All posts by francesthomas

I was born during the War in South Wales, where my mother had gone to escape the bombs. My mother’s family was Irish and English, my father’s Welsh. Later we moved back to South London where I grew up. Since I was an only child, I read lots of books and when the books ran out, I made up stories, a habit I’ve never lost. Later I went to a convent school, where I was bad at needlework and netball. The headmistress didn’t like me because my hair was untidy – still is, I’m afraid. I read English at London University and took a teaching course. I married a historian, Richard Rathbone, and I have two daughters and two grandchildren. My most interesting work, apart from writing, was working with young dyslexic people. Contrary to what many believe, dyslexics can become passionate readers and imaginative writers – I look forward to seeing several of my ex-pupils featuring in the Booker Prize shortlist one day. My first children’s book, The Blindfold Track, was published in 1980. I’ve published many since, for children and adults, but I especially enjoy writing for children. My children’s books have been translated into ten languages. We lived for many years in North London, and I still think London is one of the most exciting cities in the world. But a few years ago, we decided to make a complete break, and came to live in this beautiful part of mid-Wales where we used to spend our family holidays. I now live here very happily, trying to learn Welsh (ond mae’n mor anodd!) going for walks on the hills, writing and painting.

In praise of Fanny Price

fanny priceI’ve been spending a good deal of time reading on the sofa over the last couple of weeks, thanks to the combination of a recalcitrant computer and a sore throat.; one doesn’t really need to find excuses for reading, but it has made me feel a bit like Lady Bertram. And, yes, one of the books I’ve been reading, and which I read very happily every few years is MansfieldPark.

I know MansfieldPark isn’t most people’s favourite Jane Austen novel; largely due to the character of Fanny Price, who’s seen as priggish and passive and dull. Edmund is a dull stick too, and every reader regrets that Fanny and Henry Crawford don’t make it in the end. Even Jane Austen’s family found it an unsatisfactory ending, and begged her to change her mind over Henry.

Fanny has no real friends at Mansfield, apart from Edmund when he can be bothered, and the constant drip of acid from the ghastly Mrs Norris over the years would wear away the soul of a much stronger person. And in fact, in spite of her blushes and sighs, Fanny is quite a strong minded character once she gets an idea into her head. Consider the business of the play, the scene where most modern sensibilities part company with the author – what is quite so appalling about amateur dramatics – something we know that the Austen family enjoyed? And yet, when you look closely, you can see the cracks in the Mansfield plan. For a start doing something so invasive while the master of the house is away is a bit like modern teenagers hosting a party in the absence of parents. And there’s something distasteful about Maria and  Henry carrying on their flirtation under the gormless eye of poor Mr Rushworth. Fanny feels it is wrong, and she sticks to her guns, though it brings her ridicule and criticism all round. We might not agree with her entirely, but we can admire her for it.

And most modern readers feel that Austen is unfair on Mary Crawford, who has wit, charm and sparkle. How is she different from Elizabeth Bennet? And yet, she is. Again modern readers don’t share all Austen’s criticisms of her – we don’t really mind her talking lightly of her immoral uncle the admiral ( and is that really a pun on ‘rears and vices?’ probably not, alas) but there are occasions in the story when she’s quite insensitive. She’s unkind to Fanny, whom she knows occupies the lowest of places in the household, when she spends too long riding Fanny’s  horse, she’s very sneaky when she fobs off Henry’s necklace on an unsuspecting Fanny.  And if she fancies Edmund, it’s not very bright of her to be so rude about his profession.

But in spite of all this, MansfieldPark is a disappointment. And that’s largely because Austen seems to be about to be setting up a situation in which two characters develop and change for the best. Henry, who starts off with a plan of callous seduction towards Fanny, does  seem to have reformed and developed true feelings for her. And Fanny, though quite understandably suspicious of his motives at first, is impressed by his impeccable behaviour at Portsmouth , and just beginning to soften towards him.  What an interesting romance that would have been – Henry refined by Fanny, Fanny becoming stronger and more assertive with such a man to love her.

