The Madwoman Upstairs and Authorial Intent

The Madwoman Upstairs succeeds in throwing fresh light on the lives and writings of the Bronte sisters, and raises questions about authorial intent and the biographical fallacy.

Samantha Whipple, last remaining descendent of the Bronte family is a twenty year old undergrad, an American starting her first term at the fictional Old College, Oxford. It is interesting to me, as a Brit who has lived in Oxford, to see how she views the strange collegiate traditions she encounters, some of which are true to life, others overdrawn to aid the fiction that Lowell creates to fuel the environment that pushes Samantha to some edge of sanity.

The book will ring true for students of English Literature, and perhaps any student who has wrangled with a tutor or professor who starts from the position that they are irrefutably right and anything that you know already is worthless.  All Samantha’s studies of literature seem to count for nothing with her tutor, James Orville.  The book follows Samantha through her first two terms as she unravels her previous experience and deals with the death of her father, while wrestling with the issue of authorial intent: when reading a book, do you need to know about the author and their intentions to understand the story, or should a novel stand alone ? If you search for Catherine Lowell online, there is a scant one liner: “Catherine Lowell received her BA in Creative Writing from Stanford University and currently lives in New York City.” Lowell is giving us no clues to her intent, leaving us to understand that she follows the New Criticism belief that authorial intent is irrelevant to understanding. We have to do the work ourselves as readers. In the book, we learn how Samantha’s father, a man who sprinkles aliases into his every day life, obsessively reads the works of the Bronte sisters, looking for enlightenment in their words, the message within the story. In contrast, his old enemy Sir John Barker has thrown over an academic career and become curator of the Bronte Museum at the Old Parsonage in Haworth. His obsession is in tracking down the ‘Vast Bronte Estate’, every quill or handkerchief used by the family, every dress or painting or manuscript. These two characters stand for the different sides of the debate: does the quill or the first draft of Withering Heights tell us more than the book itself?

Samantha becomes swept up in a posthumous treasure hunt, spurred on by obscure and lateral clues from her late father. The man who taught her than she should look only at the books, draws her on to find a mystery treasure, some part of the Bronte estate that Sir John Barker has made his life’s work to find. Of course, she voyages to Haworth, and perhaps unsurprisingly finds that her ‘ancestral home’, which she imagined many times as a child, does not hold the secret she is looking for.

This is a clever book, but perhaps Samantha’s madness doesn’t go far enough nor with enough conviction. I did keep reading right to the end, keen to find out exactly what Samantha had been left in her father’s will. Do we find out which side is correct about authorial intent: I lean to the approach of deconstruction, that authorial intent is unknowable and possibly irrelevant. What we learn from a text depends on an interaction between our life experience and the words on the page. We may psychoanalyse exactly what the author intended, but we can never know the answer. When I write myself I write with one idea in mind, then see others that emerge as the text sits on the page, some of which may only be apparent to me as author months or years after writing.   I have completed The Madwoman Upstairs with the sense that it is time to go back and reread the works of the Bronte sisters, which is a worthwhile gift and perhaps one that this author did intend.

 

The Madwoman Upstairs costs around £13.50 for a hardback and £7.50 on Kindle at time of writing and is released on 3 March 2016

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Review: The Making of Her

 I’ve been reading Susie Nott-Bower’s first novel, The Making of Her, and I’m impressed.  Too often one looks at the small and independent press as a second choice for publication, but The Making of Her shows that there’s nothing second rate about working with independent publishers. The book examines being a woman in the twenty first century where looks are valued over experience. It asks questions about how we regard ourselves, how we see our flesh and skin as it changes over the years. Nott-Bower uses her experience in the world of television, the medium that puts a magnifying glass to our lives, and writes the story of Clara, a TV producer who has just reached 50 and denies her birthdays. She can’t combat other peoples’ perceptions as she wrangles with her young assistant Alix who is after her job. Clara’s best friend Josephine is married to a successful playwright and has let her own dreams of writing become buried in a verbally abusive relationship where all she is, is typist, copyeditor and cheer leader in chief.

