Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Here be angels...

Here's a piece I wrote about angels, inspired by a new book by an American professor of divinity, for the First Post. I've been fascinated by the subject for years (ever since childhood, despite a resolutely secular upbringing by atheist parents); which might explain why I also love those stories of flight (Peter Pan, Mary Poppins, Five Children and It). Anyway, happy new year, and may all your dreams take wing and soar...

Sunday, 21 December 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you expect too much of Christmas

There are times, trudging through the supermarket aisles, when it is tempting to mutter Scrooge’s curmudgeonly manifesto: ‘every idiot who goes about with “Merry Christmas” on his lips should be boiled with his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart.’ But such is the enduring influence of ‘A Christmas Carol’ – a story that has done more to mythologize a seasonal ideal than any other since the Bible – that it also celebrates a message of goodwill: ‘a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely…” Scrooge is redeemed at Christmas, and so, by implication, are the rest of us, in joyful happy endings.

Yet 17 years after the publication of ‘A Christmas Carol’, Charles Dickens published a far darker account of the season in his serialised novel, ‘Great Expectations’, beginning in December 1860. It opens on a bleak Christmas Eve, when the orphaned Pip is sitting beside his parents’ graves, and it is here, surrounded by the dead, that he encounters an escaped convict, Magwitch. Having stolen some food for the starving man, Pip endures a miserable Christmas dinner, expecting yet another punishment from Mrs Joe, the bullying older sister with whom he lives; and though the feast she serves is plentiful, it is ruined for Pip by the goading he receives alongside the roast fowl and pudding.

Indeed, the dinner-table conversation should serve as a warning of how not to talk to one’s family on Christmas Day. After grace, Mrs Joe says, ‘in a low reproachful voice, “Do you hear that? Be grateful.” By the time Pip has been compared to a piglet deserving of slaughter by the butcher’s knife, all possible glad tidings have been swallowed up in gloom.

‘Great Expectations’ offers something more complicated than a happy ending, rather like most of our lives, and our Christmases; but it is also a reminder that even if Christmas does not – cannot – live up to our expectations, it should contain small acts of kindliness, as well as a very large meal.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Bibliotherapy: what to read when you’re losing faith in Father Christmas

I grew up in a secular household, where Christian catechism was as unfamiliar to me as Ancient Greek, so as a child, I had no idea that my favourite book, ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe’, was also a religious allegory. Since then, I’ve read disapproving critiques of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia – most notably by another writer I admire, Philip Pullman, who happened to teach at my Oxford junior school. But for all the accusations that Lewis was a heavy-handed evangelist, nothing can take away from my childhood delight in his magic.

Which is why I often return to Narnia, particularly in times of distress or anxiety; and I’d recommend ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ to anyone who is losing faith in the idea of Christmas, especially this year, when gloom and uncertainty are gathering pace. The story begins in wartime, after the four children are evacuated from London, but they must face another form of danger in snow-covered Narnia, where the White Witch has cast a spell to create an everlasting winter, with no celebration of Christmas.

When Father Christmas finally returns to Narnia, it is a sign that the evil witch’s power is weakening, and the gifts he gives are far more important than toys: a sword and shield for Peter, a bow and arrows and ivory horn for Susan, and for Lucy, my favourite, a small dagger and a diamond bottle containing a healing “cordial made of the juice of one of the fire-flowers that grow in the mountains of the sun.”

Lewis himself knew all about suffering – his mother died of cancer when he was 9, despite his fervent prayers for her recovery, and two weeks later, he was sent to a grim boarding school that specialised in beatings. At 19, in the savage winter of 1917, he was wounded in the trenches of the First World War, where boys of his age died all around him; yet Lewis regained a belief in God. But you don’t have to share this conviction to be cheered by the hopefulness of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, and its glad welcoming of Father Christmas as a gleam of light against the forces of darkness and the dying of the year.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

E.Nesbit: The Great Escapist

Apologies for the length of this post, but I can't link to the piece about E.Nesbit that I wrote for last Sunday's edition of the Telegraph, and I know from past comments that some readers of this blog are Nesbit fans. She is one of my favourite authors, and I have still have my battered Puffin paperback editions of her novels that my mother gave to me many, many years ago. I've been longing to write about her for ages, so here is the end result. By the way, there's an excellent biography of Nesbit by Julia Briggs ('A Woman of Passion'), which covers far more than I could ever do in the following article....

Christmas and E. Nesbit have always gone together for as long as I can remember – and long before that, for many of her stories were originally published at this time of year, some of them in a long-forgotten children’s magazine called Father Christmas. My first taste of them was as Puffin paperbacks that appeared in my stocking as a little girl, and I was equally entranced by the film adaptation of Nesbit’s most famous story, ‘The Railway Children’, during the Christmas holidays of 1970. Like the rest of the audience, I wept as Bobbie, played by Jenny Agutter, was reunited with her father at last – ‘Oh! My Daddy, my Daddy!’ -- and I get weepy whenever I see the film again (an annual event, given that it has become a Christmas classic).

