Monthly Archives: October 2013

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

‘… bullying, obnoxious, hypocritical, unpleasant, alienating, opportunistic, confrontational, monomaniacal, disloyal, dysfunctional, insufferably rude, foolish, grudge-bearing, and an anachronistic bigot.’ These are a selection of words used to describe a certain recently deceased politician. Can’t work out who it is? The answer is at the end of the blogpost. It could be a description of Angel Deverell, the main character in Elizabeth Taylor’s seventh novel. Both women had lots of power and very few friends.

60 Angel cover

The novel opens with a phrase from Angel’s composition called A Storm At Sea: ‘into the vast vacuity of the empyrean.’ A teacher is worrying about plagiarism. ‘Miss Dawson had gone through it in a state of alarm, fearful lest she had read it before or ought to have read it before. She had spent an agitated evening scanning Pater and Ruskin and others.’ Angel, the schoolgirl is the one who in ordinary circumstances would have been in a state of alarm. She is no ordinary girl. When she is challenged about the meaning of ‘empyrean’ she reacts thus:

“It means,” Angel said. Her tongue moistened her lips. She glanced out of the classroom window at the sky beyond the bare trees. “It means ’the highest heavens’.”

“Yes, the sky,” Miss Dawson said suspiciously. (p7)

It always pays to read the opening paragraphs of an Elizabeth Taylor novel with good attention. Angel, even as a schoolgirl, is able to write overblown prose, to demonstrate her vivid imagination and to meet challenge with disdain. But we are also invited, surely, to have some sympathy for her, for the teacher’s definition is much more prosaic than hers.

This novel tells the story of Angel’s life from girlhood at the end of the nineteenth century, in trouble with everyone in her town for her imaginative additions to real life, through her first novel, its success, her season in London, her marriage, widowhood, old age and finally her death.

In Angel Elizabeth Taylor has created a character who is monstrous; a writer of flamboyant and excessive fiction that is full of errors and anachronisms and other writerly solecisms (such as using real people’s names). The financial success of her novels came from the popularity of her overblown prose and the outrageousness of her style. Angel herself was certain that she should be spoken of in the same breath as Shakespeare and Goethe (whose name she could not pronounce).

She always supposed that everyone had read all of her books and had them nearly by heart, that they thought about them endlessly and waited impatiently for the next one to appear. (p133)

We learn through her publisher that she writes ‘with ignorance and imagination’. She has no sense of humour, no self-doubt and no judgement. Elizabeth Taylor is not above some humour at her subject’s expense.

“You are made to suffer?” he asked, then wished that he had not, dreaded a description of soul wrestling in the toils of creation; could not bear that he thought.

She touched her breast. “Here,” she said. “The most appalling indigestion. I think I breath badly when I am writing – hold my breath and then let it come in gasps. I feel cramped. Then when I stand up the pain begins – it is all right if I can belch. Why do you laugh?” (p134)

She never does anything, as they say, by halves, and for a while the public love her books and she becomes rich enough to buy the house she fantasised about in childhood. She commands loyalty of a kind, often from people who benefit from her books; her publisher, her mother, her husband, her companion and her manservant Marvell. She makes excessive demands on these people and they undertake her commissions because it is easier than dealing with her unreasonable anger. This is how her publisher Theo suffered:

He sometimes longed, too, to take a rest from the hazards of her correspondence. Two or three times a week, her letters, carelessly scrawled in violet ink, arrived at the office with her complaints about the insufficiency of his advertising, his lack of chivalry in not challenging her critics, the shortcomings of Mudie’s, the negligence of compositors. She accused him of cheese-paring; her advances, she said, were so niggardly as to be insulting. She mentioned great sums which had been paid by other publishers to other women novelists – to Miss Corelli and Miss Broughton – and suggested that from the fortune her books had provided him he was subsidising the bungled efforts of the other women writers on his list. “As it is by my industry that these poor little books are published at all,” she wrote, “it would merely be civil of you to acquaint me with your future plans for spreading this charity about.” (p76)

Angel is arrogant, rude, selfish and opinionated, and what she doesn’t like she ignores (such as her aunt, the First World War, critics, poverty, people who challenge her).

