Too late for a ghost story?

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Bad Edwardian ghost photography: possibly one of my Desert Island Discs

They belong more properly to Hallowe’en or Christmas (viz. the two excellent anthologies I read over the season, P.D. James’s The Mistletoe Murders and Sayers et al’s Murder Under The Christmas Tree) but I’ve just come across a superlative ghost story. Or, rather, ghost song. Because I am writing about EARLY MODERN CORPSES at present, and thus am locked in the slow-loading embrace of EEBO, I stumbled across this, from that oddly-neglected seventeenth-century classic Choyce drollery, songs & sonnets being a collection of divers excellent pieces of poetry, of severall eminent authors, never before printed (1656), published by my new best friend, Robert Pollard. Pollard seems a bit obscure (he has the misfortune to share his name with a far more successful publisher who lived a century later), but he’s mentioned briefly by Adam Smyth in ‘Profit & Delight’: Printed Miscellanies in England 1640–1682and his editorial note to the miscellany is charming. But best of all is the spooky little offering which ends the collection: ‘The Ghost-Song’. It felt vaguely Christmassy to me, and although it’s January 7th, I include it on that basis (it’s always Christmas somewhere on the internet):

 

The Ghost-Song

‘Tis late and cold, stir up the fire,
Sit close, and draw the table nigher,
Be merry, and drink wine that’s old,
A hearty medicine ‘gainst the cold;
Your bed of wanton down the best,
Where you may tumble to your rest:
I could well wish you wenches too,
But I am dead, and cannot do.
Call for the best, the house will ring,
Sack, White and Claret, let them bring,
And drink apace, whilst breath you have,
You’l finde but cold drinking in the grave:
Partridge, Plover for your dinner,
And a Capon for the sinner,
You shall finde ready when you are up,
And your horse shall have his sup.
Welcome, welcome, shall flie round,
And I shall smile, though under ground.

 

 

P.S. Happy New Year!

Advent Calendar Day 16: Quiz!

This image is marginally relevant to the quiz. One of the things I really enjoy about life is that wherever literate women gather, you can always find someone willing to scream with you about Jo not marrying Laurie.

Earlier in Advent, the fragrant Jem Bloomfield described this month’s project as my “literary Advent Calendar”, coincidentally slightly before I started posting clips of 70s sitcoms and much-loved puppet shows. To reinforce the high moral tone, therefore, I offer you a lovely Christmas books quiz from the Guardian website.

Christmas, games and quizzes obviously go together like cheeseboards and heartburn. I love games and quizzes. I am pathologically incapable of not playing to win. This has encompassed the very nasty Scrabble game I played between Oxford interviews (I was convinced it was a subtle, informal form of testing; I’d like to confirm now that it DEFINITELY WASN’T), the Shakespeare board game with E’s mother in which my competitive streak led me to trounce EVERYONE, and the daily Bananagrams tournaments which embroil my mother and me in psychological warfare.* In the spirit of taking part meaning absolutely nothing against the joy of a Monopoly game won (even if your victory is by default following your opponent’s death or sleep), do enjoy the quiz.

 

*I looked on Amazon for seasonal variations on Bananagrams, to expand the family game horde. All the reviews consist of people screaming NOT AS GOOD AS BANAGRAMS in the allcaps of addicts. The tiles are addictive.

Poor Oxford!

“Poor Oxford! Will she, I wonder, ever be made successfully the background for a play, or for a novel?” — Max Beerbohm, 4th October, 1902 (Around Theatres, p. 224).

CFP: Victorian Network

Call for Papers: Sex, Courtship and Marriage in Victorian Literature and Culture

Nothing will ever be funnier than this image, and if you think otherwise, you are wrong.

Victorian Network is an MLA-indexed (from 2012) online journal dedicated to publishing and promoting the best postgraduate work in Victorian Studies.

The sixth issue of Victorian Network, guest edited by Dr Greta Depledge (Royal Holloway), is dedicated to a reassessment of nineteenth-century constructions and understandings of sex, courtship and marriage.

Although the heteronormative and companionate marriage was vital for economic and reproductive reasons – as well as romantic impulses – recent scholarship has illuminated its status as but one of several diverse paradigms of marriage/sexual relationship accessible to the Victorians

Why be happy when you could be normal?

