Dame Eleanor Hull

A house organized around writing

I thought I remembered a single sentence or paragraph in A. S. Byatt’s The Shadow of the Sun that summed up the way Henry Severell’s house is organized around his writing routine. But it’s more diffuse than that, a series of descriptions and references that I somehow fused in my head.

The descriptions of Henry’s study are lovely:

The study, for a study, was very large, and full of light, which flooded in through a large french window which opened onto the terrace at the back. It had nothing of the dark leather and silver and tobacco comfort of the gentleman’s study, no steel cabinets, on the other hand, no deliberate austerity, not even the threadbare untidiness of the don’s room, with paper everywhere, and stones collected on odd beaches and brought home because they were interesting. If it had any character, it was that of the outgrown schoolroom—books, on shelves, all round the walls, not glassed in, a huge, square ugly desk in light wood, a wooden armchair, and a desk chair. There was a typewriter on the desk, and a jug of flowers, arranged by Caroline, on one of the book-cases. There was a large fireplace, and a sage green carpet, slightly silky, and nothing else remarkable but space—clear, uninhabited, sunlit space. The study was the centre of the house, and round what went on in it everything else was ordered . . . . (4-5)

He went downstairs and into the hall, where he opened the curtains to let in the grey light, too weak yet to reach the corners . . . . In his study was the flask of coffee Caroline always put out for him, and a bowl of chrysanthemums, on whose crisp, clawed points light and colour were already stirring . . . . He settled then at his desk, with his coffee, in the quiet house. He went through notebooks, settling his mind: he had never been able to cure himself of indiscriminate jottings, but it had taken him much longer to learn to read what he had jotted and he now made a point of it. (168-70)

Although Byatt describes Caroline cooking, rolling pastry, going about her household tasks, the concern for menus is Henry’s:

He disliked large meals. They slowed him. . . . He struggled with the menu to find something he could eat comfortably without impeding his next morning’s work . . . . He ordered a bottle of wine and remembered that as an undergraduate he had dreamed of literary fame to be rewarded by dinners in such a restaurant, with such a beautiful woman. He smiled to himself, for here he was, neither bored nor blasé, nor disillusioned he hoped, but merely concerned exclusively with the connection between his stomach and his working routine. (186)

I have not read this book in some time, and as I looked for my non-existent single quotation, I remembered how much I dislike it. Not one of the characters is likeable. Caroline the self-sacrificing comes closest; even as she devotes herself to her husband, house, and children, she protects a fantasy life in which she is an opera singer, and when Henry wants to talk to her, she makes him keep silent until she finishes singing an aria. Then she deals with him. I have to admire that corner of self that she has preserved. But at what a cost! The others are appalling. Henry is selfish. Oliver Canning is worse. And Anna Severell, Henry’s daughter, is exasperating. I think Byatt intended all of these effects, and the book is beautifully written, but I find it very hard to read a book whose characters I dislike.

But the introduction to the 1991 reissue clarifies many of the problems Byatt faced as she wrote this her first book, and it contains this terribly sad sentence: “No woman of my generation would have expected any putative husband to consider her work prospects when making his own decisions” (viii). She wanted work, she wanted love—as who does not?—and good cooking, too. Someone has to run the well-ordered house. How can the writer and the housekeeper be the same person?

A. S. Byatt. The Shadow of the Sun. New York: Harcourt, Brace. 1991.

It’s in English!

I ordered one more document from the National Archives to help bolster the MMP-1. Well, really I ordered it because I am nosy. I’m not sure it will add anything to my argument, but I’m curious about what one person thought she was doing, and what other people had to say about it.

It hadn’t previously been scanned. This is a good thing because it means I get a high-quality photograph instead of a low-quality scan from microfilm. Even so, when I first opened it I groaned, because the document has some wrinkles that will make parts of it hard to read, and of course it has those long lines that make lines hard to track across the page.

