Sunday, 28 September 2008

Bibliotherapy: what to read when your credit is crunched

Neither a borrower nor a lender be... those words have been echoing in my (anxious) head today; because like everyone else, I'm worrying about our mortgage and the imminent collapse of the world as we know it (in that order; after all, it's important to get one's priorities right...).
The thing is, despite all my reading of the newspapers, and listening to the news on Radio 4, I still don't quite understand what President Bush's rescue of Wall Street is going to entail for those of us who aren't masters of the universe.
Anyway, in times of need, there's much to be said for returning to F. Scott Fitzgerald. He is brilliant on the subject of money (and the lack of it); ditto love. And madness. And disappointment. Everything, really... (which is why I regularly return to "Tender Is The Night"; somehow, it's bleakness is very bracing).
Here's my little piece about his short story, 'The Rich Boy', in today's Telegraph. Or you can read it here:

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” observed F. Scott Fitzgerald in ‘The Rich Boy’. “They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them…” He wrote the story in 1926, three years before the Wall Street Crash, at a time when he and his wife Zelda were hailed as the brightest of the Bright Young Things.

But while the couple might have looked as if they had entered the gilded ranks of the rich, Fitzgerald was constantly short of money, and in debt to his agent and publisher. It was a state of affairs that was to continue throughout his life, and his relationship with money was as troubled as his marriage. His only child, Scottie, described it thus: “He worshipped, despised, was awed by, threw away, slaved for, and had a lifelong love-hate relationship with money…”

But ‘The Rich Boy’ is not a story of a desire for money, but of how money might erode desire. Indeed, its narrator describes how Anson Hunter, the rich boy of the title, is made emotionally poor by his wealth. He does not marry the girl that he truly loves, because he assumes that he already owns her heart (just as he owns everything else). This failure impoverishes his life, yet he seems unable to change, to commit himself truly to anyone; and a similar lack of emotional insight causes him to destroy another couple’s love affair, which leads to heartbreak and suicide. “Anson never blamed himself for his part in this,” and the end of the story suggests that he will continue along the same selfish path.

If there is some comfort to be had in Fitzgerald’s reminder that money cannot buy you love, his own story has a sadder conclusion. He died penniless at the age of 44, and Zelda eight years afterward, in 1948, when the mental institution where she was incarcerated went up in flames. Even so, it is worth remembering his letter to a friend, contemplating the far side of paradise, a place where earthly wealth was of no consequence: ‘Zelda and I could snuggle up together under a stone in some old graveyard… That is really a happy thought and not melancholy at all.”

Thursday, 25 September 2008

The Yellow Wallpaper

I don't usually post my column in Stella on this blog -- though I will if people want me to. But I thought I'd include this week's, because it's got a bookish element to it. I always try and look at fashion sideways in the column; I'm as interested in Hans Christian Andersen's take on red shoes as Christian Louboutin's.
Anyway, Virago are producing a new edition of "The Yellow Wallpaper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman; it's not out yet, but will be available in the New Year, with a brilliant introduction by Maggie O'Farrell.
In the meantime -- fashion takes inspiration from 'The Yellow Wallpaper"; unlikely, I know, but then both are infused with insanity...

What has fashion got to do with madness? Everything, you might declare, as a sceptic; or nothing, if you’re a true believer in fashion as an arbiter of all that is beautiful. But whatever your feelings on the matter, it turns out to be very much on the agenda this autumn, because Marios Schwab – one of the most influential London designers – has produced a collection inspired by ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, a novella about insanity.

First published in 1892, it was written by an early feminist, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, based in part on her own experience, and tells the story of a nameless woman who is driven mad after the birth of her child. During an enforced confinement by her doctor husband to a bedroom in a country mansion, the narrator becomes obsessed with the peeling wallpaper: “One of those sprawling flamboyant patterns committing every artistic sin… The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow…” The tale is an masterpiece of eeriness, with a narrator who believes she can see a woman’s outline beneath the sinister patterns of the wallpaper, and finally that she herself is one of the “creeping women” imprisoned behind its monstrous, gothic design.