Across the nineteenth century, profound crises of faith, extensive legal reforms and the new insights afforded by the emergent discipline of anthropology all contributed to a culture of introspection about the practice of marriage, at the same time as advances in science and medicine opened up new interpretations and definitions of sexual practices and preferences.

We are inviting submissions of no more than 7000 words, on any aspect of the theme. Possible topics include but are by no means limited to the following:

·     Victorian narratives of queer desire: text and subtext

·     Representations of women’s sexuality (angels, whores, spinsters and beyond)

·     Prudishness and censorship: “deviant” novels and scandalous dramas

·     Adultery, bigamy, divorce and other affronts to the ideal of companionate marriage

·     Transgressive relationships

·     Nineteenth-century marriage law, including prohibited degrees of affinity, property reform and breach of promise

·     Representations of sexual innocence and experience (virginity, puberty and prostitution

·     Subversion of traditional courtship narratives

·     Sex and class: adventuresses, mistresses, sex workers and blackmail

·     Customs of the country: courtship conventions, betrothals and bridal nights

·     Performance, stylization and parody: gender scripts, consumer culture, theatrical subversion

All submissions should conform to MHRA style conventions and the in-house submission guidelines. The deadline for submissions is 30 May 2012.

Contact: victoriannetwork@gmail.com

Website: http://www.victoriannetwork.org/index.php/vn

(I remain Submissions Editor for Victorian Network. This means I am the over-excited loon who will answer your emails in the first instance. Should you have QUESTIONS about my role, the CFP, or any other aspect of submitting to VN, do get in touch, either by emailing or commenting below.)

Research 2.0

Oxford is enjoying the long vac. This is the academic summer holiday; the period running from the end of 8th week Trinity (usually in late June), to October and Freshers’ Week. It is also the period to which proper academics refer as “time for getting some real work done”.

i've got 99 problems but mrs patrick campbell ain't one (sorry)
Mrs. Patrick Campbell. Doing ACTING. She's not trying very hard.

I’m doing my best. I’ve handed in a chapter draft & started work on another, only to discover that while reviews of Mrs. Patrick Campbell’s Shakespearean heroines (my last topic) were relatively few (journalists preferring to focus on Weird Saintly Johnstone F-R), every fin-de-siecle hack seems to have had at least 1,000 mind-numbing words to say about Ellen Terry in Cymbeline.

My DPhil project is (currently) entitled “Shakespeare’s Women and the Fin de Siècle”, a title I love & cling to because

a) it’s short

b) it doesn’t have a colon in it (ergo no need to find Witty Quotation/make Unfortunate Pun), and

c) it lets my project do what it says on the tin. At present, though, it’s  the Fin de Siècle, rather than Shakespeare’s Women, giving me a mild academic headache.

Ellen Terry: The Psychedelic Years.

Oxford’s broadly/tacitly historicist approach to English (yes, all right, excluding Wadham, & NDKAlex) has always suited me perfectly. Unfortunately, while beginning my last chapter, I realised I had absolutely no idea what happened in theatre, literature or indeed British history, in the years immediately following 1895. Apart from Jude Law shouting “OSCAR!” across a Mediterranean courtyard, that shot of Lillie Langtry in The Degenerates, and Robbie Ross summoning a priest to Paris c. 1900, the end of the nineteenth century remained a blank.

Being gay for Sarah Bernhardt. That's my girl (Pelleas et Melisande, since you ask).

Given that much of my last chapter took place in and around 1895-8, this necessitated serious remedial research; fortunately successful. My new chapter centres on 1896, and I fondly imagined that this date – falling as it does under the big neurasthenic umbrella spread by the antics of Mrs Patrick “Skinny, Mad” Campbell – might make things easier. Oh no.

My supervisor, having reminded me that one version of my project was originally called The Actress and the Academy (I wish it’d been “The Actress and the Evangelist”, because if you’re going to have a pun, it should involve an actress and a bishop), has prescribed lots of C19 non- (and sometimes anti-)theatrical Shakespeare criticism.

Hartley Coleridge. The poster child for not-being-the-son-of-a-Romantic-Poet.

