Thoughts on The Invisible Woman

No, this post isn’t about the HG Wells’ creation or his imaginary feminine equivalent, but the Invisible Woman conjured in the pages of Claire Tomlain’s The Invisible Woman – The story of  Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens.

After reading Tomalin’s stupendous Dicken’s biography ( balanced, never fawning, poetic, brilliant researched) I was completely curious as to her first treatment of the Dickens’ material, as first published in 1990, The Invisible Woman. In it, Tomalin explores more of Nelly’s side of the story – her family raised in the theatre, the nineteenth century opposition to women in the theatre ( based on the fact that if one could act a lady, it would be difficult for a gentleman to tell the difference), her meeting of Dickens and his clandestine and secretive courting of a woman the same age as his own daughter.

Where there are no concrete sources Tomalin surmises, but she always reminds the reader that these are her own conclusions. However, they are so well researched and her point of view, always compassionate and balanced, that one can’t help to concur.

Just as Dickens was a master deceiver employing his theatrical wiles and tricks, changing his identity to nurture and conceal his secret love, so did Nelly after her time with Dickens ended by constructing her own new identity – making herself 8 years younger, erasing her theatrical past and relegating Dickens to the role only of a family friend.

The most strikingly frustrating thing is the lack of Nelly’s own voice – all of her letters were destroyed, by her son and others, but Tomalin does her best to draw from all remaining sources a portrait of a strong, intelligent woman, who was hemmed in by the morality of her age. Though sometimes I could never really grasp if Nelly held true affection for Dickens or if she was somehow shepherded into the relationship in an aide to help her family.

In 1867 Dickens lost one of his diaries, much to his displeasure, and has been decoded and used by Tomalin to great effect, devoting a whole chapter to it, as it covers the volatile question as to whether Dickens and Nelly had a child together. In the diary it is clearly marked as: ‘N ill later part of the month’, ‘Arrival’ and ‘Loss’, which to me and to Tomalin enough to conclude there was a child. Later in her life, when married to a school teacher, Nelly actively took to fundraising and championing a creche for working women, and I can’t help but wonder if this was because she too, as a working class girl lost her own child? There is also the possibility that they may have had another child together, but there is no conclusive evidence, but one does wondering, considering Dickens fathered 10 legitimate children.

Nelly in reconstructing her life after Dickens married and had two adored children of her own, concealed her theatrical past and her association with Dickens. However, after her own death, when her son Geoffrey found out about her association, and after confronting Henry Dickens, his own sense of self was fatally flawed – he could not reconcile his adored mother and the woman who had been an actress and Dickens’ lover, tragically burning all her letters and banned her name within his house. I can’t help but wish this tragedy had been avoided, for if ever a child was loved and cared for, it was Geoffrey. But how could Nelly reveal her past, when even her husband never knew?

There are many questions raised by this book – I can’t help thinking about the possibility of a future relation being discovered, possibly the almost child of Dickens and Nelly. Nor can I help but speculate over the stolen letters of Dickens to Nelly, that were stolen from her possession after his death. Will they one day show up? I hope so, for it would be wonderful to hear, even if through Dickens’ eyes, Nelly’s own voice.

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The Revisit : Thoughts on old children’s books

Recently I have been riding a wave of synchronicity while trying to track down an old child hood favourite book and it goes something like this:

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For several years this beauty taken by photographer Harold Cazneaux was propped up on a pin-board of my computer, a thoroughly modern milly, a face of modern Sydney. But the subject wasn’t Australian, she was a Scot, named Doris Zinkeisen, a painter, illustrator and set designer whose portrait I had also propped against my desk as I was trying to place my mind in the Bohemian centre of Sydney in the 1920’s, or more specifically the faces of 1929 for my novel set in the same year, where the above image was featured as a cover of magazine Home, Australia’s answer to Vanity Fair. I adore her hat and pearls, but most of all I love the line of her profile against the stylised monochrome fauna and the expression on her face, the elevation of her head. Quite a different view to her self portrait  painted the same year, which I curiously and co-incidentally also had propped on my pin-board, bought from the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Cazneaux captures a purity of line in her face, whereas Zinkeisen’s  self-portrait is daring and theatrical, the chinoisere piano shawl just hanging off her shoulders, her hand on the curtain, as if ready to reveal something, the light bounces off the drapery onto her painted face.

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Doris Zinkeisen was famous not only for her beauty but for illustration, her designs for the London and North Eastern Railway Line in the 1930’s have a wonderful whimsy to them, with historical figures used to promote the places on the line. She also worked as a nurse in both WW1 and in WW2, which was when she was also commissioned as a War artist and in 1945 she witnessed and recorded the horrors of Belsen-Belsen for the rest of her life.

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Doris Zinkeisen is a fascinating woman and it has been a pleasure to have her company desk-wise while writing, but it was with great surprise, I discovered that her twin daughters were none other than Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone, painted by their mother below ( I love how their hands grasp each other’s and their expressions ) They were once described by their brother Murray as really only being two halves of the one person – and though this may seem a cliche about twins, they did have an unusual way of working and lived together with their mother all their lives.

