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Sarah Waters

The best novels are carefully and elaborately constructed deceptions, which reveal a detailed, expansive and consistent version of the truth. The Night Watch by Sarah Waters is such a book and one of the finest and most bitter novels of this century.  The artful blending of distinct narratives which describe the unravelling of a society that Petronius accomplished with so much heart in The Satyricon, might compare with Waters’ account of London during and  shortly after the Blitz, but Waters has none of Petronius’s picaresque cheerfulness and humour: unlike the fragmented Satyricon, the bridges between the narrative segments of this novel are subtle but sturdy and by this device are brought across the small bits of information which tend to enhance and shade the separate narratives in what might otherwise be too loosely connected.

The first time I finished reading The Night Watch I didn’t close it: instead I went back to the very first page and began reading it all over again. It is this unforgettable first page which has stuck with me all these years. The most remarkably memorable works enter us in a way which deftly bypasses our critical faculties. This is magic at its best. Without this singular element, books are bad, or unimpressive, or merely good: we might stand on solid ground and see the characters going about their business on a visible surface, but we do not feel the curve of the earth or the forces beneath their feet, the hidden strata, the underground streams and certainly not the tectonic plates. In the months after I read this book, I attempted several times to analyse it, but every time I began, I found I couldn’t go on. I could never find the clarity I needed to sort out its elements in a way that made sense. With my second reading, I had the chronology down, and recognised the hints and prefigurings of one section hidden in another. But a third reading was required before I was finally able to put my finger on the key that had eluded me before. The sense within it defied me until I had read the book two more times.

Waters’ bag of writerly tricks includes an inordinate profligacy of sensuous detail, a pitch-perfect ear for dialogue, and the casual perfection of her writing itself. Everything is fresh, right down to the coruscating horror of war-ravaged London. Waters’ movable structure, in reverse chronology and with its segments of overlapping narratives, pivots on a single axis like a live insect spinning on its pin even as it is fixed to the wax board, but the careful skirting of that impairment, the loss of memory, compels us to sleuth for context. When Kay tells her friend Micky “I’ve got lost in the rubble… couldn’t get over it” we might conclude that she is remembering the break with her lover Helen. But the forfeiture of memory is a serious casualty in The Night Watch. It means the excision of an interior space which gives people substance, and it makes for a sense of deep disquiet. We all become dedicated drunks when we dream every night. We go places and do things which are shameful, startling, frightening, embarrassing or ill-advised, and when we wake up we don’t remember them, but nonetheless we feel them, and some residue of the world we inhabited while we slept remains. It can be conjured up in the way we recall an old tune we haven’t heard in years, or the way in which a touch can set off a physical memory. This absence more than anything else amplifies the emptiness in and around Kay. It cuts a swath through her personality, because we are prevented from seeing inside her, even to the extent of having a tissue of a dream. Kay’s life is not so much a life as an afterlife: we stay in the present, we move forwards into a past, which we then have to extrapolate and insert into the puzzle, but there is nowhere that the pieces are permitted to rest in their proper place and in this  respect, The Night Watch resists a satisfactory disambiguation.

Kay Langrish, one of the characters in the dyads and triads around which The Night Watch takes shape, and significantly the one with whom Waters begins her book, stands out for me as the main character in this novel. She is at its heart and soul. Her story demands more attention than all the rest.The other segments of the book seem to be present in a supporting role but Kay is the vanishing point that gives the whole novel its sense of perspective. The distant secondariness of the other dyads were for me like the names one sees skimming by after the movie has ended. We feel they should not be ignored, that we ought to read them if only to recognise the hard work and talent and dedication that helped make the movie possible, but nevertheless they seldom command our attention: we just don’t care that much. I did not feel compelled by the other two narratives.  I recognised that they supported the novel in important ways, but they lacked suspense, and I could find no inducement to focus on them very much. I did care about the Kay/Helen/Julia story. It caught my attention and held it with the kind of buzzing insistence of a headache which demands the pressure of hands in order to suppress its throbbing compulsion.

When we find her at the beginning of the book, Kay is a ruin. Our eyes skim over the carefully faceted details of her little upstairs-room – no books, clothes hanging on a wire, darned socks, cold-water bathroom down the hall, a sour smelling bed – all instantly register as amounting to appalling conditions and decidedly at odds with our instinctive sense of who this character is. We feel the instant disconnect suggested by Waters, with something we cannot really place. We know Kay was not always like this, that she was not always accustomed to squalor and apparent, self-imposed impoverishment.

The third September after the war – September of 1948 – finds Kay unable to adjust to a post-war existence. She no longer wears her uniform and a tin hat, no longer drives an ambulance, no longer has a purpose in life. Old-maidish Mr. Mundy, a character in another segment, rather unflattering refers to Kay as ‘Colonel Barker’, but for Mr. Mundy’s young gay protégée Duncan, ‘the bold cut of her hair, her mannish clothes, her sharp, distinguished-looking profile’ makes him think ‘she might once have been a lady pilot, a sergeant in the WAAF’. She looked to him ‘like a handsome young man.’ It is a profound irony that the littered externalisation of Kay’s dreariness and fatigue lies inescapably reflected all around her. She herself is out of step, out of sequence. She prefers to watch the second part of a movie before the first: she engages in a tawdry grope and kiss with a tipsy girl in a cinema restroom: she seems to try to pick up strangers on her walks, and on an occasion buys a blond girl a drink in a bar. All this is so far removed from the way she was before, when she would have spurned such crumbs as these out of hand when she was intact, and more than equal to the challenge of driving an ambulance through the pitch-dark streets during the black-out. Then she had been able to face danger and horror, as when she and her friend Micky extricated the body of a woman who had been tossed by an explosion and impaled on a railing. She stamped out the stray fires caused by incendiary bombs and braved the bombs themselves to rescue strangers. Her senses were fully alive to the significance of the things she saw in the ruins – the glimpse of a box decorated with painted shells seen in the rubble – most likely a child’s handwork project – a small jawbone still embedded with the eruptions of its first new teeth – and no doubt she took in the hidden shape of the unseen world beneath its chaotic surface, and always  managed to respond to tragedy and exigency in the right way at the right time with the gift of her ever fully present self.

One’s ear picks up the faint crepitations of Kay’s former life from which the present is a fall from grace. We know something terrible has already happened. We sense a past of strength, and of refinement even, and we feel as if we are watching the impeccable cuff of a shirt being dipped in grime. Something has happen to Kay which is so devastating, so fell, that she has been plunged into an interiority which has detached  her completely from the outside world, even as she compulsively moves around in it and minutely observes it. Life has taken on a tinge of unreality, that seems to make everything in it go on at a distance. Nothing extends beyond the mere band of murky light that her own dullness seems to exude within the small, blear circumference surrounding her. We may rush to call it depression, but this bland and dismissive word does not begin to encompass or even describe the horror of Kay’s existence. Her ability to be a part of life, or to interact with it, disappears, while her compulsion to observe persists in the most acute manner possible. Whatever has happened to her has created a kind of insuperable severance from life and the living.

What was the distortion in Kay’s vision that caused her to idealise her lover Helen? Did Kay see potential lovers as being either virgins or whores? She was a woman of the world: the liaison, casually referred to, with a high-class prostitute who gave Kay her flat attests to a certain lack of squeamishness with regard to dissolute women, and certainly her witty comment about “the deep peace of the marital bed” compared to “the hurly-burly of the sapphic chaise lounge” shows, if nothing else, a deep sense of irony with respect to relationships. It could not be that Kay had a masculinist view of female virtue. I gave this question a great deal of thought. I wondered if Kay was in fact aware of Helen’s moral and other inadequacies: if indeed she may have picked Helen in an effort to force a happy ending out of unpromising material, in order to prove to herself that it could be done – that one could pull a pure young girl out of the ruins of the world, and that she, Kay, even as a social outsider, could aspire to and achieve a conventional domestic happiness regardless of the odds. This streak of utter conventionality in Kay’s make-up is one of the things I found naggingly inconsistent about her character. It would seem that Kay may not have loved what Helen was, but rather what she represented. It was not perception but something else, perhaps resembling recognition. The image of something already known and conceptualised in the mind is projected upon something that seems like it, or close enough. But it seems that the seeds of Kay’s dissolution were already planted in the distant past. Helen’s defection simply gave them the nourishment they needed in order to flourish with an unimpeded vigour and malignity. Kay seems to sense this when she says “We never seem to love the people we ought to, I can’t think why.”

At first it seemed to me that Kay provided the only evidence of love, and was the only one capable of it, and of devotion and constancy and marital probity. But I cannot avoid the suggestion of a darker motivation in Kay’s choice of Helen might not have been the awareness of her own superiority. She was upper-class, she was older, she owned the flat, she may even have had access to her family’s wealth. She was certainly better situated than Helen, and in this respect the relationship between her and Helen could never have been that of equals. I wonder if Helen fell in love with Julia, Kay’s former girlfriend, because of an unconscious desire for some sort of parity between herself and Kay: there could have been for her a twisted logic in making a sexual conquest of Julia, who Helen thought had rejected Kay, and thereby securing a position for herself in winning something she thought Kay had wanted and lost. Of course Helen was wrong about everything. Julia used Helen as a pawn: Julia was under no illusion about Helen. She did not think Helen was particularly interesting, or intelligent or even beautiful. The love-triangle is operatic in the way a version of Otello would be, where Otello is an English public-school educated lesbian of impeccable probity, the villainous Desdemona a bargain-basement Greta Garbo from Worthing, and Iago an elegantly aristocratic writer of lurid detective novels, who is in fact in love with Otello and could only say of Desdemona that she ‘resembled a lovely onion.’

Julia Standing and Helen Giniver are a couple entangled in a thorny and contentious relationship which appears at times to be unravelling. Helen works in what might be called a Pleistocene version of a modern dating agency, and Julia works with her architect father to assess bomb damage in buildings which have not been completely destroyed and are still standing. She does this mostly on her own, and displays an astonishing sang froid about the real dangers she confronts when she enters these unstable structures, which may collapse at any moment. Helen is a middle class girl and Julia is unmistakably upper-class: her grubby working clothes gainsay it, but her speech, despite the occasional affectation of slangy locutions, clearly affirms it. Helen is attracted by Julia’s natural hauteur and elegant beauty, but also by something hidden but sensed, about Julia’s past relationship, only mentioned in passing, with Kay.

At some point the secret that Waters almost conceals within the Helen/Kay/Julia triangle and which makes it so dynamic begins to emerge. I had become distracted by the intensity of Helen’s affair with Julia, begun within three weeks of their meeting. My eye was fixed on Helen because her emotions  were in such active ferment. There was a past in which Kay adored Helen: when she was almost tediously uxorious, in which she treated this chipped ceramic mug of a woman as if she were a perfect Sèvres tea-cup, and with never the slightest remonstration. Kay precisely fitted the role of the devoted ‘husband’ of an unsympathetic wife. She loved Helen, but her emotions seem to have reached a point of equilibrium. But in this past there is a triangle – Kay loves Helen loves Julia, whereas Julia who seems at worst cold and unloving, or at best simply removed, loved Kay.

Waters does not permit her readers to probe Julia’s inner workings as she does to a limited degree with Kay and rather more so with Helen. But Julia is the key. Hidden from me at first was that Julia and not Helen, was at the apex of the triangle. Julia and Kay have much in common – their handsome good looks, their social class, but more than any thing in either the social or cultural antecedents they have in common, they share a fundamental likeness of something resembling an existential orientation, even a condition. Though Kay strives mightily to reject and extinguish such a realisation under the illusion of security provided by her relationship with Helen, both Kay and Julia are fundamentally solitary creatures who each carry an unfathomable loneliness within themselves, and for such a sense of isolation there could be no possible remedy.  Even Helen notices “what is it about Julia? Why is she always alone?”

Kay and Julia are both women with vaulted interiors, each in her own way utterly inconsolable. Julia knows this about herself – but Kay believes she might be consoled.  Julia, despite her apparent flintiness and her cool exterior, has also failed to adapt to her losses in the ways that she would wish. She is just as much a victim of disappointed love as Kay.  Julia emerges as a character with not much feeling, without much ability or desire either to love or be loved or to connect.  But what Waters hides in plain sight, is that an open secret is fully present in that upwelling of  infinite sadness which we are allowed to glimpse when Julia’s tells Helen that she was in love with Kay for years. The sense of ruefulness, and  chagrin, even bitterness,  which surfaces in that moment when Julia tells Helen it was Kay who ended their relationship, more than suggests that Julia is still in love with Kay. This is the point at which my question about what Julia could possibly have seen in Helen begins to be answered. Julia admits to Helen that she (Julia) began her pursuit of Helen in order to see what Kay saw in Helen. But it was more than that.

The obvious explanation here, is that Julia wanted to get back at Kay for Kay’s rejection, but it seems rather that she wanted to reach Kay by a sort of proxy. How difficult to accept that ‘misaffection’ (but not disaffection – Kay’s very intelligent and subtle distinction.) Helen was the closest Julia could get to Kay, and rather than being pleased to give Kay some of her own back, it seems more likely that Julia was deeply conflicted. She must have known, even as her involvement with Helen deepened, that she had permitted impulse to lead her into a situation not of her choosing or desiring, with a woman she did not and could not ever love. In seeking to be free of Kay and taking up with Helen,  Julia appears to have renounced the received standards of behaviour of her class as well as its tacit protocols, but she is never quite free of them, as evidenced by her shocked disapproval of Helen’s lapses from propriety, as when Helen eavesdrops on the sordid conversations of the squabbling tenants in the basement apartment below them. Kay might have been able to overlook or even transcend the difference in class and upbringing between herself and Helen, but Julia, despite her best efforts, never could.

Julia gave Helen plenty of cause for jealous suspicions about Julia’s involvement with other women, or rather with another woman, Ursula Waring, and Helen is ripe for suspicion. She has permitted her voyeuristic imagination to range over the intimacies engaged in by Kay and Julia, and perhaps she will do the same with Julia and Ursula if and when her suspicions are confirmed. It could be that Helen might have fared better with someone to knock her about and give her the excuse she needed to vent her suppressed plume of volcanic emotions. Instead she cannot prevent herself from grinding away at Julia, whose enthusiasm for their affair seems to diminish by marked degrees. Julia is withheld and hesitant – this plays well to Helen’s insecurity and her need. Helen seems to be the kind of woman who will always be the inferior in any relationship, and perhaps the origin of her splenetic rages lie in an occluded awareness of this fact. Helen’s authenticity as a character seems to come from her deficits, her youth, her class, and the inner demons of jealousy and insecurity and possessiveness that consume and torment her. There is nothing inconsistent about Helen. She is entirely of a piece. Helen has an instinct for survival. In her second miraculously narrow escape in two years, when the flat where she and Kay live is bombed,  she was spending the night with Julia, and her life is saved as a result of her infidelity. What are we to make of the kernel that might be hidden within that shell?

