Pamela Frankau on Writing

I was minding my own business in the stacks, looking for other books entirely, when Pen to Paper wriggled out of its place and fell into my hands. I had never heard of the novelist, though she was a prolific writer. (Some day, I expect, in my pursuit of obscure mid-twentieth-century women writers, a book will turn out to be one I read as a girl, while working through the stacks of my local library, but that day has not yet come.)

At any rate, Pen to Paper is not a novel but a sort of memoir, or how-to book (subtitle: A Novelist’s Notebook), how Pamela Frankau wrote, and it includes delightful passages about process. “I acquired the two-draft habit after twelve years of tidying up as I went along. . . . What I slowly discovered was that the impetus of the story slackened with the tidying-up process. . . . At first I was plagued by all the mess. The scribble, the gaps, the balloon-attachments, the spatter of X and ? in the margin haunted me. . . . Mr Butler [a delivery man] [asked] ‘you write all that out by hand?’

‘Yes; twice.’


‘Well, the Rough and the Smooth, you see.’ It hadn’t struck me until this moment that for every book a hundred thousand words long, my hand must write two hundred thousand.”

And then she proceeds to describe “the way of the Rough.”

“Should somebody penetrate the barbed-wire entanglements of my handwriting and read my Rough, it would make little sense to him. He would find bewildering changes of time and place. The people would confound him with sudden new characteristics. Some would change their looks. Some would be whisked away without explanation. Some would put in a late appearance, yet be greeted by the rest as though they had been there from the beginning. He would find, this reader, traces of style followed by no style at all; pedestrian phrases, clich├ęs, straight flat-footed reporting. Here a whole sequence of scenes complete and next some mingy, skeleton stuff with a burst of apparently contemptuous hieroglyphs on the blank left-hand page beside it. Nor is the left-hand page reserved for ‘Exp’ (meaning Expand), ‘X’ (meaning Wrong), ‘//’ (meaning much the same as X only more so), and ‘?’ (meaning what it says). The left-hand page is likely to be a shambles, taking afterthought insertions for the right-hand page; paragraphs whose position may not be indicated at all. No; a reader would have no more fun with the Rough than the writer is having.

“My advice to myself in all the weeks and months of the Rough is to keep going, keep plodding along.”

“I have written a Rough in three months; I have likewise taken nearly a year on it. The working-hours vary: anywhere between four and ten hours a day. Two absolute rules abide.

“Discipline is the first. Self-discipline . . . . the devils inside are the worst. Sheer listless reluctance; pain; worry; the flat morning mood; a sudden lust for new clothes; deep melancholy; wild happiness; bad news; good news; all contrive to threaten the second life that I must live from day to day.

“The number of people who have said to me since I was nineteen, ‘I imagine one can only write when one feels like it,’ merely sets me wondering if I have ever felt like it. . . .

“The other absolute rule is protection. Every Rough I’ve written has needed protection and not only from the devils. . . . Certain company should be avoided. The company of the devitaliser, that friend who takes from life rather than enhancing it, the mental blood-sucker, the strong marauding personality. The early-morning chatterer on the telephone. The disorganised chaos-bringer. The one who wants a long, serious talk.”

Pamela Frankau, From Pen to Paper, New York: Doubleday, 1962, pages 17-22.

Square Haunting

I think I must have run across a reference to Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting in the archives of Furrowed Middlebrow, no doubt here. (Furrowed Middlebrow shares my reading tastes almost exactly, though I have to admit I have never managed to get on with Ivy Compton-Burnett, despite Barbara Pym’s admiration for her works.) The LRU library had a copy of Wade’s book, so I checked it out last week and plunged happily in, only to find that it was not what I had expected. Not that Scott of Furrowed Middlebrow had described the book in any detail, so I don’t know what formed my expectations.

The book uses Mecklenburgh Square as a device to link the lives of five women who lived there in the first half of the twentieth century: H. D., Dorothy Sayers, Jane Harrison, Eileen Power, and Virginia Woolf. Being what I am, of course I had heard of all of these women, and have read biographies of at least two of them, though I confess I had never known that H. D. was originally from Philadelphia. But Power and Sayers were significant medievalists, and one of my good friends from LRU is a Woolf specialist, so I’m pretty well acquainted with a lot of the book’s material.

What I had hoped for was, precisely, more material: material culture, architecture, geography. Maps and house plans. The influence of surroundings on one’s creative and/or intellectual life. How Mecklenburgh Square’s layout and location proved so conducive to women’s writing and research. Who cooked for themselves, who ate in a boarding house, who had a servant. Where the women wrote, how they arranged their rooms, how long it took to get to their workplaces if they were going somewhere other than the British Library.