But when I zoomed in on the writing, it was in English, not Latin. That is going to make it so much easier to decipher. Not only that, it’s in a noticeably more modern hand than the IPM from the previous century. Between those two changes, I’ll be able to read it far more quickly than I expected, although I think I will still have to transcribe it because (due to long lines) if it’s blown up to a size I can read, it doesn’t fit on my monitor.

I feel like a bad medievalist because I am so happy to get to read this thing in English instead of Latin legalese. I am convinced that Real Scholars (TM), like for instance Jon Jarrett, don’t mind reading in abbreviated Latin. For the moment, however, I am content to be a Fake Scholar. I play a medievalist on the Internet.😉

When old boyfriends convert

I’ve been looking at some of Flavia’s old posts about teaching (there are great bits in the comments, as well), and also ran across this one, in which she expresses her “horror” that her “first boyfriend–last seen as a smart, hilarious Jew with interests in politics, foreign affairs, and baseball, a guy who was fluent in Mandarin by age 21 and spent most of his college years living abroad–is now an insurance agent in Omaha, a Creationist, and an actual Jew for Jesus.”

Not that I dated the actual same guy, but I was once engaged to a man for whom I fully expected to convert to Judaism, and when through idle web-stalking I discovered that he is now an Episcopalian (not in Omaha), I was shocked. I was going to be the convert; what was up with him turning to Christianity? But I found it hard to articulate why this bothered me, and doubted that anyone else would understand it. Now it seems that Flavia would get it, and in fact, already got it.

How many of us have someone in our past who made some sort of huge change like that? Or are you the one who changed?

Getting the right words

I am still (again, forever . . . ) working on the MMP-1. I have begun to wonder if it would have been simpler to write this article as a book. Cat knows I have written enough words for a book. The problem is getting the right words, in the right order. Another problem is trying to work out, at this late date, what the forest is, when for some time now (like, since I started on this project) I have been focusing on trees.

I love trees. I love their leaves and the leaves’ capillaries, their bark, their mossy growths, the spores in the moss that grows on their bark.

Forest? Is there a forest in here?

Well, damn, who knew?

I will now suspend the metaphor in favor of practicalities, because this might possibly be of some help to some other struggling writer, somewhere. I thought I had a workable introduction, and went on to revise the body of the paper (we will gloss over the current mess in what should be the last body section). But when I ran the intro past my writing group, they had questions. Their questions sent me back to analyze introductory paragraphs in the journal to which I plan to send this version of the paper. I had already looked at whole introductions, to get a sense of what they should look like, but this week I read about a dozen first paragraphs. I listed not what they said, but what the function of each sentence was.

Of course there were variations. Writers are not machines, nor are editors, and a tendency to publish essays of a somewhat similar structure does not mean that there is One True Way For This Journal and any writer who does not conform to this format will be consigned to Outer Darkness.

Nonetheless, there was a pattern, one which seemed fairly pronounced in a couple of essays that are close to the kind of thing I think I’m doing. (Whether I’m really doing what I think I’m doing is yet another question at which I refuse even to squint right now.) So today, after figuring out which forest I’m working in, and how my individual tree relates to it, and what clumps of forest have previously been studied, I wrote a 300-word introductory paragraph.

I still have to figure out what goes in the second paragraph, before my actual thesis. I want to lead with the thesis (did I take too many journalism classes in college?), but I just don’t think it’s going to work for this paper, and this journal. I really want to get on with the middle parts of the paper, except for dreading that swampy bit in the last section where I’m not sure what’s tree roots and what’s snakes, but I expect strengthening the introduction will help in general and even, possibly, with the swamp.

Maybe I lacked some useful training in writing when I was in college or grad school. Maybe other people know to analyze other essays, or even, simply, know how to write an introduction, without needing to look at other essays’ structures. But I don’t just know, and I have found it very helpful to look carefully at the structure of published essays. Including, apparently, my own (I thought I’d written before about studying other people’s, but my own reverse outline is the first thing I found).

