On Writing

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One month into my first determined effort to write a novel, things are going quite well. I’m not convinced the book itself is going to be particularly fantastic, but my priority is actually less about producing a beautifully written, marketable book and more about getting to the completion stage. Ever since I was a small child, I was obsessed with writing stories. I would spend my weekends writing terrible tales about idyllic families and countryside exploits that took me far away from my suburban world. These stories were not particularly long, spanning perhaps six or so A4 pages, and I never actually managed to get to the end before getting discouraged and giving up. Since those early attempts at creating an imaginary world on paper, I have tried many more times to write something meaningful, but always without actually getting to those two magical last words: ‘The End’. I took creative writing classes in my early twenties, which I hoped would help me with this problem by providing me with the knowledge of the structures and processes behind writing a longer piece of work, but unfortunately it just left me feeling frustrated and even more inept. As I listened to the wonderful prose being produced by my classmates, my own seemed so amateur in comparison, and I lost my confidence in myself completely.

Shortly afterwards, I started blogging as a way to try and resurrect my love of writing. Rather than the panic and embarrassment I had felt about sharing my writing in front of the other members of my creative writing class, I felt empowered and freed by the notion of publishing my work anonymously. I could receive honest feedback, both negative and positive, and take time to reflect on what could be improved in my writing. I could write about whatever I wanted, at whatever length I wanted, and each post was a finite piece of work that allowed me to feel a sense of completion and achievement every time I pressed ‘publish’. Over time, as I built up a readership and found my own distinctive voice, writing became something that was a real pleasure and a way for me to truly express myself, and I came to love the times when I would sit down to plan and produce a new blog post, crafting my sentences and choosing my vocabulary carefully to create the perfect response to a novel, a trip or whatever else I was writing about.

Blogging really gave me my confidence back, and for the last few years I have been increasingly thinking about writing something longer. I have occasionally started a novel, but have always given up after the first few pages, convinced that it was absolute rubbish and that I was being stupid by even trying to write a book in the first place. However, I went on a course at work just before the summer holidays that was all about focusing on personal goals and putting plans into action to ensure that they are achieved rather than remaining pipe dreams. We were given plenty of time to reflect on our own about the things we would like to aim for in our lives, and the first thing that came into my mind was writing a novel. I have been so passionate about writing for so long that I know, deep down, I will never be satisfied with myself unless I genuinely give writing something for publication a go, and so I sat down over the summer and planned out the book I am currently writing. For the first time, I have an entire plot and a cast of characters fleshed out, and I am, as of writing this, at 30,000 words, which is a record for me and feels like an enormous achievement. I am making myself write something every day so that I can reach a goal of 30,000 words per month, and while it is a challenge to fit this in around work and social commitments, it is such a thrill to see the word count creeping up and my story coming to life on the page. I am finding many of my thoughts becoming possessed by the characters I am creating, and it is adding a real excitement to the usual routine of my every day life. Even if nobody but me ever reads it, I don’t care: at the moment, I am just thoroughly enjoying the process and I cannot wait until the moment when I will finally write ‘The End’!

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm by Kate Douglas Wiggin

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Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is one of those childhood classics, like Anne of Green Gables, that managed to pass me by when I was young. I was obviously too busy inhaling the terribly addictive Babysitters’ Club series to take in anything more edifying, and as such, I missed the chance to meet yet another remarkable heroine who might have taught me more than just how to make a bit of cash on the side after school. It’s interesting, when you dig around in the archives of 19th and early 20th century children’s novels written for girls, just how many women were anxious to provide a different narrative to the expected one of marriage and motherhood. L M Montgomery’s Anne and Emily, Louisa May Alcott’s Jo, Gene Stratton Porter’s Elnora, and now Kate Douglas Wiggin’s Rebecca are all girls whose desire is not for a man and a kitchen of their own, but a good education and opportunities for personal fulfilment. I wonder what impact this had on the girls who read these novels when they first came out; no doubt they had access to a variety of fairy and adventure stories, and did not suffer as much from being beaten around the head by Christian moralising as the previous generation, but did they find these stories unusual or revolutionary in any way? Were they inspired by them, or were they frustrated by them, especially those girls who could not have hoped for access to the education and opportunities for creative fulfilment they were reading about? I’d love to know more.