The  troubling complexity and contrariness of human relations and human desire, their insubstantiality, and brevity, their inherent susceptibility to blight, the unresolvable nature of attraction and repulsion, of hunger and satisfaction, are all found within the bounds of this  sardonic, ironic, and indeed tragic triangle. The bitter truth about relationships is that the one who wants the least comes off best. In a sense Julia is as wounded as Kay. She is certainly as lonely and as isolated. But she has come to terms with her predicament. She has a self-awareness about her suffering, whereas Kay just suffers. Julia’s accommodation of chaos and disorder, her personal slovenliness, the disorder of her flat, all suggest that in her way she had given up long before Kay. She had succumbed in the same way Kay would later on, to the loss of love. In Kay’s case  love was ventured and lost, in Julia’s case, ventured but never gained. Julia cannot forget hat near miss, that relationship that just might have been: the only time she speaks of love plausibly and convincingly is in when she speaks of Kay. Julia’s wartime job repeats the symmetry of her own interior isolation found reflected in the ghosts of shattered buildings where she spends her days. To have arrived at a place after having endured our way to the end of all our disappointments and find nothing there, that might be as close to hell as it gets.

Helen’s wide masochistic streak, and Julia’s coolness and detachment, her  terse refusal to engage in Helen’s choleric manipulations, and the natural lack of polarity of their within-gender dynamic, spells disaster from start to finish. There can be no natural chemistry here, and the fact that Julia has any reaction at all to Helen is due, I think, in large part to the element introduced by Helen in her function as a thread connecting Julia to Kay. Helen’s insecurity will not permit her to accept love where it is given, but to desire it only where it it withheld or absent. Julia’s engagement with Helen is characterised by a sense of aloofness and detachment. She does not need Helen’s love, and resents Helen’s clingy possessiveness, her tendency to behave like a shrew. It struck me immediately that Helen Giniver’s name carried the ominous echo of two of the most renowned adulteresses in literature. At first, Helen appeared to me to be at the apex of the Kay/Helen/Julia love-triangle. The knot holding that particular entanglement in place was Helen’s masochism, and Julia’s almost icy reserve and unreachability, her apparent imperviousness, her refusal to engage in Helen’s tantrums. The fact that there is any reaction at all is due to the element introduced by Kay. The troubling complexity and contrariness of human relations and human desire, their insubstantiality, and brevity, their inherent susceptibility to blight, the unresolvable nature of attraction and repulsion, of hunger and satisfaction, are all found within the bounds of this  sardonic, ironic, and indeed tragic triangle.

Julia tells Helen“Kay wants a wife, you see…. She wants a wife – someone good, I mean someone kind, untarnished. Someone to keep things in order for her, things in place.…. And elsewhere. “Kay wants a wife: she always has…… one must be the wife with Kay or nothing.”
Julia’s tragedy is that she does not in the least resemble a wife, and could never be one in the conventional sense. Perhaps this is the reason for her bitterness. Julia is correct when she characterises Kay as ‘a gentleman’, and it is this quality which makes Helen so ‘other’ to her, creating the sexual polarity, as well as the incomprehension which is at the base of a certain kind of lesbian relationship. Kay’s particular mix of gender chemistry puts her at the opposite end of the lesbian continuum from Helen, and far enough from Julia to spark an attraction, whereas for Julia there does not appear to be a similar dynamic with Helen.  There is for some of us a peculiar and potent chemistry of the upper-class British butch lesbian of a certain era: that marvellous admixture of gender indeterminacy and incorruptible propriety that is personified in Kay. There is an superiority in that which Julia would undoubtedly be able to appreciate, and it is very likely to have been at the root of her attraction to Kay. Julia admits to Helen that she had loved Kay. She does not appear to have loved anyone else. Julia and Kay would have suited each other perfectly, but for that little glitch – an insufficiency of the polarity required by Kay: and all for the want of a horse-shoe nail.

The accidental attractants we call chemistry which lead to couplings are just fuses that connect to the bomb, and when we light the match we have to not let ourselves know what we are doing. And so we wonder how Kay might have tolerated Helen’s capriciousness, her lack of refinement. Was it sufficient that Helen’s merely corresponding to Kay’s image of what a wife could be, would seem like  it might have sufficed? Did the rescue from the rubble create a script which played straight to the heart of Kay’s sense of knight-errantry? That Julia has forsaken the contextual associations of her class, more than anything else, makes her seem to have rejected her inherited moorings. It seems she has rejected them because she was rejected by Kay. I don’t know if Americans relate very well to this understated but very unshakable code of behaviour and character, and in fact ethics. Kay’s self-deprecating nobility, her conspicuous bravery, her untainted sense of honour, her gallantry towards women, her inexhaustible generosity, so heretical in the the face of fervent belief in mere survival, is what makes her so admirable. This constellation of traits is all the more remarkable because of her extreme emotional fragility.

Kay’s loss of Helen does not adequately explain the depth and extent of her grief and devastation, her sense of unbelievable desolation and how completely undone she is: the unrelenting and insuperable sense of doom and brokenness beyond all fixing that clings to her like a shadow. Helen is really no great shakes. She is too wounded and insecure herself to do anyone any good. She is driven to hide her attraction to women, and is paranoid about public displays of affection. She is unstable and shallow and immature. Even so, for Kay, such a ‘wife’ as Helen was might well have provided the perfect antidote for her insubstantiality. Women like Kay need such an anchor to keep them from drifting off into the vast uncharted expanses of their lonely interior oceans. The world becomes for them a featureless place, except for its patches of shifting darkness, and there is no torment quite like being trapped in such an existence. Though her values were far from bourgeois, her domestic expectations were beautifully conventional. Perhaps the absence of family in her life may have something to do with this. What was needed for the healing of Kay’s wounds was a stable, untroubled domesticity, but some irony of fate makes of her a ‘Samson Agonistes’ with perfect public school politesse.

The world of the London Blitz and the black-out was a world of almost primordial darkness, a world without street-signs, and of obliterated landmarks. Its inhabitants were cut loose from their accustomed moorings in the past ‘normalcy’, and order was something which had to be imposed by acts of will and ingenuity. This material darkness has its counterpart in another which can extend into the soul as insidiously as an invading mould. While Kay is intrepid in the manner in which she faces the outer darkness, she seems to have avoided a descent into her own inner darkness. Kay gives definition to an existential version of our fear of the dark: it is not a monster lurking under the bed or a vampire who comes flying in at night through a window that has carelessly been left open. These fears in us may be faced with an effort of reason and commonsense, but it is not quite as easy to dismiss the  abysmal fear of the unrelievable isolation to be found when one confronts the truth about the human condition. The unforgettable lines with which Dante began The Inferno exactly describe Kay’s predicament: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, where the right way was lost. Oh how to speak of it, it was a thing so severe, that savage wood, and strong and harsh, the thought of it renews my fear, so bitter did it seem that death could scarce be more.”

The purpose and courage with which both Kay and Julia responded to the high degree of danger in their jobs, suggests they were at once resisting and succumbing to the same cause with a similar effect. Danger gives them a kind of focus, and each of them faces a different but equally significant encounter with devastation in the performance of her duties. It is an enormous irony that the Kay/Julia relationship did not work out, because they are a match in depth, and both of them are much deeper than Helen could ever be. They possess a more complex capacity for life experience and for confronting and adapting to its exigencies with a touch of graceful irony. But they belong to a class of women who are not whole in themselves. Though the absence of love clearly outlined its negative space in Julia’s life, she was able to face and accept it, whereas Kay attempted to fill the space imperfectly. It seems ironic that  Julia, who speaks with apparent dismissiveness about Kay being a ‘sentimentalist’ and a ‘gentleman’, could have been in love with her, but then, Julia always seemed able to downplay her emotions and take her medicine straight.

So little about why anyone falls in love is visible to anyone else on the outside of the experience. The real causes and effects, and reasons, all unfold on the inside. When Kay, on one of her nightly ambulance runs, rescues Helen out of the rubble of a recently fallen bomb, the biggest shock is finding that she is still alive, and miraculously unhurt. This is probably the moment when Kay begins to fall in love. Why this could be we may infer, but never know for certain. We sense this is a moment in life when what happens in the material world imprints itself on us in such a way as to alter the inner mechanism of perception. The moment when Kay finds the still-living and improbably intact Helen partially encased in a tomb of crumbled brick and plaster, might be just such a moment when the element of shock and joy wipes the mind clean of present awareness and replaces it with something enormously new and strange, and the rescuer and the rescued emerge from the immediate past in a mutual silence and reenter the world together. There was another Helen, who was born from an egg,  whose adulterous love brought ruin to all around her. But Kay was probably not thinking about that.

There is in Helen, for all her ability to go after what she wants, something of “a second-former swooning over a prefect”, a degree of immaturity, of heedlessness and impulsivity. She is so gripped by her passion for Julia that she cannot deduce on the basis of their characters, what might have transpired to end the relationship between Kay and Julia. The clues are all there in Kay’s nature, and Julia’s repeated mentions about Kay’s insistence of having a ‘wife’ and Julia’s repeated demonstrations that she would not fit that role. This should have made Helen pause and give the matter some thought. But Helen’s desire was really an insatiable hunger to devour the hidden parts which Julia might have previously ceded to Kay: parts which were given but refused. Helen wanted what she could never have. When it came down to it, Kay’s gallantry and refinement played just as badly to Helen’s romantic needs as did Julia’s glamour, which came packaged together with her aloof indifference.

These three women are, in different ways, incomprehensible  to each other, but any woman she loves it seems, will always be an unsolved mystery to Kay. This weakness, this inability to understand the way in which, as well as whom, she loves, is always likely to come between her and her happiness.  The reason for this disconnect becomes slightly more clear when we set aside our identification of Kay as a woman and lesbian when in fact, more than either of these designations of gender, she more accurately conforms to an older and now dismissed concept – Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness definition of the invert. Kay, (who by my calculation was born in 1910) would have been 18 when Hall’s book was published. She might have seen herself  as a sort of Steven Gordon, a person at odds with the world, and one who could not be made to fit in it. That was a perception that may have undergone some modification in the danger and uncertainty of the Blitz, but which could not be altered at a more fundamental level.

The fascination we have with novels about broken and damaged people comes from being shown in a vivid and inescapable way the specific parts of the human machine which have broken down and ceased to function because they have been smashed against the unyielding surface of the world. Through such novels, and in the reflection of their characters, we are able to take a tentative scalpel to our own psyches and check our own working and non-working parts, in an attempt  to either reassure or terrify ourselves with questions about our own soundness – or the lack of it. Such novels are themselves like incendiary bombs, burning directly downwards as if with the able collusion of gravity, through time, unstoppably and with a sinister purpose.

The mood in which I read The Night Watch had been set when my ear caught and held a subtle note of weariness in its lucid, beautifully ordinary language, innocent of all rhetorical flourishes and artifice. It is of course the weariness of wartime, the unrelenting and insuperable sense of doom and  brokenness, beyond all fixing, the nightly danger posed by bombs and fires and collapsing buildings, the cheerless, inedible food, the vitiated air, the predominant shabbiness of everything, the scarcity or even absence of hot water. Language itself must be pruned where there is no excess energy to be squandered. An economy of words takes hold when economy prevails in all else. But Waters’ economy is deceptive, and it deceived me, and its perfect balance, so poised between skillfully arranged complexity and intuition, defeated the part of my brain dedicated to critical analysis and caused it to recede and disappear. I was forced to surrender to the sense that I was playing blind-man’s buff in an unlit room. This, I think, is due to the unique fashion in which time is represented in this novel, and not just that the arrow is flying backwards. Waters’ inclination is to reveal without confiding, and to delineate detail by vivid detail, such as the small but ominous symbols which signal a seismic shift. On Helen’s birthday,Kay takes enormous care over the presents: an extravagant and exquisite pair of pearl-coloured satin pyjamas bought on the black-market, an orange carefully pricked over with ‘Happy Birthday’, coffee…. but while Helen rather uneasily accepts these tokens of love, she rebuffs all Kay’s gestures of tender affection. Helen’s irritability, the absence of warmth, her aversion to Kay’s touch, all signal the retreat and withdrawal of love. It is reminiscent of  a scene in an old movie version of Dracula, when a crack appears and rapidly spreads on the surface of the castle courtyard. It presages the presence of the vampire, and one cannot interpret it as anything but a sign of impending disaster.

The withholding of information is a device vital to carrying a plot forward. It creates suspense, and gives the reader an active role in solving a riddle. But when a novel proceeds in an opposite trajectory to the arrow of time, how can a writer create suspense with the ending already revealed on the very first page? Waters does it from the first instant, by counting on the reader’s inexperience with such a reversal, and his or her failure to grasp its significance. We enter the novel stumbling in a moment of blindness and it takes a while to begin to get oriented. I felt I was forced by Waters to care deeply about Kay in this instant of disorientation and confusion, but along with that confusion was implanted the desire to dispel and resolve it.

Waters maintained her unique purpose of temporal distortion by not permitting her characters to recall their pasts. It is not that they had amnesia, but they could not dwell on what had brought them to the present. They could  stand at the river side and gaze at the opposite bank, they had to avert their gaze from the bridge, nor could they walk across it. But The Night Watch is itself a backward glance though the characters are never permitted to recall and remember. Kay, like Orpheus, walks through the underworld with the faint echo of footsteps in her wake, but when she emerges it is not into sunlight, but into unutterable bleakness. Because the narrative recedes in time, each segment of the present is as clearly crystallised in its place as an egg in aspic. The implications of this literary device are not noticeable at first, but its consequence, the absence of past memory in the minds of the characters, creates a sense of inexplicable unease. The past is there, but it is locked fast in the future. That in itself creates a sense of helpless imbalance in the mind of the reader, which taken together with the immediate, preternaturally detailed ordinariness of the narrative, persistently denies a handhold or a foothold on its surface. Readers often sense it when information is being  gratuitously withheld, but even though Waters had tied one hand behind her back when she made the rules, it was worth it, because it worked.

Distortions in the sequencing of time are inherently confusing to a reader. A still more subtle way in which Waters manipulates time, is the accretion of detail itself – one simply does not catch that much detail in a state of normal awareness. This device distorts the perception of time by altering the speed at which time travels to something resembling slow-motion. But fortunately for us, the ‘past’  of the narrative is always consistently present in some form or another. We cannot reclaim the past in order to fill in the gaps Waters is compelled to create in the story, but neither are we exactly removed from it, because its hold on us is  never entirely absent: it never leaves us entirely alone with the present: its intrusions never cease. It did occur to me that the remedy might be to read the book backwards, or to tear it into its segments and separate the pages within each segment and rearrange them in a different order, but I was prevented by a powerful taboo in me having to do with the destruction of books.

