Saturday, 31 January 2009

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you're on a diet

Even if you’ve never heard of Frances Cornford, you may have come across her most frequently anthologised poem, ‘To a Fat Lady Seen from a Train’, originally published in 1910, with its memorable opening lines: ‘O why do you walk through the fields in gloves,/ Missing so much and so much?/ O fat white woman whom nobody loves,/ Why do you walk through the fields in gloves…’

Pictures of Frances Cornford reveal her to have been dark-eyed and slender; the opposite, in fact, of a pale portly lady. She was born in 1886, the granddaughter of Charles Darwin (whose bicentennial birthday will be celebrated this month), and the only daughter of Sir Frank Darwin. Like her grandfather and father, Frances suffered from debilitating episodes of depression; her first breakdown occurred at 17, after the death of her mother, and lasted for several years, though by 1909 she had recovered sufficiently to marry Francis Cornford, a young Cambridge Classics don.

The Darwinian tendency to melancholy – entwined with a puritanical attitude to eating – is revealed in the account of a family picnic to celebrate Frances’ marriage. Her cousin, Gwen Raverat, described the dismal outing in a memoir, accompanied by a sketch of various gloomy Darwins in a field, with a scant amount of food: “… the climax came when it was found that [the tea] had all been sugared beforehand. This was inexpressible calamity. They all hated sugar in their tea. Besides it was Immoral. Uncle Frank said, with extreme bitterness: ‘It’s not the sugar I mind, but the Folly of it.’… at his words the hopelessness and the hollowness of a world where everything goes wrong, came flooding over us…”

Poor Frances endured further breakdowns, but it remains unclear whether her depression was worsened by G.K Chesterton – a famously large man – in his scathing riposte, ‘The Fat White Woman Speaks’: ‘Why do you rush through the fields in trains,/ Guessing so much and so much./ Why do you flash through the flowery meads,/ Fat-head poet that nobody reads…’

If the lonely fat lady doesn’t keep you on a diet, perhaps it’s for the best; after all, as Cornford’s life amply demonstrates, thinness isn’t necessarily conducive to happiness, for sometimes we need sweetness and light.

Note: I've posted the link to the photograph [above], which is owned by the National Portrait Gallery. I love this picture, by Janet Stone, for several reasons. I like to think she's drinking a cup of tea, rather than coffee, and who knows whether it might have a spoonful of sugar in it? It was taken in later life, thereby proving that Frances Cornford survived her dreadful bouts of depression and mental anguish. And she has such a wonderful, questioning expression on her face... almost like a bird of prey.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

In bed with...

This may or may not be your cup of tea (and tea isn't necessarily what you'd drink while reading it), but I thought I should draw your attention to a new anthology that I've contributed to, which is published this week. There's been a lot in the press about it in the last few days, including a very interesting piece by Libby Brooks in today's Guardian. I have taken a vow of secrecy not to reveal my pseudonym, as have the other contributors to the book of short stories, but there's a lot of guessing going on in the media... If any of you do guess correctly (and I'm guessing one of you will, as intuitive, skillful readers), please don't give the secret away in public!

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Not sure if this is going to work...

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you're trying to stop drinking

January has always seemed to me the worst time of year to give anything up – surely we need the comforts of chocolate or red wine now more than ever? – but anyone who is intent on sticking to their New Year resolutions of self-denial, yet wavering as the month goes on, might find their resolve strengthened by reading ‘Liars in Love’, a collection of short stories by Richard Yates.

An American writer with a cult following, Yates nevertheless died in near- obscurity in 1992, having effectively drank and smoked himself to death. His posthumous fame has risen with the release of the film adaptation of his novel, ‘Revolutionary Road’, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio, a bleak tale in which the protagonists drink too much Bourbon, smoke too many cigarettes, and suffer miserable fates. But if that’s too big a dose of depression, and therefore as likely to send you back to the bottle, then reading ‘Liars in Love’ might be more effective a remedy, as a series of short, sharp shocks.

The title story of the collection takes place in London in the early 1950s where the central character, Warren, is a young American who has moved there with his wife and small child. The marriage is rocky, and the wife returns to New York with their daughter (as happened to Yates, too, in 1951). Warren becomes involved with a prostitute – a ‘Piccadilly commando’ – who is the mother of a baby girl. While the baby sleeps, the adults get drunk on gin, have sex, fight, and lie to each other; compulsively so, in the case of the prostitute, in order to glamorize her life, though the young man is able to escape from London, back to New York and his wife.