But of course it’s not to be. Every time I read these final chapters, I have a secret hope that this time the story’s going to be different, that Fanny and Henry will make it, but they never do. And I think Mansfield Park doesn’t really work if you see it as a story with a happy ending – it’s essentially a tragedy, people misled through vanity and lust and deceit – no-one’s really happy at the end. Fanny does get her Edmund, but in so perfunctory a manner that we can’t really care about it. The once happy scene of family and friends at Mansfield is smashed entirely. Maria is horribly banished with only Mrs Norris for company, Julia has made an unsatisfactory marriage, Tom is a shadow of himself, and the once lively Crawfords will never be seen again.  ‘Let other pens dwell on grief and misery’ says  Jane Austen airily, but the grief and misery is there, and you can’t help be aware of it.

Yet  Mansfield Park remains one of my favourite Austen books – the delights outweigh the disappointments, the wonderful Sotherton scene,  the drama -in everyway- of Lover’s Vows, Mr Rushworth and his two and forty speeches, the sheer nastiness of Mrs Norris, the vaguenesses of lady Bertram, all the scenes with the Crawfords – it’s the best of reads when you’re sitting on the sofa with a sore throat and no computer.

Goodbye Mycenae

GreeceOctober10 153 With the publication  of The Silver-Handled  Knife, the last in my Girls of Troy series, it’s time for me to say goodbye to Mycenae and the world of  bronze-age Greece. The story I tell finishes as Orestes and Hermione, now his wife, take the throne of Mycenae, , along with Tisamenos their son. In my story, Tisamenos is adopted; Hermione can’t have children, and Orestes is anxious that there should be no child of his blood to continue the cycle of revenge that has darkened the story of the house of Atreus. This is purely my interpolation, though it makes sense in the story.Actually, in the legend, Tisamenos is the last ruler of the house of Atreus, being deposed by the ‘sons of Hercules’ – and indeed it seems that th epalace at Mycenae and all the bronze age palaces in Greece were destroyed at the same time, around 1200 BC. Sea Peoples or Dorians have traditionally been regarded as the destroyers, though historians really don’t know what happened and there’s almost no  evidence.  The famous Lion Gates at Mycenae were apparently built very late, not long before the destruction of the city, which suggests that the Mycenaeans  were very conscious of defence.

At any rate, the Mycenaean civilisation was followed by a long dark age, about which we know very little. When the lights come on again, in around 850 BC, Homer is composing his famous epics, and we’re in the early classical times. Writing is re-invented,  Homer’s poems are eventually written down, and the stories of the gods and goddesses are as we know them centuries later. This is the Greece that’s familiar to us.

My stories, which include occasional visits from the gods, are historical fantasies rather than accurate depictions of the past. And I mix my sources – some elements come from the Greece that Homer knew, and some from the few things we know about the Mycenaeans. But I hope they feel right to the reader. At any rate I’ll be sorry to leave ancient Greece, where I’ve spent many happy months. And where do I go next? Who knows? As they say, it’s in the lap of the gods.

 

 

Greece At last

greek 2

For most people,  Greece is the most obvious and commonplace of tourist destinations. But I’d never been until just a few years ago, before all the present troubles. I went for history, not sunshine, which was just as well, since it rained for most of our time there.

It was Mycenae that fascinated me most. So old, so mysterious. It seems to have been a civilisation with such charm; the elegant frescoes of long-tressed  maidens, or snake-hipped graceful youths, the pottery playfully decorated with swirly octopuses, the delicate gold jewellery, the finely-chased swords. You can even see what they looked like now; in the museum there they’ve made reconstructions of the faces of some of the royals who were buried there; their surprisingly ordinary and familiar faces look out at you across centuries.

But one thing is missing – only one thing though it’s a big thing. For years their writing was a mystery . But now it’s been  decoded, and what have we got? Shopping lists. Lists of tribute items, but essentially shopping lists. No stories, no poems, no prayers, no dedications. No names. These kings and queens, for all their elegance and sophistication are nameless and unknown.

Other civilisations at the time told stories – and wrote them down. The Egyptians left lots of stories. We know about Gilgamesh and Jehovah, and we feel that the people who wrote these stories down took pleasure in the telling.

