Monday, 21 July 2008

Dartington day four: Tuesday 15th July

My final days at Ways With Words started out in a relaxed manner. I didn't have any events in the morning and so walked to the Cider Press centre in search of a cheapish bag in which to deposit all my newly bought books. I found one (with a Puffin on one side), and a present for my father, and ambled back to the hall, glorifying in the bright sunshine that really did bring out the best of the countryside.

Today seemed to be centred around women who were intensely creative, but had periods of their lives when they were often vulnerable and miserable, if not depressed, too.
First up was Agatha Christie, whose new biography was written by Laura Thompson, was an intriguing insight to a woman, who for all her wealth and fame remained essentially disappointed with her life after the collapse of her first marriage to dashing Archie. The infamous event of her disappearance was covered how in essentials it had been a desperate ploy to get her husband back (who was having an affair) only to find that her actions made sure she never would. Her second marriage to a man fifteen years younger than herself, was by all accounts a very dependent relationship - on Agatha's side at least.
The fact that Agatha wanted to be an opera singer surprised me, because the image of a heavy set old woman is always the one that sticks in my mind, whereas she was, when young, very beautiful who probably would have been a smash hit had she ever ventured on the stage.
So, she wrote her books - including a number under a different name - and created two very different, but equally ingenious literary detectives - people who probably knew who the culprit was right from the beginning, even if the author herself rarely did. Here was a woman who didn't meticulously plan her plots, who changed her mind more often than dead bodies appear, who has come under criticism for not developing her central characters well enough, but who is still one of the most widely read authors today and who Laura Thompson felt brought people to life not deeply but vividly.

Out into the sun (yes, really!) for a quick book buying and signing session (glad to find that Laura agreed with me about Peter Ustinov being much better than Albert Finney in his presentation of the Belgian Sleuth) and then back to my (It's mine, I decree it so!) bench to hear all about Dorothy Wordsworth.

Frances Wilson was a wonderfully collected and informative speaker and spoke about the less celebrated member of the Wordsworth family. She had me captivated from the beginning with her reading of the journal entry from the day of William's marriage to Mary Hutchins.
I have to confess that when I read the journals during my Masters, I very quickly cast them aside, getting exasperated with the constant headaches and pining for letters from her brother. This talk helped me to understand why these events occurred. Separated when Dorothy was six by the death of their mother and not reunited for over ten years, when they finally met again, the bond between them was so strong that it was as if they were one and the same person.
Dorothy's headaches where borne out of the devotion she had to her brother. He suffered ill health too, and Frances suggested that sometimes it seems like Dorothy took on his ailments as well, in order that he might create great works. Not that this stopped her from being of use to her brother in the creative process too. One only has to look at her description of daffodils to realise that it was from this that William had been inspired. The journals were designed to be read by her brother, to provide him with sources of inspiration. However, Frances also made the point that they were designed to show Williams how much she depended on him. In the first entry she declare they are 'to give him pleasure' - but surely descriptions of headaches, bouts of crying, waiting for the post everyday - these could only be meant to bring pain, to show to this brother that has so callously left her to go and propose to another woman, that no one would ever need or love him as much as she did. They are meant to be manipulative.

This dependence and manipulation raise some uncomfortable questions about the nature of their relationships. There is an undoubtedly erotic bond between them. Before Frances could delve further into this, however, a wailing was heard in the distance. Was it Dorothy making her presence known, showing us how miserable she could be? Err, no. The fire alarm was going off in the adjoining part of the building. What were we to do? It certainly confused the stewards for a moment, although the rest of the audience stayed firmly in their seats. We're British. We're not going to let a small thing like a possible fire get in the way of hearing about this slightly mad and dependent woman!
Thankfully the alarm stopped after a few minutes and Frances picked up where she had left off. Incest. Did Dorothy and William ever actually consummate their intense relationship? We shall never know, for it was never written down - although one gets the feeling that Dorothy would probably have written of the experience in dream like detail. What is certain is their especial closeness and Frances drew on the parallel of Heathcliffe and Cathy and Cathy's reasons for why she couldn't marry Heathcliffe. They were already one body in as much as their soul and minds are united. To unite their bodies too would have been too powerful. Dorothy spent the last thirty years of her life in the grip of madness, the prices which she paid for the extreme devotion to her brother.

After the event I was gripped by the thought that all three of the women I was hearing about were in some way on the brink of their sanity, and all for love. Agatha was clearly deluded when she disappeared for eleven days and then spent the rest of her life wondering if she could have done something else to retain her husband's affection. Dorothy, as outlines above, went completely mas as a result of her passion. And Daphne? I already knew the answer as I sat on my bench thinking about these troubled women. Daphne never went completely mad, but as far as Justine's book shows, she not only teetered on the edge, but fell over the precipice of madness, only managing to cling on and pull herself up by the sheer force of her willpower.