I am definitely going to use this first-paragraph-analysis as a writing lesson in my lit classes. I’ll model it first, with an essay we’re all reading, and get student input on what they think the function of each sentence is. For undergrads, I’ll then form groups of three or four, each with a different first paragraph, from essays selected to be appropriate for undergrad readers. I’m thinking several essays from the same journal (exploring that question of House Style), and at least one by one of those authors that appeared in a different journal (exploring the question of personal style). For grads, I’ll probably let them pick their own essays and present the first paragraph and their analysis of it to the class, and we’ll see where discussion goes.

W/r/t the MMP-1, I really hope I’m modelling optimistic persistence that will eventually be rewarded, and not either quixotic fixation on a dead horse, or else sheer bloody-minded stupidity. This has gone on for so long, through so many drafts, outlines, chunks of free-writing, notes, annotated bibliography, etc., etc., that I question my sanity. No, that’s just a moment’s discouragement. I have published the MMP-3 and the Companion Piece, and have an R&R on MMP-2. This is determined resilience, this is. I will get out of the swamp. I will escape the trees’ clutches (and the snakes). I will wind up on the hill above the treeline with a fantastic view of the forest.

And then I will see the essay I should have written.

Oh well. Onward and upward.

et encore: Nice

2015-09-13 15.25.08

At this rate I should have taken more pictures of the pleurants from the tombs of Jean Sans Peur and Philippe le Hardi.

J’offre mes condoléances les plus sincères aux Niçois.

As you might expect

I shall tactfully refrain from naming the author or title of the book (published by a highly reputed university press) in which I found the following sentence:

“One might argue that romances, like novellas, were the kind of prose fiction that was closest in interest and narrative type to romances.”

One might argue that; but why would one bother? It’s tautological.

Maybe one or more adjectives is missing, or something else went wrong in the editing process. In the context of the paragraph, it seems like a different kind of statement is needed at this point. I can imagine highlighting and moving the wrong chunk of text.

Note to self as well as others: this is why actual proof-reading by human eyes (and, preferably, voice) is necessary. Do not rely on electronic checkers of spelling and grammar.

Sabra update

Awhile back, Basement Cat announced Sabra’s departure. Despite all my efforts (safe space, slow introductions, play therapy/joint military exercises, treats, Feliway, and so on), Sabra really really really wanted to be an only cat, and (a) that is just not happening in this house, and (b) her presence was stressing out BC so that he was attacking our other cats, including the poor old Grammarian who had enough other problems. We took Sabra to a no-kill shelter, hoping she would soon be someone else’s beloved special kitty.

Well, she has finally been adopted. The path there was not smooth, sad to say. I did tell them about her desires, but she was first adopted by people who already had a cat. Sabra’s response to that was to think outside the box, if you get my drift, and so they brought her back to the shelter. Then there were some weeks of re-evaluation. Eventually the shelter people decided she just needed to be an only cat (yes, duh, we know!). Then there was more waiting till there was a suitable spot for her on the adoption floor. Poor girl. I hope she now has great people who appreciate her properly. She is so beautiful and such a charmer, so long as other cats are not involved.

In a weird way, I find all this reassuring. We had no trouble with her over litter-box usage, so clearly we were doing something right despite her inability to settle in with our other cats. And I do have a lot of experience integrating cats into the household, so I rather feel that if it couldn’t happen here, it wouldn’t happen anywhere (although Basement Cat and his anxieties do present a special challenge). We probably did better with her than many people would have been able to. This may even throw some light on why she was out on her own in the first place; she might have been thrown out, or left of her own accord, when a new cat, dog, or infant joined the family.

I never thought I’d have to surrender an animal, but apparently it can happen even to the crazy cat people of the world. Please support your local no-kill shelter. They help all of us.

If I were an Angela Thirkell character

“Mrs Barton was well known as the author of several learned historical novels about the more obscure bastards of Popes and Cardinals, with a wealth of documentation that overawed reviewers. Owing to living so much in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, she sometimes found it difficult to remember where she was. She was an excellent housekeeper, who never failed to care for her family and give them good food, and all servants adored her, but though she never obtruded her work, or spoke of it as if it mattered, she only had to go into her sitting-room and take up a paper or a book, to be at once engulfed in the ocean of the past, re-living with intensity the lives of people about whom little was known and whose very existence was dubious. When the tide ebbed, leaving her stranded on the shores of everyday life, she would emerge in a dazed condition to preside at her own table, or take a fitful interest in her neighbours.”