In a sense, The Night Watch is a study of unwholesome relationships and decadence lurking beneath the smudgy ordinariness anxious to disguise and deny it. The absence of love is starkly delineated throughout. The mass of sensuous detail relentlessly adumbrates and underscores the feeling of decay both within and without the characters. Still there are almost Zen-like moments, as when a flash of irrepressible beauty intrudes and Waters’ prose simply takes flight. The fox encountered by Julia and Helen on a walk through the bombed-out streets at night, when “they watched it dart, as quick and fluid as racing water” and the distant sound of a band “swelling and sinking on impalpable gusts of air, like washing on a line”, evoke by a few deft, suggestive strokes an almost unearthly beauty. In the immediacy of this writing, our nostrils are filled with the odour of burning feathers, when a pigeon, its wings on fire flies through the darkness in the aftermath of a bomb, a rabbit-meat sandwich is described as being ‘sweet’, we almost see the aged ruin of a ninety-year-old woman in a yellow nightgown, sleeping in her bed in her bomb-damaged house, and  the school girl joke I remember about the top hat and the bra (still in currency when I was in First Form.) But occasionally and unexpectedly, the detail seems false, as when the voice of the woman in the basement apartment resembles ‘gnat-like whining’ as it insinuates itself through the floor. Do gnats really whine, or are they are a quiet race of creatures who go about their gnat-like business in total silence? And did people in war time Britain say “wow”? Did they ‘press’ rather than ‘iron’ their clothes?

Both World Wars, but more dramatically the second, caused the collapse in England of the old social contact between men and women. The lull of 22 years which lasted  between the first and second wars, was still a time during which the frayed fabric of the old social order refused to give way completely. A few strong threads of former entrenched restrictions on the freedom of women to act, to be independent and autonomous, continued to hold. But both wars afforded unexpected new opportunities to women of a certain metal and calibre. During both wars, lesbians took to the new conditions with immense alacrity and purpose, and chaos itself became the climate in which these freedoms were enthusiastically embraced by women who carried their latent heroism within them like a recessive gene. Chaos and danger were exactly the conditions they needed to come into their own.

The Night Watch has an earlier ancestor in a short story entitled “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself”, written by Radclyffe Hall about two weeks before The Well of Loneliness. Hall has always (somewhat unjustly in my view) been derided  by her literary peers – or at least contemporaries –  such as Virginia Woolf, for her  flights of undisciplined and sentimental excesses, but her significance for me is not related to her writing, but to her successful effort to end lesbian invisibility. Her highly-charged, and yes, overwrought short story is about a woman who was the head of a French ambulance service in WWI. After the armistice, Miss Ogilvy’s unit is demobilised, her world dismantled, and her place within it effaced with a total and irreversible finality. The Red Cross Ambulance Brigade in Calais, France, and the vehicles she so competently ‘manned’, are lost to her forever. There will be no longer any scope for her bravery and gallantry. The qualities she so conspicuously possessed as the natural inheritance of her specific gender, as well as her sacrifice, are forgotten when she comes back to England alone and without a purpose to her life. She was used, and discarded when she was no longer needed, and  in the aftermath of this rejection her mind unravels in its effort to reestablish itself in a way which would accommodate its intrinsic wholeness. In order to find herself, the ‘invert’ Miss Ogilvy has to bypass recorded history and all traces of civilisation to enter a time in prehistory and  recreate her shattered psyche as a man in the Neolithic era, but even there, she cannot imagine that a durable happiness could be within her grasp.

In my mind, crop-headed Miss Ogilvy is in a very real sense Kay Langrish’s lesbian ancestor, and their post-war lives seem to me to be echoes of each other. Like Miss Ogilvy’s in WWI. Kay’s deracinated existence in a shattered and exhausted post-war London is merely the encompassing reverberation of her far greater psychic devastation. And a similar devastation to what appears in Radclyffe Hall’s short story lies at the heart of The Night Watch. The inescapable dreariness of life to which Kay gives herself over in resignation and  mute surrender seems very much like the conditions faced by Miss. Ogilvy in the loss of  a world in which she had temporarily fit. These two things together, the loss of that world, and the meaning it gave to a life,  in their perfect synchronicity amplified the wave of ruin to such a degree that nothing else could be audible above their sound.

It is a great tribute to Waters’ skill that her narrative ellipses tend to go unnoticed in the spell cast by the plethora of atmospheric detail. We are never shown how Kay’s break up with Helen unfolded, though we may deduce that the denouement took place on the night a bomb hit Kay’s flat in Pym’s Yard. Waters sets the scene and  glosses over the details, and we get only the briefest glimpse of Kay and Julia unexpectedly appearing together out of the darkness. When Kay’s relief that Helen has survived the bomb blast  had slightly subsided, and she recovered herself  sufficiently in order for her rational mind to reassert itself, we may suppose that she realised the reason for Helen’s escape was that she was away from her own home, and had spent the night with Julia. The happy ending is sometimes just a heightened irony in disguise, a fine coat which may easily be turned inside-out to reveal its shredded lining. One moment we share Kay’s desolation at the thought of Helen being killed when their flat was hit by a bomb, and next we share her sigh of relief at the sight of Helen returning to her home with Julia. A few pages later we are back at the beginning, with Kay as she sees Helen for the first time, trapped in the rubble in the aftermath of a bomb and so we come full circle with the beginning and the end of an affair. Waters teases and disconcerts by waving in front of us an ending of the novel, which for a moment we confuse with the ending of her story, but no sooner have we read it than we realise this is only the beginning of what was to be a tragic ending. It strikes us like the bombs Kay’s friend Micky tells us landed in a cemetery and burst open the graves, shattering the coffins.

The manner in which Waters creates a ghostly echo of her novel in a reader’s mind is something which has a durable power to fascinate me. Meaningful stories for me are those that don’t just end at a literary stopping point which sometimes seems both inevitable and arbitrary, but then keep on going. They can move backwards and forwards in time, into our present thoughts, but also into the echoes that already existed before the book was read. The stories proceed in an out-of-sync disjunction like a solid universe emerging out of the ineffable and in time transforming into a swarm of massless photons which rush headlong into darkness. We are compelled as readers to inhabit the strange space of the writer’s mind and submit to its its inexplicable laws.  It is this contract that leads us by the hand and compels us to live lives which are not ours, but which nonetheless resound with a startling echo, so that they may as well be ours.

In delving into the manner in which Waters constructed her novel, I remembered that one of my very favourite books, ever since I read it decades ago, has been Edward Abbots’s Flatland.Though I didn’t know it at the time, it taught me to think in a completely different way. The way in which a book represents itself to me has always been at the foundation of how I perceive it, understand it and remember it. Abbot’s superbly written gem, a treatise on dimensions and how we perceive them, has come to deeply inform my understanding of what I read. Life happens in three dimensions, four if you count time, though this, being a temporal dimension, is quite different from the other three, which are spatial. Books, which are not strictly speaking life, have to represent the dimensions of life in a way which admits that hidden dimension. We learned as children how this could be done with three dimensional object such as a cube. A cube has parallel sides and perpendicular angles, but when we represent a cube in two dimensions, its missing dimension can be revealed, but only if we use additional angles besides right angles. We have to off-set opposite surfaces by drawing two overlapping squares, and then joining their corners in ways that do not exist in the original cube. The additional ‘dimension’, time, which gives an object its reference in ‘reality’, is really a very secret player, and one which has to be handled carefully and creatively if life, which is the object we are attempting to pin down in a novel, is to be convincingly conveyed. The cube drawn on a sheet of paper overrides our knowledge about what cubes really  are, but nonetheless it leads us to correctly identify an image as a cube with a missing dimension. Without the ‘false’ angles we are unable to see the cube. The illusion must be created in accordance with the rules of perception, and this requires a brilliant imagination.  In order to make use of the referential nature of time in her narrative without actually unravelling it, Waters has to make a casualty of memory. When done correctly in a novel or a story, the hidden and absent dimensions of life erupt on the page. Luckily for us, we are able to manipulate time in this way as well. And time is often the key to the way in which the characters in a novel make their secret way off the page and into our minds.

Another thought that lingered after I read The Night Watch was to wonder why lesbian writers don’t write more lesbian novels. Waters has paid her dues, so to speak, with two well-written and unabashedly concupiscent lesbian novels, Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith, and flirted with a character of ‘lesbian sensibility’ in Affinity Fingersmith and Tipping the Velvet most probably had lesbians rushing book-store counters in droves, but with The Night Watch Waters made her unfaltering way into the middle of main stream fiction. The Night Watch may or may not be a lesbian novel, but the lesbian content in it was the centrepiece for me, and I rather think it was intended as such. I will not hold it against Waters if she never creates another lesbian character. I think I understand why lesbian writers don’t go on writing lesbian books: perhaps they get tired of the subject, or perhaps it exhausts itself for them, or perhaps they feel they might not want to go on writing the same book under a different cover. What I don’t understand is how heterosexual writers go on writing heterosexual books without ever seeming to run out of  heterosexual material or tiring of heterosexual themes and subjects. Is this because a largely heterosexual reading public demands, and will pay for, an endless stream of fiction to which they can ‘relate’ and which caters to their particular literary needs? Or is it perhaps because there are more heterosexuals who want to read about other heterosexuals than there are either lesbians and gays or heterosexuals who want to read about homosexuals?  It is a vexing question and one without an immediate answer.

In the almost-historical past, the publishers of lesbian novels required that stories about lesbians end in disaster. The scripts demanded that lesbian characters had to see the error of their ways and acknowledge the superiority of heterosexual relationships, go mad, lose the girl, commit suicide or be murdered. No matter how sophisticated a reader was, and no matter how well she understood the reasons why this had to be so either from a literary or censorship requirement, the residue of hopelessness tended to linger. There were of course a few notable exceptions. I congratulate the late, great Jane Rule for her focus on lesbian subject matter. We need the Jane Rules of the world, and it is our misfortune that there could only ever be one of her. I don’t fault Patricia Highsmith for her one-off, The Price of Salt, the first lesbian novel with a happy ending, because it was a huge landmark for its time, (1952) and will continue always to be regarded as such. But I do wish there were more well-written lesbian novels by writers who are capable of taking on the subject truthfully and competently. I wish I could find more novels in which lesbians are primary and not secondary characters, and which do not end in the way the tradition has required of them for so many years. Waters has done it before, and one hopes perhaps she might do it again.

I don’t like much to think of psychology outside the reliable framework of a literary or operatic context, and as I got to the end of my own erratic progress through this rambling analysis, it suddenly came to me that Kay was, above all, a Faustian figure, but only as in Berlioz’s opera La Damnation de Faust and not as in Goethe’s original. Berlioz, I think, is more hopeful and optimistic, and if one wishes for a psychological connection, his work could well be seen as a prefiguring of Jung. Kay’s entrance at the beginning of the novel echoes the Faustian predicament, the alienation from the world, the failed search, the moment of despair, and of being on the verge of disintegration. The recapitulation of the events leading to this moment in Kay’s life, her dedicated search for fulfillment and the contract required in order to achieve it, runs parallel to Faust’s journey. Alas, the first Marguarete was false, and the true Marguarete is nowhere in sight, but where we find Faust and Mephistopheles she cannot be far off, and is fated to appear. What is now needed to set the inevitable in motion is merely the sound of the Easter Bells. We fervently hope that one day soon, when Kay is standing at her window, or when she is on one of her solitary walks through the city, or just watching a movie in the darkness of a cinema, she will hear them ring out loudly, clearly and unmistakably.

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Virginia Woolf (January 25 1882 – 28 March 1941)


















George Eliot was the pseudonym of novelist, translator, and religious writer Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880). This article by Virginia Woolf was first published in The Times Literary Supplement, 20th November, 1919.

To read George Eliot attentively is to become aware how little one knows about her. It is also to become aware of the credulity, not very creditable to one’s insight, with which, half consciously and partly maliciously, one had accepted the late Victorian version of a deluded woman who held phantom sway over subjects even more deluded than herself. At what moment and by what means her spell was broken it is difficult to ascertain. Some people attribute it to the publication of her Life. Perhaps George Meredith, with his phrase about the ‘mercurial little showman’ and the ‘errant woman’ on the dais, gave point and poison to the arrows of thousands incapable of aiming them so accurately, but delighted to let fly. She became one of the butts for youth to laugh at, the convenient symbol of a group of serious people who were all guilty of the same idolatry and could be dismissed with the same scorn. Lord Acton had said that she was greater than Dante; Herbert Spencer exempted her novels, as if they were not novels, when he banned all fiction from the London library. She was the pride and paragon of all her sex. Moreover, her private record was not more alluring than her public. Asked to describe an afternoon at the Priory, the story-teller always intimated that the memory of those serious Sunday afternoons had come to tickle his sense of humour. He had been so much alarmed by the grave lady in her low chair; he had been so anxious to say the intelligent thing. Certainly, the talk had been very serious, as a note in the fine clear hand of the novelist bore witness. It was dated on the Monday morning, and she accused herself of having spoken with due forethought of Marivaux when she meant another; but not doubt, she said, her listener had already supplied the correction. Still, the memory of talking about Marivaux to George Eliot on a Sunday afternoon was not a romantic memory. It had faded with the passage of years. It had not become picturesque.

Indeed, one cannot escape the conviction that the long, heavy face with its expression of serious and sullen and almost equine power has stamped itself depressingly upon the minds of people who remember George Eliot, so that it looks out upon them from her pages. Mr. Gosse has lately described her as he saw her driving through London in a victoria:

A large, thick-set sybil, dreamy and immobile, whose massive features, somewhat grim when seen in profile, were incongruously bordered by a hat, always in the height of Paris fashion, which in those days commonly included an immense ostrich feather.

Lady Ritchie, with equal skill, has left a more intimate indoor portrait:

She sat by the fire in a beautiful black satin gown, with a green shaded lamp on the table beside her, where I saw German books lying and pamphlets and ivory paper-cutters. She was very quiet and noble, with two steady little eyes and a sweet voice. As I looked I felt her to be a friend, not exactly a personal friend, but a good and benevolent impulse.

A scrap of her talk is preserved. ‘We ought to respect our influence,’ she said. ‘We know by our own experience how very much others affect our lives, and we must remember that we in turn must have the same effect on others.’ Jealously treasured, committed to memory, one can imagine recalling the scene, repeating the words, thirty years later, and suddenly, for the first time, bursting into laughter.

In all these records one feels that the recorder, even when he was in the actual presence, kept his distance and kept his head, and never read the novels in later years with the light of a vivid, or puzzling, or beautiful personality dazzling his eyes. In fiction, where so much of personality is revealed, the absence of charm is a great lack; and her critics, who have been, of course, mostly of the opposite sex, have resented, half consciously perhaps, her deficiency in a quality which is held to be supremely desirable in women. George Eliot was not charming; she was not strongly feminine; she had none of those eccentricities and inequalities of temper which give to so many artists the endearing simplicity of children. One feels that to most people, as to Lady Ritchie, she was ‘not exactly a personal friend, but a good and benevolent impulse’. But if we consider these portraits more closely, we find that they are all the portraits of an elderly celebrated woman, dressed in black satin, driving in her victoria, a woman who has been through her struggle and issued from it with a profound desire to be of use to others, but with no wish for intimacy, save with the little  circle who had known her in the days of her youth. We know very little about the days of her youth; but we do know that the culture, the philosophy, the fame, and the influence were all built upon a very humble foundation – she was the granddaughter of a carpenter.