So what happened to the Mycenaean stories? They must have had stories – it’s inconceivable that they didn’t. Maybe they wrote them on a material that didn’t last. Or – more likely – they were simply told orally, handed on and on by word of mouth , for the hundreds of years the civilisation flourished.  And the problem with oral tradition is that once the voices die, then so do the stories.
After the Mycenaeans died out so did their scratchy laundry-list script. It wasn’t till many hundreds of years later that another generation of Greeks rediscovered another more adaptable form of writng and at last started to write those stories down. But by then so many years had passed that it was myth they were writing about, not history. Perhaps there really was a king called Agamemmnon and perhaps he really was killed by his wife, having come back from a long war. Perhaps. We’ll never know. Without those stories the Mycenaeans are just blurred ghosts.

Made me think how important stories are – fiction, history, myth. A civilisation without them is only half a civilisation.  And it’s nice sometimes for us writers, in these days of publishing doom-and-gloom to realise that we’re part of that great story telling web that stretches back to….well, not to the Mycenaeans. If only it did.

Visible or Invisible?

 

When I was young, I knew nothing about the lives of the writers I read so avidly; Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease, Kate Seredy (does anyone else remember The Good Master?)  Noel Streatfield, Pamela Brown… They were all remote mysterious beings to me.  There were no websites, no blogs, no school visits in those days, just books ranged austerely on library shelves, usually with  the dust jacket which might at least had managed an author photograph, lacking.

Only Enid Blyton gave us a carefully edited glimpse into her happy life in Green Hedges with Gillian and Imogen,  except that I never really believed in her existence. So many books came out in her name, I felt, even as a child, that she must be a committee. Anyway she was never a favourite.

As for writing to one of my idols, it just would never have occurred to me. If I had done, I guess I would have tangled myself up in Dear Miss So-and-so, and hoping they would forgive me etc etc.

How different it all is now. Even J.K. Rowling can be looked up on her website – fans can at least get the illusion they’re in contact with her. Lesser mortals visit schools, hold workshops, answer emails. If a young reader contacts me, they’re more likely to start the letter with ‘Hi Frances’ than  ‘Dear Miss Thomas.’  And good for them – as long as they spell my name correctly, (Francis is a bloke) I don’t mind at all.  I think it’s all to the good that  writers and the people they write for can come together in this way.  That a child who might one day want to write can actually meet, and ask questions of,  the adults who manage to do it.

But I don’t think I  could ever shake off my hero-worshipping attitude. Some years ago, meeting Judith Kerr at a party, I could only gush vacuously about how much we loved Mog  – and that wasn’t even my generation of readers, but my daughters’.   Nowadays,  I like to know all about the writers I read; I’m very happy to tuck myself into a biography of Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, George Eliot, though what I know, or don’t know doesn’t usually affect my enjoyment of their books – it’s a rather low-grade curiosity, I feel. As an adult, I don’t especially want to meet other writers, unless I’m going to like them as human beings. But it’s different for children ; it’s nice for them to be close to the magic, even if they take it for granted, don’t even realise it’s magic.

In my adult life, I had two encounters with the writers of my childhood. One, a good review of one of my books from Geoffrey Trease, was one of the proudest moments of my life – I wanted to dance and sing around the living room, Geoffrey Trease liked my book! Geoffrey Trease liked my book!  Of course I had to write to him and thank him. But I tore up several attempts; I couldn’t get the tone right, couldn’t say, without gushing, just how extraordinary it was for someone I’d idolised as a child – and whose books were one of the reasons I wanted to write myself – to encounter me as an adult and award me this accolade. In the end, I think I wrote rather a dull little letter – Dear Mr Trease, Forgive me but… or something. Well, I was never going to write Hi, Geoffrey, was I?

And the other occasion was even stranger. At a writers’ event, someone whom I’d read as a child – not an idol, luckily, was  overcome by the hospitality and threw up over my shoes.

Visible or Invisible? Does it matter? Not really. Except that things are different now; we’ll never go back to the old ways, and really, remembering those scary formalities, those inexplicable social rules, it’s probably a good thing.   Though being sick on someone’s shoes is probably taking informality a bit too far.

World Enough and Time

               In life, there isn’t a lot you can do about Time. Like it or not, it goes on in just one direction, inexorably. Sometimes it seems to be passing slowly (hospital waiting room) or whizzing by (fun evening with friends or family) – but those are just perceptions. You can’t hold on to a lovely moment, or fast-forward tedious or tragic weeks out of your life.