Rebecca is cut from the same cloth as L M Montgomery’s heroines; an irrepressible little thing, with a mouth that won’t stop moving and a fanciful, romantic spirit, she is sent away to live with two spinster aunts after her father dies and her mother can no longer afford to keep seven children. Aunt Miranda and Aunt Jane live in the ‘brick house’ in Riverboro, Maine, where they are pillars of their small community. Aunt Miranda is hard hearted and a stickler for rules and neatness; she has no desire to take Rebecca into her home, and only does so out of duty towards the younger sister she blames thoroughly for her own misfortune, having married a feckless drifter she knew full well would come to nothing. Aunt Jane is Miranda’s opposite; sweet, kind and docile, she is thrilled at Rebecca’s arrival and does her best to lessen the harshness of Aunt Miranda’s regime and make Rebecca happy.

Rebecca, despite missing her beloved ‘Sunnybrook farm’ is keen to please, and tries her best to do right by her aunts, often with the hilarious consequences one would expect of a girl who just can’t help herself from getting into trouble. The plot of the novel revolves around Rebecca’s friendships with a number of locals, from the elderly, childless Cobbs, for whom Rebecca becomes a surrogate granddaughter, to Emma Jane, the dull but pretty blacksmith’s daughter, who follows Rebecca everywhere. Life is full of the small pleasures, excitements and victories of childhood, and Rebecca brings a delight and a glory to the previously narrow lives of Riverboro’s young people. One of her greatest achievements is in selling enough soap to win a poor family a lamp, in the doing of which she meets a local young philanthropist, Adam Ladd, who becomes her ‘Mr Aladdin’ and will go on to support her through her high school days in neighbouring Wareham, where the world becomes even bigger for the ambitious and talented Rebecca.

It is a charming book, if not a little heavy handed in places, and Rebecca is an absolutely adorable heroine, who is a perfect example of how to make the best of a bad job in all situations. I very much like Douglas Wiggin’s attitude that the innocent goodness of children can bring about change in even the hardest of hearts, and I loved the ending, thinking it a wonderful example of feminism in action. In fact, there is much of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm that is echoed in Anne of Green Gables; such was its popularity when it came out, L M Montgomery must have read it and been influenced by it, because the similarities are striking. It is not as enchanting as its successor, but it certainly is worth reading nonetheless. I am delighted that Hesperus Press are continuing to republish such fantastic examples of classic children’s literature, and I can’t recommend it highly enough!

Back to Charleston

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Just before the end of the summer holidays, I decided to return to Charleston, country home of the Bloomsbury Group, so that I could see the house at its best. When I first visited a couple of years ago, it was during the coldest Easter I can remember, and the bleakness of the sleet-filled sky and the lack of any life in the gardens made the experience a little less than what it should have been. Of course the interior of the house was not dimmed by the freezing wasteland outside, but everything does look better when it’s sunny.

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As Charleston doesn’t open until midday, I took a brief detour to the picture postcard village of Alfriston first, which I have longed to visit for a while. Its main street is ridiculously pretty, packed as it is with a hodge podge of historic and beautiful cottages, shops and pubs that look as if they have been around since Domesday. Much Ado Books, a well known and much loved independent book shop, has pride of place on the high street, and I loved poking around inside. They have a marvellous selection of the latest fiction, as well as plenty of tempting second hand books and ephemera at reasonable prices: well worth a visit if you’re in the area. Further up and behind the main street lies the impressive village church, known as the Cathedral of the Downs due to its large size and gorgeous views across the undulating countryside. Alongside the church sits Alfriston Clergy House, a medieval thatched weaver’s cottage that is famed for being the very first property acquired by the National Trust. The whole village feels like a place where time has simply stopped; it is difficult to find villages like this nowadays, that still have thriving shops and have retained their original buildings and historic character. I couldn’t imagine a more idyllic place to live.

