Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Great Expectations and the women in white...

Great Expectations -- a book that demands to be re-read at the beginning of any New Year -- is my favourite of all Dickens' novels, and Miss Havisham survives (for me, as for legions of other readers) as one of the most remarkably potent literary creations; the quintessential gothic bride, the eeriest woman in white, who has haunted my own writing and dreams since the first time I discovered Great Expectations as a child. So it was always going to be difficult to watch the BBC's new adaptation without some feeling of disappointment at what, inevitably, had to be left out. And yes, I missed the scene in which Magwitch rises up from the graves of Pip's family, and the kindly Biddy (although perhaps she will appear in the second episode tonight?); but thus far, it has been brilliantly executed. Gillian Anderson is inspired as Miss Havisham, and the landscape of the muddy marshes is as powerfully evocative as the shadowy Satis House and its abandoned wedding feast, still untouched, even as it decays and turns to dust.
All of which reminds me of the threads between several other women in white that intrigued and perplexed me while I was writing 'My Mother's Wedding Dress'; from the Brontës to Emily Dickinson, Hans Christian Andersen's Snow Queen to the White Witch of Narnia; and in Daphne du Maurier, of course. (For more on the role of the Snow Queen in Daphne, and the uncanny connection between Du Maurier and De Winter, read here). It was my mother -- a courageous radical who chose to be married in black -- that introduced me to Emily Dickinson’s poetry when I was nine or ten, around about the same time that I was having nightmares of a porcelain woman in white who fell down a gothic staircase, and lay smashed at the bottom; not that the two were necessarily connected, but when I remember them – the book and the dream – they seem to reflect each other. Oddly, although I now find Dickinson's meaning increasingly elusive (in a wonderfully tantalizing way), as a child, the effort to understand was less. The anthology my mother gave me was for children (its unforgettable title taken from the poem I’m Nobody! Who are you?); and also contained biographical details, including a brief account of Dickinson’s life within her father’s house in Amherst, Massachusetts: a woman who wore only white dresses, unseen and hidden behind closed doors or in the shadows. I’d been told that one of her white dresses remains in her father’s house, now a museum; though it seemed to me by the time I was a teenager that Dickinson had turned her room into a kind of museum when she was still alive, shutting herself away in it to write her poetry; not that she had planned to make an exhibition of herself, but nevertheless, I wondered whether she realized that interest in her would intensify after her decision to withdraw from view.
When my mother gave me the anthology, however, I was too young to think about what prompted Dickinson to become a white-clad recluse. (And I hadn’t yet read Ted Hughes’ description of her, in the introduction to his selection of her poetry: ‘she wore white, proper for a bride of the spirit, and she daily composed poems that read like devotions’). I was more interested in the poem that gave the title to my book, and also the one that began, ‘I started Early – Took my Dog – / And visited the Sea – / The Mermaids in the Basement / Came out to look at me – ’. I imagined Emily in her white dress, creeping out of her father’s house at dawn, her dog by her side, when no one else could see her; and walking to the seaside, to find the mermaids, with their long pale hair, and beckoning hands. And the water was lapping around her feet, and higher (‘ – till the Tide / Went past my simple Shoe – / And past my Apron – and my Belt / And past my Bodice – too – ’); so that she was up to her neck, her hair floating in the water like the mermaids’.
I don’t remember reading her more opaque poetry at the time; it was only later that it got under my skin (her impenetrability finding its way into me, yet remaining intact). But whenever I read it now, there are still lines that I recognize as if from childhood; for I have never studied Dickinson in a formal sense, tending to avoid critical dissection of her work (which may mean, of course, that my response to her is simply childish; though I am also inclined to agree with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who wrote in the Atlantic Monthly, twenty years after meeting Dickinson, that her enshrouding was too complete to undo: ‘She was much too enigmatical a being for me to solve in an hour’s interview . . . I could only sit still and watch, as one does in the woods; I must name my bird without a gun, as recommended by Emerson’).
