Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Mary Poppins and P.L.Travers

I just wrote a piece for the Sunday Telegraph about P.L Travers, which was published the day before yesterday, but here's the link, in case anyone wants to see it. Regular visitors to this blog may remember the ongoing conversations and comments about Travers -- she has fascinated me for a long time, and I know that some of you are equally intrigued by her (Henri and Gondal Girl both recommended Valerie Lawson's biography of Travers, 'Mary Poppins, She Wrote', which is very comprehensively researched). And I still love the original books -- they're so much darker than the Disney version, but when I was re-reading them earlier this month, I was drawn straight back into that world that I loved as a child. I think it's something to do with the mixture of the magical and the everyday -- tea and toast and taking flight... And I was always haunted by Chapter 3 of 'Mary Poppins Comes Back', when Jane goes through the crack into the willow pattern plate. It terrified me as a small girl, but there must have been pleasure mixed in with the terror; because otherwise, why did I keep on re-reading it? That episode -- 'Bad Wednesday' -- was one of the inspirations for my first novel, 'Wish I May'. I don't think I've ever told anyone that until now.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read on Halloween

“Nobody knows better than a ghost how hard it is to put him or her into words shadowy, yet transparent enough,” wrote Edith Wharton. “If a ghost story sends a cold shiver down one’s spine, it has done its job and done it well.” But that cold shiver is often mingled with a warm glow – for a ghost story is traditionally told by firelight, and its chilling effect accompanied by a pleasurable companionship between the teller of the tale and those to whom it is told.

My own particular favourites are contained in The Virago Book of Ghost Stories, which includes Wharton’s uncanny masterpiece, The Eyes, and Mrs Gaskell’s equally eerie narrative, The Old Nurse’s Story. I’d recommend the entire anthology, but Mrs Gaskell’s is best of all on a dark autumnal evening, when the clocks have just gone back; for her tale rewinds time, yet is also a reminder that there is no going back, even though the past returns to haunt us over and over again. ‘What is done in youth can never be undone in age!’

I don’t want to spoil a fine ghost story by revealing too many of its details; suffice to say it concerns a past crime, a living child and a ghostly one, and two dead mothers. Elizabeth Gaskell’s own mother died soon after her birth, and like the little girl in ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’, she was sent away to live with an older aunt. The infant Elizabeth was dispatched from London to Knutsford (which she later transformed into Cranford), but the orphaned Rosamond, whose nursemaid narrates the ghost story, is sent even further north, to the brooding Furnivall Manor in the Cumberland Fells.

Gaskell wrote the story in 1852, one of a series of commissions by Charles Dickens for his magazine, Household Words, though she ignored his increasingly exasperated requests to change her ending. Her resolution was heartfelt; for having lost her mother, she also knew the grief of losing a child, and had embarked upon writing after the death of her baby son, in the understanding that a story must feel true to its teller, if it is to draw back the veil between the living and the dead.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

If anyone lives in Surrey...

... I'm going to be there on Monday evening, speaking about 'Daphne' at the Bluehouse Festival in Oxted. Please do come! I've never been to Oxted, but my fantasy version has it in the midst of a Jane Austen landscape. The truth will become clear on Monday...

Monday, 20 October 2008

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you're scrimping and saving

Now that an age of austerity has returned, and spendthrift ways must be abandoned, I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite books, a dog-eared second-hand copy of ‘Flowers for Mrs Harris’ by Paul Gallico. It was written in 1957, at a time when post-war hardship was not yet distant history, and tells the story of a widow whose life has been one of endless drudgery.

Mrs Ada Harris lives in a basement flat in Battersea, earning three shillings an hour cleaning for clients in Belgravia: ‘She worked ten hours a day, six days a week, fifty-two weeks in the year.’ After her bills are paid, she hoards the leftover pennies for plants, lovingly tending a window box of geraniums, and occasionally ‘a single hyacinth or tulip, bought from a barrow for a hard-earned shilling.’