You might think this a perverse starting point for a 21st century designer (and it’s undeniably peculiar); but nevertheless, Marios Schwab has come up with a collection hailed by fashion critics as defining the latest aesthetic, a long and narrow silhouette. In practical terms – not that his clothes are in any sense practical – this translates as a tubular dress stretching down to the ankles, so constrictively cut that it forces the wearer to hobble. Thus the woman in the dress is as confined as the narrator of Gilman’s novella; and Schwab draws further parallels through his use of strangely textured and shredded fabric, as if creating a new version of peeling Victorian wallpaper.

It’s hard to know what to make of this. Schwab’s brief comment, aside from citing ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ as inspiration, is that the narrow dresses are “so fitted against the body that although the figure is entirely enclosed, it stands revealed.” This is intriguing on a conceptual level – for here is a contemporary male designer absorbing the message of a nineteenth century feminist writer, and then reinterpreting it as a modernist statement of his own – but I’m not sure Charlotte Perkins Gilman would have approved. For these are dresses that act as a literal means of preventing women from making strides forward; and might that not be a backward step?

Monday, 22 September 2008

Remembering Ruth

Today is the anniversary of my sister's death. Ruth died of breast cancer on September 22nd 1997, at the age of 33, less than a month after her twins' second birthdays. Why should today matter more than any other day? I'm not sure, because I still think of her every day, and I always will, for she is part of me, written into my heart. But there is something about anniversaries... A friend of mine, whose sister also died too young, as did her mother, said to me today, 'If the dates stopped gnawing, it would be terrible. Think of the emptiness.' And I knew exactly what she meant. Love and loss are woven together; which is perhaps why we light candles on birthdays, and on anniversaries of death. Tonight, there is a candle burning in our house for my sister; its flame is bright in the darkness.

Sunday, 21 September 2008

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you're in need of creature comfort

Today's bibliotherapy prescription is Virginia Woolf's 'Flush', her biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's dog. Yes, I know, the pictures posted here are of my dog, Molly -- who has a far less exalted pedigree than Flush -- but I hope you don't mind, because she is a wonderfully comforting companion. The picture above was taken on the beach at Lantic Bay, after walking there from Fowey. It's the steepest descent -- and ascent -- to any Cornish beach that I know of, hence the fact that we are both exhausted. The other picture is taken on the footpath from Llansallos to Polruan: a spectacular cliff-top walk, which passes the little coastguard's hut where Daphne du Maurier had her romantic wartime assignations...
Anyway, back to Virginia Woolf... you don't have to be a dog-lover to love this book. It's about sickness and health, confinement and escape, freedom and liberty and wonderment. You can read the piece online at the Telegraph, or below. If you do read it online, please feel free to post your own suggestions for future columns on the Telegraph website. Or here, if you prefer....

If having a pet is good therapy, then reading about a dog can be almost as consoling. Best of all is Virginia Woolf’s ‘Flush’, a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel that traces his story from puppyhood in the English countryside to his death in Italy at the age of 14.

Written in 1932, as light relief to recover from the strain of finishing ‘The Waves’, ‘Flush’ was as therapeutic for its author as the eponymous hero had been to his owner. The spaniel offered companionship to Elizabeth Barrett during her cloistered years as an invalid in an airless back bedroom of her father’s London house; though Woolf (who had suffered the confinements of mental illness) makes it clear in her dog’s life that this was no life at all; not for Flush, or his mistress. “He had refused the air and sun for her sake… he was a dog in the full prime of life – and still Miss Barrett lay on her sofa in Wimpole Street and still Flush lay on the sofa at her feet.” The poet’s existence was that of ‘a bird in a cage’; and her loyal spaniel was caged alongside her, apart from outings to Regent’s Park, where ‘dogs must be led on chains’.