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Once I had my fill of exploring Alfriston, I went on to Charleston, which took my breath away once again as I drove up the narrow lane surrounded by the soft humps of the Downs and found the gorgeous Georgian house at the end of it, reflected in its own pond and wreathed in flowers. Walking around the beautiful rooms, filled with the furniture, paintings and spirits of the fascinating and phenomenally talented crowd of people who once lived and stayed here, I felt goosebumps rise on my skin as I imagined the conversations that must have taken place at the dining table, and the sparks of inspiration that must have flown on the air. Once again I was struck by what a magical, lively and fun place this must have been, alive with talk and laughter and passion. The studio is a particularly extraordinary space, and it was even more beautiful than I remembered, perhaps because the garden was in full bloom, and formed a stunning backdrop against the glass doors.

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It was too cold to properly explore the garden last time I came, so I took great pleasure in seeing the colourful flowers and the fantastic array of mosaic and statue art that Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant left behind. It is amazing that their hand painted tiles and artfully placed mosaic paving has survived, and it makes the garden into just as much a canvas for their creativity as the interior rooms. I could just imagine Virginia on her deckchair, or Angelica running around, or Vanessa pottering amidst her flower beds. The greatest joy of Charleston is in the feeling that they have all just got up and gone for a walk and will soon be returning; this is no museum, but a chance to see life as they lived it, and the house still vibrates with their energy at every turn. I loved every second.

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The Blazing World by Siri Hustvedt

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This was one of the novels on the Booker Prize longlist, and when I saw it on display in my local library, I thought I’d give it a go. I’ve never read any Siri Hustvedt before, but I’m aware of her reputation and I was a little worried that she’d end up being a little too cerebral for me. The premise of this novel certainly sounds rather highbrow; Harriet Burden, a widowed artist, has spent her life seeing her work and intellect overlooked and unappreciated by the male dominated cultural elite. Married to New York’s premier art dealer, Felix Lord, Harriet was always Felix’s ‘eccentric’ wife, and found herself unable to create an identity and a reputation in her own right. As such, after his death, she convinces three very different male artists to put on one-man shows in which they present her work as their own. Harriet plans to conduct a social experiment to see whether the culturati really do view art through a gendered lens, and will finally give her the accolades she feels she deserves when her work is assumed to have been made by a man.

The story is told through the construct of being a report by an academic researching Harriet Burden and the truth of her claim that she was the artist behind the three New York shows in question. The academic presents her findings through providing transcripts of interviews with a range of Harriet’s friends and family members, as well as the male artists, their representatives and other acquaintances of interest, plus Harriet’s private notebooks. Harriet published a confession in an obscure academic journal before her premature death, but this confession was disputed by one of the artists, also now dead, who claimed that Harriet had been delusional, and that he had not been a front for her work: everything produced was his own. The academic claims to have no definitive answer to the truth of the whole affair, but instead presents all of the information she has gathered to enable readers to come to their own conclusions. This is quite a daring approach, and provides a thought provoking and highly interactive reading experience which enables readers to consider their own deeply ingrained and often unconscious prejudices and assumptions.

What I found most interesting about the book was that Hustvedt chooses to make Harriet’s male-masked exhibitions not particularly successful or widely noted anyway. This raises the question of whether Harriet’s obsessional desire to make the point that she has been ignored because she is female is indeed delusional, and a way for her to avoid accepting that her work is just not that worthy of praise. Harriet is an incredibly intelligent, well read woman with a range of fascinating ideas about psychology and philosophy, with a particular interest in gender and how women have been silenced by patriarchy throughout history. As she reaches middle age and finds herself becoming increasingly marginalised in a society that only really values women for their beauty, her anger becomes more and more visceral towards the men who seek to ignore her. After considering what everyone had to say in the matter, I had begun to think by the end that Harriet had been driven beyond the realms of sanity by her anger and frustration, and I was also rather frustrated by her inability to accept personal responsibility for her problems. After all, it is easy to say ‘I was prevented from being successful’ rather than admitting ‘I just wasn’t good enough.’ Though, at the same time, the ease in which I came to that conclusion and was willing to dismiss Burden’s claims of gender discrimination probably says something in itself, and I felt rather conflicted by the time I finished the book.