The first volume of her life is a singularly depressing record. In it we see her raising herself with groans and struggles from the intolerable boredom of petty provincial society (her father had risen in the world and become more middle class, but less picturesque) to be the assistant editor of a highly intellectual London review, and the esteemed companion of Herbert Spencer. The stages are painful as she reveals them in the sad soliloquy in which Mr Cross condemned her to tell the story of her life. Marked in early youth as one ‘sure to get something up very soon in the way of a clothing club’, she proceeded to raise funds for restoring a church by making a chart of ecclesiastical history; and that was followed by a loss of faith which so disturbed her father that he refused to live with her. Next came the struggle with the translation of Strauss, which, dismal and ‘soul-stupefying’ in itself, can scarcely have been made less so by the usual feminine tasks of ordering a household and nursing a dying father, and the distressing conviction, to one so dependent upon affection, that by becoming a bluestocking she was forfeiting her brother’s respect. ‘I used to go  about like an owl’, she said, ‘to the great disgust of my brother’. ‘Poor thing’, wrote a friend who saw her toiling through Strauss with a statue of the risen Christ in front of her, ‘I do pity her sometimes, with her pale sickly face and dreadful headaches, and anxiety, too, about her father.’ Yet, though we cannot read the story without a strong desire that the stages of her pilgrimage might have been made, if not more easy, at least more beautiful, there is a dogged determination in her advance upon the citadel of culture which raises it above our pity. Her development was very slow and very awkward, but it had the irresistible impetus behind it of a deep-seated and noble ambition. Every obstacle at length was thrust from her path. She knew everyone. She read everything. Her astonishing intellectual vitality had triumphed. Youth was over, but youth had been full of suffering. Then, at the age of thirty-five, at the height of her powers, and in the fulness of her freedom, she made the decision which was of such profound moment to her and still matters even to us, and went to Weimar, alone with George Henry Lewes.

The books which followed so soon after her union testify in the fullest manner to the great liberation which had come to her with personal happiness. In themselves they provide us with a plentiful feast. Yet at the threshold of her literary career one may find in some of the circumstances of her life influences that turned her mind to the past, to the country village, to the quiet and beauty and simplicity of childish memories and away from herself and the present. We understand how it was that her first book was Scenes of Clerical Life and not Middlemarch. Her union with Lewes had surrounded her with affection, but in view of the circumstances and of the conventions it has also isolated her. ‘I wish it to be understood’, she wrote in 1857, ‘that I should never invite anyone to come and see me who did not ask for the invitation.’ She had been ‘cut off from what is called the world’, she said later, but she did not regret it. By becoming thus marked, first by circumstances and later, inevitably, by her fame, she lost the power to move on equal terms unnoted among her kind; and the loss for a novelist was serious. Still, basking in the light and sunshine of Scenes of Clerical Life, feeling the large mature mind spreading itself with a luxurious sense of freedom in the world of her ‘remotest past’, to speak of loss seems  inappropriate. Everything to such a mind was gain. All experience filtered down through layer after layer of perception and reflection, enriching and nourishing. The utmost we can say, in qualifying her attitude towards fiction by what we know of her life, is that she had taken to heart certain lessons learnt early, if learnt at all, among which, perhaps, the most branded upon her was the melancholy virtue of tolerance; her sympathies are with the everyday lot, and play most happily in dwelling upon the homespun of ordinary joys and sorrows. She has none of that romantic intensity which is connected with a sense of one’s own individuality, unsated and unsubdued, cutting its shape sharply upon the background of the world. What were the loves and sorrows of a snuffy old clergyman, dreaming over his whisky, to the fiery egotism of Jane Eyre? The beauty of those first books, Scenes of Clerical Life, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, is very great. It is impossible to estimate the merit of the Poysers, the Dodsons, the Gilfils, the Bartons, and the rest with all their surroundings and dependencies, because they have put on flesh and blood and we move among them, now bored, now sympathetic, but always with that unquestioning acceptance of all that they say and do, which we accord to the great originals only. The flood of memory and humour which she pours so spontaneously into one figure, one scene after another, until the whole fabric of ancient rural England is revived, has so much in common with a natural process that it leaves us with little consciousness that there is anything to criticize. We accept; we feel the delicious warmth and release of spirit which the great creative writers alone procure for us. As one comes back to the books after years of absence they pour out, even against our expectation, the same store of energy and heat, so that we want more than anything to idle in the warmth as in the sun beating down from the red orchard wall. If there is an element of unthinking abandonment in thus submitting to the humours of Midland farmers and their wives, that, too, is right in the circumstances. We scarcely wish to analyse what we feel to be so large and deeply human. And when we consider how distant in time the world of Shepperton and Hayslope is, and how remote the minds of farmer and agricultural labourers from those of most of George Eliot’s readers, we can only attribute the ease and pleasure with which we ramble from house to smithy, from cottage parlour to rectory garden, to the fact that George Eliot makes us share their lives, not in a spirit of condescension or of curiosity, but in a spirit of sympathy. She is no satirist. The movement of her mind was too slow and cumbersome to lend itself to comedy. But she gathers in her large grasp a great bunch of the main elements of human nature and groups them loosely together with a tolerant and wholesome understanding which, as one finds upon rereading, has not only kept her figures fresh and free, but has given them an unexpected hold upon our laughter and tears. There is the famous Mrs Poyser. It would have been easy to work her idiosyncrasies to death, and, as it is, perhaps, George Eliot gets her laugh in the same place a little too often. But memory, after the book is shut, brings out, as sometimes in real life, the details and subtleties which some more salient characteristic has prevented us from noticing at the time. We recollect that her health was not good. There were occasions upon which she said nothing at all. She was patience itself with sick child. She doted upon Totty. Thus one can muse and speculate about the greater number of George Eliot’s characters and find, even in the least important, a roominess and margin where those qualities lurk which she has no call to bring from their obscurity.

But in the midst of all this tolerance and sympathy there are, even in the early books, moments of greater stress. Her humour has shown itself broad enough to cover a wide range of fools and failures, mothers and children, dogs and flourishing midland fields, farmers, sagacious or fuddled over their ale, horse-dealers, inn-keepers, curates, and carpenters. Over them all broods a certain romance, the only romance that George Eliot allowed herself- the romance of the past. The books are astonishingly readable and have no trace of pomposity or pretence. But to the reader who holds a large stretch of her early work in view it will become obvious that the mist of recollection gradually withdraws. It is not that her power diminishes, for, to our thinking, it is at its highest in the mature Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. But the world of fields and farms no longer contents her. In real life she had sought her fortunes elsewhere; and though to look back into the past was calming and consoling, there are, even in the early works, traces of that troubled spirit, that exacting and questioning and baffled presence who was George Eliot herself. In Adam Bede there is a hint of her in Dinah. She shows herself far more openly and completely in Maggie in The Mill on the Floss. She is Janet in “Janet’s Repentance”, and Romola, and Dorothea seeking wisdom and finding one scarcely knows what in marriage with Ladislaw. Those who fall foul of George Eliot do so, we incline to think, on account of her heroines; and with good reason; for there is no doubt that they bring out the worst of her, lead her into difficult places, make her self-conscious, didactic, and occasionally vulgar. Yet if you could delete the whole sisterhood you  would leave a much smaller and a much inferior world, albeit a world of greater artistic perfection and far superior jollity and comfort. In accounting for her failure, in so far as it was a failure, one recollects that she never wrote a story until she was thirty-seven, and that by the time she was thirty-seven she had come to think of herself  with a mixture of pain and something like resentment. For long she preferred not to think of herself at all. Then, when the first flush of creative energy was exhausted and self-confidence had come to her, she wrote more and more from the personal standpoint, but she did so without the unhesitating abandonment of the young. Her self-consciousness is always marked when her heroines say what she herself would have said. She disguised them in every possible way. She granted them beauty and wealth into the bargain; she invented, more improbably, a taste for brandy. But the disconcerting and stimulating fact remained that she was compelled by the very power of her genius to step forth in person upon the quiet bucolic scene.

The noble and beautiful girl who insisted upon being born into the Mill on the Floss is the most obvious example of the ruin which a heroine can strew about her. Humour controls her and keeps her lovable so long as she is small and can be satisfied by eloping with the gipsies or hammering nails into her doll; but she develops; and before George Eliot knows what has happened she has a full-grown woman on her hands demanding what neither gipsies, nor dolls, nor St Ogg’s itself is capable of giving her. First Philip Wakem is produced, and later Stephen Guest. The weakness of the one and the coarseness of the other have often been pointed out; but both, in their weakness and coarseness, illustrate not so much George Eliot’s inability to draw the portrait of a man, as the uncertainty, the infirmity, and the fumbling which shook her hand when she had to conceive a fit mate for a heroine. She is in the first place driven beyond the home world she knew and loved, and forced to set foot in middle-class drawing-rooms where young men sing all the summer morning and young women sit embroidering smoking-caps for bazaars. She feels herself out of her element, as her clumsy satire of what she calls ‘good society’ proves.

Good society has its claret and its velvet carpets, its dinner engagements six weeks deep, its opera, and its faery ball rooms… gets its science done by Faraday and its religion by the superior clergy who are to be met in the best houses; how should it have need of belief and emphasis?

There is no trace of humour or insight there, but only the vindictiveness of a grudge which we feel to be personal it its origin. But terrible as the complexity of our social system is in its demands upon the sympathy and discernment of a novelist straying across the boundaries, Maggie Tulliver did worse than drag George Eliot from her natural surroundings. She insisted upon the introduction of the great emotional scene. She must love; she must despair; she must be drowned clasping her brother in her arms. The more one examines the great emotional scenes the more nervously one anticipates the brewing and gathering and thickening of the cloud which will burst upon our heads at the moment of crisis in a shower of disillusionment and verbosity. It is partly that her hold upon dialogue, when it is not dialect, is slack; and partly that she seems to shrink with an elderly dread of fatigue from the effort of emotional concentration. She allows her heroines to talk too much. She has little verbal felicity. She lacks the unerring taste which chooses one sentence and compresses the heart of the scene within that. ‘Whom are you doing to dance with?’ asked Mr Knightley, at the Weston’s ball. ‘With you, if you will ask me,’ said Emma; and she has said enough. Mrs Casaubon would have talked for an hour and we should have looked out of the window.

Yet, dismiss the heroines without sympathy, confine George Eliot to the agricultural world of her ‘remotest past’, and you not only diminish her greatness but lose her true flavour. That greatness is here we can have no doubt. The width of the prospect, the large strong outlines of the principal features, the ruddy light of her early books, the searching power and reflective richness of the later tempt us to linger and expatiate beyond our limits. But is it upon the heroines that we would cast a final glance. ‘I have always been finding out my religion since I was a little girl,’ says Dorothea Casaubon. ‘I used to pray so much – now I hardly ever pray. I try not to have  desires merely for myself…’ She is speaking for them all. That is their problem. They cannot live without religion, and they start out on the search for one when they are little girls. Each has the deep feminine passion for goodness, which makes the place where she stands in aspiration and agony the heart of the book – still and cloistered like a place of worship, but that she no longer knows to whom to pray. In learning they seek their goal; in the ordinary tasks of womanhood; in the wider service of their kind. They do not find what they seek, and we cannot wonder. The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems in them to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something – they scarcely know what –  for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence. George Eliot had far too strong an intelligence to tamper with those facts, and too broad a humour to mitigate the truth because it was a stern one. Save for the supreme courage of their endeavour, the struggle ends, for her heroines, in tragedy, or in a compromise that is even more melancholy. But their story is the incomplete version of the story that is George Eliot herself. For her, too, the burden and the complexity of womanhood were not enough; she must reach beyond the sanctuary and pluck for herself the strange bright fruits of art and knowledge. Clasping them as few women have ever clasped them, she would not renounce her own inheritance – the difference of view, the difference of standard – nor accept an inappropriate reward. Thus we behold her, a memorable figure, inordinately praised and shrinking from her fame, despondent, reserved, shuddering back into the arms of love as if there alone were satisfaction and, it might be, justification, at the same time reaching out with ‘a fastidious yet hungry ambition’ for all that life could offer the free and inquiring mind and confronting her feminine aspirations with the real world of men. Triumphant was the issue for her, whatever it may have been for her creations, and as we recollect all that she dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her  – sex and health and convention –  she sought more knowledge and more freedom till the body, weighted with its double burden, sank worn out, we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.







To read Woolf’s essay on George Eliot is to gain an insight on how writers view other writers. Her slightly breathless and decidedly quirky style belies Woolf’s deep absorption with Eliot’s life and craft, and how deeply she had immersed herself in Eliot’s books. Close attention to the details that bypass our normal low-grade awareness became a characteristic of Woolf’s writing, and in her essay on Eliot we can see a flash or two of gleeful recognition of the same trait in Eliot.

The way in which moments of life, become the fragments and images that are deeply embedded in our minds is one of the mysteries that forms the core of a writer’s art. Bits and pieces of the past resurface with their sensory complements – smells, sounds, colours, and the charge of feeling which accompany them, and these in turn stick to the strings of language the mind works at formulating, so that the shapes they take may be conveyed in a way that evokes those moments in a fashion as close to their first enactment as possible.

Eliot wrote about the country-life she cared deeply about, and what she felt compelled to discuss and comment upon, but she wrote best and most feelingly about the world she loved, her own, which she saw swiftly passing away, as the voracious machine of the industrial revolution tore away and consumed in large bites the natural and habitual ways of  her country life.

Woolf too saw her world overturned and transformed from the  certainties of the Victorian era in which she was born and the rambling old house of her childhood and girlhood, which smelled of meat and port and cigars, to the unravelling social strictures of the Edwardian era.

The beginning of the end of the British Empire and larger complexities and ambiguities of post WWI Britain followed by the changes in the social structure shattered the accepted mould into which older writers with all their old assurances had poured life-times of their work. Gone was the authorial voice with its overarching commentary. The moderninsts, with Woolf leading the way, had arrived on the scene.

Though far from missing the wider perspective of her times, throughout her life Woolf kept her focus on the intimate and the immediate, carefully observing and laying by the observations she made of the slivers of awareness that connect moments to each other to form a larger whole.

I think it is possible that her reading of Eliot may have shown her that they shared a sense of the importance of seeing and feeling and taking in the details out of which a general impression of life is formed. A somewhat darker commonality seems to have been the proclivity for watery deaths of some of Eliot’s characters in Adam Bede, Romola, The Mill on the Floss and Daniel Deronda. Later this was to find its tragic coincidence in Woolf’s suicide by drowning.

Eliot, being a Victorian, had a strong taste for melodrama, which deeply colours her narratives. This was something which Woolf, a Georgian, fervently eschewed, but in a sense they both wrote passionately about the immediacy of world they knew, and heard, and touched, and saw and felt. These are worlds that have passed away and are no more, but ones we nonetheless can enter at will, when we read their writing.

