May 23rd – The Festival of Stubborn Drenshawl

Stubbornness is often presented in a negative light; we think of recalcitrant old men stuck in their ways, or petulant children demanding that things go their way. True stubbornness is a refusal to accept viewpoints other than your own, to ignore the prideful inner voice and bend to the ways of this world; it is a refusal to compromise. Yet surely, in certain circumstances, stubbornness is important, admirable, even? The folks who turn out today to memorialise Stubborn Drenshawl certainly think so.

Helen Drenshawl, born 1732, was an anarchist campaigner and theoretician from Darksheve’s district, and is often described as the most stubborn woman ever to have lived, famously coining the phrase ‘I’m too stubborn to die.’ From an early age, Drenshawl was brought into conflict with authority, and every time she refused to back down. At the age of eight she was kicked out of school because she insisted on wearing trousers rather than a skirt, as was the custom for girls back then. This was the final straw, apparently, after she had refused to perform homework that she saw as ‘pointless and beneath me,’ and had broken the nose of an older boy who had insulted her.

Whilst many people go through a rebellious phase, they usually grow out of it, eventually seeing that life is much easier when you compromise your pride, when you go along with the ridiculous things the world asks of you, at least when anyone is watching. Drenshawl was home tutored, never bothering to learn maths, abjuring team sports, focusing instead on that which she saw as ‘truly important’ history and political theory. By age 13 she was a precocious campaigner, by 17 she had written dissections and responses to the prominent economic theories of the time. Many of these works are still studied today; their incisive disdain for older theories a master-class in polemic.

Yet despite this seeming genius and extraordinary drive, Drenshawl went through long periods of inactivity, where nobody was able to persuade her that there was a point to getting up, to performing any of the academic activities that the previous day she had found so compelling. These depressive episodes lasted from a day to, in some cases, a number of weeks. It was when she was on the way out of a particularly long episode, at the age of 21, that she decided to pen poetry, beginning with a short piece simply entitled ‘Capitalism’:

We were not made for this world;

it bends us against ourselves.

We fracture under the pressure

of this machine, as it stamps

us in its dreadful image.

Many of the poems that Drenshawl wrote over the next five years have been picked up and adapted into songs, marching ballads, anthems of revolution. Alongside these poetic inclinations, Drenshawl continued her activism, writing pamphlets and attending marches against the ruling order, the shape of society. She was frustrated with those around her who understood the cause of their suffering, yet did nothing to change it, with how slowly people are ‘habituated, institutionalised to the system, coming to believe, against their true self, their inner child who innately knows what is right and wrong, who sees and feels the cracks and contradictions keenly, that this is how things “should be,” that the status quo is “the only option.” This viewpoint sickens and weakens me daily.’

From the beginning, Drenshawl was set on a collision cause with the Buentoilliçan state, and it is frankly surprising that she was able to continue her agitations as long as she did. Eventually she was tried and sentenced to death for her position as ‘ringleader’ (as the court put it) of the First Buentoilliçan Commune, and for the killing of several soldiers who had been tasked by the aristocracy to destroy the Commune. Drenshawl was given the option to have the death sentence commuted to imprisonment, if she were to renounce her anarchist views and denounce the Commune. Her response was perhaps predictable; she gave an impassioned speech denouncing the court, which she did not recognise, upholding her own values, topping it all off by spitting and swearing at the judge.

It took five attempts to kill her. First they tried poison, but she made herself sick. Then they tried hanging, then they tied her behind a horse and rode it through the City, then they shot her several times with an old rifle. It was at this point that Drenshawl apparently said those historic words, ‘I’m too stubborn to die,’ as she began to cough up blood. Shortly after she slipped out of consciousness and, presumed dead, her body was given up for scientific research, as were all convicts at the time. On the autopsy slab two days later she sat bolt upright, managing to strangle the surgeon almost to death before she died from blood loss on this day, 1765.

After her death, Drenshawl became something of a secular saint, a martyr for anyone opposed to the Parliament, aristocracy and monarchy. Much later, many of the participants of the Revolution claimed that they had been given strength and inspiration from the life and teachings of the stubborn woman. Although her body was cremated from fear that she would once again reanimate, folk have gathered to remember her every year since her death, standing in human walls which replicate the barricades that she helped build, that she long advocated for, singing the songs inspired by her poetry. Successive attempts to move the crowds have led to several riots in pre-Revolutionary times.

A memorial has been built where the Commune once squatted, it is a large statue of Drenshawl, designed from one of the only surviving pictures of the activist; in both the picture and statue, Drenshawl is standing proudly, a rifle in one hand, the other defiantly raised in a rude hand gesture at the viewer. Beneath her heavy brows is a classic smirk, but in the photograph there is something else, a certain sadness in her eyes which wasn’t copied over in the statue.

Other festivals happening today:

  • Yelp Said The Dog – A Poetry Night
  • Saint Maekvard’s Day
  • Dashing Dermon’s Dishy Dame Dance