60 Angel new cover

Some readers shy away from picking up a novel with an unsympathetic protagonist. Why, they wonder, would they read a book about someone they don’t like? She is a very awful character, but it is her awfulness that makes Angel such a good read.

Even more interesting is why Elizabeth Taylor wrote about such a horrible character, and why she made her, of all things, a novelist? What does this novel offer us about the life of a writer?

At one level Elizabeth Taylor is offering a reflection on the novelist’s task, to provide an authentic narrative, one that is grounded in experience, a task in which Angel fails. This is part of her odiousness, she fails to be authentic and does not know it. ‘Greece was so disappointing. It was nothing like her novels.’ (p153).

Perhaps the author of Angel was also concerned about public reaction to excessive novelists such as Angel. Elizabeth Taylor was a writer of careful and crafted sentences, in whose narratives nothing much seems to happen. (Angels’ life was uneventful.) And Elizabeth Taylor was criticised for being too middle-class, too domestic, too unassuming in her material. Some of these criticisms came from fellow writers. She kept herself very private, rather quiet. Angel, by contrast, is slapdash, writes about what she does not know and draws attention to herself with her letters written in violet ink.

Despite these implied criticisms of Angel’s behaviour and writing, Elizabeth Taylor’s character evokes pity in the reader. You would not feel happy in her company, but you can admire her chutzpah, her daring, her rejection of the conventional. The striking image is of Angel as a flowering cactus, spikey and colourful.

She had found one living thing there among the flowerpots, a great cactus which had surprisingly survived, gross and bladdery; it looked as if it could keep going on its own succulence for years to come. (p148)

The extract that begins this blogpost comes from the review by Simon Hoggart in the Guardian on 19th October 2013 of the biography by Jonathan Aitken called Margaret Thatcher: power and personality.

The comparison of Angel and Mrs T does suggest that women who behave as they did provoke very strong reactions. How to be powerful and a woman without alienating people is an important question raised by the novel.

Other blogs reviews of Angel to check out are:

A Book Group of One

A few of my favourite books

60 Angel_posterA film was released in 2007 starring Ramola Garai as Angel. I’ve not seen it. Is it any good?


Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth novel was In a Summer Season (1961) and I will be reading it in November.

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Filed under Elizabeth Taylor's novels, Reading, Reviews

How can writers learn from feedback?

It isn’t any old feedback on their texts that writers need. To be effective, to help the writer improve, feedback needs three qualities: first – to be timely (while the writer is still wrestling with the text); second, to be specific (vague comments lead nowhere) and third to address their needs. The writer can indicate where help is needed, such as description, or pace or even the dreaded ‘show not tell’.


In a writing group the members have to agree practices and to be open about their beliefs or personal relationships will quickly deteriorate. In one group I belong to we do not allow each other to apologise for our writing. It’s not that we are unsympathetic to lack of time, or difficulty or the challenges of a novice, say. Rather, we have agreed that as readers of a text in normal circumstances we would not know about the circumstances in which it was written. It doesn’t help to know that the writer intended to give it another polish before they released it.

I offer the following guidelines based on discussion in a new group of writers, my own experiences and those of other writers (including in the books mentioned at the end of this post).

Guidelines for the writer receiving spoken feedback:

  1. You could specify in advance the aspects on which you want feedback.
  2. Be SILENT (ie don’t respond as you listen. This is very hard to do.)
  3. Make notes
  4. Respect the work done by your readers
  5. Review, revise and rewrite later, having considered all comments.

Points #1, 4 and 5 apply to feedback that is spoken or written.

Generally in the groups I belong to, we prefer to receive the extract in advance. The idea is that considered responses are likely to be more useful than those following a first reading, which is often out loud. Email, blogs and websites are a godsend for this.