I have thus spent much of this weekend with Schlegel, Hazlitt, Coleridge, poor old Hartley Coleridge (no wonder he turned out so weird), Lamb, Ruskin and Pater. Simultaneously, I’m trying to pin down the theatrical marketplace c.1898-1901 beyond my memories of the Forsyte Saga and a Ladybird Book of Kings & Queens awareness that, in 1901, Queen Victoria Has To Die.

Fortunately, it’s brilliant. So far I’ve popped back to 1892 (Tennyson’s deathbed & the Shakespeare-hugging) and then jetted forward to 1904 (Vedrenne and Barker beginning to manage the Royal Court). In between are a series of pleasing symmetries: it gratifies me hugely that 1895 was both the year of Irving’s knighthood, and the year Shaw became critic of the Saturday Review (mostly to spend the next three years inveighing against Irving on a weekly, public basis). If you’re on Team Shaw (I’m mostly not), it’s also immensely satsifying that 1898, the year Shaw published Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant, was the year Irving had to surrender the Lyceum Theatre to a syndicate.

L. Waller. REALLY, ladies?

Team Shaw and Team Henry were never actual Victorian entities (sad mistake), but today I discovered there was a Keen On Waller (Lewis Waller) Brigade, who wore K.O.W. badges, and doubtless bore resemblance to the madwomen we used to unpeel from David Tennant’s car during the RSC Hamlet.

In the midst of all this scattergun chronology, I cautiously feel I’m making progress and gaining, at the very least, some self-awareness about my research. Increasingly, I recognise a rhythm in the psychology involved in beginning a new chapter. Each time, it’s with scholarly-fingers-crossed that the distant instinct of x production potentially being useful or interesting to study (I found my first ever Thesis Outline last night. It made me laugh. And heave) will be justified by archival fulfilment of the Micawber principle that Something (Anything) Will Turn Up. So far, joyfully, it always has. But never the thing(s) I’ve expected.

Although it does nothing for my personal brand of Imposter Syndrome, I’ve learned that, in research, it’s rarely solely the Neat Planned Trajectory of Reading which delivers the goods. Obviously days-on-end of grunt work is essential (see my opening re: hacks/Shakespeare/Terry), but it’s often the chance remark made by your supervisor/panel chair/coffee buddy in the Bod/Costa/despair that sparks something new; or the book you pick up for £2 at a room-sale, or flick through in Blackwell’s. Or, it’s the “irrelevant” scrapbook you read for fun while in archives, or the weird small ads in the Post, or the lucky chronological coincidence you can’t control. The miraculous cannot, I’ve found, occur without the mundane: I usually find the Big Idea only when bored to tears by hours and hours of the Small. Perhaps there’s some weird scholarly symbiosis at work — actually, maybe this isn’t progress; on rereading, it sounds more like a retreat into archival mysticism. The Oxford Faculty of Magical Thinking. Damn.

Secondly, alongside this uncertainty principle (which COULD be interpreted as evidence of a rich field for research & hitherto unexplored complexities of fin-de-siecle theatre, thank you very much) there’s the sensation from which I’ve drawn the title of this post – the start of second-year research and an upgrade to Research 2.0.

I like pictures. Only God can judge me.
Poor old Tennyson.

Simply put, this is the unfolding student belief that, twelve months in and umpteen texts later, EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED. Suddenly, everything is linking up! Everything is helpful for everything! EVERYTHING must be written down, EVERYTHING speaks IN A VERY REAL SENSE to that other thing there, in that document, on that bit of paper, LOOK HOW IT ALL MAKES SENSE. ISN’T IT INTERESTING??? &c. Having drafted three chapters, I am suddenly transfixed: although nominally just researching Cymbeline, I start SEEING INSIGHTS EVERYWHERE re: Lady Macbeth, Marxism, big dead Tennyson, the Royal Court Theatre & other figures who belong elsewhere in my thesis… LOOK HOW IT ALL JOINS UP.

This is fun, but dangerous. A love of patterns, symmetries & the desire for a Grand Master Theory encourages me to see/overstate connections and conspiracies that might not exist. While a deepening sense of the period is crucial – definitions, relationships, geographies etc – I’m trying to balance this with caution about tying it all together in a quixotic version of the Victorian World Order (even if I really want to find that Big Idea and make it Unlock Everything Ever), and trying not to confuse INTERESTING with what’s actually important. Equally, to make progress on one chapter, I have to limit my exciting tangents re: others, at least temporarily.