But both dog and woman were set free from the tyrannies of Wimpole Street by the intervention of Robert Browning. Miss Barrett eloped with him to Italy in 1846, taking her dog with her, and there they discovered the pleasures of life. Mrs Browning was restored to health (“instead of sipping a thimbleful of port and complaining of the headache, she tossed off a tumbler of Chianti… and broke another orange from the branch”); she became a mother, and Flush fathered puppies of his own.

By fully inhabiting Flush, the author seems more than a Woolf in dog’s clothing; or as her nephew Quentin Bell observed, “‘Flush’ is not so much a book by a dog lover as a book by someone who would love to be a dog.” Too often ignored by academics or dismissed by critics as whimsy, ‘Flush’ is a reminder of what we might learn from dogs; not least of which is playfulness.

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Bibliotherapy 2

This week's Bibliotherapy is about one of my favourite books -- Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. It's a complete joy whenever I return to it (which is often), and though I didn't have enough space to write about the Branwell Bronte connection in my Sunday Telegraph column this week, there is an excellent one, in the form of the misguided Mr Mybug, who is writing a biography of the Bronte brother: "'Yes, it's goin' to be damn good,' said Mr Mybug. 'It's a psychological study, of course, and I've got a lot of new matter, including three letters he wrote to an old aunt in Ireland, Mrs Prunty, during the period he was working on Wuthering Heights... You see, it's obvious that it's his book and not Emily's. No woman could have written that. It's male stuff... I've worked out a theory about his drunkenness, too -- you see, he wasn't really a drunkard. He was a tremendous genius, a sort of second Chatterton -- and his sisters hated him because of his genius.'"
Mr Mybug's theory becomes even more misguided (sadly, there is no record of whether Symington or Daphne du Maurier ever read Stella Gibbon's novel, which was published in 1932); it's so wonderfully mad that I've got to quote a bit more... He claims that the Bronte sisters were alcoholics intent on stealing their teetotal brother's work, in order to 'sell it to buy more drink... They were all drunkards, but Anne was the worst of the lot. Branwell, who adored her, used to pretend to get drunk at the Black Bull in order to get gin for Anne... Secretly, he worked twelves hours a day writing Shirley and Villette -- and of course, Wuthering Heights. I've proved all this by evidence from the three letters to old Mrs Prunty.' Needless to say, the three old letters are about nothing but the weather...
Anyway, you can read the column here in the Sunday Telegraph. Or below here, if that's easier...) But if you haven't yet read 'Cold Comfort Farm', then please do get hold of a copy, and discover it for yourself. It's better for the spirits than gin...

Having lived in London most of my life, there are moments when I find myself longing for rural seclusion. But as a teenager, after a family crisis necessitated that we abandon the city and move to a dilapidated Welsh farmhouse at the dead-end of a pot-holed track, I loathed it, and sank into gloom as deep as the surrounding mud. What saved me – or so it seemed at the time – was the discovery in a local library of “Cold Comfort Farm”, a novel by Stella Gibbons, originally published in 1932. The title appeared to me to be an exact description of my new dwelling, and I took myself off to read it halfway up an oak tree (a place I often retreated to in order to avoid the acres of manure and swampy ground).

Within minutes, I was laughing, and also comforted by the resourceful heroine, Flora Poste, a sensible, sophisticated girl who leaves London to live with her distant relatives, the Starkadders, after she is orphaned at 20. Her new home, Cold Comfort Farm, “was crouched on a bleak hill-side, whence its fields, fanged with flints, dropped steeply to the village of Howling a mile away”. Its sullen inhabitants believe themselves to be as doomed as their gangrenous cows, but Flora sorts everyone out, introducing contraception, chic dress sense, improved cleaning methods and a Hollywood agent to the household.

When I first read the novel, I had no idea that it was written as a parody of previous rural melodramas, nor that Stella Gibbons had a thoroughly urban upbringing, albeit in a family as dysfunctional as the Starkadders. But “Cold Comfort Farm” remains as fresh and funny now as it ever was, wherever you live, and the perfect antidote to grey skies, grumpy relatives and something nasty in the woodshed.

