February 9th – Celia Eskinslight’s Day

Only a small crowd with gather at the grave of Celia Eskinslight today, but that isn’t to say that she isn’t remembered more widely across the City; most people will remember her by reading a few passages from her book, Old Wives Tales, where she shares the lessons and wisdom she gained from her 176 years of life.

The book, a best-seller in its time and almost every year since her death, is an autobiographical journey through her life, which she apparently remembered in stunning detail despite her advanced age, but also acts as an important historical record of the turbulent times in which she lived. Despite its non-fiction nature, some have described the work as a municipal epic; a story which encapsulates the essence of the city of Buentoille, that captures the outlook and character of the Buentoilliçan people. Born on this day in 1806, Eskinslight was witness to, and involved in, the great cultural and political transformations around the turn of the century.

Eskinslight saw the slow transfer of power from the Unions, who had just passed the height of their influence before her birth, back to the industrialists and aristocrats, through the first eighty years of her life. This shift was accompanied lockstep with an equally gradual deterioration of working conditions and dismantlement of the social democratic settlement, and created the perfect conditions for the Monarchist coup that occurred in 1890. This period of time, that would constitute an entire lifetime for many, makes up the first half of the book, and is characterised by the odd tension between Eskinslight’s breezy optimism and the feelings of dismay and powerlessness from those around her. In this time Eskinslight moves through social boundaries as if they did not exist; born the youngest daughter in a family of poor quilters, she becomes, amongst several other ill-suited jobs, a semi-successful painter, marries a sickly member of the aristocracy, pays off all his hidden debts when he dies three years later, and ends up destitute on the streets. After a three years of this, she somehow convinces a banker to lend her the funds to set up a patisserie and restaurant, which does extremely well.

Prior to the coup, Eskinslight had, like many others, only paid passing interest in politics, but in those terrible fifteen years of absolute monarchy, she recognises the need for greater engagement in the City’s political structures. As a sprightly 90-something, she throws herself into political activism, and eventually stands alongside the other men and women at the barricades in the revolution of 1905. Eskinslight narrowly avoided death in the gassing of Benetek station, one of the events that precipitated the revolution; she was a founding member of LEPOMO (the League of Elderly Persons in Opposition to Monarchic Oppression) who helped organise the protest there, and would carry the physical and emotional scars of the day for the rest of her life. Only three other protesters were recovered alive from the confrontation.

The breezy optimism of the younger Eskinslight is tempered in the second half of her book, in which she participates actively in the Communal Reconstruction. Despite the much more optimistic era that she now lived in, she had learned too many lessons about life, and knew that the only way to ensure the City did not slip back to those dark Monarchic days was to remain vigilant, and to stay involved politically. This is not to say that she became distrustful or pessimistic, just wiser; they had won their freedom and she intended to enjoy it for as long as she could, part of that involved safeguarding it from counter-revolutionary forces. In the revolution she had served as a poster-woman because of her age, now it was her wisdom, and memories that earned her prestige, and her opinions were influential and well received when she gave them.

Eskinslight’s book is also much loved because of its clarity of prose, and ability to shine a light into the past, illuminating small details that allow the reader to become a kind of time-traveller. Much like the people of Buentoille, the book has a great respect for tradition, and showcases many lost customs, for example the fact that people would have hung dead birds in their chimneys at the end of summer to help ‘ward away plague,’ even into the early 1810s, when she was a child. The stench of burning feathers lingered in the City streets for weeks. Alongside these details, Eskinslight also shares much of the wisdom and advice she gathered over her excessively long life. Obviously, the secret to her longevity is a great focus of readers and scholar, scientific or otherwise. According to her, the secret is ‘happiness; even when someone has wronged you awfully, you must not let your heart grow bitter, for then they hurt you even more. Do not accept trespasses against you, seek to root out injustice, let passions grow wild and feel righteous fury, but when you go to bed do not relive those dark moments over and over. Learn from them, but do not let them poison you or let you feel powerless because you cannot change the past, only the future.’

Another piece of advice Askinslight often gave was to ‘accept praise, but do not let it go to your head. You are not and never will be fundamentally better than your fellow humans. Share your wisdom and experience, but also listen to that of others.’ As such, she resisted all attempts to immortalise her contribution to the revolution in official statues or song. However, towards the end of her life, she did sit for one painter, Hamlyn Deep, ‘as long as it’s not some noble-looking nonsense. Keep it truthful, simple, warts and all,’ she said. The painting, which can be viewed at the Municipal Gallery (today it will have many viewers), shows a beautiful elderly lady, confronting the viewer with a frank gaze that seems warm yet piercing; it is the gaze of a grandmother who knows you stole some sweets from her, but loves you anyway. This effect is partly lent because the eyes are one of the only defined elements to the painting, the rest seems ghostly; it is only half finished.

It was the seventh sitting when it happened. Deep was chatting absent-mindedly as he painted, as was his style. He thought it kept his subjects from stiffening too much. He looked down to the canvass for a few moments, trying to get the right curve to the highlight in Eskinlight’s left eye. ‘So, tell me,’ he said, ‘how have you managed to live so long and stay so beautiful?’ He heard her laugh, a small knowing chuckle, and when he looked up she was dead.

Other festivals happening today:

  • The Longest Kiss Competition

  • Yassil Terentov’s Day

  • What is Volleyball? Festival