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Reay Tannahill (1929- November 2, 2007)




















Although by 3000 B.C., the peoples of the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys had adapted their diet to fit their farming, in Greece – according to Homer – animal husbandry was still the decisive factor two thousand years later. Antiphanes might afterward complain that Homer’s idea of a good meal was woefully dull, and Athenaeus that the epic heroes knew nothing of even such commonplace delicacies as “entrees served in vine leaves,” but Homer drew on a sound tradition, not only for his characters’ exploits but for their food. The warriors of Greece in the twelfth century B.C. had ancestral ties with the nomad pastoralists of Central Asia and, in all probability, still lived a life not too far removed from theirs. When Achilles played host to Odysseus outside the walls of llium, he gave him a meal which might have been offered by any nomad chief for a thousand years before, or two thousand years after, the Trojan wars.

Patroclus “put down a big bench in the firelight, and laid on it the backs of a sheep and a fat goat and the chine of a great (wild) hog rich in lard. Automedon held these for him, while Achilles jointed them, and then carved up the joints and spitted the slices. Meanwhile, Patroclus, the royal son of Menoetius, made the fire blaze up. When it had burned down again and the flames disappeared, he scattered the embers and laid the spits above them, resting them on logs, after he had sprinkled the meat with holy salt. When he had roasted it and heaped it up on platters, Patroclus fetched some bread and set it out on the table in handsome baskets; and Achilles divided the meat into portions.” This heroic predilection for roast meat was not to survive the problems set by the landscape of Greece. In the early days, wild boar were still there for the hunting, and a few settled communities were able to feed the domestic pig on acorns and  beechmast  from the trees which clothed the lower levels of the mountain ranges. But the long narrow valleys of the interior and the slender ribbons of fertile plain around the coasts set an irrevocable limit to stock-raising. Only in a few areas, such as Boeotia – whose name, in fact, means “cow land” – were there plains wide enough for pasturing cattle.

While the human population was small, the farmer and his family lived off the land in modest comfort. They grew a little wheat or barley, tended their olive and fig trees and a few vines, reared pigs, and kept a goat to provide milk and cheese. If they were rich, they might have a small flock of sheep, or a pair of oxen or mules.

By about 650 B.C., however, many peasants in such areas as Attica were leading a marginal existence on marginal land. As the population increased, good land became scarce. The hillsides had been denuded of many of their trees to provide the timber needed for houses, for the ships on which the Greek states depended for trade and transport, for the charcoal which was being swallowed up in ever-increasing quantities by the demands of metalworking. Tree-felling at first seemed beneficial. Not only did it provide valuable timber; it also cleared new land for cultivation. But the light soil of Greece, no longer fed by dead leaves or held together by living tree roots, began to be washed away in the torrential rains of winter. Formerly, the rains had been valuable. Filtered through the branches, they had soaked slowly and gently into the soil and then down to the limestone below; from the limestone they drained gradually to the plains. Now, instead, the rains became destructive, pouring down on the naked hills too heavily to be absorbed, and then thundering on to flood the plains. Gradually, the hills lost their soil and the valleys their fertility.

The peasants who attempted to carry on traditional, self-sufficient farming on the increasingly barren lower levels of the hill-sides plunged deep into debt. In the old days, a family short of grain in the lean period before the harvest had been able to borrow a sack or two from a neighbor. But after money was introduced into Greece in 625 B.C., things changed. Instead of borrowing grain, the peasant had to borrow enough money to buy it at high pre-harvest prices. When the time came to repay, he either had to raise the cash by selling his own produce at low post-harvest prices, or hold on until the market began to improve, paying punitive rates of interest in the meantime.


At the beginning of the sixth century B.C., Solon forbade the export of any agricultural produce other than olive oil. It was a well-meant gesture, but it struck the fatal blow at the Greek landscape. Such fibrous-rooted trees as remained were felled for the sake of the olive, whose deep-striking tap root soaked up the moisture far down in the limestone and did nothing to knit, conserve or feed the topsoil. By the fourth century B.C., Plato was gloomily contrasting the bare white limestone of the Attic countryside he knew with the green meadows, woods and springs of the past. The pure and brilliant light which is so startling a characteristic of Greece today had been bought at the expense of the trees which had once kept the land fertile. It took thousands of years for the neolithic revolution to desiccate the flat countryside of Mesopotamia, but only a few hundred in the topographical context of Greece.

Cultivation of the olive seems to have originated six thousand years ago at the eastern end of the Mediterranean. The straggly, spiny wild plant, poor in oil, was widely distributed even before this time, but it needed the agricultural and mercantile genius of the Syrians and Palestinians to develop the thornless, compact, oil-rich variety which was to spread all along the shores of the Mediterranean.

Oil was everywhere in demand in the ancient world, for food, lighting and medicine, as well as for the lustrations of Egypt and the perfumed unguents with which the early Mediterranean peoples anointed their bodies. The olive was by no means the only provider, though it was the richest known during the Western bronze age. In Greece, oil was also extracted from the walnut and the opium poppy; in Mesopotamia and Africa, from sesame; from almonds in Anatolia; flax and radish seeds in Egypt; flax and cameline in northern Europe. South, Central and western North America had, respectively, groundnut, maize, and sunflower-seed oil, while in Asia the soybean and the coconut palm were probably the richest early sources.

In Crete, the olive was under cultivation at least as early as 2500 B.C., and the island soon waxed fat on exporting oil as well as the timber that had to be felled to make way for the new groves. The palace of Nestor at Knossos has yielded to archeologists great numbers of stirrup jars which once contained expensive and much-prized oil perfumed with aromatic herbs from the hill-sides. But dependence on the olive in a small country brought, as a natural sequel, dependence on external trade for the necessities of life and a resultant defenselessness in wartime. Crete discovered this, and Athens was to do so too.

During the century and a half after Solon, Athens grew rich on silver from the mines of Laurium and the smooth green-gold oil of the olive. But as first the olive and then the vine – supplemented by fig and nut trees – took over the Attic landscape, livestock became few and wheat and barley virtually disappeared. The trade of Greece, and the Greek empire itself, expanded to meet the country’s urgent need for basic food supplies.


The olive was the first great export crop of Greece, but it was closely followed by the product of the vine. From about the fifth until the latter part of the first century B.C., Greece and the islands were, to the Mediterranean world, the home of fine wines. There are many picturesque tales about the origins of wine, but what almost certainly happened was that at some time in prehistory a containerful of grapes was left neglected in a corner; that they fermented; and that some inquisitive person tasted the fermented juice – and found it good. The wild vine flourished in the Caucasus, and it was probably there that the plant was first brought under cultivation. By 3000 B.C. it had reached Mesopotamia – whose rulers seem from then on to have taken a very personal interest in it – and Egypt, where wine was first used almost entirely for temple rituals. It was not, apparently, until Greek influence began to be felt in Egypt in the first millennium B.C. that private vineyards became common and wine found its place as a popular drink. But Egyptian temple vintners had become expert long before then, and it is possible that the Greeks simply re-exported to secular Egypt the knowledge that they had earlier imported from priestly Egypt.

In the Mediterranean during the Greek golden age, many countries produced their own ordinaires, but the rich insisted on importing the scarce and expensive vintages of Lesbos and Chios. The great growths appear to have been sweet, and it has been suggested that the most famous wine of antiquity – the Pramnian so frequently mentioned by Homer – may have been as rich as Tokay. Since both Greeks and Romans followed the Egyptian custom of drinking their wines well diluted with water, the finer vintages were often kept until they were as thick and sticky as honey.

The wine was fermented in vats smeared inside and out with resin, which gave it a characteristic tang, and then filtered into goatskins or pigskins if it were intended for local consumption, or into clay amphoræ for export. Fermentation was not a scientifically controlled process, and the wines of the ancient world did not keep well unless special mixtures were added. Each region had its own formula. One consisted of adding a brew of herbs and spices which had been mixed with condensed sea water and matured for some years, while a later Roman recipe favored the addition of liquid resin mixed with vine ash to the grape juice before fermentation. Filled wine jars were often kept to mature in the loft where wood was seasoned and meat smoked, but although reasonable smoking was thought to improve a wine, all Romans with pretensions to good taste were united in vilifying those French vintners who over-smoked their wines in order to make them appear older than they were.

Greek wines were to go out of international fashion after the first of the great Italian vintages, the Opimian, appeared in 121 B.C. In the centuries that followed many other Italian wines, including Falernian, became household names and the competition turned out to be too stiff for Greece. Italian vineyards were able to produce 1600 Imperial, or 2000 American, gallons an acre – far more than those of Greece, which were never very productive and always old-fashioned in their methods. Also, as the power of Rome expanded, the taste for Italian wine – even the vine itself – was carried to many new lands.


The Greek peasant never saw much of the profit from his olives or his vines, but while there was peace he and his family could rely on a solid, if monotonous, sufficiency of food. Sir Alfred Zimmern’s frequently quoted definition of the Attic dinner as consisting of two courses, “the first a kind of porridge, and the second a kind of porridge,” was unduly severe. The Greek word maza, like the Latin puls, is usually translated – rather indiscriminately – as “cakes” or “porridge,” but in fact both maza and puls were terms which almost certainly included unbaked grain-pastes in the neolithic tradition. The word maza, for example, implies kneaded things other than bread, while puls seems to have been a more general term which included pastes made from lentils and beans as well as from grain. From the elder Pliny’s recipes for Greek and Italian barley puls, it is clear that the result must have been an oily, highly seasoned paste rather than a porridge.

The Greeks, said Pliny, “soak some barley in water (probably for a few days) and then leave it for a night to dry. Next day they dry it by the fire and then grind it in a mill . . .  When it has been got ready, in the mill they mix three pounds of flax seed (which produces linseed oil when warmed and pounded), half a pound of coriander seed, and an eighth of a pint of salt, previously roasting them all.” Italians, on the other hand, first baked their barley without steeping it in water, and then ground it “into fine meal, with the addition of the same ingredients, and millet as well”

It was still one of the virtues of the grain-pastes, even in these late and sophisticated forms, that they remained palatable for a considerable time. For long-term storage, Pliny recommended packing the puls into a container and covering with a layer of flour and bran.

In Classical Greece, the peasant ate not only barley-pastes but barley gruel and barley bread. With this basic fare, he would have a handful of olives, a few figs, or some goat’s milk cheese. Occasionally there would be salt fish as a relish. The meal was washed down usually with water or goat’s milk, sometimes with wine.

Meat was a rarity except at times of religious sacrifice and feasting. On such occasions the officiating priest, after paying due heed to the portents indicated by the shape and condition of the sacrificial animal’s liver, would divide the carcass into three parts – one (not usually the best) for the god, one for the priest, and one for the donor or donors,  while the god’s portion reduced itself to cinders before the altar, the priest exercised his culinary skill in preparing and roasting the donors’ ration, watched by his audience in a silence compounded of equal piety and anticipation. None – it may be assumed, would have dared be as greedy as the later Roman emperor Vitellius, who, according to Suetonius, “thought nothing of snatching lumps of meat cake off the altar, almost out of the sacred fire, and bolting them down.

Until the middle of the fifth century B.C., the diet of rich and poor in Greece probably did not differ very radically. The rich would drink less water and more wine; they would eat goat, mutton or pork more frequently; and such game as deer, hare, partridge and thrushes might lend variety to the menu. But in country and city alike, early Greece was an outdoor society and its cuisine was correspondingly plain. Morning and midday snacks were taken outdoors, or at the corner of a table, and the more substantial evening meal was equally unceremonious. The symposium or banquet so dear to literary tradition was a type of dinner party at which the food was disposed of rapidly before the real business of the evening, – talking and drinking – began.

Some idea of the style of cooking in Greece in about 450 B.C. can be gathered from a passage in Telecleides’ The Amphictyons, in which the author reconstructs life in an imaginary golden age.
“Every torrent ran with wine, and barley-pastes fought with wheaten loaves to be first to men’s lips . . . Fish would come to the house and bake themselves, then serve themselves up at table. A river of broth, swirling along hot pieces of meat, would flow by the couches; conduits fuIl of piquant sauces for the meat were close at hand for the asking . . . On dishes there would be honey cakes ail sprinkled with spices, and roast thrushes served up with milk cakes flew down a man’s gullet.” Though it may sound appetizing, it was essentially a plain cuisine.

The average Greek was no great gourmet, but even he shuddered at the diet favored by the earnest Spartans, whose “black broth” – reputedly made of pork stock, vinegar and salt – was infamous throughout the civilized world. Indeed, Athenaeus reports that a sybarite who went to Sparta was invited out to dine. “As he lay on the wooden benches and ate with them he remarked that he had always before been astounded to hear of the Spartans’ courage; but now . . . he did not think they were in any respect superior to other peoples, “For, concluded Athenaeus gleefully, “the most cowardly man in the world would prefer to die rather than endure living that sort of life.”

The contrast between the food of the rich and poor became more pronounced in Athens during the period of Athenian greatness. The city became a center of magnificence, self-assured and very conscious of its intellectual eminence. It would have been strange if this state of mind had not struck an echo in the Greek kitchen. Although no recipe books remain, titles and extracts have been preserved in other works. There appear to have been at least a dozen culinary vade mecums with the title The Art of Cooking, and such authors as Glaucus of Locris, Mithæcus,Heraclidus, Hegesippus, Eristratus and Euthydemus wrote treatises on Gastronomy, Pickles, Vegetables, Sicilian Cooking, and similar subjects.

The father of all Greek writers on cooking, and self-styled inventor of “made dishes,” was Archestratus who, in the fourth century B.C, “diligently traversed all lands and seas in his desire . . . of testing carefully the delights of the belly.”  In the historical record, Archestratus was the first in that long line of gastronomic pedants, half ludicrous, half irritating, wholly familiar even in the twentieth century, whose pronouncements on haute cuisine have so successfully obscured the realities of everyday eating. While most Athenians who liked tunny fish had to put up with the dried or salted variety from the Black Sea, Archestratus busily insisted that none but the fresh kind from Byzantium would do, and that it should be eaten only “in the autumn, what time the P1eiad is setting.”

As the decades passed, Athenian tastes became more exotic. A pig which had died of over-eating was regarded as a great delicacy, and geese were painstakingly fed on moistened grain to fatten them for the table. The eggs of the peacock – a rare and much admired bird, bred in the gardens of the rich – were claimed to be highly superior. “Fox-goose” eggs ranked second, and hens’ eggs a distant third. The domestic hen was common in the Mediterranean by the fifth century B.C. and almost every Athenian had one – which may explain the rather poor gastronomic rating of its eggs.

By the third century B.C., Athens had developed the original hors d’oeuvre trolley, an innovation which other Greeks stigmatized as evidence of a miserly disposition. Lynceus, in The Centaur, complained that an Athenian dinner was little short of revolting, especially to a hungry man. “For the cook sets before you a large tray on which are five small plates. One of these holds garlic, another a pair of sea urchins, another a sweet wine sop, another ten cockles, the last a small piece of sturgeon. While I am eating this, another is eating that; and while he is eating that, I have made away with this. What I want, good sir, is both the one and the other, but my wish is impossible. For I have neither five mouths nor five right hands”. Such a layout as that seems to offer variety, but is nothing at all to satisfy the belly.