Then again, I suppose that kind of tangential, experimental research is exactly what the vac is for! In the various begging letters written during my year out & time as a PRS (i.e. my Oxford, AHRC, STR, Helmore Award and other apps, thank god for imminent funding) I set out a schedule for  completing the DPhil. This schedule made no mention of the Christmas, Easter or long vacs.

At the time, I had two reasons. Firstly, I knew the timetable was ambitious, and wanted to allow myself decent margins for expansion/alteration/disasters, should they occur (secretly, I was convinced I’d have to resit transfer). Secondly, at the start of my DPhil, I was unfunded, and expected to spend most or all of each holiday working (hence the stacks of A Level papers beneath which January was crushed).

Now funding approaches, but this vac time has been essential – both for finishing my third chapter, and starting teaching prep. Finishing Cymbeline by Christmas will mean I’m on track; sounds easy, no? But, again, teaching approaches. Not merely because of the volatile summer weather, I can’t help feeling I’m in the calm before the storm.

Sophie's spiritual home. Well, 50% of it. The other half doesn't have a nice picture.

Not that I’m, you know, calm exactly. I’m moving house (yes, still), alongside one of the least calm people I know, viz. my namesake, who is taking Some Sort Of Exams on Tuesday. Most of them are about Death. Every time I bother her in the library, she’s reading books on What Happens When You Die (non-medics thinking of researching: oh my god, don’t), and her life at the moment seems to consist entirely of Palliative Care and salads from Alpha Bar. I am reassured that, after Tuesday, her eyes will return to their normal size. Her hair is going white.

Probably what stung me.

Said medic has, however, been a star this week. Last Sunday, I was in Kent, where I not only attended The Most Beautiful (And Tasteful. And Moving. And Boozy) Wedding in-the-world-ever (it was here), but was bitten by some gladiatorial tropical deathfly that had visited England on summer exchange with the humble Kentish mosquito.

The lovely Emily, also bitten, had merely a slight itch in manner of a hardy German: I chose instead to stage my personal tribute to Cheryl Cole (except I bet she never had the left leg of an elephant with sunburn).

Sophie, my v. own doctor-in-the-house (who is doing far better at masking her native glint of clinical interest with the glow of human sympathy) has been sterling in pointing out the inadequacy of my home GP, and promising I won’t die. This is a vast step forward from The Time My New Bra Gave Me A Rash, when she poked said rash with one finger before saying “ooh, it doesn’t blanch”, and losing interest. I’m happy to live with her.

Meanwhile, I hope everyone on the East Coast or otherwise in the path of Hurricane Irene (why not Imogen, hmm?) is keeping safe. I go now to sort photo-frames into cardboard boxes.

Sarah Daniels: Plays 1

Ages ago, the nice people at methuen drama very kindly offered to send me a free book (I forget why, but thank you very much and please, more of the same).

In an excess of irresponsibility, I decided NOT to choose anything vaguely useful to my course, and to instead pick, at random, the work of a female playwright with whom I was unfamiliar. Sarah Daniels’s Plays: 1 duly arrived at Brasenose the other day, and since the Orlando Project tells me she’s “the only radical lesbian feminist to have made it into the mainstream”, I think I chose rather well.

Sarah Daniels was born in 1956, in London. Her Orlando profile describes how, as a secondary school student, she

“hated school” and made a habit of sitting at the back of the class, not listening. She left at eighteen for work. Bibliographic Citation link At school she “didn’t even like drama.” Bibliographic Citation link Studying Shakespeare‘s Henry V for O level English was dominated by reading the play aloud and therefore, for her, anxiety about pronouncing the words right. She was astonished to discover that she enjoyed the play when she saw it in the theatre. Bibliographic Citation link

She was lastingly impressed by an incident at her school when a boy raped a girl at knife-point. The boy was removed to a borstal or school for young offenders, but the headmaster then addressed the whole school to tell them that in cases of rape the blame was shared equally by both parties. Bibliographic Citation link

Daniels’s playwriting career took off after she was able to spend a year as the writer-in-residence of Sheffield University’s English department. Her plays have been performed at theatres including the Royal Court and the National Theatre, and Daniels is also on the board of directors for Clean Break Theatre (trans: she is awesome beyond words). Her partner of many years, and civil partner, was the activist and schools inspector Claire Walton, who died in 2009.