Edith Nesbit’s novels celebrate a golden age of Edwardian childhood, an idyllic vision of family life where mishaps and squabbles are swept away by glorious adventures or magical interventions, but the writer’s own life was far darker and more complicated. (A similar discrepancy between fantasy and reality is apparent for many families at Christmas, which might explain why her work remains so powerfully resonant at this time of year). She was born 150 years ago, in 1858, yet her marriage to Hubert Bland, with whom she became one of the founding members of the Fabian Society, was far from a Victorian ideal of propriety. Her friend George Bernard Shaw observed, ‘Edith was an audaciously unconventional lady and Hubert an exceedingly unfaithful husband’; which was already evident on their wedding day in 1880, when she was seven months pregnant with their first child, and he had a mistress elsewhere.

As a child, I wasn’t sure if E. Nesbit was a woman or a man – the authorial voice of her books is too teasing and mercurial to be easily identifiable – but what was always clear was her memory of the agonies and ecstasies of youth. Sharpest of all was her sense that love and grief are entwined; for long before she suffered the miseries of an absent or erring husband, she knew the painful loss of a father; though he was never to be restored to her, unlike in “The Railway Children”.

The youngest of five siblings, she was not quite four years old when her father died; according to her biographer, Julia Briggs, “Edith remembered her earliest childhood as an Eden before the fall and the coming of death.” Her Arcadia was Kennington, now the most urban of south London locations; but in those days, the redbrick terraces of an expanding city had not yet engulfed the greenery, and Edith’s father ran an agricultural college with three acres of land. “It had a big garden and a meadow and a cottage and a laundry,” wrote Nesbit in a later memoir, “stables and cow-house and pigsties, elm-trees and vines, tiger lilies and flags in the garden, and chrysanthemums that smelt like earth and hyacinths that smelt like heaven.”

After her father’s death, her elder sister Mary became consumptive, and Edith was sent to a dizzying sequence of boarding schools, while her mother embarked on an unsuccessful search for a healthier climate for her ailing daughter. Edith sometimes joined them as they travelled across the Continent; but when Mary died, the family settled in the Kent countryside, in a house with a railway line that ran at the bottom of the field beyond their garden; all in all a blissful place for children to explore.

Mrs Nesbit ran into financial difficulties, towards the end of 1875, and was forced to uproot and rent lodgings in north London. But it was to Halstead, the Kent village where the family had been so happy, that Edith took Hubert Bland when she fell in love with him. She was just 19, he was three years older, and their time there, she wrote in a letter soon afterwards, was “the most charming day I have ever spent. The country was fresh, young and jolly. So were we…” Hubert, a handsome bank clerk, conveniently omitted to tell Edith that he already had a lover, Maggie Doran, his mother’s paid companion, who was to give birth to his son soon afterwards, and with whom he continued to have an affair for several more years.

This did not prevent him seducing Edith, and even after they were married in April 1880, two months before the birth of their son Paul, Hubert regularly spent nights away from their marital home. When Paul was still a baby, Hubert caught smallpox – one of thousands to do so as an epidemic spread across London that summer – and returned to his mother’s house (where Maggie Doran was still living) to be nursed. Edith was left without any income at all, and started writing poetry and short stories for various magazines, much as Mother is forced to do in ‘The Railway Children’: “Mother, all this time, was very busy with her writing. She used to send off a good many long blue envelopes with stories in them – and large envelopes of different sizes and colours used to come to her. Sometimes she would sigh when she opened them and say: ‘Another story come home to roost. O dear, O dear!’ and then the children would be very sorry. But sometimes she would wave the envelope in the air and say: ‘Hooray, hooray. Here’s a sensible Editor...’ Whenever an Editor was sensible, there were buns for tea.”

‘The Railway Children’ reflects its author’s life in other ways, for both concealed a scandal at the heart of the family. Like her creator, Mother insists on keeping a secret from her children – in this case, that their father has disappeared because he is in prison, charged with being a traitor and a spy – and when Bobbie discovers a report of his trial on a sheet of old newspaper, the need for secrecy is reinforced. “‘We won’t talk of all this any more, will we, dear?’ said Mother; ‘we must bear it and be brave. And darling, try not to think of it.’”

Bobbie takes matters into her own hands, and writes a letter to the kindly Old Gentleman who has already helped the Railway Children reunite a maltreated Russian émigré with his wife and children; the nameless Old Gentleman (who has something of Father Christmas about him) works his magic again, and the lost father is released from wrongful imprisonment and returned to his family.
Edith, however, had no such benevolent benefactor to act on her behalf, and just as her father was never restored to her in childhood, neither was her husband ever to become a loyal partner. (As for the Russian refugee, a writer friend named Sergei Stepniak who she fictionalised in ‘The Railway Children’: in reality, he was killed while walking on a train track).