In advance of the Reading and Being Read conference at the British Library on Saturday 20th February, 11am-4pm, I spoke to Susie Nott-Bowers about her experience of writing and publishing The Making of Her. Susie says, “It started when I went on a University of Falmouth How to Write a Novel course. The course equipped me with the steps I needed to write a novel, and we formed a critique group that met fortnightly for quite some time afterwards. I set myself a deliberately achievable target of 2000 words each week. I made a schedule and within a year I had my first draft.”

The novel follows Clara’s struggle as, within creasing pressure at work, she is forced to put aside her feminist principles and the documentaries she usually worked on for a straightforward makeover show. Susie says, “I’d worked in television for many years, and while I hadn’t worked on a makeover programme it was easy to find out about them. Clara and Jo are two sides of myself, the ambitious, outward person in need of finding femininity, and the introverted writer, the person who was in need of spirit. The novel was a way to allow them to find the hidden part of themselves.” Clara’s battle for her career, to ensure that she is seen as someone who still has value, interweaves with gradual revelations from her past. Jo finds the courage to take steps to change her life: as she separates from her soul-sucking husband she rediscovers herself, at first gradually and then with one drastic step that changes things for both herself and for  Clara.

Susie completed her first draft and says, “It began as a very depressing novel, entitled The Change. I gradually edited it, changed the title, added humour, and then sent it off to a selection of literary agents. I had a few requests, but no-one took it on. An agent had held on to the manuscript for many months and then sent a brutal rejection. I was ready to throw in the towel, but a friend from my course sent me the link to Linen Press.  With a last throw of the dice, I sent it to this unknown press. Within 24 hours Lynn rang to ask for the rest of the book, within a week she had offered me a contract subject to some revisions. We spent quite a few months working on it – Lynn is a fantastic editor. She asked me to write a new opening, she wanted more of Pete Street and I added a couple of smaller sub plots. At the end it was sub edited, I had a hand in choosing the cover, and it was published.”

Looking back at her experience of being published, Susie says, “It was a strange time. I was very much taken up with my parents health at the time. I did a lot of publicity, and Lyn helped too. I must have written to every magazine and newspaper in the country with no response, but a lot of bloggers read it and reviewed it. It was mixed though: wonderful to have the book published, but difficult to get it out there and get it read. It has sold several hundred copies. The small press experience has had many wonderful sides. Friends have had good and bad experiences with bigger publishers. I think all writers hanker after the big contracts. The main driver for me is for as many people as possible to read what you have written.”

Currently Susie is working on her second novel. She says, “I started another novel, then paused due to life events at 30,000 words, and now I’m looking at it again, with ideas of replanning and replotting. I put so much into that first novel and have doubts about doing it again which slow me down when completing the second novel. I wrote the first book in innocence, and now I’m writing in experience. I was reading Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, all about the creative process. In the book, Elizabeth Gilbert says the outcome of any creative act is a souvenir of the process, ‘something to remind you forever of your brief but transformative encounter with inspiration.’” However you publish your work, it is this reminder that we all hope to create.

Reading and Being Read takes place at the British Library on Saturday 20th February, 11am-4pm, and is run in association with The Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture, University of Westminster. Book here.

The Making of Her is available from Amazon and costs £5.99 on Kindle, or from www.linen-press.com in paperback for £11.99.

 

 

 

This review first appeared on The Contemporary Small Press site.

Reading, watching, and more research #whatimwriting

Sunset I’m still in the ‘research between drafts’ phase of writing, and over the last week I’ve been mainly reading, with a bit of watching! I’m reading Taken on Trust by Terry Waite, an articulate and in-depth account of his six years as a hostage. I have a list of other books about hostages, but this one seems to come up to the top of the pile every time. This account of almost three years as a hostage by Michael Scott Moore has also been useful, and probably closer to what I’m writing about than Waite’s experience, although perhaps the human psychology of captivity doesn’t vary with geography. I’d be interested to know if journalist Moore is writing a book of his own experiences.