That’s where  a writer has the advantage. If you’re a writer, you can play all sorts of tricks with Time; you can stretch it out, or curl it up into a ball, you can bend it, tangle it,  twist it, do anything you like with it. Ulysses or Mrs Dalloway make a single day last for hundreds of pages,  while The Count of Monte Cristo  unfolds over years. You can go back into Time Past, as in Puck of Pook’s Hill, or jump into Time Future; The War of the Worlds;  you can change the past altogether, as Joan Aiken so brilliantly does, so that we can visit the England of James III. 

I used to love time travel stories,  and one of my childhood favourites, which I’ve recently found again, thanks to the power of the internet, was Sun Slower, Sun Faster  by Meriol Trevor,  a story which takes two young twentieth century children on a tour of  the history of Catholic England.  It’s still a compelling read, though it has more history, and more religion, in it than a modern child would probably want. But the central story, where a Jesuit priest escapes from Elizabethan pursuers is genuinely exciting still. Writing time travel stories can present problems of management - ( I felt that Audrey Nifenegger in The Time Traveller’s Wife made unnecessary work for herself by having her hero arrive back in past time naked)    – but Meriol Trevor overrides all of these. Her twentieth century children arrive back in history appropriately clad, speaking and understanding the language, and are taken as ‘cousins’ by the historical children they encounter. When they return to the twentieth century , no time has passed, so no-one has missed them.

Historical novels for young people aren’t fashionable at the moment. When I was a young reader, Fantasy barely existed, and historical novels offered the kind of imaginative escape that Fantasy does now. I loved Hilda Lewis, Geoffrey Trease, Henry Treece, Rhoda Power. And especially, of course, Rosemary Sutcliff, who made the Dark Ages no longer dark to so many of us. I believed that she must have been a great traveller herself to have written so evocatively about so many times and places – what a shock to find that a childhood disease had rendered her almost immobile – but that’s the power of writing for you.

If you’re writing a historical novel, you’ll find that as you write, you’re actually inhabiting that time in your head, so that you return to your own time with a lurch of surprise.  Probably, you’ve done a good deal of research into your period, though of course you try not to let it show.  Yet you often find that when you make a guess where you don’t have the facts to hand, that guess  turns out to be almost spookily accurate.

The writer of straight historical fiction has to solve problems, too:  how do your characters speak? Authentic sixteenth century dialogue would be quite unreadable, but you have to be careful that you don’t let  twenty-first century idioms contaminate your style. You want a style that your reader hardly notices, yet which feels authentic.  Also you need to avoid letting all that lovely research you’ve done hang heavy in your prose. We’ve all read the equivalents of ‘By’r lady,’exclaimed Dickon, fingering his parti-colored liripipe, the latest fashion from the court of King Louis…’  And yet your reader needs to feel immersed in your chosen century. It’s not easy.

But, when it works, it’s great fun. And until Thomas Cook offer us Time Travel excursions via EasyJet, the best way of going back in time is to write or to read about it.

 

The Plot Thickens

Well, I’m hoping to talk about my new book soon, the last volume in The Girls of Troy sequence.  But while I’m waiting to have something to show, I’m recycling some older blogs. Here’s one I wrote in 2011.

The Plot Thickens

               Help! I’m going too fast! My writing I mean. Wait a minute,  isn’t that a good thing? What about this dreaded writer’s block you lot are always banging on about?  Well, yes. That can be bad too. And writing away at ninety miles an hour doesn’t feel bad. It feels great, in fact.

But…it isn’t always the right thing for your story.  You can go too fast for your own good; you can speed too lightly over the surface.  Sometimes you just need to slow down and let the plot thicken.

Strangely enough this can be harder than making a story shorter.  I rather enjoy cutting a manuscript down. Out with it! off with its head! I cry , as I slash and burn page after page.  And usually, it’s much better for it.

