Mrs Dalloway

Throughout my academic and working life, I have had the very good fortune to come into contact with a number of female academics and teachers who have inspired and galvanised in me, a love of early twentieth century fiction by women writers. Four of these had a passion for Virginia Woolf. Two of them have made her work, part of their work.

My Supervisor for my first degree in English Literature at the University of York, was Dr. Hermione Lee, who wrote a wonderful biography of Virginia Woolf which came out to much critical acclaim in 1996.

And now, my tutor for the MA in Creative Writing at Lancaster University, Michelene Wandor, has adapted Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf for BBC Radio 4 which you can still listen to (just) here in two parts. It’s wonderful. For anyone who has tried and failed to read this book, have a listen. Fenella Woolgar who plays Clarissa Dalloway in this adaptation has the most amazing speaking voice and Michelene’s script is elegant and beautiful, pared down but still vintage Woolf.


I typed ‘the end’ yesterday.

So far I have resisted the urge to run up and down my street shouting ‘I’VE FINISHED!!!’ into the faces of passers by, but this is only because I live in a small town. The chances of me becoming ‘the talk’ are considerably high and I come from a relatively respectable family. Instead I have allowed myself a small celebratory YAY!  because I know that  it isn’t really the end.

The end of a first draft is just the beginning of the painstaking work of editing.  Already, I know that there are a number of structural changes that I will need to make, namely splitting two of my chapters into four and adding a brand new chapter. And then there’s the business of fine tuning the language and the general tightening up of it all. This will take time, I think. And some space.

It’s interesting to go back to chapters that I wrote over twelve months ago and see things that I hadn’t seen at the time of writing. And of course, now that I’ve reached the end, my thinking about about the story’s development has shifted slightly.Fundamentally the narrative of The Empty Mirror hasn’t changed since its inception, but some of the characters have emerged slightly differently to my original thinking about them. It’s also a relief that at this stage that I’m more able to communicate what the novel is about in a succinct way. No more ‘Well, it’s about… well, you see, there’s this girl and her mum and her mum and blah blah blah’ for me. I’ve got it down to 140 twitter characters – almost as proud of this fact as I am about writing the first draft, which is sad and says alot about where I spend too much of my time.

Anyway, once more unto the breach…

Are You Still There Blog Readers? It’s Me, Alex.

It’s been a while, blog followers. I’m sorry about that. You see there’s only one chapter left to write of The Empty Mirror. Four or five thousand words standing between me and the finish line. And yet now that I’m this close to completion, I find that I can not concentrate on writing. Still this hasn’t stopped me trying. If I’m not sitting at my desk, staring at my screen, I am re-writing the same paragraph over and over, trying to find the right arrangement of words that will propel me forward. But so far, so stuck . It seems I have entered a literary cul-de-sac.

This has happened before. Then, I wrote my way out of it. I wrote about everything and anything: short stories; poems; articles; letters; this blog. But it seems whatever ‘block’ I’ve got this time has  been less selective and applied itself to my general ability to communicate.  This time, I am attempting to read my way out of it.  Here’s how I’ve been refuelling (the higlights):

The Book of Summers by Emylia Hall

This book winked at me from the shelves of my local bookshop. ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ said it’s beautiful cover: a riot of gold embossed cream petalled flowers and scrolling green leaves climbing up a matt turqouise background. Opening it up, I was delighted to find that the end papers were equally lovely, carrying the same floral design through in a one tone colourway so as not to detract from a series of four sun bleached polaroid shots which refer to visual memories of the story’s protagonist, Beth Lowe. In my opinion books should be beautiful. It’s only right that a bit of effort should go into the design of the front cover when so much effort that has gone into creating the words within. And, in the case of The Book of Summers, the words within are every bit as captivating as its cover.