Satisfaction was a relative term. The Peloponnesian wars of the latter part of the fifth century B.C. had wrought havoc in the Attic countryside. Within the walls of Athens, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes produced works of genius; outside the walls, villages were razed and crops ruined. Recovery was to be, at the least, agonizing, at the worst, impossible. It takes three or four years for a newly planted vine to produce a worthwhile crop, thirty years in the case of the olive. Ultimately, the small peasant sold out to the speculators and left the countryside – as so many peasants in so many countries have done, before and since – for the doubtful haven of the city.

The poet Alexis of Thurii, in the fourth century B.C., described the fare of an impoverished family of five who existed mainly on pulses, greens and turnips, varied with iris rhizomes, beechnut, lupin seeds (reported to be sour but very nutritious), an occasional grasshopper, wild pears, “and that god-given inheritance of our mother country, darling of my heart, a dried fig.” If there was enough food for more than three of the family, it was unusual.

As a rule the other two had to make do  with a mouthful of barley-paste. But though sporadic attempts were made to help the Athenian poor, it was to be left to the Romans to embark on the first massive –  and, in the end self-defeating – social welfare project.

Reay Tannahill















Accustomed as we are to think of the ancient Greeks  – apart from their androcentrism and lamentable treatment of women – as being a civilised people, most of us would be a little startled to hear that raw fermented grain and lentil pastes  comprised (as they also did in Roman times)  the ordinary daily fare of an average person.

Not only that, but to learn from Reay Tannahill about the sheer scarcity of food, which compelled two out of every five family members (and we should have no difficulty whatsoever in surmising that those two would have had to have been women) to go hungry at mealtimes, comes as a bit of a shock.

But then, this meagre and (what might well seem to us) distasteful diet might have been an improvement on the food of what has been referred to by Hesiod, Virgil, Cervantes and others, as the ‘Golden Age’ –  a happy and peaceful time predating civilisation, with all its attendant detriments such as money, war, poverty and servitude – when ‘men’ lived happily on acorns and honey.

This was necessarily a time predating agriculture, but it was a time of settled existence. Ancient though they were, the people of the ‘golden age’ were not the nomads who pre-dated the agriculturalists, and their culture does not resemble that of the of the nomads who raised animals for food, clothes and shelter.

Hunting and gathering is something we associate with the brutishness of Neolithic existence, but again, the golden age was warm –  and it does not seem to have taken place during the ice-encroached millennia endured by our stone-age ancestors. Life, if we are to believe the descriptions handed down to us of this time, was leisurely,  and possibly communal. People cooked their food, sang, danced, painted and composed poetry.

Fermented  lentil pastes of early agricultural times still retain their place in Indian and Ceylonese (Sri-Lankan) cuisine , but only as cooked (on a griddle or deep-fried) food, and they are never eaten raw. We retain our culinary links with our distant ancestors in our barbecues, clam-bakes and ‘luaus’ which probably hark back to the time, when food was cooked over hot coals without benefit of containers, and groups of people ate the common meal together, conversing, telling – or reciting –  stories and making music.

But this  picture, so suited to our dreamy idealisations of an ideal past, may be just the slightest bit out-of-focus.  The discovery of  the corpse of Ötzi the Iceman from 3300 B.C.E, who was found with an arrow lodged in his back, seems to suggest that however far back we go in human history – or prehistory – we are likely to find evidence of homicide and worse.

I found an interesting essay in Robert Graves’s book The Common Asphodel: collected essays on poetry 1922 – 1925, in which he explains that the tubers of the Asphodel were widely eaten in Greece before corn (what we refer to as wheat) was widely grown there. The tubers were roasted in the ashes and eaten with salt, and according to Hesiod, they were  sometimes eaten after being pounded into a mash with figs. Roasted Asphodel seeds were also eaten like corn (wheat) or made into bread.

Asphodels were said to grow in the Elysian fields, where the souls of the just took their post-mortem rest. Perhaps it is due to this sepulchral association that Asphodel is no longer eaten today, or perhaps it is because eating, for most of us, is no longer predominantly a matter of sustenance, but of taste.




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Edward FitzGerald "Gerald" Brenan (April 7 1894 – Januray 19 1987)



















What makes Brenan’s writing so irresistible to me is that everything he writes is vivid and compelling and imbued with his seemingly effortless talent for detailed observation. I am instantly drawn in by his mildly sardonic style, his facility to absorb everything around him, processing it intelligently and drawing unobvious and often ideosyncratic conclusions.

Brenan was possessed of an avid and insatiable appetite for discovering what lies on the surface as well as below it and a jackdaw’s talent for storing odd bits of whatever attracted him – whether they were details of dress or conversation or landscape  – and of course the chaotic and convoluted politics of the time, a time when good and bad, tragic and ludicrous, blended seamlessly into the almost –  but never quite unmanageable –  blend of recent events and intractable ancient customs.

His all-surveying eye and his finely tuned, acute sense of hearing make him the perfect proxy, and I feel myself becoming an enthusiastic voyeur.  In fact, this was one of Brenan’s favourite predilictions, and one he indulged without a trace of either shame or guilt!

The feeling for a place  which infuses his writing makes reading it feel a bit like reading about paradise, a countryside which is a microcosm of early creation – of ilex trees and broom and expansive views extending into the distance, but a paradise where terror and despair and human confusion all have a part.

I remember reading somewhere, (perhaps it was in an old Spanish short story) something that lodged itself indelibly in my memory, which fits well with Brenan’s experiences with the typical Spanish pride in social standing. His glimpses of the Spain  reminiscent of  the time of Cervantes when even the nobles starved, making a pretense of grandeur over their sparse and deficient meals, prandial rituals rigidly and helplessly followed when a liveried servant would ceremoniously serve his  high-born but impoverished master   a single egg on the ancient family silver, after which the master would ostentatiously pick his teeth in public to show he had dined well.

This particular book, The Face of Spain, with its endless  kaleidoscopic shifts people, places things – the unstoppable course of onrushing life like a stream which passes through an endless expanse of  space and time – transforms and transports one with the greatest immediacy to another time and place.

Brenan visited Spain in the aftermath of the civil war, during the dictatorship of Generalissimo Francisco Franco. In the last four hundred years everyone had had a go at Spain – England’s Drake and the disastrous loss of the Spanish Armada, ( though to be fair Spain brought this upon herself,) France’s Napoleon, and his butchery, so graphically immortalised by Goya, then the Nazis and fascists, ( and who can forget Picasso’s memorial of Guernica) and finally after a disastrous civil war, the grandest scourge of them all, the mean-eyed, pudgy-faced Franco with his revolting moustache. Under his baneful tyranny Spain became a creature which resembled Goya’s painting of Saturn devouring its young: liberals, intellectuals, poets, anarchists, peasants, clerics, and ordinary people all fell willy-nilly into the gaping maw.

Though Spain remained nominally neutral in WW2, The Germans and the Italians (Franco’s allies) enthusiastically launched several massacres. The Spanish Civil War drew in the young idealists from Europe in droves to fight against the Fascists.  Virginia Woolf’s nephew Julian Bell lost his life in the Spanish Civil War.  Communist lesbians Sylvia Townsend Warner and her partner Valentine Ackland were active volunteers, raising money and involving themselves in many aspects of the conflict such as providing transportation, medicines and other necessities. Rosamund Lehmann (writer of wonderful novels such as The Ballad and the Source,  Invitation to the Waltz and Dusty Answer, with its  ever-so-deeply enduring lavender tinge) contributed money for soap, a commodity in extremely short supply at the time, and one can only imagine the morale of a fighting force which lacks even the basic ability to stay reasonably clean.

Brenan has some fascinating antecedents as one of the fringe elements of the Bloomsbury group with its brilliant women of ambiguous, uncertain or confused sexuality (for my purposes lesbian) including his first love the brilliant painter Dora Carrington, (it is her portrait of Brenan which is at the top of this post) whose life ended tragically in suicide. His wife, the writer and poet Gamel Woolsey, to whom he dedicated The face of Spain, was connected to the well-known Powys family and in particular to the much older Llewellyn Powys (and also perhaps with Lewellyn Powys’s brother John Cowper Powys) with whom she had an affaire. Gamel and Llewelyn’s wife Alyse Gregory were close friends; nonetheless Powys wished Gamel to bear him a child. Brenan too wandered from the path of marital fidelity when he fathered a child, his daugter Miranda,  with one of his Spanish domestics, Juliana Pellegrino. However, it should come as no surprise to anyone that among this loosely knit group of of writers and artists and thinkers who all came from one tiny and remarkable segment of British society, sexual heterodoxy was the norm rather than the exception.

Brenan, like some of the superb writers and  literary luminaries of his social group such as Virginia Woolf, was self-educated. His style of writing – the kind of polished and striking prose which makes portraits and landscapes out of words, is his own unique skill, and cannot be mistaken for anyone else’s. Though Spain remained his most important subject, he was not restricted to one kind of writing. His book St John of the Cross is one of the very best on the subject I have ever read. Last night I read its preface in which Brenan pondered the difficulties and challenges of translating the saint’s Spanish poems into English, and was amazed at how exactly he defined and described the very heart of the problem, he encountered in his book about this saint and his poetry, (here Brenan points out the fascinating fact that Garcilaso de la Vega had a significant influence on John’s poetry) which in essence is the difficulty deciding between the importance of a rough and clumsy but accurate translation of Spanish into English, or a refined English poem in which the original expression has been diluted.

When one reads his books, Brenan’s fascination with Spain becomes infectious. His grasp of the very nature of this fascinating country and people, its history of brutality and violence in conquest, its religious intolerance, its art and its poetry, is in my view unsurpassed. This Spain, with its tendency in modern times to fall into one financial crisis after another, seems to have lost some of the historical hauteur with which Brenan tinged her. His descriptions brought to mind for me the image of a noble old dowager, somewhat the worse for wear, but still keeping up appearances and clinging to tradition. This intractable cycle of poverty is of ancient duration, for even in the past, the wealth of colonial plunder brought inflation and hardship. When Spain’s colonies were lost, along came still more hardship, but throughout it all the Spanish people clung stubbornly to the pride of their imperial inheritance.  We tend to forget that a Spaniard – Cæsar Nerva Traianus Germanicus (Trajan) once ruled Imperial Rome. Once again in need of a European bailout, Spain stands hat-in hand, its financial fate in the hands of wealthier nations, and one has to imagine that the country’s self-respect is getting a bit tattered at the edges.

Before Brenan died at the age of 94, had hoped to avoid funeral expenses and accordingly he had made arrangements to donate his body to a Medical faculty in Málaga. However, and perhaps due to some compunction about using the body of a well-known and much admired man of letters, the body was not put to the use to which Brenan intended it. Thus it remained unburied (and one would hope in cold storage) for 14 years, after which it was cremated and the ashes interred beside the burial plot of Gamel Woolsey in the English cemetery in Malaga.

I wish Brenan were still alive to cast his keen writerly eye on Spain at this juncture of her national life, but alas he is not, nor could anyone else take his place.










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Edward FitzGerald "Gerald" Brenan (April 7 1894 – January 19 1987)












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These love- letters  – from women such as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf –  represent a legacy of our lesbian past which does not receive very much prominence. So much correspondence of this type simply does not survive, because of its private and ephemeral nature. Letters are lost, destroyed, and frequently ignored by publishers, even when the writers are famous women.

These few examples serve to show the variety and the intensity of feeling these women felt for each other. Times may change, and the hand-written love letter may go the way of the Dodo – and who knows, even the love -letter itself – but we can hope that they will not disappear entirely, and that the originals of these missives survive safely in someone’s archive.

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Edith Holden (September 26 1871 – March 15 1920)

















What a feast for the eyes in this sparse month – Edith Holden’s commemorative gems of Warwickshire country life of over a hundred years ago.



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Sophia Parnok (August 11 1885 – August 26 1933)



















These first few poems, written when Parnok was 17 to 19 years old,  are claimed, though not explicitly, to be Burgin’s, translations, But I am listing them separately because I did not find them in her biography of Parnok, and they are sufficiently different in tone and structure that I am not convinced they are Burgin’s work.



Dedicated to N.P.P.


I’m drunk on your wild caresses,
You’ve driven me crazy for you…
Just tell me I’ve only been dreaming
So I can believe that it’s true.

No, you want to torment me forever –
Why shouldn’t you play and have fun;
And smiling, you answer, carefree,
“We won’t do again what we’ve done.”

29 August 1902





Parnok circa 1907

Dedicated to N.P.P.

Love’s gone… the tuberoses have expired,
You have become cold as ice.
To see tears, my tears, that’s your desire,
But pride will never let me cry.

In night-time silence, utterly exhausted,
Suffering and loving endlessly
I curse the day of our first meeting
And sob for what you’ve done to me.

But I won’t cry when you are with me.
So there! Insult me, beat me and torment,
Just hint that I may get a chance to see you,
And if you want to, torture me again.

The way you play upon my heartstrings,
Sometimes it seems no pity in you dwells;
But you give all of paradise’s raptures
While with your hand you push me into hell!

29 August 1902




Parnok 1922

Dedicated to N.P.P.

The colder the letters you write,
The longer the silence between them,
The harder the waiting becomes,
The more I’m tormented with love!

The more I give pain to myself,
I want not to think and I suffer,
I want to forget and remember
That marvelous smile of yours!

Your image arises before me…
It makes me recall your caresses,
It rouses the passion inside me,
And I’m more tormented with love.

25 March 1903







 Burgin’s translations.



Parnok in the late '20s


Life  is a woman. Merely by her own seductions
Intoxicated, she will stand above her victim.
The more unhappy is the soul that lies before her,
the fuller she all is with unrestrained desire,
How often her mysterious gaze has hovered over
my soul with powerful inquisitiveness,
but merely had my soul to quiver in responding  –
and silently, with unconcern, she sought the distance.












Perhaps because I wished to fall in love with being
with so much obstinate avidity,
I felt more vividly how bottomlessly
dispassion for it had come over me.
But what of now? Can I be captivated
by life in an enraptured rush I do not understand?
My soul luxuriates in boundless freedom
as if inhaling life for the first time.









Parnok at her desk 1910

Just listen, how amidst inspired dreaming
the soul will suddenly lay bare its secret curves.
Let your thought illuminate them brightly
with creation’s breath in an audacious surge.
You will see, then, how the endless distance
so easily and wondrously removes its haze,
and there upon a lofty pedestal of marble
the depth of worlds feels Beauty’s silent gaze.












I so want to reflect my whole soul in my words,
I so want to discover them in my soul’s depths,
what they say should not be accidental.
But my impulse for searching’s rebelliously weak –
I lack know-how in finding my words,
and that’s why I have made my soul subject to silence,
and  hear in the silence her ebbings and flowings –
I so want to shout out – I don’t dare to.








