Archive for April, 2012

Writer’s Diaries Part III: Woolf’s Split-Voiced Self


‘A Sketch of the Past,’ the longest of a series of autobiographical sketches unpublished in Woolf’s lifetime, makes use of all of the central images of her fiction—windows, mirrors, waves and the sun. Her diaries, by contrast, rarely engage with those tropes. Instead, they serve to highlight how central was the business and the craft of writing to her sense of self, both as the descendant of a distinguished literary family, and as a writer of experimental fiction. On the pages of her diary, Woolf mediates between these two positions: what the critic Emily Dalgarno calls Woolf’s ‘resemblance to her lineage,’ and her need to forge a voice of her own.  Many of the earliest entries, written before her career successes, present Woolf’s reflections on other writers, both contemporary and canonical, listing books she should read, and offering mini-essays in the style of her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, on those she has read.Later entries detail the publishing life: her deadlines, the work of the Hogarth Press, who is publishing what and the sizes of their print runs, her envy of friends and enemies when their books succeed and, often, her gloating when they do not.  Further pages are devoted to the reviews and the sales of her own books.

After the lukewarm reception given to Woolf’s second novel Night and Day in 1919 another preoccupation surfaces on these pages: structure. In the years that produced Woolf’s greatest modernist experiments (1920−1931) she used her diary to interrogate her groundbreaking techniques in light of her desires and ambitions.  In April 1919, Woolf noted what she wanted from these diary entries, stating ‘I might in the course of time learn what it is that one can make of this loose, drifting material of  life; finding another use for it than the use I put it to, so much more consciously, and scrupulously, in fiction’ (Diary 1: 231–2) Woolf’s breakthrough as a writer was soon to come, and was predicated on just this discovery:  finding a voice for the ‘loose, drifting material of life’ within her fiction.  This entry thus suggests the transformative power of her journal reflections and the divide the diary helped her to negotiate: on one side one loose and drifting life, on the other conscious and scrupulous fiction.


The Silence of Eve






I have been thinking in verse this week (as a way in to thinking about prose) about women and writing and here’s what came out.




Naming the animals

I have thought of silence for some time now,

imagined the space between us

disappear inch by inch,

or expand in exponents settling

at the average human distance:

abyss.  I like the sudden drop

when I turn off the street, shut my door

the squeal light bulbs make when even the cat

is sleeping.  But today I heard the sound of falling.

The quiet that followed the bite of the apple,

the slip out the gate

that gap before Adam first shouted her name.

What inspires writing: The Hurricane



I have begun working on a new novel.  Don’t tell anyone.  Because they say that the moment you start talking about it you stop writing about it, and to some extent that’s true.  When my students ask me how to get published, I say “finish writing something good,” and I am not being facetious.  What I mean is that while most would-be JK Rowlings stand little chance of making a living as a novelist – they have no chance at all if they don’t finish writing something good.  It’s sort of like my sister said to me when my marriage failed.  “You might not ever fall in love and be happy in the future – but at least now you have a chance to fall in love and be happy in the future!” She was right.  You have to be in it to win it.  And the same with writing.  But where does the inspiration come from?  If Woolf and Mansfield used their diaries as “practice grounds” for their fiction, what do others use?  For me, an image comes first – right now it is the image of the life guard shack at Long Beach New York, slamming into the boardwalk during hurricane Irene last summer.  I had been to that beach the day before with my family, and was due to go to a wedding at a hotel on the boardwalk the night of the hurricane.  The hotel flooded, the wedding was postponed and thereby seeds of a novel were sown.  How they will grow, I have no idea, yet.  Or I should say I have lots of ideas, still.  And I should be writing them down now instead of telling them all to you.  Maybe this blog is becoming my Woolfian ‘practice ground.’

Writer’s Diaries Part II: Katherine Mansfield’s Windows


Katherine Mansfield’s fiction drew heavily upon images of both windows and mirrors, images that appear almost obsessively in her notebooks as well. In her childhood writing,  rain beating against the windows is a frequent metaphor for the interior struggles of her protagonists while later in her career the view changes radically: the world outside is portrayed as altogether fresher, more beautiful and more vital than the life being lived behind the curtains.

