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.

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.’

‘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?