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My childhood was populated with their illustrations, and recently I spent time tracking down a copy of Deans Gift Book of Nursery Rhymes which has also been sitting, desk-mates with the work of their mother. It was with great delight that I tracked down a copy – the images exactly as I remembered them – a kind of cross roads between the past and the present of the time it was published in the early 1970’s. I love the period clothes and the lovely attention to details, a children’s confection of the Regency and Victorian dress. I do remember spending hours pouring over those images, wishing to have a bonnet, and I do recall my mother making one as a concession to my sister having her first school uniform, and it was with delight that I looked exactly like a figure from an Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone illustration. Their love of costume was developed at St Martins School of Art. Together they illustrated numerous books, including those by (and most famously s0) Enid Blyton and Dodie Smith.

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The sisters actually worked together on individual illustrations, working as a single unit to produce their work. When Janet died in 1979 of smoke inhalation, it must have been very difficult for Anne to continue, but she did, having to learn all the areas of expertise that her sister had, mastering horses and faces, and it is curious in the later work of Anne’s that the figures often face away from the viewer.

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To revisit old childhood favourites can often be a startling shock to the senses, for the magic one saw in the book has vanished with the child that loved them. However, with the work of Anne and Janet Grahame Johnstone, I am back there in an instant, the pictures portals to the past.

Have you any childhood books that take you back?

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History Listening and Talking to Itself – Hilary Mantel on writing Wolf Hall

Recently I finished reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, after much prodding and poking by some very astute readers, as well as hearing some wonderful podcasts with Mantel herself ( with her very particular voice, she speaks like she is casting a spell in an Elizabethan play).

And? Not much more than I can say except – it is Bravura in every way.

Even though I am so familiar with the whole history, never for a moment did I rest in this knowledge, always  on edge to Mantel’s storyteller’s art. Mantel in The Guardian says she didn’t want to write history repeating itself, but history listening and talking to itself, and that is exactly what she has done:

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After I had written the first page I was flooded by exhilaration. I am usually protective of my work, not showing it to anyone until it has been redrafted and polished. But I would have liked to walk around with an idiot grin, saying to the world: “Do you want to see my first page?” Soon the complexity of the material began to unfold. So many interpretations, so many choices, so much detail to be sifted, so much material: but then, suddenly, no material, only history’s silences, erasures. Until a late stage, what would become a trilogy was still one book. It was only when I began to explore the contest between Thomas Cromwell and Thomas More that I realised I was writing the climax of a novel, not merely another chapter. The facts of history are plain enough, but the shape of the drama was late to emerge, and the triple structure later still. In my mind, the trilogy remains one long project, with its flickering patterns of light and dark, its mirrors and shadows. What I wanted to create is a story that reflects but never repeats, a sense of history listening and talking to itself.


The rest here at The Guardian

Image: Detail of Anne Boylen Portrait ( and I wouldn’t mind those pearls, necklace and all, thank you very much)

ps am having some problems with spacing in posts with WordPress – so sorry if it is all bunched up

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Thoughts on Toby Chien – Colette’s muse, her beloved dog

For a long time I have been a little enamoured of the little beast with a face like a ‘squashed toad’, Colette’s little French Bulldog Toby Chien. I am not exactly sure what it is about him – his lovely dark velvety face, his white napkin of fur, his ears that go in different directions, or my imaging of that soft nuzzling little snout.

Toby Chien started a long line of canines to feature in Colette’s life, but he was certainly the first, used by her first husband in the promotional photographs for Colette’s first work, Claudine. I love the way his ears echo the wave of her hair, his devotional little face looking straight at the camera.

Colette also featured Toby Chien in her novel, Dialogue of the Beasts, an imagined dialogue between Toby Chien and Colette’s other, later love, Kiki the Demure. Toby Chien and Colette were rarely apart. I wonder if it was Toby Chien with her on the early Metro when she accidentally left a completed manuscript on the seat and as never seen again, always hoping that one will show up, but most likely it ended lining the Station master’s bin.

However, when Colette broke off her relationship after discovering Willy was having an affair with Meg Villars, they tussled over the custody of Toby Chien as if he were a child. Eventually from memory they shared him, with Colette and Toby Chien even going on holiday with both Willy and Meg.

Colette had a tumultuous life – and in some ways could be seen as the first modern woman. She lived by her pen and by treading the boards of the music hall. She was voracious in her sensual appetites – marrying Willy who was many years her senior, to having a relationship with a Marquise, to her Journalist husband and his teenage son, before marrying in her old age a man many years her junior, a Jewish pearl merchant.  She was a also a terrible mother to her poor neglected Belle Gazou.

But amidst all this she had two constants, her love of her animals and nature, with Toby Chien her muse. His nose as sensitive as her own as they padded the streets of Paris and the fields of France.