In 1914 for example, Mansfield wrote a story about Elena, a famed singer, and her dying child, Peter.  As in her earlier notebook entries, this story draws upon themes of illness, death and waiting, framed by the image of the window.  Set inGermany, the tale begins in ‘brilliant sunny weather,’ but Elena, trapped in her hotel room caring for her child, has no chance to enjoy it:


The frau tapped […] ‘Shall I draw the curtains, gnadige frau?’ she whispered.  […]  ‘No,’ said Elena, ‘I will draw them later. The light is so lovely.’ […] The lovely light shone in the window.  She loved to think of the world outside under the mingled snow & moonlight. (Notebooks 1: 302)


Elena gets up to check on Peter and sing him a lullaby, but he begs her not to. Despite his plea, Elena crosses to the window and sings softly. Later, when the Doctor announces that Peter is dead, this window becomes the frame through which Elena recalls the rail journey that brought them to this place.  Then, too, Elena was unable to refrain from performing:


She could not bear that even so small an audience—half a dozen people in a railway carriage—should go away indifferent or unsatisfied.  She felt bound to play exquisitely for them.  […]  Sometimes in front of the mirror she played most exquisitely of all.  She  would have acknowledged the fact frankly. […] I find it frightfully difficult to keep my private & my public life apart (1:303).


This contrast between the falsified public ‘mirror’ self and the vulnerable private self that looks out the window returns again and again in Mansfield’s fiction. Indeed, her greatest work of fiction, Prelude, begins with the frightened child protagonist Kezia in front of a window and ends with her refusing to look at herself in the mirror. Similarly, Mansfield’s last, incomplete, story ‘The New Baby’ contrasts a group of women on a yacht cruise who powder their noses in the ‘flat cabin mirrors’ with the freshness of ‘the sun flowing through the saloon porthole’ (Notebooks 2: 323). As this negotiation between public and private is arguably the central theme in Mansfield’s fiction, it is intriguing to see it ‘mirrored’ and ‘framed’ symbolically throughout her journals. As Mansfield reflected in 1921: ‘I don’t mean that any eye but mine should read this.  This is—really private’ (2:280).  For Mansfield, then, the writer’s diary was a borderland that enabled her to reflect and then restate the really private self into a public, publishable form, to turn repeatedly from the window to the mirror and back again, writing, recording and reimagining those negotiations into new forms of prose fiction.

Writer’s Diaries: Part 1 Katherine Mansfield



I am working on a piece about how women writers make use of their diaries in different ways to as what Virginia Woolf called a “practice-ground for fiction.”  As my own writerly imagination tends to draw me back and back again to certain key images, sounds, and words from my childhood and my writing practise engages with creative ways to confront and reimagine this “primal” material, I have always been curious about how other writers negotiate this challenge. The New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield ( 1888-1923) is a case in point.  One only has to read twenty or thirty pages into her journals to see the similarity between the imagery Mansfield used in her journals and in her fiction. To read more than thirty pages of her journal is to be shocked at the limitations of her palette.Mansfield’s fiction is wide-ranging and encompasses urbane ‘bad marriage’ tales, stories about and for children, fairy tales, rural and urban stories. Her repetitive use of windows, mirrors, trees and dreams in all of those stories and in her journals and notebooks is therefore the more startling. The changing frame through whichMansfieldunderstood her own place in literary history, however, is revealed by her varying approaches to these images over time.

Mansfield’s younger brother Leslie died in army training in 1915, soon after he had visited her inLondon. Her reflections on this event stand out as one of few moments of revelation about her sources for writing in the notebooks. In an entry written as if to Leslie, soon after his death, Mansfield noted:

I want to write poetry.  I feel always trembling on the brink of poetry. The almond tree, the birds, the little wood where you are, flowers you do not see, the open window out of which I lean and dream that you are against my shoulder […] but especially I want to write a kind of long elegy to you—perhaps not in poetry. No, perhaps in Prose. (Notebooks 2:33).