In reality, Yates continued to drink, but even as everything fell apart around him (marriages, finances, sanity), his writing retained its lucidity. Such is its crystalline precision – of dialogue, atmosphere, despair – that his fiction continues to serve as a warning of how alcohol leads to disgrace and collapse, yet his life remains oddly heroic. He may have been a drunk, but he never lost his resolve as a writer; and therefore never gave up.

Liberty prints

I've decided to broaden the scope of the blog a bit, and introduce a little more of what I write about fashion, given that I do it every week in my column for Stella (the Sunday Telegraph magazine). Hope you enjoy it... Here's today's, and please let me know what you think!

One of my earliest memories of fashion – though fashion seems an inaccurate word to use for the things that thread together our past – is the childhood clothes that my mother sewed out of Liberty Tana Lawn; the lovingly smocked dresses for my sister and I, with tiny versions for our dolls, made from remnants bought in the January sales.

Recently, I’ve noticed that the mere mention of the words ‘Liberty prints’ is enough to make grown women turn misty-eyed, persuading several working mothers of my acquaintance to stay up into the small hours, sewing Tana Lawn dresses for their daughters as an act of maternal devotion. Those of us with less nimble fingers, but still harbouring a continuing passion for Liberty, can choose from a new collection of the prints at Gap (skirts and shirts for £45 apiece); or Kate Moss’s forthcoming range at Topshop, based on fabrics from the Liberty archives. These include an original Art Nouveau design, updated with new colours, a cheering red poppy print, and a lilac floral silk scattered with bluebells (a fabric now christened Lila-bell, in honour of Moss’s daughter).

Who knows quite what Arthur Liberty, the founding father of the company, would have made of these ventures (or the forthcoming fabrics for next winter, designed by the Turner-prize winning artist Grayson Perry, who wears bespoke Liberty print frocks)? But one hopes he would have approved, given that his stated wish, upon opening the Liberty shop in 1875, was to provide an opportunity for customers to buy ‘beautiful and affordable things’. As for why the Liberty archive of 40,000 fabrics should now be so influential – drawn upon by Nike and Luella Bartley, amongst others – well, perhaps it’s a sign of the times; a safe haven of prettily-coloured floral nostalgia, when the future is ashen-grey.

Not that Liberty isn’t looking forward: its various collaborations include an innovative project with Central St Martin’s College of Art, where the students are designing reinterpretations of the archive floral prints. And for those of us who are old enough to remember our mothers’ handiwork, but too young to have been properly schooled in needlecraft, there’s a new series of sewing classes at Liberty, starting in early March. (The courses cost from £35).

With this in mind, I’m off to buy some thrifty remnants from the haberdashery department, because who says austerity can’t also be beautiful? That’s the theory, anyway, though if you spot me in the dunce’s corner of the sewing class, at least I’ll be wearing a readymade Gap Liberty print blouse…

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Bibliotherapy: What to read in an English January

We’re about to face the most depressing week of the year – at least according to a mathematical equation which calculates misery according to lack of daylight, mounting debt, failing resolutions, and fading Christmas cheer – and the traditional remedy for January blues (booking a summer holiday abroad) won’t be available to most of us, given the plummeting pound and dire job prospects. Which is why I am re-reading ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ for the umpteenth time, as a reminder of the delights of England.

The fact that Nancy Mitford was living in France when she wrote the novel (first published in 1949) might explain its evocativeness, born out of a powerful nostalgia for a place that is both imaginary, and also vividly real. For ‘Love in a Cold Climate’ is a hymn to Englishness; or as Philip Hensher observes of it, ‘Everyone returns, in the end, from Paris or India or Sicily to England, and everywhere else seems thin and inadequate besides the ecstatic vision of the land.’

There are those, of course, who will dismiss Mitford’s work as snobbish or unrealistic, or point out that her description of the privileged classes in a vanished era no longer has any contemporary relevance. But that argument could equally well be applied to Jane Austen, and life would be sadder without these most English of novelists. If Mitford takes her title from a line in George Orwell’s ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’ – ‘It is not easy to make love in a cold climate when you have no money’ – then her account of the struggle to find love, and in doing so upsetting the conventions of social order, is no less subversive. After all, Cedric Hampton, one of Mitford’s most memorable heroes, is a homosexual from Nova Scotia, who proves himself to be sufficiently lovable to thaw the disapproval of his new-found English relatives.

