Friday, July 01, 2011

Textual-Thresholds; the Writer/’s next Door.

Map picture
Devon Somerset borders

         There has often been a writer who lives – or had lived – near me; someone, usually a woman, who lived and wrote in a nearby place or space in some way associated with mine. Sometimes I’ve known about the writer at the time I also lived there. Other times I’ve found out later – much later perhaps. Or alternatively, it is much later before I realise the importance of the fact of that writer being next door. Sometimes in the latter case, this information has come as a revelation and altered my perception of that time. Forever …

...    In the sixth form, our English teacher, Miss O’L., tells us about the writer living in the next door village. She’s called Jean Rhys and is notorious for her eccentricity and reclusiveness, so that it is unlikely she will come and talk to us; this fact means little to me or my friends. The woman is not famous, just a local eccentric and it is only many years later that I realise how significant was the book she was working on, titled Wide Sargasso Sea and yet, how incongruent the matching between that text and the mid-Devon locality where Rhys was then living.

…   I remember the small town gossip when Ted Hughes and his wife Sylvia Plath moved into our town next door to my aunt (godmother) and uncle– the doubled coldness of the winter snows and the stupefying shock and reverberations that circled our place as the news of the poet’s suicide reached the town in 1963. It was the year of the big-freeze, when my family moved away from the town. The poet’s death will always be bonded in my mind with the threshold-time that tore me away from childhood and into my teenage  years. Plath, poet next door, down the road, will for ever be inscribed with those weeks of change.

…   There was Tryphena Sparks, who another aunt had known; she told me about Sparks’ alleged affair with Thomas Hardy. A few years later Elizabeth Stuckley, from the famous Devon family, a novelist and children’s writer, buys as her holiday home a derelict cottage next to our farm. One morning she pops in to our farm and hands me a long reading-list of books, the most significant of which at the time was the Mazo de la Roche series; soon I find myself daring to take that wide leap from childhood reading towards adult literature. Now, 2011, I find through googling that Stuckley has already disappeared off the literary radar; none of her books feature on the web. I still treasure her 1960’s list of teenage recommended reading.

      …  Other Aunts told me about E.M. Delafield who had lived near Cullompton and written a witty Journal called The Provincial Lady and earlier in the C20, in my grandparents’ generation, the then famous early C20 romance writer Margaret Pedler had lived in the next door village. There was Eve Lewis, the Jungian psychoanalyst/writer who my parents knew; there was Jessie McGahey, my classics teacher godmother, who could and should have written, but didn’t. But that’s another story …

            In this global age when virtual Australia is next door on the screen, when we can at the drop of a hat link with any writer, anywhere, it is still vital not to forget, or belittle the local, the near at hand, on the ground at our feet and at what could or may have already, been lost, forgotten, or trivialised. The facts of our literal now, or in the past near-neighbours, may provide significance for our own personal future identity as writer and for the future historical recognition of neglected women writers of the region.

shared mind-space
        What books and who do you think of? There’s the mind-space, associative connotations coming from the realisation that you share a geographical locality or common-roots with another writer; even though one’s own texts may be of a different quality, the writings of the other-writer can resonate with that of one’s own inner-landscape and provide an imagined shared temenous. For example, Eavan Boland’s poem ‘Rooms of Other Women Poets’, creates an imagined bond between the women poets of the past and herself as poet/speaker in the imagined inner-landscape of creative poet-room. There could be inter or intra-texts, which encompass the shared networks of the same or related texts and words; there could alternatively be shared places, which have descriptions and interpretations of locations linked by similarity or difference.

         Devon’s two distinctive landscapes of moor and sea are especially relevant. For me, Plath’s poems resonate with echoes of the town in which I grew up; there’s shared memory and the comfort of recognition, even if interpretations of the locality differ. It was a shock to read in ‘The Beach’ in Hughes’ Birthday Letters, that Plath’s response to the sea-scapes of north Devon were anything but agreeable. How could it be possible for anyone to not be inspired by Devon's coasts? From Mary Patricia Willcocks there is fiction, often set on or beneath the moor. At times her style is preciously old-fashioned, but it provides a nostalgic, secure representation of an ordered world, which resonates with a world in which generations of her (and my) ancestors lived and worked. Willcocks’ novels are what Bob Mann described as ‘full of the romance of the past’ see his thoughts on her,  ‘Devon’s forgotten feminist’ here in a pamphlet about Ivybridge) which one’s own archetypal antennae tune into. From Frances Bellerby, in a poem ‘based on a particular road and valley on the western edge of Dartmoor’, reflections on light and eternity as they merge with the natural world, are intensified by the contrasting images of moorland scenery, with which anyone who knows and loves the moor can identify. From Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the eternal meditation on and of the sea in her poem ‘A Walk by the Sea’  tunes in with one’s own emotional response to south-western coastal mysteries.