 

But adding – that’s another business. What do you add? For a start, certainly not the dreaded ‘description’ that they were always telling you to put in at school. Who wants page after page telling you exactly what colour the cushions were, or how the sunset streaked across the sky? No, what you need to put in is the small, but telling detail. And that needs concentration, and concentration is good, because it’s what’s missing as your fingers hurtle over the computer keys. Maybe all it takes is the replacement of a weak and vague verb by a strong and suggestive one.  Maybe, it’s looking harder and harder at a scene your eyes have just flicked over, and saying to yourself, now what exactly is going on here?  Your villain, for example, whose speech you’ve had such fun with – is his villainy going to come across to the reader? No? Then look at him again. Hard. What exactly is he doing as he speaks?  Maybe he’s shredding to bits a flower from the bunch of flowers the heroine has thoughtfully placed in the centre of the table. Maybe there’s a small nervous tic in the corner of his eyelid that betrays something about him that we haven’t noticed.  Maybe he’s lovingly stroking his adored dog… Or maybe none of these things, but something much more relevant and vital noticed by you, the writer.

As I write this, I scoop up from my brain a couple of instances where the tiny observed detail has brought someone or something to life.

When we first meet Dorothea Brooke, in Middlemarch we’re not very taken with her. She’s sanctimonious and priggish, and we wonder how we going to endure spending several hundred pages in her company. In the first scene, she’s going through her mother’s jewellery, and because she thinks she despises jewellery, intends to give it to her more frivolous sister. But she’s seduced by the beauty of the gemstones; her pious mask slips for a second, and we realise that we’re getting to know her a bit better than she knows herself, and that it might actually be rewarding to spend those pages in her company:

         ‘They are lovely,’ said Dorothea, slipping the ring and bracelet on her finely-turned finger and wrist, and holding towards the window on a level with her eyes. All the while her thought was trying to justify her delight in the colours by merging them in her mystic religious joy…

Aha, Dorothea! Got you!

 

And here’s Dickens, the master of the tiny telling detail, introducing Little Dorrit’s vain and self serving father, living like a lord in the debtor’s prison. A well intentioned workman makes the ‘mistake’ of trying to give him a few coins, rather than slipping them discreetly to Little Dorrit. The Father of the Marshalsea is outraged, and once again, we feel we’re being told all we need to know about him:

The Father of the Marshalsea had never been offered tribute in copper yet. His children often had, and with his perfect acquiescence it had gone into the common purse, to buy meat that he had eaten, and drink that he had drunk; but fustian splashed with white lime (the workman) bestowing halfpence on him, front to front, was new.

        ‘How dare you!’ he said to the man, and feebly burst into tears…

 

And, oho! We know you too, Mr Dorrit!

 

The plot has thickened, not through a build up of verbiage, but by choosing the exact ones to help us ‘see’ the characters ; ‘feebly’  ‘perfect acquiescence’  ‘trying to justify her delight’  The effect is easy, almost unnoticeable, but Eliot and Dickens didn’t achieve it without a great effort of concentration, of pure and focussed vision. So when I feel myself rushing in my writing, euphoric though this can be, I have to tell myself, slow down, think, go deeper, not faster….

 

 

 

 

Edward_Thomas

I’ve just been reading with great enjoyment  the new biography of Edward Thomas by Jean Moorcroft Wilson. I’ve written about Thomas before,  after we visited his grave last year. He’s a difficult and complicated person who somehow draws you back and back again to his poems;  deceptively calm, they give you that sense of encountering something familiar that you recognise instantly, dusty nettles in the corner of a yard, a tiny railway station glimpsed in passing, a road gleaming after rain, making you feel that he’s writing for you personally.  There’s something about their quiet strength that reminds me of the work of Eric Ravillious, whose work we visited the Dulwich gallery last week to see; both use pastel colours, sometimes radiant , sometimes sombre, turning a keen gaze upon the everyday and apparently banal. Ravillious too gives you the sense of transmuting your own experience,  a third-class railway carriage (even for those too young to remember them) a greenhouse full of cyclamen,  into something timeless and archetypical.  And both men, the writer and the painter, demonstrate a quality usually described as ‘quintessentially English.’ To try and describe what this means would require a whole other blog post, would have to take in music, Elgar and Vaughan  Williams as well, and I fear would be beyond my fairly puny critical powers, so I shall leave it at that.