MangrovesI watched the film, Beasts of No Nation  based on the book by Uzodinma Iweala , the first Netflix original movie which was released in cinemas last Autumn. I’ve been reading about the film, getting mixed views on how well it covers the child soldier experience, but I watched it for information about the West African region. I think I may get the book to see how much more I can learn as so often much is lost when a book becomes a film. I’m interested in any other recommendations for books and films about West Africa, as it’s a while since I’ve been there … I did get out more photos (see above and left) to browse through, though, for more reminders and inspiration.


So, I’ve written a few hundred words of notes based on what I’ve watched and read, and I’ve listed some more of the scenes in the first draft, assessing them for whether they move the story on and how. I have a list of books about hostages which I’ll look for once I’m a bit further through Terry Waite. Work permitting, Thursday and Friday I’m mainly going to be reading! I’m making up for the lack of writing by writing blog posts  … last weekend I saw a great exhibition which I’ve reviewed. Still itching to start on the second draft, but I know I’m not there yet.

Strange days indeed #whatimwriting

Writing is often hard. Right now I’m going through a difficult patch. I completed a first draft at the end of last year, and now I’m moving towards a second draft, as I mentioned last week. I have the story outline, and I’m listing scenes and working on what key actions happen in them: do they move the story on and do they really need to be there. I’m also reading for research (on being held hostage, in Africa, AND on the politics of aid and disability, if you have any recommendations.) But it’s strange. I like research, but I’m finding this intangible background searching a struggle. I want to be writing, making visible progress. So I’ve decided I’ll carry on like this through February and March, then in April I will push everything aside and start with my scene guide and a blank page and go for a second draft. In the past I’ve tweaked first drafts, made copious notes, and then stopped, but this will before the first total rewrite. I’m looking forwards to seeing what happens.

Brighton Festival: Jeanette Winterson and more

I picked up the Brighton Festival programme at the station a few months back and was overwhelmed with the range of events on offer. I’m doing a MA in Critical and Creative Writing and Ali Smith had already been in to speak, so I was interested to see what she would include in the month’s events, and I wasn’t disappointed. At all! My only challenge was to choose what to see.
‘Boldness in the Face of a Blank Page’ was the title of Jeanette Winterson’s talk, and it wa great to be able to take up a friend’s spare ticket as I’d missed out on buying my own – tickets sold really quickly. The talk took place the night of the general election, and Winterson had a great rapport with the left leaning audience who’s main concerns were ‘Labour or green?’ She started by explaining how her talk had little to do with the title, which she had come up with when called by the festival co-ordinators! Despite that disclaimer, her talk was full of boldness and took us through her personal slant on writing. She is a sparky well-informed speaker, mixing quotes from her own work with others. A quote that stuck with me ties in with my own research on story:

‘Of course that is not the whole story, but that is the way with stories; we make them what we will. It’s a way of explaining the universe while leaving the universe unexplained, it’s a way of keeping it all alive, not boxing it into time. Everyone who tells a story tells it differently, just to remind us that everybody sees it differently. Some people say there are true things to be found, some people say all kinds of things can be proved. I don’t believe them. The only thing for certain is how complicated it all is, like string full of knots. It’s all there but hard to find the beginning and impossible to fathom the end. The best you can do is admire the cat’s cradle and maybe knot it up a bit more.’