I suppose such work would be feasible only where architectural plans and interior photographs survive, due to WWII bombing and later changes in the fabric of the square. There are hints, for example the “apricot-colored walls” and “blue carpet” of H. D.’s room, where she “slept on a low chintz-covered couch that doubled as a sofa” (54). Sayers described the same room when she lived in it: “a lovely Georgian room, with three great windows . . . and a balcony looking onto the square. There is an open fireplace . . . no electric light” (100). Sayers also noted that “the one really vital necessity for living in unfurnished digs is a frying-pan” (101), though it seems she often ate in restaurants (or so she told her parents). Harrison lived in what she described as “a queer little house,” “a tiny mousetrap of a house,” “our new cave” (180), which descriptions are cute but uninformative. She had a housekeeper, so as not to be distracted by domestic duties. Power described her space as “a charming half-house . . . looking onto an enormous garden of trees” (199), where she had space enough to house an impecunious student, and where, Wade writes, she “set up a desk by the window . . . and decorated her quarters lavishly with the ornaments she’d bought in China and knickknacks found in Parisian ‘curiosity shops'” (213). Power herself said “I never realised before how one’s material surroundings could affect one’s spirits, and what a difference to one’s state of mind could be made by a merrily served meal” (214). She, too, had a housekeeper. The Woolfs put the Hogarth Press in the basement of the house in which they lived on the top two floors: “The kitchen very small. Everything too large. Stairs bad. No carpets” (248).

There are two small maps, and a reproduction of D. H. Lawrence’s sketch of directions to the square from the Russell Street Tube station. I stared at these, wondering if I had been to Mecklenburgh Square, thinking that I have certainly been all around it, walked in Coram Fields, shopped at the Waitrose near the Russell Street tube, stayed at the Tavistock Hotel, done research at both the old and new British Libraries as well as at one of the Inns of Court. But I could not call up a mental image of the square until, in the final chapter, Wade indicated that its south side become London House. D’oh! Of course I’ve been there. I once stayed with a friend from grad school in London House, where I bathed in a tub long enough to lie down in, and finally understood that when the speaker in “Norwegian Wood” says he crawled off to sleep in the bath, he didn’t mean dozing off sitting up in hot water.

I was delighted to learn more of Hope Mirrlees, who was a student of and companion to Jane Harrison. When I was 12 or so, a relative gave me the Ballantine Books reprint of Lud-in-the-Mist, which I found both odd and haunting. Probably I was too young for it; it is still on my shelves, so perhaps I should re-read and reconsider it. At any rate, I never knew anything about its author, and it appears that neither did many other people: when the BBC did a broadcast of it in 1978, they thought she was dead or that the name was a pseudonym, but Mirrlees was still living, though she died later the same year. Wade reproduces a picture of her, a striking dark-haired woman who looks as if she laughed easily. But after Harrison’s death, Mirrlees mostly gave up writing. Her life seems to have the same sort of inconclusive shape that I remember Lud-in-the-Mist having, though this may be a completely inaccurate memory of the book.

At any rate, if anyone wants to track down the architectural plans and photographs, you could write the book I hoped for, less about the active and emotional lives of these women, more about the material conditions with which they contended. But perhaps it wouldn’t sell. I may be rather peculiar in my interest in the physical world inhabited by authors. Or perhaps not: why, after all, are there so many house tours and house museums?

Six on Saturday, after rain

How did we get more than a week into October already? I am not ready for this. I have been vaguely thinking that in the autumn I would plant some crocus bulbs in the new bed in the front. Uh, so, that would be like now. Oh dear . . .

After weeks of drought, it rained for a couple of days, and now things are looking very lush. For #1, another view of the asters in the front, here with Honorine Jobert to add contrast (the purple and white reminds me of the garden at the last house):

The front bed, which I planted with white peonies and Russian sage (the sage is visible if you look closely), is thick with cherry tomatoes and another potato plant, all volunteers; this is what happens when you use soil from the compost heap, I guess:

I also have yellow grape tomatoes on one of my late-planted seedlings:

And all the rain has brought on toadstools, here in the front yard:

Sir John reported a fairy ring of them in the back, when he came in from mowing the grass. What sort of revenge do the fairies take for mowing down their dancing ring?

I think a few weeks ago I reported replacement tomatoes on the plant attacked by the groundhog; they’re trying hard (some of the catnip is muscling in, thug that it is):

So that’s my Six for this Saturday. I keep imagining that I will write some meatier blog posts (really I must do something at least about writing, if not properly medieval, since I survived Jon Jarrett’s purge of his blogroll!), but though I imagine them, sitting at the computer, logged in, is necessary to get them written. Sigh. Anyway, Six on Saturday is hosted by The Propagator, and I want to get in some garden posts while I can, before I’m knee-deep in snow and consumed by envy for those who garden in the British Isles and on the west coast of North America. Maybe winter would be a good time to blog more about writing.

Confidential to Undine: there’s some setting you click to make text wrap in Excel, though what I generally do, after expanding cells to be double or triple wide, is just pick my opening words so that they give me a clue what the rest of the entry will be. The way I use it for notes, I don’t usually need to see a ton of text at any particular time.