Rave Review – Dear Girl

Over the last 9.5 years as I’ve been writing “Echo Hall” I have been really conscious of a book I needed to re-read. “Dear Girl” is a collection of the letters and diary entries of two working women a hundred years ago, which I came across sometime in my early 20’s. It’s a brilliant account of how life was for Edwardian women, which I loved when I first read it. I’ve  been aware for a long time it would be helpful background for the central section of my novel, which is set in this period, but I’ve struggled to get hold of a copy. It wasn’t till this summer, when I made a radical decision to change my clunky middle from 3rd person narrative to a series of letters, that it became imperative for me to have another look. Unfortunately it’s out of print and  I’m a bit crap at finding things on-line, so I’m grateful my lovely Chris is brilliant at it and managed to track a copy down for me while we were on holiday. So when we got home my copy was waiting for me and I could dive straight in.

Sometimes you come back to a book and it is not quite as you remember it, but “Dear Girl” did not disappoint second time round. The collection of letters and diaries documents the friendship between Ruth Slate and Eve Slawson,  two ordinary women who met in their late teens and continued to be close friends until Eve’s untimely death in 1917. It’s an amazing slice of social history, showing what life was really like a hundred years ago. In a world without the NHS, Ruth’s first love, Ewan died of consumption, struggling to pay for his treatment. In a world without welfare, both Ruth and Eva witnessed their family members experience difficulties with job losses that led to uncertain income and the need to continually move from one precarious private rented situation to the next. Furthermore, they were expected to contribute to the family income, and were consequently confined to dull, meaningless jobs, when what they really wanted to do was write and learn.

When I read “Dear Girl” twenty years ago, I was struck with the parallels with my own life and my friendships with passionate, feminist women. At one point Ruth lived in Hornchurch, where my parents grew up. Her parents moved around South London, near to places I worked, ending up in Wood Green, which was just down the road from my home town, Southgate. Later, she moved to York, where I studied, and became a social worker, whilst I have worked in social care all my life. And I recognised in her intense, loving relationship with Eva, my equally intense relationships with so many of my wonderful friends. Coming back to it, this summer, just around the anniversary of the death of my friend Pip O’Neill, I felt this even more deeply. Everything about Ruth and Eva’s friendship reminded me of mine with Pip. Like Ruth and Eva, we met when we were young, and followed each other through many similar experiences (For Ruth and Eva this was developing an understanding of faith, embracing feminism, learning to fight their own corner, and then studying at Woodbrooke College, Birmingham. For Pip and I, it was working first in the voluntary sector and then for local government and studying at the LSE). And Pip, liked Eva, lived in Walthamstow, and was passionate about her local community. So when I reached the moment of Eva’s sudden death, I was in pieces, remembering the friend who died too soon, and grateful, as Ruth was for the community of friends she left behind, who helped me more then they can ever know.

So “Dear Girl” has two levels for me. It stands as an insight into a world where to be an independent woman meant struggle, heartache and conflict with everyone around. But it’s also a reflection on how the world we might live in now is very different, but the essentials of relationships never change.  It really is a tragedy that it is out of print, and I sincerely hope some feminist publisher will pick it up in future.

And thankfully, it also did the trick on the novel. Immersing myself for a fortnight in the language and style of Edwardian England, ensured my rewrites worked, and I’m convinced that my novel is much better as a result.

Ruth and Eva I salute you – two women who made an impact in ways they couldn’t have imagined.

Virginia and I

I can’t remember when I first heard the name Virginia Woolf, but I was probably quite small.  Our Dad was an English teacher and so we had most of the literary canon on our groaning bookshelves. Virginia being a relatively unusual name, I’m sure I would have noticed it and liked the connection with my own, without actually knowing anything about the author in question.

I’m not sure how old I was when curiosity got the better of me and  I picked up “To the Lighthouse.” but it was way too young. I was totally mystified. For pages and pages the characters talk about going to the lighthouse and then the weather is too bad and they don’t.  Then all of a sudden we’ve rolled forward a several years, and Mrs Ramsey has died. The father (who stopped the trip) wants to make the family go  but the kids are reluctant. It all seemed to me to be unbearably painful and frustrating, what was the point?. I knew enough about English literature to understand that Woolf was important,  but I decided she was too difficult for me, and I put her to one side.