Plays 1 comprises Sarah Daniels’s first six plays: Ripen Our Darkness, Ma’s Flesh is Grass, Masterpieces, The Devil’s Gateway, Neaptide and Byrthrite.

So far I’ve read Ripen Our Darkness (1981) and Masterpieces (1983). My ability to consume feminist 80s playwriting knows almost no bounds. Ripen Our Darkness is about marriage, mental illness and misery in the Anglican church; a bolder precursor to Alan Bennett’s Bed Among The Lentils, which followed in 1987 and also depicts a vicar’s wife in crisis. Daniels’s protagonist doesn’t receive even temporary redemption or escape.

Daniels’s next play, Masterpieces is about pornography, misogyny and mental illness. The roles across both plays are predominantly female, and, at its best, the writing is heart-stopping, combative and clear. However, Ripen Our Darkness is weakest and most uneven in its handling of the working-class lesbian Julie, who might have sounded cliched in her speech back in 1981. Yet, for a play that’s 30 years old, Ripen Our Darkness often strikes heart & intellect simultaneously: moreover, Hilary, the most obviously working-class woman in Masterpieces, is far more subtly characterised than Julie. Hilary, a single mother and sex worker, readily accepts a legitimate day job from a male friend of her social worker. The scene in which Hilary’s boss, Ron, begins to seduce and harass her is both timeless and excruciating, as are the unsympathetic responses of the other characters.

Daniels’s unabashedly anti-pornographic stance in Masterpieces has (regrettably) become unfashionable in contemporary feminism, but her emotionally direct style anticipates writers like Laurie Penny. I wish I could see ways of staging her plays for student audiences, but at the moment I’m unconvinced. For one thing, Oxford plays with all-female casts tend to do badly unless they’re Playhouse Creatures or The House of Bernarda Alba (both of which I love), or, at best, attract tedious expanses of critical shock at the goshness and novelty of a play without any boys (on second thoughts, maybe Daniels isn’t dated at all).

As texts, Daniels’s plays read wonderfully. I’m, um, apprehensive about the last in the collection, which is ominously titled Byrthrite and which I suspect of glorying in wom(y)nly gore, but I’m currently halfway through Neaptides (1986) and desperate to know what happens.

If I blink at the scene in Neaptides where Claire tells daughter Poppy a myth-cum-fairy-story about the goddess Persephone’s masturbation, I’m grateful that Daniels wrote in ways that are so combative, unembarrassed, and unashamed. The radical feminists of the 1980s cut swathes through misogyny and chauvinism, so that twenty-first-century girls like me could, if they chose, be embarrassed and Anglican and gay all at once, and in (relative) peace. In Daniels’s excellent first collection, I’m glad to find myself another feminist, literary foremother, and to take a look at another bit of feminism’s theatrical past.

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Thesis Wordles

Inspired by a conversation I had with Alex, when handing in our writing samples last Thursday, here are the results of some playing around with Wordle.

My latest submission:My latest thesis outline:

And, finally, that AHRC proposal!

Call To Register: Oxford English Graduate Conference “The Famed and The Forgotten”

Registration is now open for The Famed and The Forgotten, taking place on 10th June in Oxford University’s English Faculty.

45 student speakers from Oxford and around the UK will be delivering papers on the concepts of ‘famed’ and ‘forgotten’, interrogated in the broadest possible terms across genres and periods encompassing Old English to the literature of the present day.

A panel discussion on “The Future of Reading” featuring representatives from Oxford University Press, SHM Productions consultancy and the Oxford English Faculty will take place, and we will hear a keynote address from Booker Prize winner Penelope Lively.

The £15 attendance fee covers lunch, snacks and all conference materials. Please register via our website – http://graduate-conference.english.ox.ac.uk/ – or with an email to claire [dot] waters [at] ell [dot] ox [dot] ac [dot] uk.