Remember: You don’t have to take everything on board. The feedback is potentially very valuable because your writing eventually has to stand without you to defend or explain it, and you do not get many opportunities to discover how your writing has been received.

Guidelines for the writer giving feedback:

  1. Focus on the manuscript NOT the writer, but take care to be careful of writers’ feelings, for example of first time writers who may feel very vulnerable exposing their writing to others. This is a particular challenge with memoir or life writing.
  2. Be brief
  3. Nitpicks (spellings, typos, punctuations etc) should be written not spoken
  4. Tell the writer where you were confused, surprised, annoyed or delighted, which parts you liked, what worked for you and what didn’t. And why.
  5. Be wary of suggesting ways to fix problems. It’s not your writing.

One member of our new group has experience of an on-line critique group. It demanded of its participants that they commit to providing some feedback at least once a week. The site had some categories for structuring the feedback on novels and short stories:

Setting – providing a summary helps the writer see what made an impression, what was significant to readers.

Characters – comments on believability, depth, development and progress can be helpful.

Plot – is it moving forward?

Referencing – identifying the aspects that require previous reading of other parts of the text

Grammar and spelling

Personal opinion.

Remember: The task is not to judge the work, but to give the writer insight into the effects of their writing using words and phrases such as  ‘because’ or ‘I wonder…’ and ‘I notice that …’.

It sometimes seems to me that the giver of feedback learns more about writing than the receiver. It certainly requires more skill.


Some useful books:

Ursula K Le Guin, Steering the Craft (1998) The guidelines were adapted from this book.

Squaw Valley Community, Writers Workshop in a Book (2007)

Julia Bell & Paul Magrs, The Creative Writing Coursebook (2001)

Becky Levine, The Writing & Critique Group Survival Guide (2010)

I originally got some notes together for the Totnes Library Writing Group. Thanks to the members for the discussion and for enhancing my understanding of feedback.

Do you agree with the guidelines? How is it possible to stay silent? How does it work in your writing group? Let us know in the comments box below.


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Filed under Books, Writing

A visit from my inner critic

‘Oh I know what you mean! He’s exactly like mine!’ When I introduced my inner critic on this blog back in March there was a warming response; some readers said my inner critic was just like theirs, others recognised the character I had described as ‘a bit of an animal’ and others gave advice about how to deal with him (it is a him). And at the end of this blogpost I’ll share the best advice I have garnered.


I haven’t blogged about writing for a while, largely because I haven’t been doing much. And that’s because I have been unsettled by moving house (and life) to Devon. But I have been reading about writing. Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life by Anne Lamott featured in a list of the ten best books about writing. Bird by Bird is Number One on the, which impressed me because I had already read many of the featured books.

58 Bird by birdI have enjoyed Bird by Bird very much. Anne Lamott is worldly, generous, grounded and she gives practical advice with humour, supported by experience. She has two pieces of advice that are especially relevant to the inner critic. The first is that you only ever need to write ‘short assignments’. She explains:

All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains are still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out of the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car – just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing the woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her. (p18)

This is such useful advice when you are stuck and facing the revision of the first draft of a novel, as I am – just tackle one short assignment after another.

Her second valuable nugget is – remember, all first drafts are shitty. I felt so grateful to her when I read this paragraph about setting out to write that shitty first draft and being deflected by the dreaded inner critic.

What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?” And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on. And there are also the dogs: let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door on the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained. (p26)

Do you know what she means or even recognise these voices? I too hear such a cacophony and so my first step is identifying them. Here are the ones I hear most frequently:

My school teacher, Mrs Hunt, who wants me to slow down and practise, not write stories that never end. ‘Be reasonable Caroline, published authors have to refine what they write. And be merciful to your readers.’ Actually, Mrs Hunt, these days I love revising and editing and my short stories are all less than 5000 words.

