It was 1879. Albert Einstein and Joseph Stalin were born, and Emmeline Pankhurst, the Suffragette leader, got married. Britain had just recently finished the construction of one maritime and two overland telegraph links to India, on the back of Alexander Graham Bell’s recent invention of the telephone. London got its first telephone exchange, and the Tay Bridge collapsed in Scotland. The great engineers, Stephenson, Brunel, Locke and Vignoles had built their railway lines across hills and mountains, valleys and marshlands, rivers and valleys. Railway stations had brought a new type of building into British culture; and all of this was now being extended throughout the Empire. In 1879, the dining car was first introduced to railways; and, in the midst of all these rapid changes in communication and transport, Amy Beatrice Carmichael made her way to Yorkshire. She was only twelve.
Educated in Millisle by a succession of governesses, particularly the dearly-loved Eleanor Milne, Amy now found herself at Marlborough House, a Wesleyan Methodist boarding school in Harrogate. She was not the first Irish girl to go to Yorkshire. Before her, the immortal and gifted Bronte sisters had gone to Haworth from the same Irish County. One wonders if Emily, Charlotte or Anne were ever as homesick as Amy, who wrote that she was:
A little wild-bird child,
But lately caught, and nowise tame,
And all unreconciled
To cages and to careful bars
That seemed to ban the very stars.
Amy decided to defy the bars, and headed for the stars. One evening in 1882, a comet was to appear in the night sky. The girls in Amy’s dormitory asked her to request permission from the Principal of the school, Miss Kay, to allow them to sit up and watch the comet. When Amy duly asked, she was told in no uncertain terms that permission would not be granted. That night in the dormitory, Amy tied threads to the large toes of her compatriots, and held the ends of the threads, promising to keep awake until everyone in the house was asleep. At the right moment, the fourteen-year-old Amy pulled the threads, and softly up the creaking staircase the schoolgirls proceeded, nearer and nearer the stars. The attic window and the flaming stars beckoned, as the comet hurtled towards their vision. But what was this? As they stepped towards the window in the dark, shadowy figures suddenly rose up before them. The school Principal and the entire teaching staff of Marlborough House was watching for the comet. Amy shuddered, her blood pressure surged, as one overwhelming thought emerged: “Is this it? Will I be expelled?” In such school regimes in Victorian days, it was a distinct possibility. Nowadays, the entire school would probably be watching for the comet, equipped with the latest telescopes and digital cameras; while most of their teachers might be asleep!
As it turned out, Amy and the rest of the girls from her dormitory were allowed to stay and view the comet. In the morning, Amy was given an hour’s “ticking off,” but she did not have to suffer the indignity of expulsion. One suspects that the “wild-bird child” got into many confrontations with the “cages and bars” of her boarding school education. Later, in a family magazine, she wrote ironically about what happened When the Teacher Left the Room:
Girls were more like a pack
Than like the gentle girls
I’ve sometimes called our pearls
Of innocence and peace
And quiet loveliness.
She describes how there was much “clatter, chatter, hurry and rush,” and particularly a rushing for the blackboard, when the teacher slipped out of the classroom for a little while. She names some of the girls she knew as “Maud Davison,” “Ethel Scuttleback,” “Eva Lamefoot,” and “Louise Onionsleek.” One can imagine their escapades, and they certainly don’t sound like stuffed shirts. Amy undoubtedly had a streak of the rebel in her. Later, though, she stated that she regretted many things that happened which should not have happened, because she had not learned to set to and work at things that seemed dull and not useful. To be fair to the school, Amy is on record as saying that there was not a teacher whom she didn’t love.
It was near the end of Amy’s years at Marlborough House that the C. S. S. M. held a Mission in Harrogate. They could not have realized the full repercussions of their well-intentioned work. The gospel seed they sowed was to have an Indian harvest. By God’s grace, that little team of Christian workers in Harrogate were to touch Amy Carmichaels heart and life, and through her the lives of the children in South India, who otherwise would have been the victims of a horrendous trade. The speaker at one of the C. S. S. M. services at Harrogate, Mr. Edwin Arrowsmith, asked the children to sing the words of the famous hymn Jesus loves me, this I know, and then to be quiet for a few moments. In those quiet moments, that immeasurable love drew Amy into the safekeeping of Christ’s fold. The Good Shepherd, who gave His life for His sheep, had called Amy to Himself. Right to the end of her influential life she was to come to know His voice intimately, and follow Him closely. She put it this way:
It is not far to go,
For Thou art near.
It is not far to go,
For Thou art here.
And not by traveling, Lord,
Men come to Thee;
But by the way of love,
And we love Thee.