It wasn’t till  a few years later, when my lovely twin Julia Williams was writing a dissertation on women writers that I began to wonder whether I ought to reconsider. Julia raved about A Room of One’s Own so much I had to give it a try, and of course, I was blown away. A few years after that  I signed up to a book catalogue. (In the days before Amazon, it was the cheapest way to get lots of books when when I could remember to put an order in.) Consequently I got a whole load of Woolf in as a job lot, Mrs Dalloway, A Room of One’s Own, Orlando and To the Lighthouse. And I fell in love. The trip to the Lighthouse that had puzzled me so much, revealed itself as an intimate account of family life, the moments that are precious, the moments you wish you’d acted differently, the inevitability of time passing. Orlando is just a total riot, zipping along with energy and zest and astonishingly for a novel written in the 1920’s it challenges gender, sexuality and the role of women in society. And Mrs Dalloway – well it’s just sublime isn’t it? The most perfect example of stream of consciousness I’ve ever read, weaving Clarissa Dalloway’s intimate thoughts with those of the crowds she wanders through, and poor doomed Septimus Smith, before returning to the heroine as she prepares for her party. It’s quite, quite brilliant.

So it was a no-brainer to name this blog after my heroine’s famous essay. Her dictum that a woman needs money and a room of her own has both resonated with me and made me furious enough to defy it…When I was young, I often used it as as the reason I didn’t write – I had a room of my own when single, but had to work for my money, and I never seemed to find the time. Once married the situation was reversed, we were better off, but I shared my space, first with my husband and then with our three children. It was only when I took a career break 10 years ago, that it struck me that I had been making excuses too long, and that if I didn’t start now, I never would. I started my writing career in a tiny two bedroom flat the five of us lived in at the time, hesitantly typing on the shared computer in our kitchen diner, when my youngest was asleep.  Alas he soon took to staying awake in the day, and writing time became harder to manage. It was a couple of years before I found a way to do it, by which time I was living in a more spacious environment, but working again, and having even less time. This was the moment when I realised Woolf was both right and wrong. Right, in that if you have independent means, and personal space, it is easier to be able to write. Wrong, in that, if you don’t have those things, but you do have the compelling need to write , you can’t let lack of them stop you.

Recently though I’ve found myself  criticising Woolf a bit…It was all right for her, I’ve occasionally thought,  she had a large house, independent wealth and no kids to distract her. No wonder she was a genius. I began to think she was a bit too upper class for me, not having to bother with a domestic life because servants did everything for her. It seemed a bit disloyal, but I couldn’t help myself. And I
 might have gone on thinking like that, if it hadn’t been for the biography of Virginia Woolf  Chris gave me for my birthday which I read on holiday. Although it was a little dry, it was full of information about Woolf that has made me re-appraise her completely. As I read I found myself emotionally connecting with  a woman who, like me  was one of 8 children (even if 5 were step siblings). Like me, her relationship with her father was volatile. Though her father was more severe, and controlling than mine, the descriptions of their stormy arguments and intense love reminded me of my own experience. (One critical difference was that my father encouraged me to write, whereas hers prevented her. She recognised if he’d lived she’d have never been a writer, I regret my father died before I started to be one). And one of the loveliest finds of the book was the letter from Leslie Stephens referring to Woolf as “Ginia” – the name my family always call me – which I read that on the beach at Manorbier, a place she sometimes stayed. At that point, I fell in love with her all over again.

Here was a woman who was sexually abused by her half brothers, yet refused to be a victim about it, learning to mock and deride them. A woman denied the University education of her brother, who managed to educate herself. A woman, who finally broke free after her father’s death and step brother’s marriage to become the greatest writer of her generation. And I realised she was, in fact,  less independently wealthy than I thought, needing to rent out rooms in her London home in order to stay there, and editing and writing articles from an early age to support herself. She was 33 before her first novel was published, and even then it took a while for her to be a critical success. I was reminded again what a  mental struggle it was for her to write, and how critical she was of her own work. And whilst I knew that she grappled with mental health problems for most of her life,  it was clear from the biography that she was lively, funny, acerbic.  I am sure had I ever met her I’d have enjoyed her company – she was so intelligent,  thoughtful, and though she was a self-confessed snob, she was committed to social justice, pacifism, anti-fascism just as I am. You can’t know about Woolf without knowing about the manner of her ending, how she filled her pockets with stones and drowned  herself in the river. And yet  I was still crying at the end of the book reading her last  words to her husband Leonard, so full of despair, but so full of love for him.

After that, when I spotted The Waves in Tenby’s only bookshop, I had to buy it, diving into another brilliant novel. An intense stream of consciousness that leaps through the minds of six characters, following them from childhood to middle-aged, interspersed with descriptions of waves on a beach from early morning to evening. It is a lyrical, poetical novel, that stirs the emotions and somehow captures the essence of life despite very little apparently happening. A work of art from a true original.

All in all, it’s been a great summer for reading, and the highlight for me has been Virginia Woolf.  The woman who lined my family bookcases in childhood, who at first mystified me, then later inspired me, has reminded me again how essential she is to my literary life. I know I will never be able to write at the level and quality of my namesake, but thanks to her, I continue to be inspired to try. And knowing about her creative struggles, helps me make sense of my own.