One day, in the course of her duties for the fashionable wife of a wealthy industrial baron, Mrs Harris sees two beautiful Dior gowns, and is seized by the desire to own a similar dress. The cost is astronomical -- £450 – and in order to save a sufficient amount from her meagre earnings, she embarks on a lengthy period of self-denial (walking to work instead of taking the bus, mending the holes in her shoes with newspaper), boosted by a modest win on the pools. Finally, after two years, seven months, three weeks and one day, Mrs Harris has scraped together the price of the dress and her airfare to Paris, and sets off for the House of Dior.

Her journey involves several mishaps, but Mrs Harris prevails, and at last takes possession of her heart’s desire: a Dior dress with the apt label of ‘Temptation’, a creation of ‘wondrous, frothy foam of seashell pink, sea-cream and pearl white’. Back in London, however, it catches fire and is ruined on its first outing, after the charlady lends it to a selfish young actress. Grief-stricken, Mrs Harris weeps for the loss of the dress and her dreams, but finding solace in the flowers sent by new-found comrades in Paris, she – like the reader – is reminded of the pleasure and treasure of friendship, humanity’s saving grace when material assets go up in smoke.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you have writer's block

This is one of my favourite ever books. I've loved it ever since I first read it as a teenager, and I love it still. It's a wonderful story -- funny, moving, tender, intelligent -- and brilliantly constructed in the form of a diary, that manages to move effortlessly between the past and present tense (a clever balancing act that Dodie Smith makes look easy, though it's actually a difficult technique to get right). It has an excellent opening sentence -- "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink" -- and an equally pleasing ending, which I won't give away for those of you who haven't yet read it.
One of my most inspiring former editors -- actually, make that a mentor -- gave me a beautiful first edition when my first novel came out; the handwritten name inside the frontispiece is Brownie Heinemann, who I assume was one of the publishing family (Dodie Smith was published by William Heinemann Ltd).
Anyway, I could rhapsodize for hours about 'I Capture The Castle', but here's a little column in the Sunday Telegraph instead.

There are many good reasons to read Dodie Smith’s “I Capture The Castle”: it provides excellent advice about dressing on a budget (dye all your clothes sea-green); how to cope when the man you love falls for your older sister (keep a diary) and your stepmother dances naked in the rain (ditto). Given that most teenagers believe their parents to be mad – and vice versa – the novel also serves as a helpful guide to recognising the fine line between eccentricity and outright insanity.

The 17-year-old narrator, Cassandra Mortmain, lives with her family in a dilapidated castle; the household is sliding into penury, as her father, the author of an unusual book called “Jacob Wrestling”, has suffered from writer’s block for years. After serving three months in prison a decade previously – for brandishing a cake knife at his wife, and hitting a neighbour who was attempting to intervene – Mr Mortmain has become reclusive, veering from silence to occasional violence with little in the way of warning.

Eventually, Cassandra and her younger brother decide that their father is sufficiently unhinged to need psychoanalysis, but given that none is available in rural Suffolk, they lock him up in a nearby tower, in an attempt to start him writing again. “He may be a borderline case,” says Cassandra, “madness and genius are very close to each other, aren’t they? If only we could push him the right way.”

When I first read the novel, I was the same age as Cassandra, and similarly preoccupied by my own father’s eccentricities. He, too, was a writer, and it occurred to me that if only there was a handy tower, it might be the best place for him. Now that I am a writer myself – older than my father was then; and doubtless older than Mr Mortmain – I understand the difficulties of trying to start a new novel, let alone finish one, and how the whole business can drive you crazy. In fact, I often long for a convenient castle in which to retreat, where I could dye my clothes green, commune with nature, wield a cake knife, and possibly – just possibly – get on with my next book.