‘This is very derivative,’ says the poet, Laurence Lerner, who damned my poetry 50 years ago. ‘Chopped up prose’ he observed then. He was right. I was devastated. He’s still going strong. I don’t write poetry these days. And my other writing has improved over the decades.

My novelist friend – a proper published novelist – (you know who you are) who says, very politely, very gently, and with affection, ‘hmmmm, one or two nice phrases, but …’ I should make it clear that I’ve never actually shown him any of my writing, so I have no idea what he would say. I am sure it would be very helpful, because he is that kind of person. [Inner critic: so perhaps you should ask him!]

And the voice I recognise as my own, my little Peperami, which says, ‘are you still trying to be a writer? Whatever has given you the idea you should persist since this is all so bad, boring and banal? Nobody’s asking you to write, you know!’ I just have to quiet that one until he gets tired of leaping around and saying the same thing.

58 Chekhov

Here are the strategies for dealing with these voices. I drown them out with my own mantra – I am learning to improve my writing. I write one short assignment after another. Chekhov said (according to Jurgen Wolf in Your Creative Writing Masterclass):

You must once and for all give up being worried about success and failure. Don’t let that concern you. It’s your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite steadily, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, and for failures. (p214)

I don’t think it is possible to give up worrying, to stop being concerned about success and failure. It’s not like giving up parsnips or the Sunday papers or red socks. But the Russian master’s observation that you just need to turn up at your writing desk echoes what so many writers say. It fits with Anne Lamott’s idea of the short assignment, and Hilary Mantel’s advice (also in the Masterclass. These quotations are included in the chapter about confidence, and that should tell us something.) This is what Hilary Mantel said:

If you are unpublished, you can still say to yourself, “I am a writer.” You should define yourself as such. (p217)

58 Mantel quoteSo next time my inner critic hangs around too long I’ll say, ‘Go away, or at least be quiet, unless you have something useful to suggest. I have a short writing assignment to do! And by the way, I’m working on improving my writing!’


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Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple

For the second Readalong in the older-women-in-fiction Book Group I have been reading Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple. Louisa Ashton’s life is more conventional than Claudia Hampton’s in Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger and she is a quieter person than Hagar Shipley in The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence. Her most attractive qualities are her steadfastness and generosity, and her love for her granddaughter, Rachel.

Louisa is first introduced to the reader through her portrait taken at the time of her marriage. Her youthful appearance is contrasted with the 56-year old Louisa at the Ashton clan’s Christmas table in 1909.

Louisa at the table was old, her hair was grey, she had no waist – not that she was fat, but her figure was gone past redemption – the trusting look had given way to a wise one, made wistful by a slight lift of the eyebrows. … She was a great housekeeper and derived great pleasure from looking after the bodily needs of other people. Their souls she dared not interfere with. (p2-3)

It can be quite a jolt to read that at 56 Louisa is already an old woman.

57 Endpapers

The novel follows the fortunes of her family for sixteen years from this event until 1925, when her granddaughter Rachel is 20. The main characters include her husband Robert (erring, suddenly and embarrassingly deceased), and her sons Jim (selfish, mean-spirited, full of his own worth) and Charles (her favourite, but regarded as useless and feckless by the males of the family and sent first to South Africa and then Malay before he joins up and is killed on the Western Front). Her daughters, Letty, Rose and Laura are all married, some more successfully than others.

The men do not emerge as good moral examples from this novel. Charles may be her favourite son, but he abuses Louisa’s goodwill and generosity, and in his casualness causes her pain. Her oldest son Jim is a very selfish creature, one of those sons who say things like ‘now I’m the head of the family’. He has no understanding of Louisa’s life or needs, has never considered her. In his own way he is as abusive as Charles, which Louisa mildly points out to him.

In a series of attacks by Ambrose and Jim, she placed herself firmly between them and Charles, and finally routed Jim by pointing out to him that he himself lived at Greenbanks at her expense.