Hence Cedric forms the antidote to wintry discontent; and as Fanny, the novel’s narrator, declares at the outcome, ‘I thought the whole thing simply splendid, since I like my fellow-beings to be happy and the new state of affairs at Hampton had so greatly increased the sum of human happiness.’ Which is, perhaps, the only sum that truly matters, even as more bills thump through the letterbox this month.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

The Yellow Wallpaper

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have been banging the drum for this novel for a while, so apologies if it seems like I'm repeating myself. But anyway, there's a new edition out, with an excellent introduction by Maggie O'Farrell, and it also contains a selection of Charlotte Perkins Gilman's other writings, including some chapters from her autobiography, which is fascinating. I wrote a piece about it in today's issue of Stella in the Sunday Telegraph, which I'm also posting here...

‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ is often described as a masterpiece, though its authoress, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, might have objected to that particular term, for she was an early feminist who wrote the story, in part to escape the mastery of male doctors and to become the mistress of her own destiny. Since its rediscovery in the 1970s by a new generation of women, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has become a cult classic, passed on by word of mouth (even, somewhat bizarrely, inspiring Marios Schwab’s fashion collection last autumn); and its status is likely to grow now that Virago is reissuing a new edition. But when Gilman wrote this eerie novella in 1890, fictionalising her own catastrophic nervous breakdown after the birth of her daughter, and her treatment by a leading physician, Dr S. Weir Mitchell, she had to battle to get it into print.

The editor of the Atlantic Monthly gave it a curt rejection, which Gilman recounts in her memoir (extracts of which are also included in the forthcoming Virago edition of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’). ‘Dear Madam,’ wrote the editor in a brief note, ‘I could not forgive myself if I made others as miserable as I have made myself.’ When Gilman’s novella was eventually published in The New England Magazine, in May 1891, it elicited a number of angry letters, including one from a doctor who protested, ‘The story can hardly, it would seem, give pleasure to any reader… such literature contains deadly peril. Should such stories be allowed to pass without severest censure?’

Over a century later, ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ has lost nothing of its unsettling power – the kind that troubled its early readers, and enthrals many more of us now -- but what is it that makes it such a profoundly disturbing story to read? The answer, I think, lies in its urgent immediacy, born out of Gilman’s own experience of mental illness, and the horror of what follows by way of ‘treatment’. The narrator, a nameless young woman who has a small baby, is suffering from what she describes at the start as a ‘temporary nervous depression – a slight hysterical tendency.’ This is the label her illness has been given by her husband – a physician – and also her brother, another doctor. The treatment prescribed by her husband is rest – ‘[I] am absolutely forbidden to ‘work’ until I am well again’ – and with this aim, she is confined to the top floor room of a large country house that he has rented for the purpose.

‘Personally, I believe that congenial work, with excitement and change, would do me good,’ she observes. ‘But what is one to do?’ The terrible, stifling prescription is that she must do nothing – she must not write, cannot see friends, her baby is cared for by a nursemaid – and soon, she finds the only freedom allowed her is to examine the peeling yellow wallpaper around her. ‘I never saw a worse paper in my life,’ she writes in her secret journal. ‘It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate and provoke study, and when you follow the lame uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide – plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard of contradictions… The colour is repellent, almost revolting; a smouldering unclean yellow, strangely faded by the slow-turning sunlight.’

Before long, the narrator has begun to perceive the figure of a woman behind the sinister pattern, and then more women – some beneath the monstrous Gothic design, others creeping in the landscape beyond her barred windows – until eventually, driven mad by her confinement (quite literally, bored out of her mind), she peels the wallpaper away from the walls, and joins the shadowy figures around her. ‘I wonder if they all come out of the wallpaper as I did? … I suppose I shall have to get back behind the pattern when it comes night, and that is hard! It is so pleasant to be out in this great room and creep around as I please!’

