Still more Bowen

“I wrote by hand, as clearly as seemed possible–as when at school, two or three years before, I had been making a presentable copy of an essay. A bottle of blue-black ink stood on a saucer; I used a ribbed brown pen-holder with a ‘Relief’ nib. The writing block, which had cost ninepence, had lined pages: this I found an aid to clearness of thought. The importance to the writer of first writing must be out of all proportion to the actual value of what is written. It was more difficult then than it would be now to disentangle what was there, there on the page, from the excitement which had given it birth. There could be but one test of validity: publication. I know I shaped every line in the direction of the unknown arbiter. When I say that had I not written with the idea of being published I should not have written, I should add that I did not so much envisage glory as desire to know that I had made sense. I wanted proof that I was not prey to delusions–moreover, publication was the necessary gateway to being read. I know that I wrote then with no less, though also with no more, difficulty than I do today: as an occupation writing enthralled me, which made it suspect, but also killed me, which made it in some way ‘right.’ The thing was a struggle. I saw no point in killing myself for the sake of anything that was not to become an outright reality. For me reality meant the books I had read–and I turned round, as I was writing, from time to time, to stare at them, unassailable on the shelves behind me. . . . I had engaged myself to add to their number.”

“Encounters,” in The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Hermione Lee (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 119.

More Bowen, on the writer’s subject

“The essential is that he be not imposed upon. He must know his own—that is, when it comes to subject. Truth is in his eye, in that roving eye: there are, and should never cease to be, unmistakable moments of recognition. Yet such moments may be daunting and unacceptable—’Must this be my subject?’ the writer sighs. He is not so young, perhaps; he foresees with dismay endless demands and challenges . . . .”

“The Roving Eye,” originally published as “The Search for a Story to Tell,” in the New York Times Book Review, 1952. I found it in The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Hermione Lee (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 64.

Pronouns are those used by Bowen. In light of the weight pronouns have acquired in recent years, I find myself wondering to what degree earlier women writers felt empowered, rather than dismissed, by the “universal” masculine pronoun. I am certain that in writing of the writer’s subject, Bowen was drawing on her own experience. Did she think of her writer-self as a masculine alter-ego? Did she feel a mischievous pleasure in cloaking her woman-writer’s experience in masculine pronouns and making the readers of the NYT Book Review imagine a man who was actually herself? Or was this just what she did, a practice no more to be questioned than the use of articles?—not that a writer might not also question whether to use a direct or indirect article, or none at all, but that’s a very subtle stylistic point, I think.

Elizabeth Bowen on writing

She focuses on the creative writer, but I think much of what she says here is applicable to scholarly writers, as well:

“How, and why, does the writer find the subject—his subject, which germinates into play or story, poem or novel? Is this a matter of chance, or of expert calculation? . . . Writers are not secretive, but they are shy—shy behind the façade they learn to put up, and most shy about what is most simple to them. The fact is, they are of a childishness which could seem incredible, and which is more than half incredible to their thinking selves. The childishness is necessary, fundamental—it involves a perpetual, errant state of desire, wonder, and unexpected reflex. The writer, unlike his non-writing adult friend, has no predisposed outlook; he seldom observes deliberately. He sees what he did not intend to see; he remembers what does not seem wholly possible. Inattentive learner in the schoolroom of life, he keeps some faculty free to veer and wander. His is the roving eye.

“The Roving Eye,” originally published as “The Search for a Story to Tell,” in the New York Times Book Review, 1952. I found it in The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Hermione Lee (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986), 63. Another book that hopped off the shelf into my hands!

Hope Mirrlees

You know how when you learn a new word, suddenly you see it everywhere? Miss Mirrlees seems to be having a moment. I had notice of this translation in my inbox yesterday: Paris. And one of my students is doing a project on the Hogarth Press, so perhaps the original dust cover will soon swim into my ken.

Twelve minutes to the End

“Presently I begin to look ahead, to see the end of the journey . . . . So it comes, the day that was invisible, the moment that I never thought to live. Nothing can stop this being the day when I shall print THE END again . . . . but there have been interruptions, even on this day. . . .

“From nearly a thousand pages of Rough, I had at last distilled the Smooth: not more than three hundred pages in all. And I was racing towards THE END; three pages to go. I should be a little late for lunch.

“‘I said—oughtn’t you to be getting ready?’

“Dragged back, I blinked upon my friend. ‘We are lunching with Dash and Blank,’ said my torturer.

“‘You go,’ I said, ‘Say I’m sorry but—‘

“‘You can’t do that. It’s a party.’

“‘I can’ I said, with some expletives let in. . . . I surrendered. . . . I changed my clothes. . . . Six more guests were well ahead of us on the terrace. Pulling myself together, apologising politely, I tried to behave. And, halfway through luncheon, received my reward.