It’s a good story. A heartbreaking story. Hall imagines what happens when a mother chooses to leave her husband and daughter to pursue a life in a different country. Or at least that what we are made to believe has happened. The Book of Summers charts the life of Erzsébet (Beth) Lowe across seven years through the ages of nine to sixteen, during which time her summers are spent with Marika, her mother, in Hungary and the rest of the year is spent with her father, David, in Devon. But events are turned on their head towards the end of the book when we realise that Beth has been living a lie. A mother’s abandonment of a child is a hugely emotive subject. As a mother myself, I could not imagine choosing to leave my daughter, but Hall handles the results of such an incomprehensible decision with great skill.

In  large part the novel works so well because of Hall’s deft characterisation of mother and daughter – for me this was the central relationship in the story.  I felt both Beth’s anxiousness and hidden heartache as well as Marika’s vivaciousness and restlessness acutely.

‘I shut my eyes, and my mother’s voice sounded at once very close and dreadfully far. But her words seemed to wrap themselves around me, curl under my armpits and tuck behind my ears, with a gentle music. It was a different sort of mother that spoke to me. A honeyed version, laying words like garlands. I curled into the chair in the hallway and put my lips very close to the receiver. I tried hard not to cry, in case my tears fell into the telephone and cut off the connection. My cheeks ached after a while, from all the beaming.’ (p.55)

‘I always knew that my mother was different from my father and me. She’s blown by different winds, he used to say, but that made her sound flimsy, and I knew better. She snapped like a firecracker when she was mad and cried the Danube when she was happy, but she always did exactly what she wanted. She was tall and proud and relentlessly foreign, with a scarlet stain for lips and hair like a flock of ravens.’ (p.32)

But I was most impressed by Hall’s writing style which is strong and evocative and conjures wonderful images of a childhood split between two countries. The differences between Beth’s ‘worlds’ are marked out by the articulation of every day events: eating, sleeping, relaxing. In Marika’s vivid, chaotic world in Hungary, Beth spends her days swimming in a forest pool and eats  sweetcorn on a stick, salted and smeared with butter; cold cherry soup; raspberry cake; bullet hole cheese; bleeding tomatoes and peppers the colour of bananas. In her Father’s rain lashed Devon, she eats chops and peas, crumpets and toast and pushes dominos around the kitchen table.

There was a lot to like about the structure of the story too. The main body of the narrative is segmented into chapters dedicated to each of Beth’s summers with the whole framed within  a prologue and epilogue that contains mirroring content. This was a nice touch and gave the whole thing a feeling of completion without the notion that Beth’s story had truly ended.

I was really sorry to finish The Book of Summers. Being thrown in and out of Hungary made for an exhilarating read and by the end of it I was hankering for some paprika crisps and a ride down the Danube. Gorgeous writing from a debut novelist. I look forward to her next book with real interest.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

Here lies writing excellence. This Booker Prize winning story is so exquistely crafted that it deserves to re-read and re-read again. Moon Tiger is a very slim volume and every single word in it works hard to earn its place.  We first meet Claudia Hampton, an author, historian and war correspondent stationed in Egypt during the second world war, on her death bed in hospital. From here she narrates her life story dipping in and out of her past as she goes in and out of consciousness, flitting between past and present from paragraph to paragraph with a few point of view and tense changes thrown in for good measure. Often the same incident is retold by three different characters on the same page. Sounds complicated? It is a bit, but it really works.

And what a life Claudia has had. Love, death, war, politics, film and incest all feature and her retelling is packed with the kind of straight talking, intelligent prose that lifts this book into the ‘Wow’ category.

I was absolutely enthralled by Moon Tiger and nothing I can say can do justice to the real thing. So to save me waffling, just read it and be amazed.

Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich

I have been reading this wonderful book for about three months and I am still reading it. I read a paragraph, a few pages and then I have to put it down. The reason for this sporadic approach is that its content enrages me. As the title suggests it’s about motherhood and it discusses the issue in feminist terms in a social context. Inevitably she talks about patriarchy, describing it as a

‘familial-social, ideological, political system in which men – by force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law, and language, customs, etiquette, education and the division of labour, determine what part women shall or shall not play, ad in which the female is everywhere subsumed under the male.’