The horror of the story – for it is, in a very real sense, creepy – is manifest without one knowing anything of the biography of its writer; but nevertheless, Gilman’s life is as disturbing, in some ways, as the yellow wallpaper, and certainly contains several similar ‘contradictions’. Born in Connecticut on July 3rd 1860 to Mary and Frederic Beecher Perkins, she was the youngest of three children born over three years; the first died at birth, the second was a son, Thomas, and Charlotte followed just over a year later. ‘The doctor said that if my mother had another baby she would die,’ wrote Gilman in her autobiography. ‘Presently my father left home. Whether the doctor’s dictum was the reason or merely a reason I do not know. What I do know is that my childhood had no father.’

Gilman clearly suffered from the absence of her father (a librarian and editor who wrote infrequent letters, but occasionally sent books to his children), and also from the absence of affection shown to her by her mother. According to her memoir, her mother gave her children ‘tireless service, intense and efficient care, and the concentrated devotion of a lifetime’ but never displayed any tenderness: ‘… still suffering for lack of a husband’s love, she heroically determined that her baby daughter should not so suffer if she could help it. Her method was to deny the child all expression of affection as far as possible, so that she should not be used to it or long for it. “I used to put away your little hand from my cheek when you were a nursing baby,” she told me in later years… She would not let me caress her, and would not caress me, unless I was asleep.’

Little wonder, then, that Gilman suffered what might now be diagnosed as postnatal depression after the birth of her own daughter. In 1884, she had married the artist Charles Stetson, and their baby, Katharine, was born the following year. Even before the birth, despite her husband’s solicitude, she was sinking into depression. ‘A lover more tender, a husband more devoted, woman could not ask. He helped in the housework more and more as my strength began to fail, for something was going wrong from the first… A sort of gray fog drifted across my mind, a cloud that grew and thickened.’ After the birth, her depression worsened, and Charlotte’s mother arrived ‘to take care of the darling, I being incapable of doing that – or anything else, a mental wreck… I lay all day on the lounge and cried.’

Gilman was diagnosed as having ‘nervous prostration’, though her suffering was far more intense than the phrase suggests: ‘This disorder involved a growing melancholia, and that, as those who know who have tasted it, consists of every painful mental sensation, shame, fear, remorse, a blind oppressive confusion, utter weakness, a steady brain-ache that fills the conscious mind with crowding images of distress.’ Saddest of all, given Gilman’s own upbringing, starved of affection, she now found herself weeping while breastfeeding her baby: ‘… instead of love and happiness, [I would] feel only pain. The tears ran down on my breast… Nothing was more utterly bitter than this, that even motherhood brought no joy.’

After consulting Dr Mitchell – ‘at that time the greatest nerve specialist in the country’ – Gilman was ordered to take ‘the rest cure’. ‘I was put to bed and kept there. I was fed, bathed, rubbed… after a month of this agreeable treatment he sent me home, with this prescription: “Live as domestic a life as possible… And never touch pen, brush or pencil as long as you live.”’ She returned home, followed Dr Mitchell’s instructions, ‘and came perilously near to losing my mind… I would crawl into remote closets and under beds – to hide from the grinding pressure of that profound distress.’

Eventually, in 1887, Gilman decided that the only way to recover was to separate from her husband, and she set off to California with her daughter to earn her own living. ‘There was no quarrel… but it seemed plain that if I went crazy it would do my husband no good, and be a deadly injury to my child.’ Feminists have ascribed her recovery to this decision to become an independent woman, yet Gilman herself described her subsequent years as ‘a crippled life’. True, she became a successful writer and lecturer, but when her daughter was nine, she sent her back to the East Coast to live with her ex-husband and his second wife. Gilman justified her decision as being entirely rational: ‘Since her second mother was fully as good as the first, better in some ways perhaps; since the father longed for his child and had a right to some of her society; and since the child had a right to know and love her father – I did not mean her to suffer the losses of my youth – this seemed the right thing to do.’ What she did not seem aware of was that in some complicated, contradictory fashion, she was reworking the pattern of her own childhood; as if in the belief that she could prevent her daughter’s suffering by denying her the physical presence of a loving mother.

Yet unlike the narrator of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’, Gilman did not become a creeping lunatic, hidden away from the world in a top-floor bedroom. She travelled widely, remarried (to her cousin, Houghton Gilman), and became a role model to subsequent generations of women (despite her somewhat unsavoury views on racial purity, about which academic debate still rumbles). But perhaps her lasting achievement should not be as feminist heroine, but as the writer of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’ – and the survivor who unlocked the door of the madwoman in the attic, and lived to tell the tale.