Then, confirm your place by sending a cheque or postal order for £15 made out to the University of Oxford to Claire Waters, St Catherine’s College, Manor Road, Oxford, OX1 3UJ.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

5 of the best: favourite fictional writers

John Mullan’s article on ten of the best fictional poets made me smile. I’ve often speculated on why so many writers write about writers. Sometimes, it’s part of a wishful (or wistful) self-insertion into the text. The first example I ever noticed was Darrell Rivers in Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers series. Darrell is pretty obviously both Our Heroine and Our Author, enjoying an intermittently tumultuous but ultimately charmed school life, replete with tousled black curls and star sporting ability. After authoring the Fifth Year panto, Darrell Rivers, along with Slightly Boring Sally (sidekick, steadfast, appendicitis) headed off to university, and an ultimate career in writing.

At the opposite extreme, Nabakov’s Humbert Humbert describes himself as “a novelist manque'” in Lolita, and memorably tries to persuade Charlotte Haze that his paedophile’s diary are “fragments of a novel”. Boy Dougdale’s biographies of dispossessed princesses set the tone for Nancy Mitford’s Love In A Cold Climate as a novel of delicious, delightful, high-society snobs.

I could have made a list of favourite fictional diarists extremely easily, with top prize for Honoria, Dowager Duchess of Denver, who chronicles her son’s wedding and the viciousness of her cat at the start of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Busman’s Honeymoon. Were I to try and list my favourite fictional journalists, Sayers’s Solcombe Hardy would be amongst them.

A list of playwrights would have had to include Clare Quilty, for me the most terrifying figure in Lolita. In isolation, my knowledge of fictional poets would not fill a blog post (not that blog posts arrive in prescribed sizes, like envelopes), but I have a soft spot for the terrible Mr. Mybug (Meyerbug) of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm. Here he is in deplorable action:

It can not be said that Flora really enjoyed taking walks with Mr. Mybug.  To begin with he was not really interested in anything but sex.  This was understandable, if deplorable.  After all, many of our best minds have had the same weakness.  The trouble about Mr Mybug was that ordinary subjects, which were not usually associated with sex even by our best minds, did suggest sex to Mr Mybug, and he pointed them out, and made comparisons and asked Flora what she thought about it all,  Flora found it difficult to reply because she was not interested.  She was therefore obliged  merely to be polite, and Mr Mybug mistook her lack of enthusiasm and though it was due to inhibitions.  He remarked how curious it was that most Englishwomen (most young Englishwomen, that was, Englishwomen of about nineteen to twenty-four) were inhibited.  Cold, that was what young Englishwomen from nineteen to twenty-four were.

I am pleased still to find that Mr. Mybug would consider me young.

Here, thanks to John Mullan, are my five of the best: fictional writers.

5. Juliet Ashton, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Juliet is just delightful. This charming book is made up of many letters, in many voices, and although all the inhabitants of post-war Guernsey have been lovingly created after meticulous research, none touches your heart like Juliet. She’s an author in search of her next bestseller (and, somewhat boringly, love), and she’s amazing. If you fell for Helene in 84 Charing Cross Road (which is another way of saying: if you have a soul, but might sell it for books some day), you’ll adore Juliet. She’s sharp, scatty and disgraceful. I wish I could be her.

4. Adrian Mole, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4

I said I wouldn’t do a list of favourite diarists, but it’s as a poet I most wish to commemorate A. Mole, Esq. “Oh Pandora!/I adore ya/I implore ye/Don’t ignore me.” Yes.

3. Jo March, Little Women.

Whenever I lack self-discipline and productivity, I think of Jo March and feel guilty. [radio 4 announcer: That was Episode 46 of “How Nineteenth-Century Literature Created Sophie’s Psyche and gave her Unrealistic Expectations about the Worlds of Work and Love”. Next week: “Nelly, I am Heathcliff.”] She named her apple tree via an injoke about Charles Kean’s wife, wrote happy potboilers until Professor Daddy Issues made her stop it, and then became a bestselling novelist and playwright while raising 4,000 orphans and pretending she didn’t want her brother in law. GOOD.

2. Harriet Vane, the Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries.

Take the mewling fervour of a Twilight fan and the mad-eyed self-righteousness of an Oxonian booknut. This is the love I feel for Harriet, my favourite literary heroine of all time. Harriet writes brilliant detective novels and her amazing boyfriend shows his love by obsessively collecting her press cuttings. In secret. In the dark. She not only writes crime, but solves crime, in Oxford and at the seaside, and she knows what to do when she finds a dead body. Her moral zero is not saying someone’s beastly book is good when it isn’t, and she dances with Lord Peter in a wine-coloured frock. I would halloo her name to the something hills, and not even on the condition she were real. Start with Strong Poison and take things from there. You will love or be dead inside.

