that the sins could actually be transferred to him, although the rest of society does start treat him as a pariah. On reaching adulthood, he stops the practice that so offended his peers, accepting, perhaps, that he had been transgressing in some way, and seeing fit to then redeem himself by the proxy of atone for the sins of others that he had taken on himself. Do we read this as Simon falling in with a bad lot, being led by others, believing “but *I’m” not doing anything wrong”, then perhaps realising his bad ways and deciding to help others less fortunate than himself — “there but for the grace of God go I?” — redeeming not what he perceived as his own indiscretions, necessarily, presumably believing himself to be essentially good at heart, but those who had led him astray?
In recent years, the sin-eater tradition has appeared in several literary works, including and “The Sin Eater” by Megan Campisi, 2022 [interview]
Alice Thomas Ellis, The Sin Eater, 1977.
Atwood, Margaret (1982). Weaver, Robert (ed.). Small Wonders : New stories by twelve distinguished Canadian authors. Toronto: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. pp. 11–23. ISBN 0887941044.
Margaret Atwood - sin eater short story in https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bluebeard’s_Egg The Sin Eater Atwood, Margaret Bluebeard’s Egg is a collection of short stories by Canadian author Margaret Atwood, first published in 1983. The book’s first American edition was released in 1986 under the name Bluebeard’s Egg and other stories. The 1986 American edition didnlt include the tale, but it was reprinted that year in The Irish Times (1921-); Aug 15, 1986; also appeared in 1992 edition of Dancing Girls & Other Stories (first published without Sin Eater, in 1977) ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Irish