Elsewhere she quotes sociologist, Brigette Berger:

‘…until now a primary masculine intellect and spirit have dominated in the interpretation of society and culture – whether this interpretation is carried out by males or females….fundamentally masculine assumptions have shaped out whole moral and intellectual history.’

You can see why I start to get annoyed. Imagining a  world where women are considered equal in every sense would apparently require us  to start again and, amongst other things, start a new language because language is at the root of all power (I’m massively paraphrasing here).  So it’s a stirring book. I read it and feel inspired, not necessarily to write, but to live my life less submissively and to try to instil a confidence in my own daughter that is rooted in all the qualities that make her female.

So that’s how I’ve been filling up. For a complete list of my recent reading history see Reading List 2012.

Rewrites, Research Proposals and Really Bad WIFI

I’ve been hiding in Yorkshire all in week. Buried myself in the Dales in a little place called Wortley. The days were very long and full of soft sunshine and I had very little to do but write and walk and take my little girl for cake at the village cafe. But, the promise of WIFI fell rather short and all my hopes of updating this blog, checking my emails and doing business related stuff were dashed. On the plus side, I did do three very early morning jogs which go some way to cancelling out the cake. Still, I am avoiding the weighing scales for now.

Happily, I did manage to add another 5,000 or so weighty words to the now 80,000 tome that is The Empty Mirror. This makes me happy. Only 20,000 or so words to go. And what is 20,000 words? I wrote 25,000 words in the two weeks preceding my little jaunt. Alas, very few of them were on the novel. A good deal of them went towards critiquing other people’s works: those belonging to my lovely course peers on the Distance Learning MA in Creative Writing at the University of Lancaster. Three thousand of them contributed to the creation of a short story. Yes you read right. I have written a short story. And it wasn’t terrible, so it might just be something I submit for publication. We shall see.

But it is very lovely to be home.

The next few weeks are going to be busy on the writing front. Aside from the fact I really want to complete the first draft of The Empty Mirror by the end of the month and therefore need to write approx 20,000 words, my next tutorial deadline is looming and the thesis will have to be started before very long. My PhD research proposal has to be in by the end of the month and I’ve got two articles in the offing for the Lancashire Writing Hub. One will be on my experience of receiving Creative Mentoring and the other on my experience of the Distance Learning MA in Creative Writing.

In addition to all of this the word ‘rewrites’ keeps cropping up in my conversations with my tutor. I am trying to resist thinking about the whole rewriting thing until the first draft is done, but still, the idea has lodged itself inside my head and is refusing to move. I had planned to include some thoughts on rewrites in this post, but I think a separate post is needed. A glance at the list above makes me think it might be April before I get round to writing it.

So, enough to keep me out of mischief.

Having said that, I do worry sometimes about the amount of time I spend with my head in a book or pen in hand, oblivious to the world at large or even what’s going on in my living room. It’s not a very social way of living, but it is addictive.  My skills as a conversationalist might be drying up, but at least I now know what ‘concatenation’ means – the linking together of things to form a sequence or combination (thank you, Mr Wolfgang Iser). Hmm, perhaps some mischief might be in order.

A Sprint Finish For The Beginning Of The Year

Yikes! It’s the 21st January already! Days are flying by and I can’t seem to type fast enough. January started leisurely enough. There was my birthday at the beginning of the month, celebrated by a whole day spent alone, writing. Which was just THE BEST DAY EVER. And then there were the days that followed. Horrible, fast moving, time crunching days that seemed to spit me out in a heap on the living room sofa at the end of each one, good for pretty much nothing but sleep.

I already have  a feeling that 2012 is going to be a bit of sprint for me. But busy is good (nods furiously).

Fiction writing wise: I’m nearly at 70,000 words on The Empty Mirror. I’m on target for a March finish, maybe, if I get my head down, even earlier. At which point, I may cry or get very drunk or both. In the past, on the odd occasion when I have become really hysterical over something, I have been known to cry and laugh at the same time, resulting in an inability to breathe. This may happen also. In fact, thinking about it, I would just like to take this opportunity to warn my husband of this possiblity. You know what to do.