Pomfret Towers, p. 4.


Travel agents. Remember travel agents? There still are a few in the world, I know that, and I’m beginning to wonder whether I would feel it was worth paying someone else a fee to book hotels and trains and so on for me. I just spent three hours arranging train travel and hotels in the UK for a trip later this summer. In theory, I could do this at some point of the day that is not prime writing time. In practice, I have found that when I do that, I wind up booking myself on a train that departs a week after I leave the country.

Seriously. I did that once.

I got lucky that time. The conductor did come round to check tickets, but just before he got to me, he encountered another woman with a wonky ticket: she was booked on a train that left at a different time, and that apparently was a huge problem. By the time he’d finished sorting her out, we were near the next station, so he only glanced at the time, not the date, on my ticket, punched it and moved on.

Probably I could leave the stewing over hotel reviews to non-prime-time, though, and just bookmark the ones that seem to have the best intersection of low-ish price, quiet rooms, and cleanliness, then make the decision later. It can be hard to tell the difference between shabby and unclean, based on some reviews. I don’t so much mind stained carpet, if it doesn’t smell and has been well vacuumed. I do mind the odor of stale cigarette smoke. I prefer the white-noise roar I get from a window that overlooks the hotel’s ventilation system to the intermittent uproar of overlooking a street in a popular area of town. Any hotel where people complain (complain! they don’t know they’re born) about the presence of a cat immediately moves to the top of my list.

Of course, if I felt like spending money on a travel agent, I could probably also afford fancier hotels, and taxis rather than public transport. It still might be worth it for the trains, just to make sure I’m really traveling on the correct date (and if not, it would be Someone Else’s Problem). Do travel agents provide cats?

Second Ph.D.?

Recently on the fora at the Chronicle of Higher Education, someone with tenure, I think in a STEM field, and on the math-ier end of it at a guess, was wondering whether it would be worthwhile to get a second Ph.D. in a related field. Commenters urged him (her? unclear, but I had the impression it was a guy) to just read and do research in that field, although it sounded like he really wanted to have the immersed experience of Ph.D. level courses. I’m not so sure how he felt about a second dissertation, though since math/comp sci dissertations can be short, and/or can assemble a batch of articles you’ve published already, that doesn’t seem so hard.

Anyway, I was somewhat surprised at the way commenters piled on, wondering why anyone would ever go through a second Ph.D. experience. It’s obvious to me: if I won the lottery, I would absolutely get a second Ph.D., in Classics this time. I’d have to start by learning ancient Greek, so I might need to start with a second B.A., but the necessity of learning Greek is, to me, a feature, not a bug. And for the purposes of language-learning, classroom immersion is about 95% necessary. There are some gifted, disciplined people who don’t really need it, and a lot of us have picked up one or more medieval languages by hammering away with a grammar and some texts, but for a really strong grasp, you need a lot of time, a lot of exercises, and a good teacher.

It’s true that I am not contemplating doing this while holding my tenured position, nor as a means to improve my current position or research ability (though it would certainly expand the areas I could research, and give a different perspective on what I work on now). I probably won’t even do it in retirement (well, maybe the second B.A.), because I have so many medieval research projects in mind already, and I’d like to make sure I get them done. The “winning the lottery” point is that I could pay my way wherever I wanted to go.

One of my colleagues actually did get a second Ph.D., while continuing to teach in our department, in a related field. Basically, it took up his research time for a few years, and I’m pretty sure one sabbatical leave went to the required coursework. His second dissertation was a well-regarded book. So it can be done, and there can be good reasons to do it.

What about you? If there were world enough and time (and money), would you go back? In a related field, or something really different? Why, or why not?


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