In mournful luxury of trees that have been gilded,

Sophia Parnok and Olga Tsuberbiller

in tiredness of branches bent without a quiver
is Autumn’s quietude. Deserted and so pale
the distance that has dimmed; and in the night the play
of stars is cold; and the discerning silence
stands guard, or so it seems, to see if some weak sobbing
will not break out, a last enfeebled groan
from fading foliage. The air, though, is made thick
with fog… and it appears that the exhausted garden
wants to sigh, but doesn’t dare; and strangely blazes
among the tree-tops, colourlessly gold,
a single ruby leaf, as if with blood engorged.











How can one write about the quiet fading,
of vivid rushes deep within one’s soul?
About how thought, far off in sunless exile,
in morbid meditation or joyless sleep
looks lifelessly inside herself, exhausted,
and slowly drowns in her own feebleness,
how can one write?
How can one write – about the golden-textured
ray thrown lazily upon the emerald waves?
The play of hues on strange and wondrous sea shells
and lightning’s whimsy , and the thought of thunderclouds.
The lovely tuberose’s drunken fever,
and the weeping willow’s lonely tears –
how can one write?








I know profoundly well –  you’ve shown me everything,

Parnok and friends

the breathing of the skies, and speech of mighty billows
and twinkling of the stars within the depths of air,
and lightning’s vivid laugh in gloomy quietude
you’ve given me with you in brilliant consonance.

So let that farewell cry, as always, sound above me!
I have a heart so  that it can be broken!
I know too well that last, that grievous moment,
when happiness can’t help but be forsaken –
but through the garden joyfully I’ll go!
So what if a new loss lies in my future,
– My heart’s so happy in its secret fever:
love summons me, and I won’t contradict her.










Oh love! You stand before me and I’m afraid of you.

Sophia Parnok and Lyudmila Erarskaya September 1918

I know inside your breast you hide a gleaming dagger,
you’ll wound my thought with it and thus renew yourself,
and give to drink with blood your living body –


























And these, Parnok’s poems to Nina Vedeneyeva, her last love.





Give me your hand, and let’s go to your sinful paradise!…

Defy all State Pension Plans of heaven,

May returned for us in wintertime,

and flowers blossomed in the greening meadow,

where in full bloom an apple tree inclined

its fragrant fans above the two of us,

and where the earth smelled sweet like you,

and butterflies made love in flight…

We’re one year older now, but what’s the difference –

old wine has also aged another year,

the fruits of ripe knowledge are far more succulent.

Hello my love! my grey-haired Eve!








Night. And its snowing

Moscow sleeps… But I…

Oh but I feel sleepless,

my love!

Oh, the night’s so stifling,

my blood wants to sing…

Listen, listen, listen!

My love:

in your pale petals glisten

silver streaks of frost.

You’re the one my song’s for,

my silver rose,

Oh Rose of December,

you shine under snow,

giving me sweet comfort

that can’t console.







It still hasn’t got any cares, it’s still young at heart,

it still hasn’t cut its first teeth, our Passion –

not vodka, not spirits, yet no longer water,

its mischievous, bubbly, melodious Asti.

You still don’t know how to pale when I come up to you,

your pupil still doesn’t become fully widened,

I know, though you think that the magic I do

exceeds what I did in Kashira or affectionate Kashin.

Oh where is that tiny, forsaken, and garden-filled town,

(perhaps on the map they don’t bother to site it?)

in some kind of sixteen-year-old excitement?

Where’s the cottage with jasmine and the welcoming night,

and curlicue arches of hop-plants above us,

and thirst which could no longer be satisfied,

and sky, and a sky more impassioned than Petrarch’s.

At the end of my last or next-to-last spring –

together the two of us dreamed crazy dreams,

I burn up my night in a savage, a beautiful fire.

Dec 26 1931 (?)







I see: you’re getting off the streetcar – utterly beloved
a breeze, and in my heart it breathes you’re – utterly beloved
I can’t tear my eyes from you because you’re – utterly beloved!
And however did you come to be so – utterly beloved?
You, she-eagle from Caucasian glaciers, where in heat it’s cold.
You, carrier of a very sweet contagion, who never has a cold.
You, beclouder of your lover’s reason with logic clear and cold.
All five senses reel from your intoxication – utterly beloved!

April 1932











And her last Poem, written less than a month before her death



“Come what may, ” you wrote, “we shall be happy…”

" A head of silver grey. And youthful features/And Dante's profile. And a wingèd gaze."

Yes, my darling, happiness has come to me in life!

Now, However, mortal weariness

overcomes my heart and shuts my eyes.

Now without rebelling or resisting,

I hear how my heart beats its retreat.

I get weaker, and the leash that tightly

bound the two of us is slackening.

Now the wind blows freely higher, higher,

everything’s in bloom and all is still –

Till we meet again, my darling! Can’t you hear me?

I’m telling you good-bye, my far-off friend!

July 1933








Chekhov, thought by many today to be a gentle humanist, seems not to have held views that were very different   those of his   ignorant homophobic countrymen; this seems clear  from his privately expressed feelings and opinions.  Burgin has this telling comment of Chekhov’s, made in a letter to his friend and publisher in 1895:

” The weather in Moscow is good, there is no cholera,  there’s also no lesbian love – Brrrr!!    Remembering those persons of whom you write me makes me nauseous as if I’d eaten a rotten sardine. Moscow doesn’t have them –  and that is marvelous.”

That Chekhov himself, infected as he was with TB, was most probably a much greater source of unpleasant and harmful contagion than any hoard of lesbians, seems not to have crossed his mind.

Today when out and proud lesbians are eager to claim their lesbianism as a matter of personal identity, and take this vital right for granted, it is difficult to discern whether Parnok felt her lesbianism to be a matter of disposition or identity. To some of us that might matter hugely, but to others of us what matters most is that she never for a moment disowned  her experiences as a woman who loved other women, and she gave her heart and her soul a voice.

She could, I suppose have curbed her exuberance in matters of love and affection,  or for that, her anguish in matters of personal loss and pain, but she did not.  She used her voice and her talents to express her love without dissimulation or deceit. She dared to speak and to express the thoughts and words and ideas her society determined were better left unsaid and unexpressed and it is remarkable that nearly 80 years after her death  of Grave’s disease at the age of 47, her work still speaks for her. Her poems are fresh and vibrant, and full of force and  a kind of blazing tenderness.

I have chosen here, just as a matter of personal inclination, to include a handful of Parnok’s poems written by her between 1903 and 1905, when she was a teenager,  some which were written when in her thirties, and  finally some written in the last year or so of her life.

Alas, I cannot determine whether the early poems  are complete,  or just fragments. They are  Burgin’s translations, excerpted from her biography of Parnok. Nevertheless, they are easily recognisable as the tender first blossoms of an ardent young heart, and are precious for that reason alone, if for nothing else.

The other poems appearing here, written in mid-and late -life (late that is for Parnok who only lived to be 48 years old) exactly reflect the assurance of mature womanhood, and then the terrible poignancy of a woman who sees clearly, in the same glance,  both the intensity of her love, and her approaching death.





Some Personal thoughts…..


There are some minds that possess a harmonic echo with ones own –  not because the two are alike, but because the sound of one picks up and converts into sound the hidden frequencies of the other. It is something which happens in an instant – like a bullet whistling past one’s ear – or love at first sight, and that is what I felt when I first heard the poetry of Sophia Parnok.

I found an enormous feeling of ‘heart’ in her poems – and always love – not just love in an abstract sense, but the sense of a love which for want of a better word I have to call cultural – by which I mean my own culture – which is the culture of lesbian writing.

The matrix in which Parnok’s poems are rooted is personal and expressive of the twinings and weavings that go into our own individual histories of how in our own lives such  matters as relationships, dilemmas, difficulties, enmeshments etc are encountered, traversed and resolved.

People in the mainstream probably take this for granted – heterosexual men for certain, and to a lesser extend heterosexual women – because theirs is the dominant culture, and they swim in it like fish, barely having to notice the element.

This does not hold at all true for those of us who feel the strangeness and alienness of the mainstream world and all the assumptions which go unexamined and slide frictionlessly by mainstream people on the whole but fly against us  aliens like the showers of grit in a sandstorm.

Encountering Parnok was for me like encountering an island in mid-ocean, one that was spare and beautiful, and which took its expansive beauty for granted, without a fuss. Its many features – jagged cliffs, clear rock-lined pools, dark thickets of unbroken shade, its trees, it coast-line and  sunlit beaches, all seemed familiar to me – even though they were completely new.

I wish Parnok had had a life filled with happiness, and the blessing of sound health, but she didn’t have either.  Moreover she lived in a world that was in the throes of rapid change – Russia transformed itself from a monarchy to a communist republic in the second decade of her life, and that transformation and upheaval has its reflection in  her own struggles.

Her lack of a settled life –   careers,  relationships and  homes, were always in a state of unsettled flux –  gave her poetry a restless feel, but paradoxically a restlessness with roots. The roots of course were the sense of a constant and unappeasable hunger for love and for living, and for the endless and inexhaustible loveliness of the natural world, which are all the markings of the Muse poet.

I find it impossible not to love the person who gave us this poetry – this enormous gift of place and of context which simply overrides place and time, to embrace me in the senses of soul-enlivening familiarity that comes from feeling myself standing in my own world – my own universe of sentiment, with all the features of the landscape and all the fixtures of its interior places familiar and recognisable.

To read Parnok banishes my feelings of existential homesickness – and that is why I place her in the company of the saints I feel watching over me – and over all of us, who need that place which was at first only within the hearts and minds of women like her, but is now expanded to be a place which we can enter, and be at home with them and ourselves..

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Marijane Meaker May 27 1927













































I came across Marijane Meaker’s book Carol in a Thousand Cities by accident  in 1972, when I was 19 and living in Ceylon.  I remember that it sucked the air out of my lungs to find out that there was a world far away in the West where exotic beings called lesbians actually existed in numbers — and as a social group. Of course it was not their exoticism that stunned me, but their familiarity to me — and their separate existence as a coherent phenomenon — a  social entity — a possibility  of being alive and living in “real” life — as  with a band of angels and  in a heaven on earth.

It took several more years — more than three decades —  before I was to run into  Meaker again, and found myself launched once more on the fascinating journey  exploring so called lesbian pulps. Marijane Meaker, a.k.a Ann Aldrich a.k.a Vin Packer a.k.a M.E. Kerr (Meaker) was a pioneer of lesbian fiction, and she is still wonderfully alive and kicking, as is the illustrious Ann Bannon.  By then, Meaker’s world no longer represented for me a heaven on earth, but something even greater — an earthy life in which earthly aspirations were possible for lesbians.

I started out by reading Meaker’s ‘Highsmith’ , the fantastic memoir of  her  ’50’s love affair with Patricia Highsmith.  That led inexorably to ‘We Too Must Love,’  ‘Spring Fire’ (published under the name Vin Packer) and a blissful re-read of  ‘Carol in a Thousand Cities’ a line taken verbatim from the last paragraphs of Highsmith’s famous lesbian love story(and the first one said to have a happy ending), ‘The Price of Salt’.

In Highsmith I found for the first time in a long time a book I could not put down. In it Meaker writes with warm sentiment and without sentimentality, about her love affair with Patricia Highsmith. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is about Meaker’s prose that so immediately evokes the flavour of the ‘fifties. I see rising up before my eyes the photographs of George Marks and Chaloner Woods, — women in Massey suits and print dresses  and summer coats,  and I hear the romantic, evocative  music of Jeri Southern,  Chris Connor,  Jo Stafford….

Despite the stark repressiveness of that time in U. S History of highly neuroticised social oppression,  (it was the era of  McCarthyism, the cold war, and psychoanalysis and sexism) — and who knows, perhaps exactly because of it — there was a social cohesiveness in the gay and lesbian world now long since disappeared.  For me It only appears now in the fiction of the day. This was the world which provided the necessary back-drop for the kind of chance meetings which are now a part of our lesbian history. It was the era of lesbian bars where women went to meet each other, drink, socialise, catch up with the world, and fall in love. L’s was such a bar, and it was where Meaker and Highsmith met for the first time, and had there not been  such a place, they would probably not have met at all.  But meet they did, in that hidden world of the fascinating denizens of the ‘fifties New York,  lesbians in secret enclaves which survived and thrived despite the tensions and dramas of an era in American history filled with paranoia and social anxiety.

It surprised me to learn that Meaker’s Highsmith was affectionate and publicly demonstrative of her affection — something extremely rare in that hetero-totalitarian time. It would seem that Highsmith’s particular brand of internalised homophobia was a writerly and intellectual construct, and it never flooded the banks of their internal reservoir into the territory of  her love affairs  and relationships. Meaker says Highsmith ” would hold girls’ hands in the street, the supermarket, in restaurants.”

For me the saddest part of this relationship is of course its failure as a friendship when the two met again in the ‘eighties, a failure I think was not at all inevitable, but for Highsmith’s  incomprehensible inner compulsion which made her unable to desist from repeatedly expressing her racist and anti-semitic feelings and views. This in the end caused Meaker to shut down emotionally with her, and it forestalled any possibility of emotional re-connection or a renewal of their former love.

Though it is impossible to make conjectures or claims on behalf of the subconscious — one’s own  or another’s – it might be that Highsmith may have chosen this tactic in order to avoid the pain of an inevitable separation with Meaker. Meaker is quite explicit about her disagreements with Highsmith, but somehow, their breakup is strangely inexplicable. Meaker does not hesitate to make herself the object of her own irony. She was reactive and volatile while Highsmith was reserved and restrained and conciliatory. One has to admire Meaker for her forthrightness  — she is honest and unsparing of herself in revealing what she herself said and did in order to precipitate the end of their affair. The two of them seem to have been each other’s only loves, and the loss of that love had devastating consequences for Highsmith.

One cannot evade the feeling that Highsmith’s virulence in this regard is overdone, and that she expressed these unsavoury views in order to elicit a specific response  — perhaps something as small as a nominal agreement. It may have been a gambit to test the degree to which she was loved and accepted — not just for her goodness and virtues, but despite her faults and flaws — but it was a response that never came from Meaker. Perhaps if Meaker had realised there was no point in trying either to make Highsmith reform or to repudiate her view, there might have been a different ending to the story of their relationship. After all, these were views which were not aired in her writing, and they were for the most part private, and not followed-up by violent actions.  No one was harmed by them. Put them into the mouth of a Nazi, or a member of the K.K.K or an Islamist, and their power to devastate would be incalculable, but coming from the mouth of a mild-mannered old lesbian writer, who is furthermore much given to drinking, they seem more dismissive than dangerous. Highsmith was to become an old crank, but one gets the sense that there was a great mind and a responsive heart beneath the distant and forbidding manner

Highsmith was brought up a Southerner and a Texan, and her unexamined racism may have been felt by her to be a part of her which stood for her Southern identity.  Her racism never extended beyond words,  (she had friendships and affairs with Jewish women, and Arthur Koestler and his wife Cynthia Jefferies were close friends) and her fulminations were never virulent. In fact they were so manifestly pointless that one wishes they could have simply been ignored. Instead and regrettably they made a renewed relationships with Meaker impossible.

