Year in review on the Feast of St Thomas Becket

We’re in the low ebb of the year, in more ways than one (see below). But can look ahead to the new.

January 2022: I wrote an abstract for a conference, wrote and submitted a book review, the first week of classes was online.

February: I did a lot of grading, the mask mandate was dropped, Russia invaded Ukraine and I started wearing a blue and yellow ribbon.

March: two cats had check-ups, one cat got out and spent two nights hunkered under the deck until we broke her out, I drafted a conference paper, Queen Joan and an attendant lady visited.

April: I went to an excellent conference in the UK, where I was also able to do some sight-seeing, and did a lot more grading.

May: I visited my father and brothers in the PNW, where there was an excursion to a very beautiful rhododendron park, and painted the guest room.

June: I wrote another conference paper and went to an excellent conference I could drive to, with Sir John.

July: We went to a local park for 4th of July fireworks (highly enjoyable), and watched the Tour de France; I cleaned my closet very thoroughly and peer-reviewed an essay; I was asked to submit a conference paper to a special issue of a journal.

August: We made a road trip to Canada, and fall classes started; I made plans for January 2023 excursion with Queen Joan and Lady Maud.

September: I did a lot of interesting local walks, a lot of grading, a certain amount of e-Bay shopping; saw a friend I met in France seven years ago, got cards for two local library systems, and made progress on the paper-to-essay project.

October: this month was a blur, but I kept writing and grading. An overturned tanker truck on a key on-ramp made me late one morning, and I re-read a couple of favorite books from my childhood, Miss Happiness and Miss Flower, and Little Plum. I went to a workshop that wasn’t that useful.

November: I voted in person for the first time in years, continued the interesting local walks, finished a draft of the special-issue essay and sent it to another contributor for comment, which was both helpful and favorable; my mother’s best friend died, as did the father of another old friend, though I didn’t learn of that till December.

December: I did a lot of grading and more e-Bay shopping, submitted the essay (suggestions for revision came back within a couple of weeks; I suspect I’m the only person who actually turned it in close to the original deadline), went to visit my father and brothers, had Covid, my father died, we had a very quiet Christmas as both of us were sick.

One quotation

From Sue Grafton’s X, an elderly librarian speaking about the possibility of retiring:

“I’m not one for needlework, and you can only read so many books before your eyesight fails. Someone suggested volunteer work, but that’s out of the question. I’m accustomed to being paid, and the idea of giving away my time and my skills is an affront. Braver women than I fought decades for equal compensation in the workplace, so why would I undo their accomplishments?”

Who should that be but our cousin Scotland?

I don’t think it’s so much that I’m especially interested in the royal family as that I have a hangover from my mother’s interest, which permeated my childhood. She was a few years younger than Elizabeth II, and thanks to her collection of magazine clippings and a few books, such as The Little Princesses, I grew up with the topic. That book combined with James Kenward‘s Prep School (a battered Penguin copy kicked around our bookshelves, surrounded by Scholastic kids’ books; I have no idea who acquired it, or when) to fuel many happy hours of playing school with my dolls and dollhouse when I was small.

So although I can’t say I feel particularly bereft by the death of Elizabeth II, it does feel a smidge like some distant friend of my mother’s finally passed on, someone I used to hear about; and it does feel like the end of an era. Being what I am, I immediately tried to link this to what people might have felt when Elizabeth I died, people like the chap I once spent years researching. In both cases, for many people the queen was The queen, the person who had always been on the throne. Only when the first one died, there was also the question of who would inherit, which worried a lot of people. Now that’s not an issue. I have to admit that I would have advised against taking on the name Charles (not particularly well-omened), but I guess it’s a good thing for a monarch not to be superstitious.

Some inner child in me would like to get out the dolls’ house and sew little black costumes for the dolls who were sometimes little princesses (and sometimes children from Swallows and Amazons), then find the old plastic horses (where in the world did those go?) and make them suitably funereal draperies for the cortege.

But I’ll probably mark the occasion only by checking out a few M. C. Beaton books for a re-read, even though historical fiction (or biography) might seem like a more appropriate choice.

RBO end of June

Squirrels dug in the pots where I’d planted my grown-from-seed lettuce seedlings and destroyed them all, even though I’d put the pots up on a table to make it harder for critters to get to them.

I wrote and delivered a conference paper that helps to expand what I have for the final chapter of the Putative Book, and have just had an interesting e-mail exchange with a friend working on something related.

Sir John and I went on a road trip and had a great time. The cats obviously missed us terribly, though we had a friend visit them twice a day to tend them. Basement Cat met us at the door, yowling until we were actually inside, and Reina, who had been confined to my study, yowled until we released her. She hasn’t deigned to sit on either of us, but does do more rubbing against us and talking, while Basement Cat demands lap time and reclining snuggles with Sir John. They were separated while we were gone to keep them from fighting, and I was afraid we’d have to do some elaborate re-introduction routine when we came back, but it went fine, which is to say there’s only the usual staring and hissing.

I’ve taken everything out of my closet and washed it or run it through the dryer on hot, after I saw a moth near the beginning of the month. Now for cleaning the walls and then putting things back. Last night there was another moth in the bathroom, which I didn’t manage to kill before it disappeared against a patterned background. Reina couldn’t find it, either.

I’ve done at least a little bit of work on all four of the classes I will teach next year. Anything I can do now will help out my future self. There’s never enough time in the winter break to prep spring classes, so I’m trying to do some revision on them this summer.

I’ve also done a lot of fun reading, mostly fantasy, romance, and mid-century novels by British women, the sort of thing published by Furrowed Middlebrow. Sometimes the FM blog gives brief descriptions of now-unattainable books that make me want to head straight to one of the UK depository libraries and spend the summer reading through everything they have of this kind. If I worked on twentieth-century literature, that might even be a respectable research project. I suppose I could go work on a respectable medieval project and then spend evenings reading old novels in the not-medieval reading rooms, after the manuscripts room closed.

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!

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.