‘You pay nothing here,’ she said, while he stared at her aghast. ‘If Charles pays nothing either, I see no difference between you.’ (p160)

Letty’s husband Ambrose is an entertaining character, but very destructive in his lack of imagination (all the men lack imagination except Charles who suffers from lack of realism). Ambrose’s behaviour is authoritarian towards his daughter, wife and mother-in-law, all in the name of appearance and convention. This is an interesting deviation from the assumption that older women are interested in keeping up appearances, minding what people think and say. Dorothy Whipple shows that in a conventional middle-class family of the time normality meant male selfishness, brutality, bullying, authoritarianism.

The women are flawed too but for the most part they are their own victims: Louisa is indulgent of Charles; Letty too keen to make a good marriage to notice that it would not make her happy; Laura follows her heart and causes scandal; Kate Barlow rejects Louisa’s kindness.

57 D Whipple

The scope of the novel – 16 years and 370 pages – allows Dorothy Whipple to follow the changes for women during this period. It was published in 1932. The rather unattractive Kate Barlow reveals some of these. She was a social outcast before the Great War but her transgression is less significant in the 1920s. And Rachel’s success in winning a State scholarship to study at Oxford indicates possibilities that a young Louisa could not have imagined. She is, however, opposed by her father who has a range of objections to the education of women, and to accepting ‘State aid’ for his daughter. He asserts his knowledge of what is best for her.

So what of the older woman in this novel? There are no counter-models in Greenbanks, and Dorothy Whipple is not endorsing early twentieth century conventional behaviour. Rather, she gives us a sympathetic portrait of an older woman, in whose life events are rarely dramatic. Her calm writing style depicts Louisa’s life as an accumulation of small events. She has been a witness to these events, rather than a player: her husband’s death; the emigration of her favourite son, his death in the Great War; her married daughter’s elopement; Kate Barlow’s infatuation with a celibate priest and her rejection of her own son. But when faced with difficult decisions and moral dilemmas Louisa consistently chooses the humane, the generous, the warm response over the mean-spirited and conventional stance recommended by the men.

The opening paragraph suggests that we should look beneath the surface and not accept things are as they are presented. Louisa appears conventional, but rejects conventional behaviour when it offends her more humane beliefs..

The house was called Greenbanks, but there was no green to be seen today; all the garden was deep in snow. Snow lay on the banks that sloped from the front of the house; snow lay on the lawn to the left, presided over by an old stone eagle who looked as if he had escaped from a church and ought to have a Bible on his back; snow lay on the lawn to the right, where a discoloured Flora bent gracefully but unaccountably over a piece of lead piping that had once been her arm. Snow muffled the old house, low and built of stone, and of no particular style or period, and made it look like a house on a Christmas card, which was appropriate, because it was Christmas Day. (p1)

And, like a silver thread, beginning with the opening scene at the Christmas table through to Rachel’s assertion of herself in the face of her father’s authority aged 20, Louisa stands by Rachel. A lovely model for grandmothers everywhere. Rachel is fully aware of everyone’s debt to Louisa, as the following exchange, near the end, shows. Rachel asks her grandmother to prepare Kate Barlow for a second visit from her son.

‘Eh, dear me,’ sighed Louisa. ‘You do give me some uncomfortable jobs …’

‘We do don’t we?’ said Rachel, laughter in her eyes. ‘We lead you an awful life. But what should we do without you I can’t think! Everybody depends on you, precious! Deserted husbands descend on you, defaulting wives apply to you for divorce, vicars, who go too far, place the onus of their celibacy on you, and now you have to prepare an unaccommodating mother to receive her son! And you’re such a little mild thing, darling! I could laugh at the sight of you, bless you!’ (p348)

This picture, called A June Interior, was suggested on The Persephone Post as a good representation of the relationship at the heart of Greenbanks. It’s by Louis Ginnet (at the Ditchling Museum/PCF).

(c) Jeremy Carden; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Dorothy Whipple deserves to be better known. Persephone has been republishing her novels and short stories are they are among their top sellers.