I’ve chosen one of my favourite Thomas poems, ‘Words’, in which he uses the conceit that words choose the writer rather than the other way around.  But Thomas’s choice of words, and his ability to position them so as to draw out their cadences,  is exquisite. Who else, in ‘Adlestrop’ could make the names of two English counties into one of the most beautiful lines in poetry?

 Words

UT of us all

That make rhymes

Will you choose
            Sometimes–
          As the winds use
           A crack in the wall
           Or a drain
          Their joy or their pain
              To whistle through
           Choose me
           You English words?
          I know you
         You are light as dreams
,        Tough as oak,
         Precious as gold,
            As poppies and corn
        Or an old cloak;
             Sweet as our birds
            to the ear,
             As the burnet rose
              In the heat
               Of Midsummer
            Strange as the races
            Of dead and unborn:
             Strange and sweet
              Equally,
             And familiar,
               To the eye
             As the dearest faces
             That a man knows
             And as lost homes are:
              But though older far
                Than oldest yew
              As our hills are, old
             Worn new
                Again and again:
               Young as our streams
                After rain:
               And as dear
              As the earth which you prove
             That we love
               Make me content
               With some sweetness
                 From Wales,
              Whose nightingales
               Have no wings
               From Wiltshire and Kent
             And Herefordshire,
           And the villages there,–
               From the names, and the things
           No less
           Let me sometimes dance
             With you
            Or climb,
            Or stand perchance
            In ecstasy
             Fixed and free
              In a rhyme,
              As poets do.
                                   Edward Thomas

Going For Gold

Well, it’s actually our golden wedding today, although neither of us is a great one for  ceremonies and parties so we’re keeping it  fairly low key.  Still, fifty years is a long time, and we’re quite surprised to find that we’re still both here. Though looking back on that day fifty years ago, I find I don’t remember it with much pleasure. My mother, who was a sweetie but a very ardent Catholic, was upset because we wanted to get married in a registry office. Thus the wedding had to take place on a Saturday because she was  too ashamed to let anyone at the school where she taught know that her daughter wasn’t getting married in church. And Richard’s wicked stepfather decided to throw a wobbly, because we were getting married on a Saturday – the Sabbath.- so he managed to make himself ill – I think it was intentional - On the wedding day we had to troop into the bedroom where he was lying pale  and unsmiling in his pyjamas,  and make anxious noises. I’m sure he was all right again the following day.

In those days – and maybe it’s the same now, you couldn’t just go through the motions and have a Catholic wedding. You had to confess and go to communion in the Nuptial Mass, and your partner had to receive instruction, (which would have gone down well with Father O’Moron and Richard), and promise to bring your children up as Catholics.

I never wanted a fancy wedding with a meringue dress, but looking back on it, I think people could have been a bit nicer to us. It felt more like a funeral; no-one smiled (except my father who got a bit sentimental)  and no-one took a single  photograph. I  was sorry to upset my mother, but I couldn’t see any alternative. Some years later, when she was dying, Father O’Moron took me aside and hissed in my ear that I had broken her heart. Still, this didn’t so much upset me, as to confirm me in my belief that , though Jesus talked of love and kindness, religion as an institution seemed to be mostly about exclusion and wishing sin on others.

Anyway, fifty years later we’re still here. I have no idea what happened to Father O’Moron, but I don’t wish him any good.  But Richard and I are still talking and still enjoying each other’s company. There have been difficult times, but on the whole things could be much worse.We decided that while we don’t really enjoy being in our seventies, it’s better than the alternative. So we’re going to celebrate quietly with our nice family – two daughters, who are still talking to us and are doing well in their lives, lovely partners and friends, and probably the two nicest grandchildren on the planet. ( Or so we think anyway)  So if you’ve got a glass to hand  -always a good idea-  do raise it to us and share in our quiet celebration..

Goodbye, Eleanor

It’s always a shame when you have to abandon a  writing project; I’d been planning to write a biography of Eleanor Farjeon and had started research. But biographies take a great deal of time, energy and commitment, and I decided sadly that because I don’t have much of those qualities at present, I wasn’t going to be able to   carry on with it.