Sometimes I feel irritated with myself, with my failure to make sense of her work; but I also like the fact that it remains out of reach, not analysed, not unfolded. And when I don’t understand the poems, there are things – white dresses, named and made manifest – within them that can be recognized with the clarity of an often-repeated dream. So that now, when I read the poem that begins: ‘Because I could not stop for Death – / He kindly stopped for me’ (lines that I remember as well as a nursery rhyme), I cannot help but see the translucent figure that emerges between the lines: ‘For only Gossamer, my Gown – / My Tippet – only Tulle – ’.
It was, perhaps, inevitable that I would progress from the Brontës and Emily Dickinson to an equally mythic Sylvia, who describes herself in ‘Tulips’ in hospital, on her sickbed; a patient, seeking the patience of a nun, colourless, day-clothes gone. (‘Look how white everything is . . .’) ‘I am nobody,’ says Plath in the same poem, echoing Emily Dickinson; and speaks of learning peacefulness. But as I kept on reading more of her poetry (as one does, in gloomy adolescence), she didn’t seem very peaceful to me, unless you accepted that death bestowed peace (not that she did rest in peace); and the whiteness in her poems was as likely to signify bleached bones and death (though I was touched, not long ago, to see a less tortured picture of Plath, wearing white, with her children and spring flowers, and to read her daughter's own words).
Thus poetry was an antidote to cult of happy-ever-after brides; for the more I looked (or rather, read), the more it seemed that women in white were inverted angels, mad, bad and dangerous to know; from the suicidal Anne Sexton, whose reworking of Snow White I had discovered amongst my mother’s books of poetry, alongside Sylvia Plath, all the way back to Miss Havisham, who looms over Great Expectations like a risen corpse. (At first, when Pip makes her out in the gloom of her darkened, shuttered room, he believes her to be an entirely white figure: dress, shoes, veil, even her hair. But as his eyes grow accustomed to the shadows, ‘I saw that everything within my view which ought to be white, had been white long ago, and had lost its lustre, and was faded and yellow. I saw that the bride within the bridal dress had withered like the dress, and like the flowers, and had no brightness left but the brightness of her sunken eyes. I saw that the dress had been put upon the rounded figure of a young woman, and that the figure upon which it now hung loose, had shrunk to skin and bone.’)
Two decades after the publication of Great Expectations, Emily Dickinson was directly compared to Miss Havisham by Mabel Todd, the family friend who later undertook the editing of Dickinson’s poetry; she noted in her journal of 1882 that ‘Emily is called in Amherst “the myth”. She has not been out of the house for fifteen years. One inevitably thinks of Miss Haversham [sic] in speaking of her . . . She wears always white, & has her hair arranged as was the fashion fifteen years ago, when she went into retirement.’)
At some point in that periodically gloomy, typically tempestuous adolescence (such a relief to be mostly beyond its reach, into the calmer waters of middle age; although I remain grateful for the reading I undertook at the time, which was perhaps the making of me), I discovered that Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes had gone to Haworth together, weaving poetry out of their walks through the graveyard beside the Brontë parsonage and up onto the moors of Wuthering Heights. And I knew, too, that Emily Dickinson was an admirer of Emily Brontë, whose poetry had been read at her funeral, and that Plath and Hughes were fans of both Emilys, and that you could draw threads between all four poets (and Dickens and Wilkie Collins, as well); white threads, of course.
All of which reminds me to broadcast the appeal from the church in Haworth where Charlotte and Emily Brontë are buried. Their white shrouds are almost certainly turned to dust, but their words are vibrantly alive, which is miraculous, is it not?
Speaking of miracles, I am very happy to announce that my thoughts are turning to a summer wedding dress, preferably not of the tattered design favoured by Miss Havisham; for an interest in gothic narrative has failed to obliterate my belief in the continuing possibilities of happiness and contentment, and the undeniable magic of the greatest expectations of all.