Hustvedt uses The Blazing World to raise many pertinent questions about gender and perception, and gender and power. I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to become engaged in a text that was so challenging and provocative, and I loved learning about Harriet’s favourite female writer, the 17th century aristocrat Margaret Cavendish (there is a lovely analysis of one of her poems here), whose experimental science fiction novel gives the book its title. Hustvedt is a clever writer who pays close attention to detail; I thought it was very witty to have Harriet’s surname be ‘Burden’ and her husband’s ‘Lord’, playing wonderfully on traditional gender roles, and her ability to create a number of voices for a hugely diverse range of individuals was astounding. This is definitely not a light read, but it is an immensely rewarding one. I’m so pleased that I gave it a try, and I think it’s a shame it didn’t make the Booker Longlist, as it was certainly the best out of the three I’ve read that made it through.

Yorkshire

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When Miranda and her mum invited me to spend a week with them in Yorkshire this summer, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. I adore everything about the county: its dramatic natural landscapes, its fantastic range of historic buildings, its quaint cathedral cities and picture postcard villages, and the warmth of its locals. I would move there in a heartbeat. We stayed in a cottage just outside Ripon, which is a gorgeous little city with a historic market square and impressive cathedral that inspired some of the details of Alice in Wonderland, as Lewis Carroll’s father was once the cathedral Dean. There are plenty of independent shops, one of which is a favourite of mine and Miranda’s, the fantastic art gallery Hornsey’s, where neither of us could resist picking up a print by a Yorkshire artist we both love, Emily Sutton. Right next to our cottage was the entrance to Fountains Abbey, which is one of the most breathtaking sights I have seen in this country. Ruined after the dissolution of the monasteries, the owner of the land in the 18th century created stunning water gardens around the Abbey, which form a fabulous backdrop to this fairytale-like place. You can walk into still roofed rooms, looking out across the surrounding parkland, and imagine what it must have been like to live and worship here hundreds of years ago. It is a truly unique experience and one I already can’t wait to repeat.

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We thoroughly enjoyed an expedition to the lovely seaside town of Whitby, also famous for its stunning Abbey ruins that look dramatically out across the foaming sea to one side and the rolling purple moors to the other, and for its jet jewellery and associations with Dracula. Roaming amidst its cobbled streets and climbing the ancient steps up the cliffside to the Abbey feel like wandering back in time, and there is nothing better than eating fish and chips in the fresh salty air, watching boats bobbing in the harbour. We also loved visiting the smart spa town of Harrogate, which is full of Georgian splendour and boasts a large branch of our favourite Yorkshire restaurant, Betty’s, and the neighbouring RHS gardens at Harlow Carr, which are well worth stopping off to explore if you’re passing. The pretty town of Ilkley also delighted us with its independent shops, especially The Grove Bookshop, and of course, its very own branch of Betty’s.

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RHS Harlow Carr

Probably my favourite place we visited, however, was Newby Hall, a privately owned stately home designed by Robert Adam and containing some of the most exquisite furniture and interior decoration in the country. Our tour around the house was filled with fascinating details about the history of the building and its inhabitants, including the murder of a son by Greek brigands in the 1800s and an owner who brought back crates and crates of ancient sculptures from his grand tour to create his own purpose built sculpture gallery. The nicest thing about the house is that it is still fully lived in by the family who own it, and it feels very much like a home rather than a visitor attraction. The gardens are glorious, too, and there is an outstandingly good restaurant that serves proper food in lovely surroundings. It was an absolutely brilliant day out, and the jewel in the crown of a spectacular trip to God’s Own Country.

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