Over the period that I’d been researching her, I’d grown quite fond of Eleanor.  I first became interested in her partly because she seemed to know so many people, and straddle so many litereary eras; in her youth she was a friend of Edward Thomas, D.H. Lawrence and a clutch of artists and musicians. Later she became a prominent writer  and champion of childrens’ books- and she supported herself and the man she lived with for many years purely through her writing – as someone who’s never managed to make anything like a living by  writing I’m always impressed by people who can do this.

She was an intensely romantic soul, and always needed to be in love with someone; most famously with Edward Thomas. He was married to Helen,  and  though he was very fond of Eleanor  and seemed to crave her company, was not in love with her.  After his death, she lived for many years with George Earle, a married teacher, though that did not stop her having a passionate though platonic affair with an American musician when she was in her fifties. At the end of her life, her companion was the homosexual actor Dennis Blakelock.

But all her life, she was writing and writing. Her father and two of her brothers were writers, and it came as easily to her as breathing. Much of what she wrote was light verse, perhaps unfashionable now, but she also wrote some lovely sonnets , one of which I’ve quoted in an earlier blog. She’s perhaps best known today for the lyrics of ‘Morning Has Broken.’

She  appeared to be a cuddly. cosy person,  uninterested in fashion or glamour, a homemaker, who adored cats. Though she was always able to drown unwanted kittens, which shows that she had  a surprising ruthless streak too. Perhaps all writers need one, though not for drowning kittens,  Everyone seemed to love her and she had an extraordinary gift  for friendship.  I’ve enjoyed her company over the time I’ve been working with her, and I shall miss her.  I hope someone else will want to write her biography now.

Meanwhile, I’ve just brough myself a present, which arrived in today’s post – a new biography of Edward Thomas by Jean Moorcroft Wilson, so I see I shall be spending more time in her company, and the fascinating, depressive man who was the love of her life.

 

On tidying up and clearing out

messy studySomebody once said that a writer’s best friend is her wastepaper basket, and I’ve always found a strange satisfaction in throwing stuff away – you feel , that like getting poison out of your system, your writing will be better for the destruction. But recently, the controlled chaos in which I’ve always worked  has turned into chaos pure and simple – I could always lay my hands on things, now they seem to vanish forever. So clearly a great turn-out and chuck-out is called for,  and I’ve just embarked on this, pulling out drawers and opening folders and seeing stuff which I haven’t looked at for years, in old-fashioned wobbly typewriter print, on thin copy paper, now yellowing away. I can remember the intensity and devotion  with which I wrote these things, and now I look at them and just see dull words and storylines I don’t care about. So out they go, and good riddance to them. Then there are novels which never saw the light of day and probably now never will, but I can’t quite bear to chuck these – not yet at least.  Short stories which took so much effort and attention, now sitting limply on the page. Who’d ever want them? Out with them. At least I can convince myself that these dull pages were helping me to hone my craft, so there was some point to them.

But some day there’ll be people looking through all this stuff – probably my daughters, who’ll turn to each other and say with bewilderment, ‘Now what the hell are we supposed to do with all this? Why on earth did she keep it all?’  Well, you, whoever you will be, you can chuck them if you want; it’s just that I don’t quite feel like doing it myself, not quite yet.

I suppose I’m about one-third of the way through the process ( you can see how dedicated I am by the fact that I’ve taken time off to write this)  My husband came in and looked around  and said ‘You call this tidy?‘ Which of course it wasn’t, nothing like, but tidying up is one of those things that gets worse before it gets better.

Of course many writers destroy their own work, and not always for the right reasons. Fanny Burney, aged 15, made a bonfire of her writings, probably because someone had told her that writing was unladylike, though fortunately whe changed her mind and went on to write one of the most popular novels of her day. Some writers, like Larkin and Hardy, leave the dirty work up to others, asking that the stuff be burned after their deaths – an unkind burden on a friend, I think. And sometimes, the post-mortem destruction is just vandalism, as when John Murray destroyed Byron’s memoirs, or Charlotte Bronte probably destroyed Emily Bronte’s second novel.

Still, no masterpieces are being destroyed in my study. The process is entirely cathartic. And maybe one day, when the room is clean and neat as a new pin, I’ll post a picture of it for you all to admire.