That prose elegy found its form in Mansfield’s most well-known story, Prelude (1918) that begins with the child Kezia standing at a window and continues with further images of trees, flowers, birds, woods and the rhythms of poetry. What Mansfield’s notebooks illustrate, however, was that these same tropes had already surfaced repeatedly in her writing—indeed they appear in the first extant sample of her fiction, composed when she was nine years old.  This early piece begins withMansfield’s central trope—that of the protagonist at a window, judging the temperature of the outside world:


‘Oh, mother, it is still raining, and you say I can’t go out.’ It was a girl who spoke; she looked about ten.   She was standing in a well-furnished room, and was looking out of a large bay window. ‘No, Enna dear,’ said her mother, ‘you have a little cold and I don’t want it made worse.’ (Notebooks 1:1)


This scene, so like that of Kezia pressing her palms against the ‘big bay window’ in Prelude, is just the first example of this image inMansfield’s fiction: story after story on page after page of her notebooks begin and/or end in this same way. Such images, moreover, provide a haunting foreshadowing of illness and sick-room enclosure from a writer who was an invalid for much of her career.

At twelve, Mansfieldwrote several versions of a story entitled ‘She’ that begins with a gravely ill boy in a dark room. ‘Out of the window he saw the night, the stars, and the tall dark trees[…] He had been in pain all day.’  As he ‘lay in his little bed and gazed out,’ a stranger enters his room, ‘Death’ (Notebooks 1:31).  In these childhood tales, the window suggests the character’s fragility and the dangers of the outside world but also implies that separation from the world is itself deadly.  Thus from the start of her writing life, windows frame the gaze of the Mansfield’s protagonists, either representing the division between them and the world, or, instead, the eyes of the soul—the gatekeeper between the private and the public.

Too Many Mothers





I don’t often get to the theatre, which is ridiculous as I live in London’s West End where every show is on my doorstep – but lack of time and money seem to collude to keep me away from the dramatic arts.  But last night I saw a great show – a new play called Reunion by playwright John Caine with really extraordinary performances by Peter Guinness and Roberta Taylor.

Here with a little blurb on each of them:
Peter Guinness is a hugely respected stage and screen actor. His recent theatre credits include; The Pianist (Manchester International Festival, Royal Exchange Theatre and Hong Kong Festival) and Reading Hebron (Orange Tree Theatre). He has recently been seen on television in: Hidden, Zen, New Tricks, Ashes to Ashes, Silent Witness, Kipling: A Remembrance Tale, The Bill and Bleak House whilst his film work includes roles in Secret Passage, Greenfingers, Conclave, Sleepy Hollow, Christopher Columbus: the Discovery and Aliens 3.

Roberta Taylor has a rich and varied career in theatre and television and is probably best known for her work on Eastenders as Irene Hills and her portrayal of Gina Gold in The Bill. Her stage roles have included seasons at The RSC and Glasgow Citizens Theatre as well as parts at The Royal Exchange and in the West End.

I have been friends with Pete and Rob for several years now, and my few outings to the theatre usually involve seeing them individually in various notable productions, but I have never seen them work together and they were mesmerising playing a husband and wife facing the ethical and judicial dilemma of assisted suicide after the husband has been diagnosed with and incurable degenerative disease. 

But I first got to know Roberta through her writing.  When I first met her about five or six years ago, I had been a fan of her acting for a decade, following her from Eastenders on, but when we sat next to each other at a mutual friend’s party, we talked about writing autobiography, and her then recently published memoir Too Many Mothers (2005).

This wonderful book is miles away from the celebrity tell-all that you might expect from the rather un-literary cover image.  In fact, I won’t be giving anything away to say that it ends well before the young Roberta has any inkling of her future career, and not much hope of any kind of success at all. Too Many Mothers tells a true story set in south London in the 1950s, at once more intriguing and more shocking that any soap opera, of a family at war with itself and the outside world. From petty crime to pet monkeys, tender romance to emotional blackmail, illegitimacy, adoption and even murder.  For Roberta, travelling from her real South London childhood to the ersatz one she inhabited as Irene Raymond in Eastenders must have been a strange journey.  Unlike narcissistic and mainly ghost-written celebrity memoirs that tend to portray their subjects as “chosen” or “Special” or triumphing over adversity, and unlike much contemporary misery memoir, that feeds on the willingness of readers to side with victimised authors in their uncorroborated portraits of the past, Too Many Mothers,  written entirely by Roberta, and with style, offers enormous amounts of wry humour and a great deal of love for the family she writes about, admiration for their strengths and deeply felt compassion for their weaknesses. A gem of a book, and no assisted suicide in it at all.