  • Someone at a distance
  • High Wages
  • They were sisters
  • The Priory
  • They knew Mr Knight

Three blogs reviews of Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple that I enjoyed can be found here:



Fleur in her World


NOTE: The next older woman in fiction Readalong will be in December: A Reckoning by May Sarton, first published in 1978.


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Filed under Books, Older women in fiction, Reading, Reviews

Write one picture

First find your post cards. Not so easy when you have just moved house and got thoroughly bored with emptying large cardboard boxes. I had to up-end myself into a not yet unpacked tall box to find my collection of post cards. I keep them in a shoe box, which if it wasn’t made for shoes might have been made for pcs.

It is some time since I came across the National Gallery’s brilliant programme for primary kids and their teachers called Take One Picture. It’s been going for about ten years. I have seen primary classes do amazing, inventive, creative, studious, collaborative, fanciful activities stimulated by this programme. The teachers attend a training session and then return to their class to help their students explore an aspect of the primary curriculum. It might be geometry, music, maths, play acting, story telling, drawing, science … I try to visit the annual Take One Picture exhibition at the National Gallery every year to enjoy the inventiveness of the school children. I will never forget the play based on the little girl with the hoop in Renoir’s picture of the umbrellas.

reni1 004

Write one picture is a writing activity. You might have come across versions of it on writing courses. The purpose is to stir the imagination. The tutor gives each participant a postcard and then allows ten minutes or so of silence while they write away: a story, a description, something NOT connected with the picture … I see it as a version of ‘Take One Picture’, an invitation to explore and practice writing in different genres, from a variety of points of view, description, dialogue, character, and so on.

For an example for this blogpost I chose a painting by Whistler (on display in Tate Britain) called Miss Cicely Alexander, Harmony in Grey and Green, dated 1872. First I made a list of 10 ways in which I could use this picture to practice writing:

  1. In the style of Henry James or Edith Wharton
  2. Description of the dress, the setting, the girl’s character
  3. A story from the perspective of the subject, Cicely
  4. A meditation on grey and green in words
  5. A story in the 3rd person,
  6. A story from the perspective of someone looking at the painting
  7. Cicely looking back at her portrait after 50 years
  8. The picture as an object in a story
  9. A scene that includes the reaction of someone seeing the painting in the gallery
  10. A letter regarding the commission of the work.

Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander 1872-4 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

With some trepidation I offer some starts to such exercises that I have undertaken recently. These, please note, are responses to prompts, not examples of my polished, edited prose. (Of course I edited them a bit. My inner critic would not let me expose raw text – ‘shitty first drafts’ as Anne Lamott would say in Bird by Bird). The activity is a starter, to prompt the imagination and some writing.

  1. The older brother’s comments.

It always makes me laugh, that hat! D’you remember? If I’ve got it right, it belonged to the Head Gardener’s daughter. It was-

Yes, but Mama had given it to h-

-the only one anyone could find that was green. He insisted on green, that Mr Whistles. Hah! The hat of a gardener’s daughter. How he liked a joke!

Yes but I didn’t have to wear-.

And the feather. I think that came from the milliner’s ragbag.

Yes, but she made the most expensive-

Another of Mr Whistles’s joke. And the veil on your dress!

2. Cecily’s thoughts as she poses

Last year this dress was everything I wanted. Last year! This year it’s just too young. And I hate the way he makes me pose. It’s an older person’s pose. Too young dress, too old pose. Nurse keeps telling me not to put not to slouch. Always not to do something. Oh and now he wants me to hold that hat. It’s not even mine! At least I don’t have to wear it. I wonder if he would notice if I swapped my feet around, put the right one in front? This is so boring, boring, boring. Nurse says again, ‘don’t sulk dear, wind’ll change’.