And I’ve had another idea for a book which is tapping away at my brain saying ‘ Pick me, pick me!’ But other than making the odd little note and researching the occasional website, I am ignoring it for now. Honest.

Also, I’ve started writing this month’s book review which I will post up at some point over the next week. And I’ve volunteered as a copy writer at the Lancashire Writing Hub. Got my first project through the post today, so I’ll be getting my teeth into that shortly. And, just to round off the month, there’s a tutorial deadline to meet.

He he, he he he…(and so the nervous laughter begins….) He he he…..he, he, he…….

The 2012 Reading List

First, apologies to all those who read my last post about writing about death and funerals. I do solemnly promise never to post after 10pm at night again. My ability to spot typo’s after this hour apparently wanes considerably. I think I’ve rectified them all now, so please feel free to read the whole thing again sans mistakes!

And now to business: a little something I like to call The 2012 Reading List. Feel free to make it your own or send me suggestions – I love a recommendation. Before I start, this year’s list will be slightly different to the reading lists of the previous two years. In 2012, in addition to the pithy (my word, not yours) one liners I ascribe to each book when I’ve read them, I plan to review one book a month in full. Like properly. There’s an art to book reviewing. This year I’d like to master it. I’ll decide on my review book at the beginning of each month and, hopefully, post the review up before the end of the month it is read in. These are my best laid plans.

But enough preamble. Here it is: my planned reading list so far. In no particular order and including more than a few classics:

1. A Dark Adapted Eye by Ruth Rendall

2. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

3. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

4. The Man Who Rained by Ali Shaw

5. The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

6. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

8. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

9. The Tiger’s Wife by Thé Obreht

10. Of Woman Born by Adrienne Rich

11. Charles Dickens: A Life by Claire Tomlin

12. Arthur Rackham: A Life by James Hamilton

13. The new Essie Fox book, I think to be called Elijah’s Mermaid, due sometime in 2012.

14. The new Kate Morton book due at the end of 2012. Title as yet unknown.

15. More poetry, more Virginia Woolf and more from the Persephone Catalogue.

So that’s my list so far. An eclectic mix. Enough to be getting on with anyway. As I said earlier, if anyone has any reading recommendations, I’d be happy to hear from you. As well as indulging my love of good literary fiction, this year I’m particularly interested in reading books about Irish history (fiction or fact); anything on the Bloomsbury Group of Writers; interwar novels or stories set in the interwar period (as always); quirky, magical realism / whimsical stories (though not science fiction or vampires).

Happy reading!


The Art of Death (and Funerals)

Death scenes and funerals: not very Christmassy I know, but the subject of my book research for the last month.

During the course of my investigations into the way funerals are depicted and documented in literature, I came across a list put together by John Mullan for The Guardian: The Ten Best Deathbed Scenes in Literature. What Mullan’s list corroborated with my own research, was that nineteenth century literature, in particular, incorporates death scenes in abundance. Look no further than any book written by Charles Dickens. His stories are punctuated by the tragic and the sticky, mournful ends of characters he has encouraged us to both love and hate.

However, Dickens, like death, showed no favouritism towards his characters when it came to doing what was best for the plot and would often kill off someone, we as readers, would consider undeserving of such a dreadful fate. As two examples:

The death of Abel Magwitch in Great Expectations is exceptionally sad. We are first made to fear Abel’s character: his treatment of Pip so shocking and sinister. But later we are made to love him, when he reveals to Pip that he is in fact Pip’s benefactor, not Miss Havisham. Towards the end of the book, when we learn, that Abel’s painful end, and the tragedy that marked his life, might have been prevented, his death seems all the more futile. But grace is given by Pip who lets him know that Abel’s only daughter, Estella, is still alive and loved. Abel dies a contented man.

The scene of Little’s Nell’s death in The Old Curiosity Shop is also particularly heartbreaking, perhaps more so because she is but a child and has prepared herself for it by ensuring that her place of death is as comfortable as possible.