After the relationship with Maggie Doran petered out, Hubert began an affair with Edith’s closest friend, Alice Hoatson, and eventually lived with both of them in an extraordinary ménage a trois. The two women had met in 1882, soon after Edith had given birth to another baby – a daughter named Iris – and was still struggling to support the household, though Hubert was back in residence again, and embarking on a writing career himself. Alice joined the Blands as a member of the Fabian Society; and the year after the birth of Edith’s third child (a son named Fabian), Alice moved in with the family, and subsequently had a baby daughter of her own, Rosamund, in 1886. At this point, Edith appears not to have realised that her husband had fathered her best friend’s child; in fact, she helped Alice disguise the pregnancy from the outside world, to save her from the disgrace of being recognised as an unmarried mother. This bizarre situation was made more fraught by the fact that Alice’s child was born a few months after Edith had gone through a fourth pregnancy in which the baby died at birth; but the terrible distress of both women was covered with a veil of secrecy.

Nevertheless, appearances were kept up: for Edith adopted Alice’s baby – still not knowing the father’s identity – and when Alice gave birth to another child, John, in 1889, the same procedure was followed (tragically, Edith was again suffering the loss of her own baby, still-born during Alice’s second pregnancy). By now, Edith had discovered the truth of Alice and Hubert’s love affair, and yet despite many stormy scenes, the three of them continued to share a house with their five children, who referred to Alice as ‘auntie’. Many years later, Rosamund was asked by Nesbit’s first biographer to explain how her father had managed to persuade both Edith and Alice to accept this deeply uncomfortable arrangement. “Make no mistake about it,” she wrote in a letter of reply, “he was absolutely irresistible to the women he paid court to, not only before the event of capture, but after. He had a tremendous hold on anyone he had ever possessed. And why? … He endowed every affair with the romance of his own imagination… Chiefly through fantasy, perhaps, but what more powerful factor is there in a woman’s life, and certainly at that period, than that of fantasy?”

If fantasy was at the heart of Edith’s marriage, then it was also a means of paying the bills. Her output included some chilling ghost stories – many of them tales of cruel or unfaithful men – but her career as a writer only took off (quite literally) when she started writing children’s tales that included episodes of flying. Yet the ability to fly in her stories is never entirely straightforward – the magic carpet in ‘The Phoenix and the Carpet’ has a hole in it; the angel wings that are granted as a wish to the protagonists of ‘Five Children and It’ disappear at sunset, leaving them stranded on top of a church tower. Perhaps Nesbit longed to escape from her brood of children and her husband and his mistress; but flight seems never to have been an option, except in her stories, and even then, reality tends to intrude with bumpy landings (which is part of the charm of her writing, with its intermingling of magic into ordinary everyday narratives).

Even the briefest account of Edith Nesbit reveals that her own life was stranger than her fiction – wilder, more disorderly and shadowed by tragedy – yet she continued to write stories that ended happily ever after, however unhappy her circumstances. One can understand why Jenny Agutter – who was cast as Mother in a more recent version of “The Railway Children” – is planning to make a film of Nesbit’s life, setting it in Well Hall, a ramshackle mansion in Eltham that the Bland family moved into in 1899. “It was very grand, but a complete ruin,” says Agutter, “and the main staircase collapsed to the ground. Can you imagine how nightmarish it must have been for Edith and Alice to live there together – and yet they nursed each other through illnesses, cared for one another, and were bound together by Hubert.”

However powerful his hold on the women, Hubert was undoubtedly far more inadequate than the beloved Father of “The Railway Children”; but there was also a significant gap between the perfect Mother of that story and the imperfect mother who wrote it. By then, Nesbit had lost her son, Fabian, who died at the age of 15 in 1900, after never waking up from the anaesthetic he had been given for a routine operation to remove his tonsils. The procedure had taken place at home, and when the doctor arrived in the morning, Edith was still sleeping. She had forgotten to remind her son not to eat before the tonsillectomy, and bitterly reproached herself for his death.

She died of lung cancer in 1924, ten years after the death of her husband. Alice survived both of them, but as Julia Briggs notes in ‘A Woman of Passion’, “She was to live out a poverty-stricken old age in south London, maintaining the sad pretence that Rosamund and John were her niece and nephew.” Even sadder was the fate of Paul Bland, Nesbit’s oldest son, and the boy to whom she dedicated “The Railway Children”: after a period of black depression, he killed himself in 1940.

Just as she had painted an idealised version of herself as Mother in ‘The Railway Children’, so Nesbit fictionalised her son Paul as a resilient ten-year-old Peter. Towards the end of the story, she has him saying, “wouldn’t it be jolly if we all were in a book and you were writing it? Then you could make all sorts of jolly things happen… and make Daddy come home soon.”

Mother’s answer is a model of piety: ‘Don’t you think it’s rather nice to think that we’re in a book that God’s writing? If I were writing a book, I might make mistakes. But God knows how to make the story end just right – in the way that’s best for us.’ But when her son questions if she really believes this, she falters a little: ‘I do believe it – almost always – except when I’m so sad that I can’t believe anything. But even when I can’t believe it, I know it’s true – and I try to believe it. You don’t know how I try…’

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you don’t want to go shopping.

Now that shopping is being prescribed as national duty – buy now, to save the nation from economic ruin! – I’m feeling mulishly reluctant to obey government orders. Instead, I’ve been re-reading ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’, which is always a pleasure, but also serves as a reminder that shopping is not an end in itself.