So there was the theme of the day - not strong women as I had originally thought when I was booking tickets, but vulnerable, and so susceptible to the hold men had over them that it caused them to act rashly and feel the frail hold they had on sanity slip through their fingers altogether.

So, leaving Dorothy in her pain induced opium haze, I dashed out into the bright sunshine to get my copy of the book (who is keeping count of the number I bought over the four days?) and back into the hall for Justine in conversation with Lynne and chaired by Rachel Kiddey.
Justine started by declaring that in the morning she had been wandering the footpaths of Menabilly in Fowey, something she'd been doing since childhood. Thinking she'd been down every single one, this morning she'd come across a new one that crossed the old drive, and which looked just like it had been described at the beginning of Rebecca, completely overgrown and totally impassable.
Justine began by reading the beginning of her novel, which continues to bewitch me and make me want to dive into Daphne's world all over again. She also talked a little about the motivation for the novel and what was going on in Daphne's life that made her want to write a biography of Branwell Bronte - possibly the most famous failure in all literature.
Justine told her captivated audience that Du Maurier was very interested in the way fact and fiction could be blurred and how this influenced her own decision to write fiction rather than biography. Thus the scene was set for a conversation about the darkness of Du Maurier's life combined with the darkness of her fiction.

Lynne confessed herself nervous when the book arrived on her doorstep, mainly because loving both Daphne and the Bronte's work for so long, that she felt a little protective over them. Reading it, however, she loved it and thought that the fact and fiction combination was a clever way of getting the personality of this person across. The spectre of Rebecca glides through the narrative and we find ourselves very much accessing Daphne's thought processes.

Justine spoke of the magic that was a part of Du Maurier's work. Linked as she was to the
Llewelyn Davies' and Peter Pan Daphne couldn't help but recognise the malevolent nature magic sometimes has, and this crept into her novels at times. Also the unusually close relationship she had with her father created a tense atmosphere, and there is an element of incest in her novels that seems to spring out of that.

Justine was also affected by the magic, and the sense that writers can be haunted by those writers of the past. Justine bought books on the Brontes which had Daphne's own notes in them, and when researching Menabilly had stayed in the Gamekeeper's cottage with her son and dog, both of whom felt the presence of the two old ladies that had lived there .... ghosts are all part of the everyday when one gets involved with Daphne it seems.

I havn't dwelled on the questions part of any event thus far - mainly because it was impossible for me to listen and take down the essence of what was said at the same time. There were a couple of questions this time around, however, that really stuck in my mind.
Someone, presumably after hearing about the du Maurier connotation of 'menace' asked whether Justine thought pink a particularly dangerous colour ... which sort of brought the whole panel to a standstill ... until it transpired that this woman thought the cover was pink. Hmm - it's not really, it's a very deep red, which anyone who was read Don't Look Now will know is a particularly poignant colour. Lynne then came out with an interesting aside, which was that she often looks for patches of colour so she can quilt something that has a particular link with the book she's read. She can't find the red of the cover of Daphne for love nor money. (This question about red also answered a question I had had upon seeing the American hardback cover, which has a picture of a woman walking through some gates with a red umbrella. I couldn't for the life of me see the relevance of this, but I certainly do now!)

The other question that stuck out made me exceptionally glad that I was out of reach of the microphone ... a woman struck up with the fact that she had a deep mistrust of fiction that uses biography as its base, thinking that there was a terrible danger of creating a person very different from the one that existed. She wondered why an author couldn't just come up with a character of their own. Justine answered that it was what Daphne has herself done in quite a few of her novels, and even some that aren't direct biographical lifts have an element or two of biographical fact in them.
As I said, it's fortunate that I wasn't anywhere near a mike, or I might have launched into a rant that would have done nothing to help, and would have probably ruined the event! Having done a Masters in Life Writing (biography and autobiography) I know that the purest way of writing about a person is to write a factual account. However, I think there are times that this doesn't work. Some people have lived too full a life to make a full cradle to grave biography work (Henry James is a prime example). This is where fiction comes about .... if you're writing a novel about an actual person, it frees you up to focus on a small portion of a person's life, and you can create a whole new myth around them, so that people will go to the biographies. Fiction doesn't ruin the idea of biography, it merely enhances it.

Anyway, enough of my ranting. I didn't say any of this, not even when I heard the woman outside having the same conversation with a group of other people in deckchairs. I'd have probably frightened her!

Meanwhile, I had my last supper and then there was just time to have a last wander around the grounds before going to bed.

Ways With Words was a wonderful event, I've fallen in love with Dartington and you can bet I'll be back next year!

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