ETA: while googling “Harriet Vane” on impulse, I have discovered that some Sayers fans (see the comments) don’t like her … how can this be? My poor heart. Although this vituperative comment may amuse Sayers fans who recognise the username.

1. William Shakespeare, No Bed for Bacon.

This excellent book deserves a much greater following than its overblown film adaptation, Shakespeare In Love. The plot is essentially the same, despite the fact that screenplay writer Tom Stoppard didn’t acknowledge reading Caryl Brahms and S. J. Simon’s comedy until Private Eye pointed out the similarities.

This Shakespeare is opportunistic, obsessive, fierce and endearing, furiously scribbling at his plays despite interruptions from (among others) Francis Bacon, Richard Burbage, Salathiel Pavey (“Master Will,” he said. “I wish to drown myself. But first, I wish to go mad. And sing mad songs”), Cecil, Henslowe, bears, Born Leaders, Elizabeth of England, Raleigh, Essex, and our heroine Viola Compton. Imagine Gwyneth Paltrow’s performance without Gwyneth Paltrow. Isn’t that better?

Brahms and Simon wrote in a wonderful staccato style, rich in detail and all the more rewarding for a re-read. The historical underpinning is amazing, but the best bit is Shakespeare himself, endlessly rewriting Love’s Labours Wonne and dodging letters from Anne Hathaway. And kissing pretty girls. And possibly the Earl of Southampton.

NaNoWriMo, murder and the Wallace affair…

This is, I guess, an appropriate post for the run-up to Hallowe’en! Warning: gory/disturbing stuff beneath the cut (my first attempt at using one on WordPress, hope it works!)

A couple of days ago, I signed up for NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. For the uninitiated, this is a worldwide online project where participants each write a novel – 50,000 words – in the 30 days of November. Since signups, I’ve been fretting about the possibilities of libel, slander and nobody speaking to me ever again. I hope this is merely a clever displacement activity to avoid the most likely reason for failure – simply not producing those 50,000 words.

The prospect of winning NaNo (trans: successfully meeting the word limit) fills me with huge relief: in 30 days, it’d be done. I’d have written a novel, and – no matter how bad, boggy and unpublishable – I would know it could be done. And then I could do it again, rather better – it’d never be so difficult again, not until the tricky third-novel-slump where I have to go and stay in a friends’ house in the Fens and drink tea and stare out and possibly have a passionate/doomed love affair with the man who brings the post/dark-eyed waif from the village. And then produce something a bit Woolf and a bit Dylan Thomas.

God, can you imagine how that child would have looked.

I am also, my brothers, joining A Book Club. I have never been sure about Book Clubs. They always screamed Richard & Judy and those 3 for 2 stickers (no that’s not just snobbery, those stickers induce HORRIBLE ANXIETY, I can NEVER find 3 books I want on the table and then the girl asks and god), also the prospect of sitting round discussing Clarissa Dalloway’s Motivation does tend to make you scream when it’s what you do for – well, not a living. For the three years that push you dramatically into debt, teach you to eat plovers’ eggs and are so golden-and-aquatint that the rest of the world seems cold and dark, woe, woe, et cetera. But Simon is in lots, so they must be okay, and now Book Clubs appeal to me in the same way as NaNoWriMo. I am jobless. I am dolescum. I finally have the time.

Plus, my sole close schoolfriend currently in Really Gainful Employment (Recruitment Consultant, hoyes) hates it so much he suggested a Book Club in his first recorded moment of speech without irony. Sincerity, from him, indicates a man on the edge of a quarter-life crisis/a Birmingham-based Columbine, so we’re all going to sit in a pub and mock our own literary endeavours, before choosing books to read for next time.

