The scribbling itch

Virginia Woolf’s tidied up writing lodge at Monk’s House in East Sussex

Virginia Woolf:
A Room of One’s Own
Penguin Modern Classics 1970 (1929)

But why should I fear a nameless grave
When I’ve hopes for eternity…
— From the Scottish ballad ‘The Fower Maries’

Described as an essay, A Room of One’s Own is indeed that but it also has elements of fiction, memoir, stream of consciousness and scarcely veiled polemic, however gently done. I had no idea quite what to expect and the end result confounded what little I’d anticipated — luckily in a good way, however.

Surprisingly very little is directly about a writer’s room, such as those which can still be seen at Monk’s House in East Sussex, a cottage retreat which the Woolfs bought a century ago: here Virginia established a writer’s lodge in a garden shed, in additional to her own bedroom with its well-stocked bookshelves.

What this essay does is to expound on women’s writing in England from the Renaissance to the 1920s, what they wrote, the conditions they wrote under, whether they should aspire to poetry or novels, and the fantastical notions far too many men had about what women could and couldn’t do.

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An old aquatint and a sailor’s yarn

The Temple at Sunium

Jostein Gaarder:
The Solitaire Mystery
Phoenix 1997 (1990)

For nearly four decades I’ve had a hand-coloured aquatint by the Romantic artist Paul Sandby (after an original by William Pars). Dated 1780, it depicts ‘The Temple of Sunium’, the ruins of which edifice still lie at the last cape every sailor sees sailing south from Athens.

It’s not a very distinguished print (my copy is blemished by water marks) and I don’t know why I particularly liked it then, but I now treasure it for its classical associations: the site from which King Aegeus threw himself into the sea when he thought that his son Theseus had been killed by the Minotaur in the Cretan labyrinth, and a place of worship dedicated to Poseidon, Greek god of the ocean and of earthquakes.

I was reminded of this picture at a highpoint of The Solitaire Mystery, when Hans Thomas and his father hope to finally see his mother Anita, who left them back in Norway many years before in order ‘to find herself’. After a journey in an old Fiat from Norway via Germany, Switzerland, Italy, the Adriatic, Delphi and Athens, father and son learn that the mother can be found at a photo-shoot in the temple at Sounion. Why she has left them, why they have sought her after many years of waiting, and what then turns out to be the eventual outcome, all this forms the frame of the story, a metaphor for the philosophical quest that Hans Thomas and his father are simultaneously engaged in on their transcontinental trip.

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A sad tale’s best for winter

Spider in amber (Wikipedia Commons)
Spider in amber (Wikipedia Commons)

Jostein Gaarder: The Ringmaster’s Daughter
(original title Sirkusdirektørens datter 2001)
Translated by James Anderson
Phoenix 2003

The Baltic Sea is well known for its amber, solidified resin from forests around 44 million years old, and frequently trapped in these deposits are various flora and fauna of the period. The most striking image in The Ringmaster’s Daughter, which symbolises one of its major themes, is of a spider caught in this matrix, just like its victims might be caught in its web.

The story that gives the novel its title concerns a trapeze artist who falls and breaks her neck. As the ringmaster bends over her injured body he sees an amber trinket on a slender chain around her neck, which he recognises as one he had given to a daughter he hasn’t seen for years.

The importance of this tale of the lost daughter is underlined by it being told, with variations, three times during the course of the novel, in the presence of each of the three most important women in the narrator’s life.

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Mischievous, not misleading

giuseppemariacrespi_bookshelves
Giuseppe Maria Crespi’s Bookshelves (Wikimedia)

Edwin Moore and Fiona Mackenzie Moore
Concise Dictionary of Art and Literature
Tiger Books International 1993

With entries ranging from Alvar Aalto to Francisco Zurbarán spread over 440-plus pages this is my kind of book, whether I’m dipping in, looking up a specific reference or finding that one entry leads to another. The clues are in the book’s title: there are short paragraphs on artists and writers, on artistic schools and techniques and on writing styles and genres.

Opening a double page at random I find a discussion (page 340) on Realism in both literature and art which includes references to George Eliot, Courbet, Gorky and Magic Realism; on the opposite page I can read about Redskins and Palefaces — not an obscure title by Arthur Ransome but a phrase to distinguish those who write about the outdoors (such as Hemingway) and those who focus on ‘indoor’ matters (Henry James is cited) — and, lower down the page, I find a note about relief sculpture in all its forms.

I’m assuming that Fiona Mackenzie Moore contributed the art entries and Edwin Moore the literary items, as the former also wrote the 1992 Dictionary of Art, while the latter, according to the Guardian, is a former senior editor who spent 18 years working in non-fiction publishing and now writes reference books. The literature entries are often characterised by sly humour and dry observations, such as this entry for Fiona Macleod:
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Slight but entertaining

sea waves

Benjamin Lee The Frog Report Puffin Books 1978 (1974)

Jonathan Jessingford is the least regarded in his family: the youngest, and short-sighted to boot, he is either tolerated or patronised by his older siblings — sister Jenny and brother Daniel — by his parents Frank and Ada and by his teachers, especially Mr Grindley. But the last shall be first, as the saying goes; and Jonathan proves his mettle when called upon.

This is the early 70s when anxiety about external threats were ever in the air — Cold War spies, terrorists — but also where dull old Dullington Bay on England’s South Coast is the last place you’d expect trouble. Mr and Mrs Jessingford have gone up to London to see a play, leaving the three children alone at home on a dark and windy night to manage by themselves. As we all know and expect, this is a recipe for disaster. A night-time walk and crumbling cliffs are just the beginning, an illegal immigrant coming ashore just the thing to incite the action proper. What is family friend and GP Dr Bill Lancaster doing on a windswept beach? What’s Commander Tagg’s game? Who is Professor Jan Stepanov? And what is Jonathan’s crucial role in all of this? Continue reading “Slight but entertaining”

Deserving of more fantasy fans

knot

Diana Wynne Jones
The Spellcoats
Dalemark Quartet

OUP 2005 (1979)

A young girl, who has little idea that she has a talent for weaving magical spells into garments, has to abandon home along with her orphan siblings when they are all suspected of colluding with invaders with whom they happen to share physical characteristics. Thus begins a journey downriver to the sea and then back again up to its source before the causes of the conflict can start to be addressed.

The Spellcoats has a markedly different feel compared to the middle two Dalemark tales. As well as being set in an earlier period, this story is recounted by the young weaver Tanaqui (an approach unlike that in the other three books which are third-person narratives). We also find that the story is being told through her weaving of the tale into the titular Spellcoats, a wonderful metaphor for how stories are often described as being told. We finally discover (in both an epilogue and in the helpful glossary that is supplied at the end of the book) that the boundaries between myth and factual truth are not as clear-cut as at first seems, a fascinating exercise in the layering of meaning and reality. It’s what might be called metafiction (defined as fiction about fiction, or ‘fiction which self-consciously reflects upon itself’), a term which had only been coined in 1970, nine years before The Spellcoats was first published. Continue reading “Deserving of more fantasy fans”