Monday, 6 October 2008

What to read when you're tempted by infidelity

This week's Bibliotherapy column is about Evelyn Waugh's 'A Handful of Dust'. I wish -- as is often the case -- that I'd had more room to write about this. It's a masterpiece, as we already know, but what I didn't realise until I'd started researching the story behind the novel is that it was written in the aftermath of Waugh's divorce, when his wife left him for a young man named John Heygate. (The Waughs shared a flat in Canonbury at the time with Nancy Mitford; she was close to both husband and wife, but after the affair became public, she ended her friendship with Mrs Waugh as a mark of loyalty to him). Heygate was himself a writer -- the author of five little-read novels -- and he killed himself in 1976. Perhaps I'm wrong, but his life seems to have been lived in the shadow of 'A Handful of Dust'... with consequences as bleak as those in the plot of Waugh's novel. Anyway, here's the column:

All this fuss about sleeping together,” wrote Evelyn Waugh in ‘Vile Bodies’. “For physical pleasure I’d sooner go to my dentist any day.” He may or may not have been teasing, but a reading of his later novel, ‘A Handful of Dust’ is enough to put anyone off having an affair, however great the temptation.

Waugh wrote the book in the aftermath of the collapse of his first marriage to Evelyn Gardner (their friends called them He-Evelyn and She-Evelyn), when he was feeling utterly humiliated by his wife’s affair with a writer named John Heygate. “Evelyn’s defection was preceded by no kind of quarrel or estrangement,” Waugh wrote in a letter to his parents. “So far as I knew we were both serenely happy.” The shock of this sudden betrayal permeates ‘A Handful of Dust’, a novel described by his friend Harold Acton as “written in blood”, in which a faithless wife, Brenda Last, cuckolds her husband Tony with a worthless lover, also called John. Even Brenda admits that John Beaver is dreary – “he’s second-rate and a snob and… cold as a fish” – but she nevertheless deserts her husband for him.

Even worse, when her son – another John – is killed in an accident, Brenda reveals herself to be more concerned about her lover than her only child. By the end of the novel, the affair has fizzled out; Brenda remarries one of her husband’s friends, while Tony is imprisoned in the South American jungle by the sinister Mr Todd, and condemned to an endless re-reading of Dickens. Unlike Dickens’ tales, there is to be no happy ending; this is as bleak as Waugh gets (hence his use of T.S Eliot’s lines from ‘The Waste Land’ in the novel’s title and epigraph, ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust…’).

Waugh himself converted to Catholicism and his second marriage lasted a lifetime; but Evelyn and John Heygate were divorced in 1936. Both of them remarried again, though Heygate’s life and career as a writer seem to have been overshadowed by his part in Waugh’s divorce. Some years afterwards, Heygate wrote to Waugh asking for his forgiveness. His answer came in a postcard: ‘OK – EW.’ John Heygate committed suicide in 1976.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Last night I dreamed...

I was asked to write a short story last year, for Radio 4, about Daphne du Maurier -- it was first broadcast in May 2007, to coincide with the centenary of her birth, and was repeated again earlier this evening. Here's the link, if you'd like to listen to it -- Anna Massey read it for Radio 4, and she was completely brilliant. She brought something extra to the story -- gave it more depth, I think. And of course, she was an unforgettable Mrs Danvers in 'Rebecca'.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Literary landscapes

I'm off to Knutsford tomorrow, to speak at the Literature Festival, and I'm really looking forward to seeing the place where Mrs Gaskell lived, and transformed into Cranford. It's the ideal setting to talk about 'Daphne', too, given that my novel is partly about real and fictional landscapes, and the blurring of the boundaries between the two; and how writers are inspired by actual places, which also come to represent emotional territories; and then of course there's the way that truth and fiction are woven together into a myth (by Mrs Gaskell in "The Life of Charlotte Bronte", and Daphne du Maurier in "The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte"); all of which I'm trying to explore in 'Daphne'.
After Knutsford, I'll be rushing to the Literature Festival at Ilkley -- a Yorkshire town much liked by Charlotte Bronte. As Juliet Barker writes in her excellent book, "The Brontes", Charlotte visited there in 1853 with her friend, Miss Wooler. "The two friends could wander the wide, tree-lined streets, admire the grand new hotels, visit the mineral water spa on the hillside above the town and walk up to the moors where the skyline was dominated by the sombre outline of the Cow and Calf rocks."
Sadly, I'll have no time to sample such delights -- it's straight back to London for me, via a late train from Leeds...