If you’ve only ever seen the film adaptation starring the adorable Audrey Hepburn, then you might not realise quite how dark Truman Capote’s original novella is. There is no Hollywood happy ending, no romantic scenes at Tiffany’s, and though Miss Golightly is gloriously chic in “a slim cool black dress, black sandals, a pearl choker”, she does not find solace in buying new clothes or jewels. In fact, her pleasure in Tiffany’s has nothing to do with shopping there – she doesn’t ‘give a hoot about jewellery’ – but as an antidote for what she describes as ‘the mean reds’. This is a form of anxiety as familiar now, to those of us who fear the abyss of an uncertain future, as it was when Capote published the novella, exactly 50 years ago: “You’re afraid and you sweat like hell, but you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Except something bad is going to happen…”

Tiffany’s, says Holly, ‘calms me down right away, the quietness and the proud look of it’, but she doesn’t actually buy anything there, but goes shoplifting at Woolworth’s instead for Halloween masks and balloons to put on her Christmas tree. I don’t recommend theft as a remedy for the mean reds, but given Holly’s iconic status, it’s worth remembering that she is unencumbered by material assets; indeed, when something really bad does happen, the death of her beloved brother, she destroys all her possessions, smashing her dark glasses and bottles of perfume.

Thus ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ is a manifesto for anti-shopping therapy, for travelling light and being free as a bird. Speaking of which, Holly does buy an birdcage for the narrator of the novella, who has fallen in love with her, but with one proviso: “Promise me you’ll never put a living thing in it.” Soon afterwards, she flies the roost, disappearing with very little luggage and no shopping bags at all.

Monday, 1 December 2008

A piece in the Yorkshire Post

Juliet Barker (author of a brilliant history of the Brontes) has just told me about a piece in the Yorkshire Post about my stint as a literary detective whilst researching 'Daphne'. Here's the link, if anyone is interested... It's a nice twist that the story has ended up in the Yorkshire Post, for as readers of 'Daphne' may have noticed, the newspaper itself -- or rather, its former editor, Sir Linton Andrews -- played a pivotal part in my novel...

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Beauty and the beast

I've been re-reading Angela Carter -- 'The Bloody Chamber' -- as well as Grimm's fairy tales, and some more Hans Christian Andersen. All of which is sometimes floating at the back of my mind when I write about fashion in the Sunday Telegraph. Here's last week's column in Stella, in case anyone is interested:

If fashion is a stock market in which shares in certain staples rise and fall, according to whim, emotion, and possibly the economy, then animal prints are riding high right now. The reasons are hard to fathom; the last time I noticed such a plethora of the stuff was in 2002, when the Yves St Laurent spring collection, at that time designed by Tom Ford, was awash with leopard prints. (Kaftans, skirts, dresses, bikinis, blouses: you name it, they were spotted.) The High Street swung into action, consumers snapped at the bait, and by the autumn of that year, Theresa May was flaunting leopard-print heels from Russell & Bromley as she strode onto the platform of the Conservative Party Conference.

The Right Honourable Member for Maidenhead clearly has a thing about the look – last October she wore animal print wellies on the opening day of the conference, and disco-danced the following evening in a matching leopard jacket and shoes. You have to admire her confidence, but even so, the outfit was a reminder that a little leopard goes a long way. Get it wrong, and the effect is more kitsch than chic.

Still, that doesn’t answer the question of why the shops are overflowing with animal prints this year, from Miss Selfridge to Sonia Rykiel. Perhaps it’s simply cyclical – a British winter approaches, so let’s pretend we’re in a tropical fantasy. Or maybe it’s a defence mechanism: as the recession bites and a credit crunch threatens to chew us up, we’re buying fake leopard skins, either as camouflage or in the hope of fighting back.

There are all manner of archetypes at play here, which could inspire several new reinterpretations of Beauty and the Beast; except Angela Carter has already done them in her marvellous short story, ‘The Tiger’s Bride’. (“And each stroke of his tongue ripped off skin after successive skin, all the skins of a life in the world, and left behind a nascent patina of shining hairs. My earrings turned back to water and trickled down my shoulders; I shrugged the drops off my beautiful fur.”)

That’s the fairy tale version, but the reality can be more disappointing, as I discovered when I recently found myself in Oasis, having retreated there from a violent downpour of rain. The shop was filled with enticing animal prints, including a caramel fake fur jacket; I reached out, stroked it, slipped into it... But when I looked in the mirror, the reflection was not of a foxy lady, but a tragically drowned cat.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

Bibilotherapy: What to read when you feel abandoned

Regular readers of this blog will know that I have a small black and white dog called Molly (she's a mutt, but mainly Jack Russell). I got her as a puppy, not long after my sister died; at the time, it seemed as if we were taking on a dog because our two sons desperately wanted one, but in retrospect, I can see that the decision was partly motivated by my unconscious desire for the reassurance of childhood. When my sister and I were very young, we had a Jack Russell called Simon, but there was also another dog in my life -- she was in a book, but nevertheless seemed entirely alive to me, and if I'm honest, she still does. Which is doubtless why I treasure that battered copy of my favourite childhood picture book, ‘Cannonball Simp’ by John Burningham, with my name scrawled in a five-year-old’s pink-ink handwriting on the title page.

This is the tale of a fat little dog, with only a stump for a tale. “Her owner had found homes for her brothers and sisters but could not persuade anybody to take Simp.” So she is driven to a rubbish dump outside the town, and abandoned there without a backward glance. The rats tell her to leave, she is chased away by cats, and when she tries to make friends with people on their way to work, ‘nobody seemed to care about her’. Eventually, Simp is thrown into the back of a van by the dog-catcher, but she manages to escape before being locked up in kennels, and runs away as fast as she can from the heartless inhabitants of the town. At last, she finds a safe haven with a kindly clown at the circus, who lets her into his caravan, feeds her, and allows her to sleep on his bed.

But this sanctuary is revealed to be less secure than it first seemed: the clown is anxious that he is about to lose his job because the circus manager is bored by his act, and the audiences have lost interest. Fortunately, he is saved from being fired by the firing of a cannon – or, more precisely, by Simp’s decision to climb into the cannon and be fired out of it, straight through the clown’s paper hoop, and into the hearts of the audience. Thereafter the clown and his dog prosper at the circus, as the celebrated act of Cannonball Simp.

As a small child, I loved this book like no other, and re-reading it now, it seems to me to be just as powerful, though its message is perhaps darker than one might expect. People can be cruel, and even if you think you have escaped from abandonment, circumstances may still prove to be harsh. Thus it is that we squeeze ourselves into dark and dangerous places, performing improbable tricks in valiant attempts to please a crowd or earn a living. You will doubtless have noticed that I am identifying myself here with a small dog; but then isn’t that often the case? In a dog’s eyes, we see a reflection of our own…

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you dread the darkness of winter

I am writing this on one of those November days when a dreary grey noon merges into a gloomy dusk; it’s not the cold that depresses me so much as the absence of light, and my heart sinks at the thought of the inescapable winter. So there’s only one thing for it: to embrace the darkness by re-reading ‘Wuthering Heights’. Emily Bronte’s novel opens in winter – its narrator, Lockwood, ventures up to Wuthering Heights because the fire in his study has been extinguished by a servant girl, and arrives there as snow begins to fall. “On that bleak hill top the earth was hard with a black frost…”

As the snow deepens, Lockwood is forced to stay the night in Wuthering Heights, and it is then that he has his famous encounter with the ghost of Cathy, a spectral child who taps at the window with ice-cold fingers, crying ‘Let me in – let me in!’ Given the novel’s mythic status, there are innumerable interpretations – as many as its myriad readers – but for me, one of its most powerful messages is that though we fear the cold shadows of winter, the darkness is also part of us.

Nearly everyone is horrible to everyone else in ‘Wuthering Heights’ – they bite, they scream, they stamp their feet, they hang puppies and mistreat small children – which makes it all the more curious that Heathcliff and Cathy (both of them the cruellest of lovers) have been deemed the epitome of romance. But this remorselessness is one of the reasons that the novel remains so potent – a bracingly subversive read, and a reminder (amongst many other things) that the dark season must be met head on.

When Cathy is sickening in her final illness, she wants the window open, even though it is midwinter: “There was no moon, and every thing beneath lay in misty darkness, not a light gleamed from any house, far or near; all had been extinguished long ago.” But her light is not extinguished by death; and nor was her creator’s. Emily Bronte died on December 19, 1848, on the eve of the longest night of the year, yet her fierce writing survives, unquenched by the darkness of every passing winter.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Red patent on a grey November day...

It has rained and rained and rained today; so much rain that the drain overflowed and the guttering fell apart and water poured in through the roof of my kitchen. I am currently mopping up, and contemplating the cost of replastering and repainting, though who knows how long it will take for the kitchen walls to dry out?
Anyway, in between mopping and moaning, I've been lusting after a red patent something to cheer me up. The belt above is from M&S, and I think it's the 21st century equivalent of Olivia's favourite red belt in my favourite Rosamond Lehmann novel, 'Invitation to the Waltz'. Speaking of which, here's my latest thoughts as a Closet Thinker ...

Are you in the red or in the black? And even if you’re not overdrawn, do you want to wear the colour of mourning at the onset of a winter of discontent? I ask these questions, because they’ve been on my mind ever since I started hankering after a beautiful red patent bag by Anya Hindmarch, the day after Lehman Brothers went bust.

Yes, I’m feeling just as anxious as everyone else is about the serious stuff. But I’ve also realised that I don’t want to walk around looking like a crow, because there’s already quite enough gloom on the streets. It’s not that I’m proposing to chuck out the black from my wardrobe, in a sartorial attempt to prove that life is a bowl of cherries, when quite clearly it’s not. But I think I could do with a bit of ruby patent leather to lighten things up, and perhaps even benefit from the traditional folklore that holds red as a lucky talisman. “Red is the colour of magic in every country,” wrote W.B Yeats, “and has been so from the very earliest times. The caps of fairies and musicians are well-nigh always red.”

If red is magical, it is also radical, and suggests that its wearer has a certain purposefulness. Rosamond Lehmann’s wonderful coming-of-age novel, ‘Invitation to the Waltz’, written in 1932 in the dark days of the Great Depression, has the heroine celebrating her 17th birthday with the precious gift of a roll of flame-coloured silk. She already cherishes her red jumper – ‘the crimson heartened the lesser days, put a firm face upon them’ – and wears a favourite scarlet patent leather belt on her birthday, which compensates for the deficiencies of her humdrum brown skirt. “The belt was an object which had virtue in it… Within its compass she felt a certainty of individuality, like a seal set on her…”

Those in search of affordable 21st century amulets – a more readily available version of the alchemists’ Philosopher’s Stone, or the ‘red tincture’ that would turn base metal to gold – should make haste to Gap, currently offering a chic red patent tote for £39.50, and a crimson pin-tuck dress for the same price. Alternatively, Miss Selfridge has a cerise angora beret for £12 that Yeats might have approved of, while the patent accessories at Boden are cheerfully berry-coloured. You don’t need to buy all (or any) of them; but my feeling is that if I’m going to be tightening my belt this winter, then it’s got to be a damn good red patent one.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you're jealous...

Here's today's Bibliotherapy column. I've also posted a picture taken this summer, of me by the lake at Menabilly, the setting for 'My Cousin Rachel'. Can't believe that was only a few months ago, and I was wearing sandals, though of course, a dark and stormy November evening like this one would be even better as the backdrop for a du Maurier story. (I was, as it happens, feeling rather unsettled when this photograph was taken; but that's another story...)

Everyone knows to beware the green-eyed monster that doth make you sick, but it’s easier said than done, when you are eaten up inside with jealousy. I know – I’ve been there myself, reeling and writhing and troubled of heart – but the best remedy, in my experience, is to re-read Daphne du Maurier’s ‘My Cousin Rachel’, which is a like-for-like cure.

As with her most famous book, ‘Rebecca’, du Maurier sets the story in own home, Menabilly, the Cornish mansion that she called her ‘house of secrets’. Both novels also have a jealous narrator, but ‘My Cousin Rachel’ – first published in 1951, 13 years after ‘Rebecca’ – is seen through the eyes of a man. Anyone expecting the romance that du Maurier is often – wrongly – accused of delivering will be startled by the opening: a decaying corpse of a wife-killer swings from the gallows near the gate to Menabilly. And murder continues to preoccupy the narrator, Philip Ashley, the heir to the estate, whose older cousin and guardian has married their distant cousin Rachel.

I don’t want to give the plot away – it’s a fiendishly clever novel, with an ending that continues to haunt and trouble its readers. But what is made clear is that jealousy is poisonous; a truth that du Maurier knew only too well. By the time she wrote ‘My Cousin Rachel’, she had been married to her husband, Lieutenant General Frederick Browning, for two decades, and with their three beautiful children, they presented a perfect façade to the world. But neither had been faithful, and both were tortured by suspicions about the other’s infidelity. Daphne had had a wartime affair with another man, while her husband was serving abroad, and also an intense relationship with Gertrude Lawrence, an actress who had been one of her father’s lovers. All of which was mixed up into a venomous stew of emotions that later contributed to Browning’s breakdown, and tipped her over the edge into paranoia and delusions. Such was her consummate skill as a writer that out of the chaotic mess of jealousy came a novel that still cuts like a knife, with its sharp warning that this way, madness lies…

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

A discovery in the library...

I wrote a piece for the Sunday Telegraph about this exhibition at the Women's Library -- and I really do recommend a visit, because it's a fascinating show -- and I wanted to post a link to the piece on the Telegraph website, but for some reason, I can't, so I'm going to put the entire article here. Sorry, it's a bit long for a blog, but eagle-eyed readers (of this blog and 'Daphne') will notice a reference in it to Clement Shorter, one of Mr Symington's colleagues in the Bronte Society. Imagine my surprise when I discovered his discoveries of Bronte manuscripts, as recorded in the archives of the Women's Library... Truth is stranger than fiction (etc); though I'd need to write another novel to uncover the rest of this story. Still, as you'll see, there are a few more clues here about the activities of Mr Shorter et al.

Once upon a time, when I was a student at Cambridge in the early Eighties, I knew that my enjoyment of women’s magazines was a guilty secret, and that my stash should be kept hidden under the bed in case someone saw me looking at them. I’d grown up reading my mother’s copies of Vogue and Nova, and they played a part in the shaping of my ambition to write, despite the unwritten law that suggested their irrelevance. This was an era when everyone seemed to disapprove of women’s magazines: feminists declared that they oppressed the sisterhood, academics said they addled the brain, and the Right united with the Left in the firm belief that they were irrelevant to political discourse.

A quarter of a century later, I still occasionally find myself having to defend them against intellectual sneering, but the disapproval is less widespread; and a growing acceptance of their place in cultural history is evident in the mounting of a new exhibition devoted to their evolution from the 18th century to the present day, drawing on an archive of magazines at the Women’s Library in the East End of London. The collection is a treasure trove, as I discovered on a visit there last month; for the further I delved into its depths, the more was yielded up of the extraordinarily varied ways in which magazines have both reflected and defined the lives of their readership over the last three hundred years. True, there an abundance of ephemera – though that itself is intriguing; what looks like a rag-bag of custard recipes, health tips and soap advertisements turns out, upon closer inspection, to contain little gems and nuggets of information about the world inhabited by previous generations. In other words, beware of judging a magazine by its cover, because what might be dismissed as trivia could open hidden histories. “These magazines matter,” says Gail Cameron, curator of The Women’s Library, “because they were, and are, bought by hundreds and thousands of women, so that they’re an incredibly important source of information about women, as well as having been a source of information for their readers at the time.”

The past is a murky place, and some of this information will seem bizarre to modern readers; but then women’s magazines have often offered curious advice, or edged into disconcerting territory. If a woman’s magazine is a friend to its reader – and the best ones are – then it is also the case that those friendships will go through difficult patches, when each is irritated or confounded by the other. I have worked for several different magazines, and been involved in the launches of three new titles; but I still find myself becoming exasperated, at times, as a reader of magazines that I feel deep attachment to, particularly when they make me feel bad about myself or if they take on a supercilious tone. (Too chubby or impoverished for the new designer collections? Ho hum, get on your bike…)

Not that there is anything new in admonitory editorials; a chorus of tut-tutting arises from the pages in the archive of the Women’s Library. Take, for example, this declaration of intent from the Servants Magazine, published in 1849: “We neither scold, nor discourage; and if at any time we deem it necessary to point out a fault, we try to consider ourselves as occupying the place of an orderly, but kind, mistress, who whilst she will have everything about the house done properly, yet, if she observe any neglect, tells her servants of it, in such a judicious manner, as to secure both the attention and affection of those whom she has taught to look up to her as their friend and counsellor.” There are moments when a despotic fashion or beauty editor’s instructions in a 21st century glossy magazine can seem equally bossy; though at least we no longer have to put up with sartorial advice from Reverend H. Melvill, whose advice to readers, under the headline PASSION FOR DRESS, was as follows: “The beautiful attire is that which comes out of the loom of modesty; and all other, by whomsoever worn, is raiment ‘spotted by the flesh,’ and therefore perilous to the wearers.”

Nothing, however, could be more perilous to the flesh than the accessories advertised in the Ladies Diary in 1728, which included artificial teeth (‘they are not to be taken out at Night, but may be worn Years Together’) and other, more mysterious contraptions: ‘Steel Spring and other sorts of Trusses for Ruptures at the Navel or elsewhere.’ Nevertheless, the editorial content of the Ladies Diary – also known as the Woman’s Almanack – offers a satisfying refutation of the theory that magazines for female readers have always been filled with mind-numbing rot. This sprightly 18th century ancestor announced itself as ‘Containing many Delightful and Entertaining Particulars, Peculiarly Adapted for the Use and Diversion of the Fair Sex’; and the mathematical puzzles and poetical enigmas (a trickier variation of modern crosswords) suggest that its readership enjoyed a challenge; and its correspondents were equally clever. One of the issues preserved at the Women’s Library contains a letter to the editor in Latin; another a series of enigmas composed in verse by Mrs Utrecia Smith. (Question: “I, who was born to neither House or Land/ Have now heaps of Wealth at my Command/ And yet to gain this Power I nothing do/ But all to others Active Hands I owe…” Answer: A Dice Box.)

There are many more pleasurably idiosyncratic periodicals to be discovered within the archive; I was particularly taken with Home Notes, edited by the semi-anonymous ‘Isobel’, a hugely popular weekly women’s magazine launched during the boom-years of the genre in the 1890s. Its alphabetical index for a bumper issue in 1898 spanned a mind-boggling range of articles: from A for Alaska, Marriage Customs in; Antoinette Broderie, Design For; Armless People, What They Can Do; to Z for Zurich Cats, Citizens Proposing Tax On. It turns out that the talented armless people featured in Home Notes included the redoubtable Miss Sarah Biffin, a gifted artist ‘only thirty-seven inches high’ who painted miniatures exhibited at the Royal Academy; possibly a more interesting subject than the celebrities whose bodies are examined and found wanting in the current crop of gossip magazines. The same issue also contained a fashion report from Paris – ‘What Is Being Worn in the Gay City’ – which seems uncannily familiar to what we might read over a century later: the magazine recommended ‘simplicity combined with smartness’, in the form of a dark grey dress trimmed with scarlet cloth and black braid. I also like the notion of The Fairy Belt, ‘a unique invention which changes the form of the waist, making it look two to three inches smaller’, that appears to have been a Victorian precursor of Magic Knickers.

There are other overlaps between the past and present: recipes, beauty tips, health advice, agony aunts. The latter appear to have adopted a bracing tone from the start: in 1805, the ‘Old Woman’ who responded to readers’ letters by citing the wisdom of her age and experience, was a no-nonsense character: “If a miss scarcely entered her teens asks my advice respecting a lover… I surely cannot show myself more their friend than by conveying to oblivion their folly…” The 20th century doyenne of agony aunts, Evelyn Home, who took on the job at Woman in 1937, was equally firm with her readers. In answer to a letter which ended, ‘So he left me, and I knew my heart was broken and I should never be happy again,’ she observed, briskly, ‘This is an example of self-dramatization, of making melodrama of a boy-friend’s preferring another girl. People who have suffered far more know that it takes a great deal for hearts to break – it takes enormous self-pity, self-interest and usually a narrow mind to achieve despair.”

Of course, some advice varied according to the era: at the end of the nineteenth century, when a fuller figure was more fashionable, Home Notes gave its readers guidance on how to put on weight: “Use plenty of butter and bread… Laugh over everything, worry over nothing; the less exercise taken, the better. Eat no acid fruits, but heaps of black grapes.” By 1967, the effervescent Honey magazine – motto, Young, Gay and Get-Ahead – was outlining a fast-track diet to lose weight: an orange for breakfast, a lean grilled steak and one tomato for lunch, another grilled steak with two tablespoons of cauliflower for supper, and no more than a couple of cups of tea a day to quench the thirst.

By this point, Honey was up against younger competitors like Nova, which had launched in 1965; though its retaliation to the new girl on the block was a startling cover line -- ‘This Is I Hate Honey Month’ -- beside a picture of a snarling model ripping up its pages. Inside, however, the contents were slightly less radical: having invited its readers to send in their criticism, the magazine came up with familiar answers. ‘I hate Honey for telling us one month that short hair is in,” complained one correspondent, ‘then the next month showing us lots of lovely snoods which need long hair to go in them.’ Honey’s solution? ‘Buy a hairpiece for 5s. 11d.” Meanwhile, Nova was declaring itself to be A NEW MAGAZINE FOR A NEW KIND OF WOMAN, but was nevertheless edited by a man, and its first issue veered towards male writers (Sir Julian Huxley, Robert Robinson, Christopher Booker, amongst others), though it did contain a delicious recipe for syllabub by Elizabeth David.

All of which makes it impossible to claim that women’s magazines have represented emancipation and liberation; but it would be churlish not to recognise the freedom with which they have ranged beyond their remit. As it happens, my favourite discovery in the archive was an article by a male author in an 1898 issue of The Woman at Home, a hugely successful periodical founded by a man, William Robertson Nicoll, though he remained invisible, while ‘Annie Swan’, a pseudonym for the successful novelist, Mrs Burnett Smith, presided over each issue with her editorials and advice columns. The journalist was Clement Shorter, an avid collector of Bronte manuscripts and close friend of Nicoll’s; presumably this explains why it was in The Woman at Home, rather than an academic journal or national newspaper, that Shorter chose to reveal his discovery of two poems by Charlotte Bronte, written immediately after the deaths of her sisters Emily and Anne. The magazine also printed the first facsimiles of the handwritten originals of these and other Bronte poems, and when by chance I came across them in the archive of the Women’s Library, it was with the astonished thrill of knowing that they would be important clues to literary detectives and academics attempting to solve the puzzle of missing Bronte manuscripts.

If there is a moral in this – and women’s magazines tend to search for morals, as well as meaning, in the chaos of ordinary life – it is that one should beware of dismissing these magazines as being meaningless. What seems to be irrelevant might just turn out to be important; and even if it isn’t, why feel compelled to hide your favourite magazine under the bed?

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Bibliotherapy: What to read when you feel shut out in the cold

The sad story of ‘The Little Match Girl’ by Hans Christian Andersen might seem like a perverse recommendation as the temperature drops and heating bills soar; for this is the tale of a child who freezes to death on a winter’s night, after trying to warm herself by lighting matches.

But as is often the case with Anderson, the tale is a subtle one, written as much for an adult audience as children. Like much of his best-known work, it reflects his own unhappy past, and his continuing sense of himself as an ungainly outsider – The Ugly Duckling or The Little Mermaid – locked out from human warmth and love. The only son of a cobbler and a washerwoman, he grew up isolated and bullied in a provincial Danish town. At 14, he set off for Copenhagen, hoping to make a new life for himself; once there, he was as starving and freezing as the Little Match Girl.

His imagination was to be the saving of him, the spark that set alight his story-telling; just like his heroine, who sees marvellous scenes in the tiny flames of the matches that no one would buy from her – a roast goose that walks, a Christmas tree with a thousand candles, rising up into the stars. When she dies, born aloft by her spirit of her dead grandmother to the radiance of heaven, the Little Match Girl escapes a cruel and heartless world: “No one knew what beauty she had seen…”

The world did come to recognise Andersen, yet for all his fame and riches, he remained uncertain of his place within it; and his awkwardness made him unwelcome. “He was certainly something of an ‘oddity’,” recalled Henry Dickens, the novelist’s son, after Andersen had come to stay during a trip to England, “so much so that the small boys of the family rather laughed at him behind his back.” Charles Dickens never wrote to him again, and the invitation was not repeated (the visit ‘seemed to the family AGES,’ said Dickens). So Hans Christian Andersen returned to Copenhagen, where he continued to tell his stories of ice and snow, still seeking to warm cold hearts.

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...

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...