surprise and serendipity! finding the local muse
        Elizabeth Podneiks, on a Dartmoor quest, in her search for a cluster of writers who stayed there in the 1930’s, expresses the aura of worshipful admiration, which kindles interior imagination. There’s a sense of, did she live and write here? It’s the kind of response I have to the knowledge that a writer, such as Jane Austen, George Eliot or H.D.  spent time within the boundaries of my own home county – in my territorial space and that whilst in the county that writer completed or was inspired to write a text that has now become what might be understood as a seminal text of her career. For instance, it was the landscape and scenery of Devon that George Eliot found to be the inspirational transforming agent that motivated her to become a fiction writer. In 1856, whilst staying in Ilfracombe with George Lewes the story is that she awoke one night from a dream with an idea for a work of fiction which eventually became Scenes of Clerical Life. Eliot seems to have been overwhelmed by the richness of the scenery surrounding her – the abundant flora and fauna, the sea-scapes, the rock-pools. Her Recollections of Ilfracombe tells the story of the beginnings of her transition to canonic fiction writer. Realising that the time spent in the county was one of a major turning-point in a writer’s life and writing is poignant and telling for the later writer; such was the case I believe with H.D.

         Such awareness provides in turn inspiration and motivation for later writers to go on adventures, on pilgrimages, quests, in search of a particular spot, ‘that place where that happened’; or alternatively travel in search of a now half-forgotten writer – one’s own personal writer-heroine-muse who has lived and written somewhere; perhaps in a cottage nearby whose photo appears in an article or biography. Where is that? What did she write there? What happened to her there?

writers in community
        When she stayed at Martinhoe HD was living and working with her then husband Richard Aldington; other friends and writers came and stayed with them and yet others lived nearby. This strand of writer-next-door takes into account writers who have lived within a community – both in terms of those who are or were engaged in the activity of writing and of those living nearby who might be affected by the nearness of the group. It suggest the inter-connections, the textual imprints left on the local topography and community and of this networked evolving meta-text that’s irretrievably written-on-that-local-landscape (I think especially of the effects of the presence of the long-standing Arvon community on the surrounding district).

       But writer-groups and networks are not just C20 phenomena. Travelling further back into Devon’s herstory, in the C17 Mary Lady Chudleigh, living in Ashton, seems to have been participatory in a network of women writing within the then manuscript culture.There is considerable interest in the search for the identities of those now lost women who may have been participants of her coterie And a century before that, during the Tudor period, there were groups of educated women engaged in literary activities who were linked to one another via several associative networks, including their religious and familial circles. Micheline White in a recent article (‘Women Writers and Literary Religious Circles in the Elizabethan West-Country’) has written of the ‘reconstruction of literary circles, coteries, networks and communities in the west-country’. She challenges the prevailing idea that women during the Elizabethan period – especially those living in the rural margins of the South-West counties – would have been writing in relative isolation.  Instead, White’s work proposes that
to excavate a region’s literary religious and kinship networks can yield surprising results about women writers’ engagement with local culture, their relationships to other women writers and their representation by their male peers. (See Women Writers).
White’s research has provided an impetus for finding about some of those Devonian Elizabethan women writers; each name that’s revived can act as a missing link in a hidden chain of other writers, whose lives and texts are now lost, but can still be surmised by these discoveries.

        More recently, in the 1930s, a group of literary friends spent most of two summers at a remote mansion in the middle of Dartmoor. One of them, Djuna Barnes, wrote the seminal text Nightwood, whilst staying at Hayford Hall. The other core women in the group, including Antonia White and Emily Coleman, achieved an experimental interplay of life, aesthetics and writing, which is now acknowledged to be representative of what has been called a ‘new female kind of lived Modernism’, providing a new slant to the analysis of the Modernist Movement.