“Her couch was dressed with here and there some winter berries and green leaves, gathered in a spot she had been used to favour. ‘When I die, put near me something that has loved the light, and had the sky above it always.'” In the end, she is likened to an innocent unborn baby: “She seemed a creature fresh from the hand of God, and waiting for the breath of life; not one who had lived and suffered death” (542)

Dickens’ attitude to death was certainly a reflection of the time in which he was writing. Then, the death of a child, a mother or a father was commonplace; a devastating event to be borne by those that were left as best they could and that would surely be the making, or the ruin, of them. But what about what comes directly after a death in the practical sense? What about the funeral?

From my own research I have found there to be very few novels that include a funeral scene. Those that do include, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens: the funeral of Mrs Joe Gargery in is described in vague detail; The History of Mr Polly by HG Wells, who devoted a whole chapter to the funeral scene of Mr Polly’s father  and Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte in which there is a short passage relating to how Catherine Linton’s open coffin was dressed, but other than that, only the appointed day on which the funeral was to be held and a brief description of the plot of land in which she was to be buried is described. The ceremony itself is omitted.

Of course there are far more examples of funeral scenes in literature than I have given here, but still they do not seem to number as many in comparison to the number of death scenes written. It seemed that writers prefer to skim over funerals. Perhaps like we do ourselves in real life. We attend them with a heavy heart, but we don’t talk about them much afterwards.

I have been unfortunate enough to attend rather a lot of funerals in the thirty four years of my life so far. A good number when I was child. This was on account of my singing voice. It seems people like to be sung out, or at least their loved ones like them to be.

Strangely I always rather preferred singing at funerals rather than weddings. The reason: because I got to stand at the back in the organ loft to sing, which for someone who is actually quite shy, is a lot better than standing at the front. But more than that, it was a good place from which to people watch.

Funerals, in general, are awkward events charged with pent up sadness and emotion. British funerals particularly tend to be very restrained affairs, with tears held in check by handkerchiefs and will power. As well as a general avoidance of eye contact with the family of the deceased and brief, tight-lipped, sad smiles at strangers, a lot of squeezing goes on, mainly by the men in attendance. Nobody ever seems knows what to say.

Perhaps that’s why the pictures I found during my research speak about funerals better than the written scenes I came across. Here are some of my favourites:

The painting below is called ‘A Funeral Service in the Highlands’. It is by James Guthrie and was painted in 1882.


I love the cold, snowy landscape depicted here; the way it reflects the bleakness of death. A body covered in black cloth is laid across two chairs, in front of a ramshackle cottage. Surrounding it, a group of gruff men stand awkwardly, probably shivering the cold. The sky is dark overhead, though light on the horizon, indicating sunset, which is perhaps meant to have some symbolic meaning, associating the end of the day with the end of a life.

This next picture was painted by Anna Archer in 1891 and is simply entitled, ‘A Funeral’.

It is a different scene entirely from the Guthrie painting. It is quiet, calm and intimate. There is real warmth about Archer’s painting. To me this feeling of warmth emanates from the crowd of people in attendance: men and women and children and is enhanced more literally, by the salmon coloured walls that surround them. Perhaps they are listening to the old man with his back to us, talk about the deceased. Perhaps they are taking a moment of silent prayer. It is clear that deceased was well loved. The open wooden coffin is decked with wreaths of green foliage which almost seem too decadent against the simple, stark interior of the room, but again, belies the warmth of feeling felt for the person who has died.

Finally, ‘The Funeral of Shelly’ above, painted in 1889 by Louis Edouard Fournier, is a wonderful painting.

It depicts the funeral of Percy Bysshe Shelley, the Romantic poet who drowned in 1822. My research tells me that his yacht was wrecked in a storm in the Gulf of Spezzia, Italy. His body was cremated and his remains later buried at the Protestant cemetery in Rome. Fournier’s painting shows the funeral pyre on the shore, surrounded by three of the dead poet’s closest friends. From left to right they are the author and adventurer Trelawny and Shelley’s fellow-poets Leigh Hunt and Byron. In Trelawny’s own account of the event, ‘Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron’, he described the hot August day on which the funeral took place.