Saturday, 24 December 2011

Twas the night before Christmas...

And I've been admiring the trees outside Tillypronie, as well as the glorious one inside the house. There has been time to walk across the hills -- such a luxury, to feel the Highland air upon my cheeks -- in between the wrapping of presents and the eating of chocolate brownies and meringues. My beloved sons are with me -- the best present of all -- and I feel blessed to have reached this point in my life; to be here, after five decades of previous Christmases. To be 50 -- how did that happen? -- and to love and be loved... such a simple blessing, such a miraculous joy...
If you have a chance, please do read Carol Ann Duffy's 'Another Night Before Christmas' before you go to sleep tonight. It's wonderful, and here's the opening verses, to bring you good cheer:
'On the night before Christmas, a child in the house,
As the whole family slept, behaved just like a mouse...
And crept on soft toes down red-carpeted stairs.
Her hand held the paw of her favourite bear.

The Christmas tree posed with its lights in its arms,
Newly tinselled and baubled with glittering charms;
Flirting in flickers of crimson and green
Against the dull glass of the mute TV screen.'

I love this poem, and Rob Ryan's illustrations for the Picador edition; do look up page 18, of the hare, if you can...

'Then a shooting star whizzed down the sky from the North.
It was fizzing and sparkling as it fell to earth,
And growing in size. A young hare in a field
Gazed up at the sky where it brightened and swelled.'

As for my own Christmas message to the lovely readers that contribute so much to this small community; I am so grateful to you all, for friendship and insights and the best ideas on what to read, and why to read it. If Christmas is a time to remember that life is made up of the small yet precious moments of communication -- only connect, as E.M Forster reminded us -- then tonight is a moment to cherish. Christmas -- like life itself -- is imperfect, sometimes jagged, and all the better for it. Our griefs and disappointments are present, but so too are our hopes and expectations and pleasures. Tonight, I hope you are happy, my friends and comrades, whatever the unhappiness that might have beset you in the last year; courage, mes amis... and let us celebrate the threads that we have woven together, in this, another year...

Saturday, 17 December 2011

I Capture the Castle

Have been hither and thither, with last minute deadlines and all the shenanigans of Christmas. One small disappointment -- my Uniqlo order hasn't turned up yet (where are my Heat-Tech tops, not to mention the presents?). But this has been out-weighed by the seasonal blessings: a Christmas carol service at the Parish Church in Hampstead, with a choir to gladden the heart (I was reminded, again, of how inspiring it is to hear children singing Gaudete). And yesterday I made a cranberry and almond cake, which I ate with my friends and family this afternoon (it slipped down nicely with prosecco and freshly squeezed mandarin juice; delicious...).
Anyway, here is this week's Closet Thinker. I took the pictures at Cockermouth Castle at little while ago (a wildly romantic place, in a beautiful little town) -- in search of the spirit of Wordsworth -- though it reminded me most of all of my beloved Dodie Smith novel...

If Sunday is no longer the day of rest, then today is likely to be particularly agitated, for retailers and shoppers alike. This is, traditionally, a weekend when we are expected to rush around, buying Christmas presents in a flurry of seasonal consumerism, but glad tidings are currently thin on the ground. You already know the headlines, and the reality of rising costs and falling income may well feel more personal by now. Not that I’m encouraging undue pessimism, nor recommending pre-rehabilitation Scrooge; simply acknowledging that these are uncertain times, and splashing out on a party dress won’t necessarily solve anyone’s anxiety about how to pay the bills.

What does seem more important is staying warm; obvious, I know, but cold feet induce misery, as do icy hands. Hence my attachment to a cosy pair of FitFlop furry boots; still going strong after enduring several freezing winters, and also good for toning the bottom. (Speaking of which, poor Pippa Middleton, condemned by the press for – allegedly – crimes against fashion on a skating rink. Apparently she shalt not wear a white princess coat. Treason!)

The best winter survival kit will bring good cheer, as well as a level temperature; a formula that requires comforting kit, without making you look like a hibernating arctic beast. In fashion, as in life, it’s all a question of balance: just as high heels don’t work with too much uncovering of flesh elsewhere (the overkill of cleavage, bare thighs and stilettos), so too the bigger the boot, the narrower the leg should be. Hence Kate Moss’s de facto winter uniform of furry footwear plus skinny trousers. I rely on layers of Uniqlo Heat Tech underwear, so fine that they don’t add bulk; then an ancient Holland & Holland green parka on top, which is padded, but miraculously lightweight.