“‘How much longer will you be working on your novel out here?’ asked the civilised gentleman sitting opposite.

“‘Never a bit of luck like this again,’ I reflected as I answered thoughtfully, ‘Oh—about twelve minutes.'”

Pamela Frankau, From Pen to Paper, New York: Doubleday, 1962, pages 29-31.

Portability; or not

“The Rough illustrates perfectly the fact that writing is a portable profession. I can carry on with it anywhere. I have written it in dentists’ waiting rooms, in casinos, in trains and at the hairdresser’s; in a B.B.C. control-room with ‘Woman’s Hour’ coming through from the studio, biding my time for the operating-theatre, sitting in a bar, watching by a deathbed.

“But the Smooth demands a long solid surface of desk or table, with a rigid attendance upon the notebooks, the Rough and the clean foolscap before me.”

Pamela Frankau, From Pen to Paper, New York: Doubleday, 1962, page 28.

Frankau’s Smooth

“Things have changed. Among them my state of mind, my approach to work and my time-table. Four hours a day could content me while I worked on the Rough. Now the minimum is six; more often I write for eight or ten hours. Because of my handwriting and the impending typist, I must go at it as neatly as possible. This slows the pace. But the longer day and the complete confidence give the Smooth a predictable lifetime: five months at most. As I work, I realise that the Rough was more fun than I thought; there wasn’t the obligation to keep my eyes on—as it might be—two saucepans and the oven at the same time.

“Usually I digest and memorise the immediate notes before I begin. They are severely practical, impersonal notes now. They will include the results of factual research. . . . But, by and large, magic has taken over. The discoveries go on. Again I find that some random, seemingly-pointless part of the Rough has acquired authentic value. It relates to the book in a way that I could not have foreseen.”

Pamela Frankau, From Pen to Paper, New York: Doubleday, 1962, pages 26-27.

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, clichés, 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?

Quick Sunday round-up

I’m not going to say “five minutes” because even five minutes to write turns into 15 to post and fill in categories. And it won’t be ten things I did today because it’s not yet noon here.

Gardening update: the groundhog broke through the newly patched fence by Thursday (when I discovered the damage). I’ve piled heavy pavers in front of the hole, and bought some new metal fence posts that I plan to use to hold the chicken wire in place, and also just to block access. Honorine Joubert is coming into bud. Most of the late-starting volunteer tomato plants have fruit on them, so maybe I will have tomatoes for Halloween.

Reading: though it should be all for teaching and research, this is me we’re talking about, so I’ve read Katherine Heiny’s novels and short story collection because Moira’s posts made her sound like fun. I liked the short stories best. Standard Deviation seemed very familiar, never quite so familiar that I said “Oh, that book, I don’t need to re-read it,” but always with the sense that I knew [whatever event] was going to happen once it did. I’m not sure if Moira did such a good job reporting on it that I expected everything, or if I really did read it a few years ago and forget. I’m also not sure if I was slightly bored because of that sense of familiarity, or because nothing much happens, or because I’m tired of books about privileged New Yorkers. I definitely found Early Morning Riser dull, in part because the setting is so very familiar (small midwestern town). It had some funny lines, but I thought we were in Anne Tyler territory (not literally, since AT writes about Baltimore and its environs; in terms of how random events and long-standing loyalties shape lives), and that Tyler does it better. It made me wonder if Moira and her British commenters like Heiny so much because for them the familiar aspects of her work are slightly exotic, the way I only read British chick lit because I prefer the tone and settings to American chick lit, which usually feels a little cloying and/or claustrophobic to me.

Also reading: Elly Griffiths’ series about Edgar Stephens. I do not like it nearly as well as the Ruth Galloway series. I thought the villain of the first book was completely unbelievable. But at least it’s Elly Griffiths, so they’re readable, and as picky as I am about my fun reading, sometimes readable is good enough.

Researching: I’ve managed a couple thousand words on my book in the past couple of weeks. Yay!

Teaching: I more-or-less finished the most troublesome syllabus a couple of hours before that class started. I still have to write a bunch of assignments. Why is it just as hard to turn an online class into in-person as the other way around? I thought it would be easier going this direction.

Washing and drying: I am enjoying having the new washer and dryer, which were delivered while I was in Familyland, but the washer does have a tendency to twist clothes into ropes. However, both machines have the settings I want to have, and are not so fancy that they want to communicate with the smart phone I don’t have, or decide for themselves how to wash or dry the clothes. I want to be the one who bosses the machines, not the other way around!

Exercising: not enough. It is much too hot out most of the time to go for walks, and I’m not getting up early enough to go out at sunrise when it’s bearable, because we’re staying up late . . .

Watching: the Vuelta à España.