Sunday, 7 September 2008


I've started writing a new column called 'Bibliotherapy', and the first one is published in Seven, in the Sunday Telegraph, today. I hope the title is self-explanatory -- I wanted to write about what to read at different times in one's life, in order to find some consoling words. Anyway, here it is, but if you read it on the Telegraph website, there should be a place where you can suggest your own ideas for future columns. All suggestions gratefully received!

There are times in one’s life when a good book – the right book – feels like a voice speaking in the darkness, or a hand reaching out from the past; providing solace when all else seems lost. Thus it was when I was 18, and heartbroken; awash with tearful misery until a friend’s mother gave me a second hand copy of “Dusty Answer”, Rosamond Lehmann’s coming-of-age classic that was first published in 1927. I devoured it overnight.

The title is taken from George Meredith’s poem, ‘Modern Love’ – ‘Ah, what a dusty answer gets the soul/ When hot for certainties in this our life!’ – and its themes, of passion betrayed and love lost, were to recur in Lehmann’s subsequent novels. All remain relevant now, especially in times of emotional turmoil; but her debut, telling the story of Judith Earle, and her passage from lovelorn adolescent to the verge of clear-sighted adulthood, has an emotional intensity that subsequent generations have recognised as their own, so that a myriad individual stories seem to be reflected within this book in particular.

Lehmann wrote “Dusty Answer” in her mid-twenties, when she was still young enough to remember the agony of a crushing rejection she’d received as a Cambridge undergraduate, from a handsome old Etonian who seemed on the verge of proposing to her after a whirlwind romance, but turned out to be engaged to another girl. In ‘Dusty Answer’, Judith falls for Roddy Fyfe – who is careless and inscrutable and irresistible – only to be discarded after a single, summer’s night of lovemaking. Over 80 years after the novel was written, Roddy’s callous dismissal is as recognisably cruel as any 21st century account of rejection; for when Judith confesses she has loved him ever since they were children, he responds with silence, and “a face as smooth and cold as a stone”.

Like the rest of us, Rosamond Lehmann went on to suffer other heartbreaks – most devastating of all was the end of her affair with the poet, Cecil Day Lewis, which is fictionalised in her later novel, ‘The Echoing Grove’. But the conclusion of her first book gives some consolation in its suggestion that heartbreak, however painful, can be a beginning, rather than a bitter ending. “She had nobody now except herself, and that was best… This was to be happy – this emptiness, this light uncoloured state… Soon she must begin to think: What next?”

Friday, 5 September 2008

The American cover of Daphne

I've just read Rob Hardy's review of Daphne. It's made my day (my week, my month!). Incidentally, he's mentioned that he prefers the British cover. I wonder what other people think?

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Back to the future

There's something in the air that feels very autumnal -- the leaves are already falling on the plane trees outside our house, and there is a chill in the evenings. My son went back to school on Monday, and I'm back to work. Not that I stopped working altogether in August -- in fact, I had quite a lot of journalism to do -- but somehow, this week seems like the real return to... what, exactly? I was about to say, 'reality', but work shouldn't necessarily be any more 'real' than everything else we do with our time.
So what have I been doing? Well, kind of drifting along through August, when London is at its quietest. Thinking about how to do a film treatment of 'Daphne' (which I've been trying to finish this summer). Playing cards with my family. Walking the dog. Taking our elderly cat to the vet. You know, the nuts and bolts of life...
Now, I'm thinking, ok, time to get on with it. (What? Not sure, exactly.) Which reminds me of the fortune-telling stones I came across in July, at the bridge over Pont Creek. I'd walked there from Ferryside, at Boddinick by Fowey, and was on my way to the church at Lanteglos, where Daphne du Maurier married Tommy Browning on July 19th 1937. As it happens, I was there on their wedding anniversary, though I didn't actually realise it -- not consciously -- that day. Perhaps this means I was living in the moment, for once... not thinking about the past, or worrying about the future. At the risk of sounding glib, the present can be the best present of all... And no, I didn't ask a question...