The Talented Miss Highsmith, Joan Schenkar’s  biography of Highsmith shows her to be a racist anti-semitic miserly monster with no real feelings for anyone but herself, but –despite acknowledging and being distressed by Highsmith’s anti-semiticism, Meaker portrays her as loving and sensitive, with the emotional restraint under duress that can never be acquired and that  can only either be inherent, or the result of good breeding. I cannot reconcile the image of Highsmith as a psychopath, presented by Joan Schenkar, with Meake’s portrayal of this fabulous dark-haired butch with her W29 L34 Levis with their sharp creases and her crisply ironed white shirts.  This is a woman who was charming, romantic, affectionate, who at the last moment cancelled her plans to leave the country because she regretted having to cancel a dinner date  she had planned with Meaker to celebrate their two month anniversary. Meaker describes  a getaway in the summer of ’59 after Highsmith had given her a gold wedding band (bought in an antique store) in acknowledgement of their relationship, when “there were blissful days ahead in Fair Harbor: making love, sunbathing, reading, walking along the shore. cooking dinner for each other, and lingering into the night having drinks and listening to music” and at other times (when a late visit to Janet Flanner, then 67,  and her lover Natalia Murray at Fair Harbour did not result in the expected invitation to stay overnight) sleeping in each other’s arms in the rain on the beach.

In an act of selflessness and love, Meaker had given up her wonderful little apartment in Manhattan, and the life she had carefully constructed there  in order to move together to a property in Bucks County Pa, on the Delaware canal. This was where their relationship took root, and grew, and finally came undone. And that is were I find the core of this book to lie. The real sub-text is a documentation of the fleetingness of love relationships even when love itself is strong.

Perhaps the more significance a personal love has in life, the more viable are the seeds of its own destruction, and the more inevitable the final disaster.

There is a poem by Robert Graves which speaks of a month in mid-summer and the course of poetic love-

The demon who throughout our late estrangement,
Followed with malice in my footsteps, often
Making as to stumble . . .
We both know well he was the same demon,
Arch-enemy of rule and calculation,
Who lives for our love, being created from it….

There is something I refer to as ‘The Heathcliff Factor’, when the wellspring of love is choked and thwarted on one who needs love even more than she or he wants it, there is a reflexive destructiveness and a hardening of the self that is the frequent result of buried pain. A sort of malignancy shoots out of the depths like some poisonous plume, which only a stable and reliable love can hold in check. When that love is gone, it erupts and moves across the surface of life like a pyroclastic  flow, scorching and killing everything before it.

When one recalls love in one’s later years, only the best  — and the worst — can elicit the effort of recounting, and Highsmith, this beautifully written and stylishly evoked chronicle of self-revelation of the love of a lifetime, bears this out.  It is sobering and saddening precisely because of how skillfully and irresistibly the past is made to make its way to the present, and to a tacit conclusion about the nature of love. Meaker and Highsmith seem to me to have been, in the end, each others’ ‘one and only’.  And yet, though love went on surviving, the relationship could not.  Told from Meaker’s point of view, she always feared that Highsmith would yield to the temptation to have affairs with other women. Though there was nothing untrustworthy about Highsmith (Meaker mentions only one dishonest act of Highsmith’s, the appropriation of a roll of film, which after all contained her own image), she succumbed to the temptation to snoop in Highsmith’s papers, interfere with her mail, and stalk her suspected lover.  In fact, It is Meaker who stepped out on her  live- in lover when she first met Highsmith. She kept the affair secret until she left New York to move with Highsmith to Pennsylvania The course of true love runs by default: like water it is ruled by gravity, and seeks its lowest level, It is willed into turbulence and in the absence of movement it reverts to inertia. In the case of Highsmith and Meaker, it was something between the two that put an end to their association.

Highsmith possessed an unerring sense of her own integrity which led her to reject received wisdom and received values, particularly of the sort that Meaker subscribed to, in the area of  the kinds of psychological analysis of homosexuality that Meaker (at least in her fiction) appeared to uphold. Highsmith was sure-footed and confident about her own sexual orientation and practices  — a true butch —  whereas Meaker was ambivalent about sexual ‘norms’, and was a Freudian apologist of sorts.  She bowed under her publisher’s pressure to end her lesbian novels badly (for the lesbians involved) whereas Highsmith contrived herself a way out of a similar stricture. Though both women were paranoid about being ‘outed’ (and who, being mindful of their times, could blame them?) Highsmith’s personal reticence and secrecy unsettled Meaker and drover her to  succumb to her own insecurities and to violations of Highsmith’s privacy.

Even allowing for the self-preserving evasion endemic to every biography, one cannot but be impressed with Meaker’s clarity, and her slightly mocking tone of self-deprecation. There is a wryness here that stands as a guarantor that not too much sweetener has been added to cover the bitter taste of old memories of loss and of love gone awry.  One feels that this was a loss that was irrecoverable to both women, and the sound of ‘if only’ seems to echo in the wind. This is a book I will always be glad I read. In Meaker’s book, Highsmith is presented sympathetically and respectfully. This is by no means the prurient tell-all revelation filled with gratuitously graphic details of love-lives.  The intensity and fire which existed between the two women is clearly and sparsely communicated, which in itself is a remarkable achievement.  It is not as complete as Andrew Wilson’s Beautiful Shadow and not as bitter as Joan Schenkar’s The Talented Miss. Highsmith. It is in a sense the most personal and kind of Highsmith’s biographies.








This is the song which was on the jukebox at L’s when Meaker and Highsmith met for the first time –

“You Better Go Now” by Jeri Southern








This is an entry from one of Highsmith’s private journals. It shows a very different aspect of her being, completely unlike her  guarded and rebarbative public persona. This is the Highsmith, I think, with whom Meaker fell in love, and who fell in love with her in return.

“Even in his arms dancing, one feels her in one’s arms dancing. The brain dully occupied with him, dreams with a clarity and a sentiment (not being controlled by its logical mechanism) that stifles the breath, bringing tears. One dreams of dancing with her, in public, of a stolen kiss more freely given and taken than any heretofore, in public. One is utterly crushed with the thought– which had become reality now, here – that one is for eternity an imprisoned soul in one’s present body…One knows then too,. and perhaps this is no small portion of the sadness, that life with any man is no life at all. For the soul, with its infallible truth and rightness, its logic derived from perfect purity, cries for her one love, her!”

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Gustave Flaubert (December 12 1821 – May 8 1880)


















She gave up playing the piano. Why practice? Who would ever hear her? Since she would never play for an audience, in a short-sleeved velvet dress, on an Erard piano, skimming over the ivory keys with the lightest of fingers, never feel a murmur of ecstasy rising about her, what was the point of practicing any more?  She left her sketch books and tapestry in the cupboard. What was the use? What was the use? Sewing made her nervous.

“I’ve read everything,” she said to herself.

So she sat there idly, holding the tongs in the fire until they turned red, or watching the rain fall.

How sad she felt on Sundays, when the church bell sounded for vespers!  She stood in a kind of expectant daze, listening as each broken note rang out again, and again.  A cat was stalking about the rooftops,  arching its back in the last pale rays of sunshine. The wind blew trails of dust along the highroad. In the distance, a dog howled now and then, and the bell kept up its tolling, each monotonous note dying out over the countryside.

Meanwhile, people had begun to walk home from church. Women in polished wooden shoes, farmers in new smocks, little children gamboling bareheaded before them, everyone was going home. Five or six of the men, always the same, would linger in front of the inn, playing their game of tip-penny until dark.

The winter was a cold one. Every morning the window panes were thick with frost, and the one light which shone through them, as through ground glass, sometimes grew no brighter all day.  The lamps had to be lit by four in the afternoon.

On sunny days Emma went out in the garden. Dew had left silvery lace on the cabbages, gleaming filaments stretching from one to the other. No birds sang; everything seemed asleep, the espaliered trees under their covering of straw, the grapevines like a great sick snake beneath the coping of the wall where, if one looked closely, one could see large wood lice dragging along on their many legs. Among the spruce trees near the hedge, the curate, in a tricorn, reading his breviary, had lost his right foot and the plaster, peeling because of the frost, had left white blotches on his face.

She then went back upstairs, closed her door, stirred the coals and, settling languidly by the warm fire, felt boredom sinking down upon her more oppressively than ever. She would have liked to chat with the maid, but a sense of propriety held her back.

Every day, at the same time, the schoolmaster in his black silk cap would throw open his shutters, and the village policeman would pass, his sword buckled over his smock. Morning and evening, the post horses would be led across the street, three by three, to drink at the pond. Now and then a bell would tinkle on a cafe door, and if it were windy, one could hear the little copper basins which the hairdresser used as his shop sign, clanking on their two iron rods.  The hairdresser’s window display consisted of an old print of dated fashions pasted on one window pane,  and the wax bust of a woman with yellow hair.  He, too, was discontented; he mourned his wasted talents, his hopeless future, and dreamed of owning a shop in some large city, Rouen perhaps, on the harbour, or near the theatre district. Meanwhile, he paced gloomily up and down the main street of Tostes, from the town hall to the church, waiting for customers.  Every time Madame Bovary looked out, she saw him there, like a sentry on duty, wearing a rough woolen jacket, his cap perched to one side.

Sometimes, in the afternoon a man’s head would appear outside the parlour window, a tan face with black  side-whiskers, white teeth showing through a gentle broad smile. Right away a waltz would be heard,  and on top of the barrel organ, miniature dancers would start to whirl about within a doll-size parlour: ladies in pink turbans, Tyrolleans in short jackets,  monkeys in black tail coats, gentlemen in knee breeches. Round and round they went, between chairs, sofas, tiny console tables, reflected many times in fragments of mirror held together at the edges by gold paper.  The man turned the crank, looking to the right, to the left, and up at the windows. Once in a while as he shot a long stream of brown saliva against the curbstone, he would lift the organ onto his knee to relieve his shoulders from the weight of the strap. Now lingering and sad, now joyous and swift, the music rumbled forth from the box, through a pink taffeta curtain behind a curving brass grill. Worldly echoes reached Emma’s ears, melodies heard in theatres, some in drawing rooms, or played for dancing beneath crystal chandeliers. Never-ending sarabands kept ringing in her head while her thoughts, like dancing girls on a flowered carpet, leapt high at each note, from dream to dream, from sorrow to sorrow. After the man had caught a few coins in his cap, he pulled an old cover of blue wool over the organ, slung it on his back, and walked away with heavy footsteps. She watched him go.



Extracted from the 1969 translation of Madame Bovary by Merloyd Lawrence, Riverstone Editions, Houghton Mifflin Company.





Sufficient ink has been spilled on the subject of Emma that the addition of a few more drops from me could hardly be necessary. I posted this excerpt because  I found these two pages of  Flaubert’s novel to be so very  very vivid and unforgettable, that ever since I first read it I have never been able to cease entirely from thinking about it.

I think Emma Bovary’s tragic life is in its own way very mysterious. She feels a chronic dissatisfaction with her circumstances  – and she resorts to men for a remedy – which I daresay was her greatest mistake – but then she didn’t have a choice – did she? If she had been blessed with sufficient wealth or more intelligence, or a social circle more to her liking – or perhaps all three –  she might have been happier: or she might have settled for something less than what she had hoped for – though not for the muted satisfactions of an ordinary wife, – but i doubt it: and at any rate Flaubert saw to it she was not lucky enough to find out. If he had, his novel would not have been as scandalous and as disturbing as the eternally hypocritical French  bourgeoisie of his time found it to be, and, for identical reasons, it would not have enjoyed the success it did. Though Flaubert (and his publisher), like Radclyffe Hall, was prosecuted for outraging public morality with a story about a woman who broke the sexual rules set for women by society, the prosecution was unsuccessful.

Emma Bovary’s  dissatisfaction, framed with great clarity and the minimum of plot distractions, is what retains a lingering fascination for me. Flaubert interests me far less than Emma.  It is her inner emptiness that gets my attention, and you can see it expressing itself here. If Flaubert made her foolish and trite in her mental formulations, he also endowed her with an almost heroic force that drove her as far away from her soft beginnings as a country girl as she could possibly go.  It is this force – this restless dissatisfaction, this seeking for something beyond the rooted circumstances of her unfulfilling life – that I find fascinating. So many women, of limited (and perhaps also not so limited) intelligence,  whose lives are dull and humdrum and ordinary  and whose circumstances resemble Emma’s, remain pinned in place by the events that befall them. Emma however did not. I find the force that drove her to her inevitable ruin to be mysterious and worthy of contemplation, because I think it has its origins not in mere discontent. but in a genuine need for not merely an existence, but the valid aspiration for a life which had meaning and the promise of fulfillment which went beyond the roles of wife and mother. It was not that she merely reached beyond the fog of her discontent of her ordinary life, but that she didn’t reach far enough. Emma’s tragedy is that what she was groping for and reaching for did not exist in her world. She lived in a time when the idea of human aspirations beyond marriage and motherhood simply did not apply to women. French bourgeois mores, stretched beyond endurance by half a century of upheaval and calamity, had snapped back firmly into place following the excesses of the revolution and the disasters of the Napoleonic campaigns.

Emma is a fictionalised character based on a woman named Delphine Delmare, who had lived in the village of Ry, close to Rouen, Flaubert’s home, and who like Emma had married a country doctor, and committed suicide after running up debts she could not repay. Like Emma, Delphine had taken lovers, and ruined her reputation. Though Flaubert vehemently denied he had based Emma on any real woman, the facts too neatly contradict his assertion. I suspect that the need to fill in the blanks about Delphine’s life, to ask the questions and try to provide, if not  an answer, then at least a coherent account which might lend itself to the suggestion of an answer, may have been what motivated Flaubert to write his novel.

Just as Balzac based “La Grand Bretèche” in the crumbling shadow of a Napoleonic past, Flaubert based Madame Bovary within the entrenched dullness of the  reign of king Louis Philippe, who was unflatteringly described as “bourgeois” and who left his imprint of middle class conventionalism on his times. It is the dominant background of his novel. The pains Flaubert took over this work are legendary – 3600 hand-written pages in which he strove indefatigably  for a detailed realism. One feels that the sheer weight of detail alone would serve as a sort of explanation of Emma’s  (considered at the time to be outrageously shocking) choices and actions  – and some satisfying resolution of the question in our minds – some ‘truth’.

But Flaubert is steadfast in denying us satisfaction in this regard. Like Balzac he covertly disparages – and  punishes his female characters for their sexual transgressions, but he also punishes ‘the innocent’ – Emma’s little daughter,  perhaps in order to reveal how the sins of the mothers are indeed visited upon the children.  This is where I think Flaubert truly showed himself to be a dedicated votary of the Muse of topical realism, in a clear departure from the romantic notions which had infused French novel-writing up to that time.

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