When I think of Colette, Toby Chien’s little face always come to me, pushing his little face through Colette’s voluminous output, as Kiki the demure weaves a figure eight through her words. This gorgeous artwork byDaniel Fournier says it all.

Any other animal muses anyone can think of?

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Augury

Do you believe in augury? The ancient Roman art of understanding the ‘Gods’ through watching the behaviour of birds.

I am not sure about augury in itself, but I do think it a privilege to take note of the birds that I come a cross at different junctures in my life and impose on them a personal meaning, so perhaps I am not so different from an augur after all. There will be no binoculars and bird book and camouflage beige for me, I prefer to just be aware of them, little wild things in the bustling city. Why even today, a scraggly raven crossed the road before me, looking rather weary and disgruntled, the feather’s on the back of his head rather hen-pecked, though I am sure if ravens could speak, they wouldn’t lower themselves with such a comparison. It wasn’t until I remembered that it is moulting season and it can make poor raven feel rather undressed, in their ‘post-nuptial plumage’ ( as it is officially called).

Many writers are birdwatchers – including myself and I find them often in the forefront of what I am writing. Sometimes it feels birds are everywhere, people are putting birds on everything (thanks Portlandia), but mostly it is the only connection I have with nature.

So it was with great joy I discovered that Emily Dickinson had a love for birds and her own collective noun for them, a spicing of birds.  She wrote approximately 200 of them displaying her love of birds:

A bird came down the walk:

He did not know I saw…

She was an augur too, no doubt – observing, casting, and writing with avian witnesses to her life.

But it is curious how many tales I have heard of unusual birds appearing at critical moments in peoples lives, whatever they are, they are surely ‘spicings’, enlivening and reminding us of the natural world.

Have any of you had any augury moments?

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Writers’ portraits

Recently I had to have some fancy photos taken for promotional purposes and it made me start to think – does how a writer look really matter?  In ye  olden days, none of this would have mattered so much, a photograph or a portrait, something made for loved ones, someone from the inner circle – not for wider public consumption. But ye olden days is gone. And not all of us can make ourselves as glamorous as Susan Sontag:

Of course I tied to make myself look my best –  I washed my hair even and bought some blush and tried to avoid placing my hand under my chin in that weird pose that writers tend to pull, as if holding up the weight of all those fabulous ideas in ones head. At least an actor can project a role or a tradesman rely on their tools as props, but to photograph a writer writing is somehow more ephemeral – because a lot of writing takes place off the page. For me a lot of it happens between the gaps of normal day life – pushing the pram, having a shower, sitting on a train. The unconscious prepares and the hand just follows.

But still I am not immune to the power of the image, having postcards of writers propped against my desk throughout my life, talismans of a sort, hoping to imbibe a little sparkle into my own work from their gaze.

One of my favourite writer images is this one, of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and her son, Pen. Her with her possessive and proud face, his fey golden curls and far away expression – the way they are holding hands. A great portrait I think, not just of a writer, but a mother and woman ahead of her time. I always feel she is looking at me. Is she looking at me? And what are those eyes saying? So many things?

Do any of you have a writer’s portrait propped against your desk that talks to you ( metaphorically or literally, I am all ears) ? Is it a curious Edith Sitwell with her wonderful nose and bangles or a dreamy D H Lawrence? Whoever it is, please share.

photo credit : Susan Sontag by Jill Krementz

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Adventures in the Thingness of Pen and Paper Again

There is magic in the thingness of pen and paper.

When was the last time you received a letter with that wonderful and familiar handwriting, that carried with it the something of the voice and spirit of the sender? So different and intimate compared to the rash and harried twitch of a thumb running across a telephone screen in a fleeting SMS. For me, I have always loved the thingness of pen and paper:

“Writing by hand is laborious, and that is why typewriters were invented. But I believe that the labor has virtue, because of its very physicality. For one thing it involves flesh, blood and the thingness of pen and paper, those anchors that remind us that, however thoroughly we lose ourselves in the vortex of our invention, we inhabit a corporeal world…I know that I talk about pens and notebooks the way the master of the seraglio talked about his loves slaves…” Mary Gordon from Writers on Writing Volume 1 Collected Essays from the New York Times.

All writers have their superstitions and rituals from writing with a certain pen or paper – myself included, give me a Clairefontaine notebook any day and my favourite ball point pen that my better half found abandoned, and since then could find no better home than in my hand. There have been a few adventures into fountain pens and coloured inks, my handwriting skidding across the page were ice and my fingers skates.

But it is not just the flirtation of other pens and ink that has affected my handwriting. So it was with great pleasure I discovered this joyful article by Philip Hensher in the Guardian on his book The Missing Ink : The Art of Handwriting ( and why it still Matters).

 

Who will join me with this call to arms ( hands and fingers)?

(apologies for font dramas, spacing etc –  alas having some wordpress problems with accepting edits and fonts…)

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