I have yet to read Trelawny’s account and I’m intrigued to see how well Fournier’s painting has matched it. However, I imagine that it must have been a very bleak scene for those attending. But somehow, in this painting, by setting Shelley’s friends apart from the other guests and picking out their features more boldly than the rest, Fournier has captured the intimacy of the group. And this is what stands out for me, what makes the image of Shelly’s flaming corpse seem less shocking, less dramatic, more poignant and sad.

These paintings provide three very different depictions of a funeral, yet they are all linked by the way in which the private nature of mourning is presented. In each, much of the drama, the emotion related to the event, is taking place in the minds of the individuals present: some of them wrestling to keep their emotions in check. Perhaps some of them are not thinking about the deceased at all, but have let their thoughts wander to other less spiritual matters. What exists in common is a quiet, thoughtfulness, which extends to us as viewers. We are left to wonder about the deceased and look to the images of each funeral scene to tell us about their character. We make assumptions and judgements, we develop stories and backgrounds for them based on the way in which they are being buried; the clothes in which the guests are dressed, the types of flowers adorning the coffin. We do all of this by looking at a single picture.

When I think about this, I find it odd that funeral scenes are not more written about in literature. To me, they seem to provide an excellent situation from which a writer might derive or develop a story.


Christmas Gifts For Book Lovers

Here it is, my Booky Christmas wishlist – this year with pictures!. Hope it inspires a few others to go out and buy something nice for the book lover in your life. In no particular order:

1. A reading spa voucher at Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath. 

This is top of my list and comes with the added requirement of a visit to Bath, also on my to do list for 2012. Choose from a £55 voucher or a £100 voucher.

The Mr B’s Delightful Reading Spa – £55 includes:
Around 1 hour of book-chat with a member of the Mr B’s team discussing your likes and dislikes and being introduced to loads of great new reads. Time to relax and consider your book selections in the Bibliotherapy room. Coffee/tea & cake (usually sourced from our friends at the wonderful Chandos Deli). A doggy bag of reading treats including a Mr B’s Mug, some yummy organic hot chocolate powder to accompany your first indulgent post-spa reading session and a Mr B’s bookmark. plus 40 to spend on books chosen by you during your Reading Spa.

The Mr B’s Extravagant Reading Spa – £100 includes:

Around 1 hour of book-chat with a member of the Mr B’s team discussing your likes and dislikes and being introduced to loads of great new reads. Time to relax and consider your book selections in the Bibliotherapy room. Coffee/tea & cake (usually sourced from our friends at the wonderful Chandos Deli).A doggy bag of reading treats including a Mr B’s Mug, some yummy organic hot chocolate powder to accompany your first indulgent post-spa reading session and a Mr B’s bookmark plus £75 to spend on books chosen by you during your Reading Spa plus A fully-stamped Mr B’s loyalty card giving £5 off purchases on your first post-spa visit to Mr B’s plus A Mr B’s cloth bag to help carry your treasure home!

Go to or call 01225 331155

2. I Capture The Castle Bag

The Literary Gift Company sell these as well as lots of other booky things which are very covetable. This is useful and pretty and literary. Just the kind of stocking filler I like. Genius.

3. Something from the Virago Modern Classics Collection

So Virago, publisher of books by women, launched these in August, but they’re just gorgeous and totally worthy Christmas presents. Available via all good bookshops. Titles available can be found here:

4. A Kindle

Can’t make up my mind whether I do want one, or I don’t. I think I do. Go to: 

Make it special with a cover from Amazon:

5. Poetica Perfume

I came across this recently. It’s from The Scottish Fine Soap Company. They describe it as “a blend of fruity, floral and spicy notes combine together to provide a luxurious evocative scent”. I say, “Divine”. I couldn’t wait for Christmas and bought myself a bottle and some of the body lotion. It’s my new favourite smell. I’m a bit picky about perfume and have tended to stick to Chanel Coco Mademoiselle for years. The fact that I have actually deviated from my trademark scent is big news. In my life, anyway. Apparently you can get hampers of the stuff too. Get it here