         The search for a particular writer’s place or site of living can also help in filling in the gaps in the local literary map. Caroline Zilboorg, looking for H.D. in London, talks of the writer’s home in Mecklenburgh Square, of an impromptu visit she made there and how that gave her a real sense of the reality of HD’s time there.
The biographical work that still needs to be done is sometimes the scholarly spadework of chronology and editing, and even the study of photographs and geographical meanderings (see essay in Sagetrieb)
Zilboorg stresses how it is important to search out a particular site associated with a writer; not only does it feed the imagination but also such a quest provides the nitty-gritty of specific information essential to filling in the gaps in knowledge, so as to fill out archival reference points on the incomplete map of texts and writers associated with that location. Devon’s landscape is peppered with evidence - churches (many of which are rapidly deteriorating); inscribed memorials; manuscripts (including wills, letters, journals, poetry) and archaeological sites. Most of these are as yet to be re-discovered. I had a difficult task trying to find where the grave of the writer Charlotte Chanter is located in Ilfracombe; although I knew it was there, the churchyard was huge and overgrown; it took several letters and visits to the local museum before the exact mapping of the grave could be identified: it had fallen over long ago and the inscription could only just be deciphered and can’t be read in the photo I took.
Charlotte Chanter's grave at Ilfracombe

Screen at Ashton Church
        Looking for information about Mary Lady Chudleigh at Ashton, knowing already that there is no memorial of her burial there, it was a lovely surprise to find that within the church  there is still much remaining in the way of contemporary memorials; those memorialising the death of her children and in-laws as well as a wonderful screen that may have been placed there during, or just before, Chudleigh’s own life-time.
       One afternoon I found myself in Dunsford Church, staring at the large monument which represents the joint recumbent effigies of both Ursula Fulford and her husband Thomas, as well as their seven children; I was on the trail of the C16 Ursula, a contemporary of Anne Dowriche, who may have been one of that poet’s coterie. A sixteen-line verse inscription on the monument included Fulford’s own assessment of his wife, praising ‘his Mate in all his life, for being a true and virtuous wife’. Micheline White believes that the inscription may have been composed by Ursula herself (see Women Writers).
Fulford Monument at Dunsford Church

        So, with this sort of work, the literary history of the neighbourhood can be re-established and retrieved and it becomes possible to begin to re-assess particular aspects of that history. The balance between male and female writers can be re-formulated to challenge the prevailing notion of the predominance of Devon’s men-writers …

…   There are so many possibilities. Imponderables.

       For instance, just one speculation: supposing we jump up swiftly through the centuries from the heartlands of pre-Roman Devon, up to C16 England, and consider a woman who landed in Plymouth in 1616, then passed through Devon on her way to London – the legendary Indian Princess Pocahontas. Did she exist? Probably. But the story that has accompanied her up through the years can not easily be verified and there are several conflicting interpretations.

      If only there was a diary, written by the girl herself.

      Who knows, perhaps Pocahontas kept such a journal, recounting the real story of her adventure, before she died at the start of her return journey. Legend has it that she was barely fluent in English and didn’t tell her own story, but surely it is possible that she kept a diary, at least in minimal form. However, instead of hearing her own voice, we learn much later in the C19 from a bevy of other writers about the legendary fate of the Indian girl; it is an illusive, shifting and ever-evolving legend, some of which can be proven, some of which will remain guesswork: an allegory for this quest for lost women writers from Devonshire. If there is the possibility that Pocahontas did indeed write her own story, we’ll never get the chance to read it, except through speculative fictional accounts. Why not then conjure up such a narrative, to enable others to understand who she was and what her story may have been. Then, after that ,why not consider other might-have-beens, stories about women known and named whose texts we either have, or who wrote texts that are not anymore extant; women known to have lived and who could easily have written; and those who may have lived and written.

     Somehow, in a reconstructed textual world, all the threads of all the stories would inter-connect, but if that metatext can never be achieved, gaps in the stories of each, or all of these scenarios, can at least be suggested.

Who knows, perhaps there is some enchanting material about our county flying round in the nearby territories of cyberspace ...
... Perdita has lost her way into the future in the green westcountry woods she sinks into oak leaves this is the ice age drift leaves are frozen white crisp edges sting her skin she has no blanket there are no paths in this wood to direct her way there are a few birds doves high up in fir trees icicles glisten from branches beaks are frozen Perdita kneels and peers over the precipice of the stone quarry she has narrowly missed a bad fall into the past misadventure follows her a wasp buzzing behind her thin shoulders She sees what she thought was lost for ever Perdita’s Father is memory she sees rubbles of stones in loose piles stacked from the past to the future …
and now I’ve moved to a county which neighbours Devon - Somerset. Shall I find another writing woman living next door?

(The above consists of excerpts from a longer unpublished piece)

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