Of the two readers whose tastes I know well, I predict – respectively – Nabakov and Orwell as opening gambits. I’m veering towards Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (haven’t read it yet – any thoughts?) for several reasons: 1) love my boys though I do, I’d be surprised if they chose many women writers – they’re Salinger & Orwell kind of guys, and 2) the fact it’s dystopian means they might actually like it. I’m not a big reader of dystopia, but I adored Oryx & Crake. Here’s another reason I’m nervous of the Book Club – when I talk about books outside an academic context, I sound sort of stupid. I don’t know whether to play nice and seem witless, or leap into a tutorial-style discussion and attempt to shed their hearts’ blood.

In terms of what I’m actually reading, I’m on a massive P. D. James kick, and waiting (probably forever) for Gary Taylor’s Inventing Shakespeare to arrive from Amazon. I heard P. D. James preach in chapel once, but until now Dalgliesh has been a big omission from my personal detective-canon. Having read Cover Her Face, Shroud For A Nightingale, The Black Tower, A Mind to Murder and now Death of an Expert Witness, I watched an ITV3 profile of her earlier in the week. Gyles Brandreth being an amiable idiot, Ruth Rendell being surprisingly closed-lipped on a woman she obviously loves, Mark Lawson being an unforgivable cretin (apparently Dorothy L Sayers “was all right on character but couldn’t really write a sentence”, berk berk “>berk berk) and Val McDermid rather ostentatiously calling her “Phyllis” (I wanted to link directly to McDermid’s website, but the typewriter sound effects are too annoying).

Several of PD James’s novels owe a positive debt to Dorothy L. Sayers. Shroud for a Nightingale has the same closed female community, sexual spectres and last-minute-assault-on-the-sleuth as Gaudy Night and, not coincidentally, is my favourite thus far. Set in a nurses’ training school in the 1970s, its opening pages contain one of the most horrific murders in detective fiction, the death of Nurse Pearce in the nurses’ demonstration room.

Talking of horrific murders, it cannot be every family that stores an almost-forgotten cache of crime scene photos in the same blanket box as old letters and birth certificates. I guess I’m just lucky. Our blanket box is a last-chance saloon for paperwork, never opened except  for those mysterious periods in my childhood when my father would get out 400 pieces of paper and  balance our finances (or at least acquaint himself with the imbalance).

Beneath the layers of respectable bills and invoices lies stuff from a film my dad worked on in 1990,about an unsolved murder in 1930s Liverpool. Do you remember the Prudential insurance ads? The Man From The Pru was the story of William Herbert Wallace, whose wife Julia was bludgeoned to death on the hearth in their shabby, cramped front room. Wallace claimed he’d been out at the time of the murder, searching for a non-existent in a street that was never built. The client was R. M. Qualtrough and the street was Menlove Gardens East, and I am enough of a terrifying crime nerd that I’m telling you all this from memory.  Wallace was tried, convicted and then sensationally acquitted. He didn’t hang, but died a broken man. The film starred Jonathan Pryce, Anna Massey and it dates horribly and as a child I was strictly, strictly forbidden to read the contents of the THE MAN FROM THE PRU file that was exacavated during my father’s financial archaeological digs.

My parents rarely censored what I read. Occasionally my mother has guilt that I got hold of trashfests like Yes, Mama (illegitimate orphan cruelly treated father disinherits mother senile child abuse prostitution suicide marries one-armed Boer veteran) and A Lady in Berkshire (“Kitty Winters could never have been called handsome but at that moment she looked almost beautiful” — trufax, and I found that at primary school) at nine, but since I also read all her Shakespeare, Dickens, Blyton, Christie & EJ Howard, it didn’t hurt. I think censoring children’s reading is pointless and stultifying, unless your precious lamb is somehow veering towards Firearms Monthly and Mein Kampf. I was only ever banned from The Jewels of Tessa Kent, which I read surreptitiously and guiltily in five-minute intervals (at thirteen, two years after Emily Organ passed round the sex bits in The Horse Whisperer to an awestruck Form 7X), The Betsy (mother decides Harold Robbins automobile expose will destroy child’s innocence) and, unforgettably, The Contents Of This Folder. My father said sternly that it was Not Very Nice (I must have been about five or six the last time the folder was unearthed in pursuit of papers – not long after the film was made, in fact), but otherwise I think he’d forgotten the thing existed.

I must have been a compliant kid. I didn’t read the folder until yesterday. And yes – apart from the respectable and fascinating original newspapers, it was horrible, horrible stuff… Continue reading “NaNoWriMo, murder and the Wallace affair…”