Jeanette Winterson Oranges are Not the Only Fruit P119 Vantage London 2014

 So, the talk was great, the Dome was packed and the audience asked relevant and mostly interesting questions: in a lot of ways it was very typical of the whole Brighton Festival experience. Brighton is a unique city, with a mix of artists and tech-specialists, right on the coast. Walk through the city and you’ll see amazing fashion and style too, street performers, and posters for the hundreds of events that formed part of the Brighton Festival Fringe. As well as the Winterson talk, there were other literary events, lots of theatre and book readings for adults and kids, events ranging from Jaqueline Wilson and Noggin the Nog to Ali Smith’s own talk. And somehow in there, Smith wove themes such as Art and Nature, and Crossing Places, looking at the crossover between art forms, to create a wonderful month of events that drew together the best of Brighton and beyond.

Blindsided: story in pieces

[Interstitial: n. Of an intervening space; esp. a relatively small or narrow space, between things or the parts of a body, of the minute spaces between the ultimate parts of matter. From the Latin, interstitium, space between]

[fragment: transf. and fig. a broken piece; a small detached portion, a part remaining or still preserved when the whole is lost or destroyed. from the Latin, frangĕre to break]

 

What images have burnt a trace in your mind when all else is forgotten? What stands when all else has fallen? What do we take with us when we flee?

Story burns, story stands. Story defines and identifies.

Anders Nilsen compiled Don’t go where I can’t follow, a story told in postcards, letters, cartoons, scraps torn from his jottings as his fiancée Cheryl was torn from him, from life. A camping trip, photos from when they visited France, then everything changes with the black and white text and sketches in The Hospital. After that, The Lake, the graphic story describes how Anders scatters Cheryl’s ashes where they had planned to marry. The book was first created as a memorial for friends and family. A relationship in ninety pages, this assemblage is as moving as thousands of words. It tells the story.

 

[fugitive adj. Apt or tending to flee; given to, or in the act of, running away. From the Latin, fugĕre to flee]

 

Story is elusive. Scattered snapshots, some burnt, blow across the pine needled forest floor. The house no longer stands, the people have been taken away, but a child hid in a gap in the wall, and now he is running too, so the story can go on … start … flickers, traces of memory, Fugitive Pieces, blurred memories tainted and torn by trauma, as in The Drowned City, the first section of Anne Michael’s novel. Chase the story, run it down, pursue it, consume it until it is part of you that only ends with death.

 

[fiction n. arbitrary invention, that which is fashioned or framed, counterfeiting, the action of ‘feigning’ or inventing imaginary incidents, existences; the species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events and the portraiture of imaginary characters. From the Latin fictiōn-em , noun of action, fingĕre to fashion or form]

 

Experimental stories glide into your mind, unseen, seep, creep, slide. Their presence eludes touch, but they are there, none-the-less. Expect no start, middle, end, no neat ravelling of threads to form a rope evenly over pages, chapters. When you close the book the rope is there, none-the-less.

In Katherine Angel’s Unmastered, A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell a woman meets a man, has sex, conceives, has an abortion; ‘and then down, down, down, further and further I tumbled – Alice, pointy boots, tressed hair, topsy turvey into a tunnel of grief, into its numbing invisible embrace.’ (p238) Abortion reverberates through her life, through the white spaces in her book where something elusive starts to become present, something intangible, something that changes texture when you try to grip it.

‘5.           Years later I roamed, stunned, excited, through the Neues Museum in Berlin: rebuilt, restored; the archive of itself.

Its wounds preserved, lovingly rendered. Its memory on its skin.’

(p282)

Story emerges, unbidden, unbound.

 

[borrow: v. To take (a thing) on credit, on the understanding of returning it, or giving an equivalent; a thing recognized as being the property of another, to whom it is returnable.]

 

The pieces for this story are borrowed, appropriated, adapted. I learn through others. I take what I am given, and that which I am not given. I consume, devour other people’s stories to narrate my own.

Life’s events force story: we are compelled to tell our stories, of trauma, of change. Life is rich in complexity, messy, uncertain, relationships are tangled, and however much you want closure, a creative writer’s perfect plot, the script writer’s story arc, neat endings are unlikely. As Anne Carson writes, ‘The fragments of the Geryoneis itself read as if Stesichoros had composed a substantial narrative poem then ripped it to pieces and buried the pieces in a box with some song lyrics and lecture notes and scraps of meat … you can of course keep shaking the box.’(P6-7). That is life, that is writing about life.