Brown, I think, can be too depressingly muddy a colour for a winter coat, though pink puffas are only good on little girls; better to go for ivory, olive, navy or black. And when all else fails, I return for advice to one of my favourite books, Dodie Smith’s ‘I Capture The Castle’, in particular the scene wherein Rose Mortmain is mistaken for a bear in her great grandmother’s beaver-lined coat. Rose longs for the luxuries of wealth – couture suits, silk stockings, bluebell scent, pale suede gloves -- and becomes engaged to a man who can afford these, then finally realizes her heart lies elsewhere; ‘her trousseau turned into fairy gold’, but true love is revealed to be more heart-warming than expensive new presents.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Coco and Capote and Christmas...

I've been baking banana bread and ginger cake today, and thinking about Christmas shopping, but not quite getting around to doing it; though I am hoping to do most of it at the wonderful Daunt Books.
Aside from stocking up on Paul Gallico and Truman Capote, I'm also going to be buying several signed copies of Anne Sebba's absorbing biography of Wallis Simpson, as we're doing a talk together at Keats House next Wednesday (December 7th at 7pm). Keats House is a glorious place -- worth a visit, even without sharing a glass of wine with Anne and I -- so I do hope some of you can come.

Herewith today's Closet Thinker column:

Tis the season to be jolly, but not at the expense of one’s sanity, which means that I am reining in the shopping this Christmas. Well, I say that now – as I do on the first weekend of every December – and then still find myself panic-stricken on Oxford Street a fortnight later, wild-eyed with reckless anxiety. This is absurd, given my hard-won knowledge, through bitter experience of the ghosts of Christmas past, that I hate the crush of last minute shopping, the wanton futility of it all.

But neither do I feel inclined to give up on Christmas – I love the rustle of wrapping paper, the scent of pine needles, the flickering light of candles in the darkest nights of the year. And I like giving presents, too; if only to the people I love – so if any of my nearest and dearest is reading this, please stop. (Actually, the men can read on – today, at least – because I’m better at gifts for girls.) This year, I’ve decided to plan well ahead with books and little bits of luxuries, each reflecting the other; not original, I confess, as a writer, but reading is what connects us (you and me, at this very moment). First, a signed copy of my biography of Coco Chanel or Paul Morand’s recollections of the couturiere, and one of her trademark colours in nail polish or lipstick; either the limited edition Black Pearl or Peridot varnishes – each iridescent as a jewel – or Rouge Coco lip colour in the intense red christened Gabrielle (after the founder’s first name, and the shade that she chose for herself, ‘because it’s the colour of blood and we’ve so much inside us it’s only right to show a little outside’).

Alternatively, ‘Mrs Harris Goes To Paris’, Paul Gallico’s novel about a London charlady who flies to France in search of a Dior dress; and as delightful now as it was upon publication in 1958. Best given with Dior on the side; possibly ‘Merveille’ nail polish, a lustrous special edition that might just be the same colour as Mrs Harris’s heart’s desire.

Finally, Truman Capote’s ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s' (published in the same, vintage year as Gallico’s classic), preferably accompanied by a tiny Tiffany original. Capote’s narrator chooses a St Christopher’s medal for Holly Golightly’s Christmas present, to keep her safe on her wayward journey, an amulet against ‘the mean reds’, for days that are more anxious than a bout of the blues. Come to think of it, we could all do with one of those lucky charms now…

Thursday, 1 December 2011

I went to Paris to meet Carine Roitfeld...

And yes, she remains the apotheosis of chic, but warm, not chilly, even on a cold day in Paris. I got to her apartment early -- can't be late for CR -- so went for a bracing walk while I was waiting, along the streets of the lovely Left Bank. The trees in Les Invalides were looking beautiful (with a glimpse of a lamp-post, like the one in Narnia). I admired the good cheer of red geraniums, and just around the corner, a blue door, with its promise of a secret mansion on the other side... then all of a sudden, I found myself on Rue Cler, where I stayed when I first came to Paris as a teenager, and it seemed not to have changed at all, and neither had I -- in that instant, at least -- because I was still entranced by Paris.