Women and Hard Work

Kids home, house to spring clean, a book proposal in gear and working on a funding bid to do life writing workshops for women suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and related conditions in post conflict regions.  And I am having a meeting with my agent and a dinner party next week.  Typical week in the life of many working women, and has been for some time.  But nothing compared to the hard work done by sensation novelist Mary Elizabeth Braddon author of one of my very favourite Victorian novels: Lady Audely’s Secret  

Here’s a bit about Braddon:

Mary Elizabeth Braddon (October 4, 1835February 4, 1915)

• A crooked, womanizing lawyer who abandons his family.
• A strong-willed, independent woman who becomes the main bread-winner.
• Assumed names. Secrecy.
• A withered cripple with Svengali like powers.
• Adultery. A wife hidden in a lunatic asylum. Accusations of bigamy.
• A close friend imprisoned for homosexuality.
• An actress who becomes a leading figure in Victorian society.

These may seem like a list of probable ingredients for a ‘novel of sensation’. In fact, they are elements of Mary Braddon’s own life story. While her readers may have read her novels as a form of literary escapism, for Braddon they reflected a lived reality.

Born in London, Braddon was privately educated and worked as an actress for three years in order to be able to support herself and her mother Fanny, who had separated from her father Henry  when Mary was just three.

In1860 Braddon met John Maxwell, a publisher of periodicals, and began living with him 1861. Maxwell was married with five children and his wife was living in an asylum. Mary acted as the stepmother of the children till 1874, when Maxwell’s wife died, and they could get married. She then had six children by him.

Braddon was an extremely prolific writer, producing some 75 novels. The most famous is her first, Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)which won her fame and fortune. The novel has been in print ever since, and has been dramatised several times.

Braddon also founded Belgravia Magazine (1866), which presented readers with serialized sensation novels, poems, travel narratives, and biographies, as well as essays on fashion, history, science. The magazine was accompanied by lavish illustrations and offered readers a source of literature at an affordable cost. She also edited Temple Bar Magazine.

75 novels, 6 children, 5 stepchildren, journalist, editor, publisher – and I think I’m busy?

Here’s what one of the male characters in Lady Audely has to say about women and work:

“Who ever heard of a woman taking life as it ought to be taken? Instead of supporting it as an unavoidable nuisance, only redeemable by its brevity, she goes through it as if it were a pageant or a procession. She dresses for it…and gesticulates for it. She pushes her neighbors, and struggles for a good place in the dismal march; she elbows, and writhes, and tramples, and prances to the one end of making the most of the misery. She gets up early and sits up late, and is loud, and restless, and noisy, and unpitying. She drags her husband on to the woolsack, or pushes him into Parliament. She drives him full butt at the dear, lazy machine of government, and knocks and buffets him about the wheels, and cranks, and screws, and pulleys; until somebody, for quiet’s sake, makes him something that she wanted him to be made. That’s why incompetent men sometimes sit in high places, and interpose their poor, muddled intellects between the things to be done and the people that can do them, making universal confusion in the helpless innocence of well-placed incapacity. The square men in the round holes are pushed into them by their wives. The Eastern potentate who declared that women were by the bottom of all mischief, should have gone a little further and seen why it is so. It is because women are never lazy. They don’t know what it is to be quiet. They are Semiramises, and Cleopatras, and Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeths, and Catharines the Second, and they riot in battle, and murder, and clamor and desperation. If they agitate the universe and play at ball with hemispheres, they’ll make mountains of warfare and vexation out of domestic molehills, and social storms in household teacups. Forbid them to hold forth upon the freedom of nations and the wrongs of mankind, and they’ll quarrel with Mrs. Jones about the shape of a mantle or the character of a small maid-servant. To call them the weaker sex is to utter a hideous mockery. They are the stronger sex, the noisier, the more persevering, the more self-assertive sex. They want freedom of opinion, variety of occupation, do they? Let them have it. Let them be lawyers, doctors, preachers, teachers, soldiers, legislators — anything they like — but let them be quiet — if they can.” Robert Audeley,  in Lady Audeley’s Secret (1861)

As Louisa May Alcott once wrote “Housework is no joke” and a writer like Braddon demonstrates that such tasks are only part of the hard work that women take upon themselves for the good of themselves and their families. Speaking of which, I’d better go see what the kids are doing.

By the way – here is a very nice (though sadly unusual I think) male perspective on parenting: