Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Little Sprite

I’ve just finished reading Janet Todd’s marvellous Death and the Maidens. The story of Mary Wollstonecraft’s daughter Fanny is one of the saddest I have ever come across.

Fanny seems to have been one of those people who everyone took advantage of and no one cared for. When, at the age of 19 she committed suicide in an inn in Swansea, her body was unclaimed by the Shelleys or Godwins and she was given a pauper’s burial. Her relatives persisted in lying about her death – and indeed her existence – for years after. It was six weeks before her aunts in Ireland were informed of her passing. Godwin claimed that she had gone to visit friends in Wales and died of a cold. Her step brother Charles received a letter from his sister Claire a few weeks after Fanny’s death which did not mention it. Ten months later he wrote asking after her, and a year after that he had still not been told she was dead. In a memoir of Godwin her sister Mary (Shelley) left Fanny out of their father’s story, implying that she was his only daughter. Each had his or her own interests at heart; none it seems had Fanny’s.

It was a tragic outcome for the mother’s “little darling” who “grows every day more dear”, the “sweet child”, the “little sprite” who was “all life and motion, and her eyes are not the eyes of a fool – I will swear”. But Fanny’s mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, died giving birth to Mary and was not there when Fanny needed her.

I was staying in Bloomsbury while I was reading Todd’s book, only a ten minute walk from Somers Town where Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin lived during their short marriage. I walked where Mary and Fanny had walked; passed the church where Godwin and Wollstonecraft married; the churchyard where Wollstonecraft was buried (her remains have since been moved to Bournemouth), and where Shelley and Mary met to plan their elopement. Their ghosts clutched at me as I hurried to and from Euston, so much so that one afternoon I decided to walk to Somers Town and see the wraiths close up.

I already knew that the terrace of eighteenth-century dwellings known as the Polygon had been demolished long since, remaining like a ghost of itself only in a street name. Gone, too, were the two fields across which the family would see their home drawing closer as they came home from an outing. On the council flats at Oakshott Court there is a brown, circular plaque recording that Mary Wollstonecraft lived in a house near the site. I don’t recall seeing any mention of Godwin. There is nothing here that Mary and Fanny set eyes on, except perhaps the sky, and no doubt that has changed as the quality of air pollutants has altered.

Even so, Mary Wollstonecraft was a vivid presence to me. I wondered how differently things might have turned out for Fanny, for all of the people at 29 Polygon, if Mary Wollstonecraft had lived. I wondered what, as a grand old dame of letters, she would have thought of having Charles Dickens for a neighbour when his family lodged at No 17. I wondered how she would have felt if she had been able to look back from the afterlife and watch her sweet child’s struggles. I wondered what she might make of the paths women have taken if she could see the sex shops and lap dancing clubs, the raucous, plaid-skirted girls tumbling out of school, the bag lady shuffling up the steps of St Pancras Church.

There are as many stories as there are people, and more, for lives are retold as the present requires, or as memories change, or as others bend them to their own will. Todd suggests that none of the people who surrounded Fanny were altogether innocent of her death. I am sure there are others who will not agree with her portrayals of Shelley, Godwin, Mary, or Claire. But it was not their stories I was thinking of last weekend. It was a memory of Mary and Fanny Wollstonecraft, mother and daughter, I carried with me along those Somers Town streets.

Death and the Maidens: Fanny Wollstonecraft and the Shelley Circle, Janet Todd, Profile Books 2007

Mary Wollstonecraft: The Collected Letters, ed Janet Todd, Penguin Classics, 2004

Shelley: poet, predator and prey – review of Death and the Maidens, The Observer, 1 July 2007 - http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2007/jul/01/poetry.features

Monday, November 22, 2010

Writing for Nobody

I love reading other people’s diaries. Obviously I mean the historical ones, which makes it alright to pry. Or, if I was interested in the living, then it would be fine to read a diary intended for publication by its author – which raises the question about how far any diarist intends his or work for an audience. Did Pepys, as he scratched the smutty bits in his secret shorthand, really hope that no one would ever read them? Did Frances Burney when she addressed her diary to “Nobody” really accept that only Nobody would read it?

I don’t know, but I do know that both diaries are terrific reads. Diaries are wonderful for all sorts of reasons. They are great for historians. They’re great for historical fiction writers. And they have a meaning all of their own, though what that meaning is is hard to define.

I’ve been reading the diary of Joseph Farington RA (1747 to 1821) for the years 1796 to 1798. Farington was a landscape painter, an active member of the Royal Academy, a husband, a member of the Society of Antiquaries, and an avid gossip. You follow him as he deals with artists whinging about where their paintings should hang in the Exhibition; lobbying the Treasury for tax breaks for artists; studying the reviews of his own work – which he has pasted into his diary; doling out charity to impoverished artists and their families. You follow him to friends’ weddings, to club meetings, to election meetings, to dinner after dinner – the last so important to him that he usually draws a little diagram of the table and marks where everyone was sitting. You listen to the advice he gives to his pupils, younger artists, women artists.

And above all you listen to his gossip. And how he loved to gossip! Hearsay was the ink he dipped his pen in, and nothing he heard was unworthy to be recorded. Thus you learn from him that: “Fox rises a little after 8 – breakfast at 1/2 past 9 – dines at 4 – Coffee & Tea at 6 – light supper at 10 – bed at 11 – drinks about a pint of Port at 9 after dinner – reads aloud 3 hours every evening after tea – a translation from Livy.”

What people earn and how they spend it fascinates him. “Emanuel the drawing master at Lynn asked…25 gns a quarter for 2 lessons a day”. Lady Mansfield “had £5000 a yr left her as a jointure by Mansfield part of which was to go away if she married again”. Two new swords cost “12 guineas”. Romney got “300 gs for a picture”. “Two fowls sell for Sixpence” on the Isle of Man. Slaves in Demerary fetch on average “abt £50 a head”.

You learn that Lawrence is “a male coquet”, that Fox and Mrs Armstead are inseparable, of Opie’s divorce and remarriage, Sir Brooke and Lady Boothby’s separation. You listen to Sam Lysons tell Farington that he heard at dinner last night that Mrs Dunnage’s brother-in law-found her in bed with Sir Thomas Turton, who is married and has five children. Later you follow the court case with all the interest of any Hallo magazine reader.

Farington chatters about royalty, politicians, artists, actors. He obsesses about his and his friends’ health. He enthuses about the discovery of a top-secret painting “process”, a technique supposed to have been employed by Titian. And on and on: there’s so much here it’s impossible to do it justice.

Marvellous stuff for anyone interested in the eighteenth century, but as I hinted earlier, far more than that. But what? What is it about diaries that is so gripping? What is this glamour that the dead exercise over our minds? Is it that their lives are done, their perplexities resolved, so that we who come after have the comfort of seeing, or imposing, patterns that they could not have seen when they lived? That in seeing how their suspense ended – that greatest suspense of all: how and when will I die? – we can for a while forget our own? That we can enjoy with them a special kind of relationship, one we cannot get through the exchange of words with the living where egos clash and muddy everything?

Then there’s the miracle of their survival: how many documents do not survive, how many stories are never heard? There’s the thought of that other person’s long-dead hand moving across the page, recording his or her thoughts and feelings so that we can discover them today and think and wonder. And there’s the past, that strange, unknowable, unfathomable past that for all the research in the world (and all the cant of “historical accuracy” in historical fiction) breaks like a bubble the minute we think we’ve grasped it.

Perhaps diaries exercise such a fascination because they are ghosts, and ghosts are marvellous things.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Free at Last

One thing I saved up from my mini account of what I saw of the Historical Novel Society’s Conference in Manchester in October was the workshop Creative Writing, Creative Reading: Bringing the Past to Life. What, I thought as I pondered the programme, is that about? I had no idea. So I went.

The session was run by Orna Ross, an Irish novelist and teacher of Creative Intelligence. Creative Intelligence: right. Well, Orna defines it as “the ability to own and hone our innate creative potential…by understanding how the creative process works and learning to apply it.” She believes that our formal schooling, with its obsession with measurement, analysis and efficiency, has stifled our creative intelligence. I picture this as the Gradgrindian world that Dickens described so wonderfully in Hard Times: the world where innocents are murdered by facts, by rules, by a pair of scales. I don’t think anyone has exposed this outlook any better than Dickens.

But doing is always better than talking about doing, so Orna set us an exercise which was an introduction to the technique of FREE Writing. She gave us a topic “money” and three minutes to write about it. We were to write as fast as we could, without worrying about the niceties (punctuation, spelling etc), and without stopping. The idea is that the technique allows you to resist the inner censor – you know, the one who’s always telling you to be sensible and get a proper job, not pretend you’re a writer. The benefits of the technique are numerous, for example it helps you connect both to your inner self and with the world around you.

After about a week or so of FREE Writing you take two coloured pens and you read over what you’ve written, and you highlight insights in one colour and actions with the other. You don’t have to translate the actions into a to do list; just recognise them. Eventually you will find yourself doing them, because intention and attention work together.

Orna’s work looks back to the earlier work of writers like Dorothea Brande and Julia Cameron. Brande’s Becoming a Writer is almost required reading and if you’ve got a copy it’s probably as well-thumbed as mine! The technique of FREE Writing is very similar to Cameron’s “morning pages”, when you sit down every day and write in the same uncensored, stream-of-consciousness way. The difference, Orna explained, is that Cameron hasn’t focussed on the “speed” aspect of this kind of exercise. But both techniques are a kind of meditation, a “meditation on the page”.

If my Brande is well-thumbed, I’ve already had to buy another copy of Cameron’s The Artist’s Way as my first one fell apart. I’ve used it for years and I go back to it again and again. I don’t do morning pages daily but I do use them during difficult periods or just whenever I feel the need. The FREE Writing technique is another tool to add to my creative armoury, and I’m grateful to Orna to introducing it to me.

If you want to find out more about Creative Intelligence visit Orna’s website
Orna Ross - http://www.ornaross.com/

For more on Julia Cameron's The Artist’s Way see http://www.theartistsway.com/

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Catching Up Part 2

I’m gradually catching up with life! Here’s Part 2 to prove it.

Mary Sharratt, Historical Novel Society Conference, 17 October – I knew nothing about Mary or her book Daughters of the Witching Hill, but she gave such an interesting and engaging talk about the history behind the novel that I have added it to my reading list. Memorable moment: listening to her read – she has a lovely accent!

Manda Scott, HNS Conference, 17 November – Manda was supposed to be talking about author/publisher relationships with her publisher Selina Walker, but unfortunately Ms Walker could not make it. Instead, she gave us some wonderful – and funny - insights into how her writing career got started. Memorable moments: actually there are so many that I’m cheating and picking three. Manda said the f word. Thank god: it made me feel more at home. Manda told us how the gods told her to write her Boudica novels when she was on a vision quest. Manda told us how Christianity came into being and showed up Paul as the villain. Wild language, wild theories, wild woman – what’s not to like?

Hilary Green, HNS Conference, 17 November – Hilary was talking about love and war. Not big topics then, and all fiction can be fitted into them – there’s always love of someone or something, and there’s always conflict, if not actual war. Her books are set in WW2. Memorable moment: offering to sell us 4 paperbacks for £20 or 4 hardbacks for £25.

Jean Fullerton, HNS Conference, 17 November – East Ender Jean gave a talk about doing historical research. There wasn’t much I didn’t know already but it was well presented by a likeable speaker, and there’s never any harm in being reminded of things. Memorable moment: Jean showed us some old photographs of the streets where her stories are set and talked about how she sees her characters going about them. As a writer who also sees her characters moving about before her very eyes it was encouraging to see that you can appear perfectly sane and sensible (for so Jean struck me) while doing this.

Sarah Dunant, University of Bristol, 26 October – Sarah Dunant gave a wonderful lecture on how she used Renaissance art in her work and talked about the links between art and literature. She’s a great speaker, fabulously erudite, and is absolutely brilliant at giving a fascinating response to even the most unpromising questions. Memorable moment: Sarah included my favourite painting in her presentation – The Doge of Venice by Bellini. The hours I’ve spent in front of this sublime canvas!


Manda Scott on Rome, Boudica and shamanic dreaming - http://www.mandascott.co.uk/about.aspx

Love and war - Hilary Green explains her theories and the history behind her books - http://www.hilarygreen.co.uk/

Visit the East End with Jean Fullerton - http://www.jeanfullerton.com/

Sarah Dunant - http://www.sarahdunant.com/

The Doge of Venice - http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/giovanni-bellini-doge-leonardo-loredan

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Catching Up Part 1

My poor old blog has been neglected lately. I’ve been horribly busy and struggling to keep on top of things, but now the house has been excavated from under tons of dust I can look about me and reflect on what I’ve been doing. Or, more accurately, who I’ve been seeing – and I’ve been very busy indeed seeing other writers! So, as I can’t write about every event in great detail I shall recall one memorable moment from each. Here’s Part 1; Part 2 to follow!

Howard Jacobson, Topping & Co Bookstore, Bath, 13 September – the author pre-Booker prize making us laugh in Topping’s much-loved (by me) book store. Memorable moment: Jacobson suggests that all novels should be comic novels.

Martin Jarvis, Cheltenham, 10 October – a reading of two Jeeves and Wooster stories under the gaze of the angels of the Everyman Theatre. Memorable moment: listening to his “out takes” as he read the same sentence two or three times to satisfy his Radio 4 producer, each time with a slightly different inflection, and realising what a jolly skilled reader the blathering blighter is.

Stephen Fry, The Forum, Bath, 15 October – an event organised by Toppings in the fabulous art deco former cinema. Fry and the building matched one another perfectly: stylish, classy, and bordering on national treasure status. Memorable moment: Stephen telling us how he fell in love with words when he was ten, watching a film version of The Important of Being Earnest and hearing “you are the visible personification of absolute perfection”. Well who wouldn’t fall in love with that?

Maria McCann, The Mechanics Institute, Manchester 16 October – the event was Pages Ago: Historical Readers’ Day, part of the Manchester Literature Festival, and a taster for the Historical Novel Society Conference at the same venue the following day. Memorable moment: Maria told us she still has a day job and writes on her days at home.

Andrew Martin, The Mechanics Institute, Manchester 16 October – still in Pages Ago, Andrew talked about how to create atmosphere in historical fiction. An intelligent speaker who’d prepared his material and talked to the point, with a great many interesting things to say about creating atmosphere using nature, weather, and darkness. Memorable moment: Andrew telling us “I like the crepuscular mode”. Crepuscular: one of my favourite words.

Howard Jacobson on how all novels should be comic - http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/oct/09/howard-jacobson-comic-novels

Martin Jarvis on reading Jeeves and Wooster in 2007 - http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/books/article2551936.ece

The Forum, Bath - http://www.bathforum.co.uk/1/history.html

Topping & Company Books - http://www.toppingbooks.co.uk/

More on Andrew Martin - http://www.jimstringernovels.com/