 

[shake: v. to move quickly to and fro. To vibrate irregularly, tremble. To shiver, vibrate, flutter.intr. A poetical word for: To go, pass, move, journey; to flee, depart, in physical and non-physical senses.]

[unsettle: v. to force out of a settled condition; to deprive of fixity or quiet, not peaceful, not firmly established.]

 

Ref

  1. Marsh, Henry, Do No Harm, Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery (Phoenix, London, 2014)
  2. Jay, Martin, Downcast Eyes University of California Press 1994
  3. Nilsen, Anders,, Don’t go where I can’t follow (Drawn and Quarterly Quebec 2012)
  4. Michael, Anne, Fugitive Pieces (Bloomsbury, London, 1998)
  5. Carson, Anne, Autobiography of Red, (Jonathon Cape, London 1998)
  6. Angel, Katherine, Unmastered, A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell (Allen Lane, London2012)
  7. Inspiration for word definitions derives from oed.com and etymonline.com accessed 3, 25, 28 March 2015 and Downcast Eyes (referenced above)

Blindsided: Introduction

‘My first sight on entering the consultation room was a Babel-like tower of multi-coloured folders containing the patient’s notes … a tower of sheets of paper, bursting out of dog-eared files, in which the recent relevant results have rarely been filed, and if they have been filed, have been filed in such a way that it is usually very difficult to find them.’

(Marsh 2014 p264)

Aspects of people’s stories can be found between the pages of a medical record, yet medical records are about the patient, not the person, for the practitioner. In much of what we have read this term the overall story is an accumulation, something found in the words on the page but also in between the words, between the pages, within different styles and formats, which makes me think of the way that a medical record works.

I want to unsettle conventional expectations of a medical record and use it as inspiration and as a place to contain poetry, prose and critical work, the scaffolding for the story of a person. Because of my background as an optometrist, I have written about sight loss, and explore issues of changing identity in relation to shifts related to sight loss. Sight loss unsettles the human experience in the same way that experimental writing can. It forces you to look in a different way, use different parts of your vision, your brain, your mind. Did you know that people with cortical visual impairment may not be able to ‘see’ an object, yet can still react to its presence?

Our senses are dominated by the visual, and as Martin Jay explains in Downcast Eyes (1994 p3), so is our language. Development of sight comes late to the foetus, and much only happens post birth. Since the industrial revolution our culture has shifted from oral to visual. In the imagination, our brains prioritise images over sounds and smells. The visual function takes a disproportionately large part of our brain, and it dominates this paper. Visual metaphors recur throughout. French creeps into this paper, as does Old English, as does Latin, language of medicine, in attempt to seize back jargon, to own language, on behalf of the patient, the person, my self.

With more space and time I would have included letters – a medical record is packed with referral letters between practitioners, post it notes, perhaps the person’s own notes, letters and thoughts. There is a further critical paper on sight loss in literature that I could not include due to constraints of space. This story spills out beyond these sheets.

 

 

Ref

  1. Marsh, Henry, Do No Harm, Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery (Phoenix, London, 2014)
  2. Jay, Martin, Downcast Eyes University of California Press 1994
  3. Nilsen, Anders,, Don’t go where I can’t follow (Drawn and Quarterly Quebec 2012)
  4. Michael, Anne, Fugitive Pieces (Bloomsbury, London, 1998)
  5. Carson, Anne, Autobiography of Red, (Jonathon Cape, London 1998)
  6. Angel, Katherine, Unmastered, A Book on Desire, Most Difficult to Tell (Allen Lane, London2012)
  7. Inspiration for word definitions derives from oed.com and etymonline.com accessed 3, 25, 28 March 2015 and Downcast Eyes (referenced above)