  1. Cecily’s thoughts 50 years later.

My brother has asked me what he should do with the portrait father had painted of me when I was 14. He’s terminally ill, my brother, and wishes to settle things. We are both in our seventies now, and live worlds away from our childhoods. I inspected the painting as I left his house. How surely even sulky I look, yet at that time I had no cause to be unhappy (except for standing in that frock so still, so long and being fourteen). All the unhappiness of my marriage, the failure of the meat packing business, the Great War which took both my grandsons, and my daughter who died in the influenza epidemic just as it ended. Papa had money, and wanted to show it off, but he behaved like a medieval king in the matter of his daughter’s marriage. Mr Hetherington-Wallace was not as good a match for me as he was for Papa. Papa would have been even more horrified than my son and son-in-law at my involvement with the suffragists. I never wore that hat. It was Mama’s. Mr Whistler purloined it for his picture. It made my hand ache to hold it. Give it to a museum, I told my brother. It’s not me.

  1. Whistler’s letter

Dear Mr Alexander,

I am in receipt of your commission for a portrait of your daughter Cicely. Honoured as I am that you have asked me to undertake this commission following your visit to my studio last month I need to make clear my terms. I do not paint mere portraits, rather studies, etudes in paint. While I fully understand that you wish to favourably place your daughter on the market in society, and a portrait by such an eminent artist as myself would achieve this aim, I have my own purposes for undertaking any commission. My study of colour could be furthered by such an undertaking only so far as your daughter is pretty and well dressed. I desire that she will wear a white dress, and I will visit your house next Thursday to choose the room in which to engage in my art and to arrange any accoutrements for the sitter. I demand complete quiet, no interruptions and absolute silence from my subjects, especially when they are scarcely more than children.

If you can see your way to agreeing to my terms, then I will accept the commission and beg leave to commence in six weeks on the Tuesday morning.

Yours etc


You will notice that I have strayed outside my list, but that I have picked up different voices, different time perspectives, different narrative frames for these little pieces. I should make clear that I have not tried for historical accuracy as I don’t know what happened to Cecily Alexander, and whether she had an older brother; I have been inventive. I notice that it allows for playfulness, or to focus on something out of the obvious.

The activity taps into an amazing aspect of writing, in this case rendering in words something visual. And, in turn, it encourages me to look more attentively at this painting.

Do you have a favourite and/or productive writing activity?


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Books about books

Writers are told, ‘write about what you love!’ Here’s a list of all kinds of books about books, written by people who love them.

55 It's a book

1. It’s a Book! Lane Smith. A children’s book. Worried about children being attached to screens at the expense of the page? You wont be when you have read this. For the publisher’s trailer go here.

55 Eyre Aff

2. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Great fun, especially if you know the original. The Literary Tec, Tuesday Next, needs to straighten out a parallel universe. Reader, will she marry him? Nicely presented LA Times review here.

4. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman. A series of enchanting essays about books, countering the trend ‘that books are so often written about as if they were toasters’. The author talked to Robert McCrum about her writing: you can find it here.

55 HE on the l

5. Howard’s End is on the Landing by Susan Hill. She decided not to buy any books for a year and to immerse herself in those she already owned. A writer’s taste in books explored. Bloggers didn’t always like it but The Captive Reader did.

6. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. A novel narrated by Death about a girl in Munich in the early ‘40s who steals books. A present from my niece.  Inevitably it’s been turned into a film.

55 If on a

7. If on a winter’s night a traveller … by Italo Calvino. A novelist’s novel that can be described as postmodern if you like that kind of thing. Each chapter is written in a different style, and linked by the idea of a particular book. You had to read it … David Mitchell, whose own work, such as Cloud Atlas, plays with form and interrupted narratives, paid tribute to this novel back in 2004 in the Guardian.

33 F Prose

8. Reading like a Writer by Francine Prose, subtitled A guide for people who love books and for those who want to write them, includes a chapter called Books to be read immediately. Help, I haven’t even heard of some of these. I’ve praised this book before in a post called Reading for Writers on this blog: here.


STOP PRESS: Just as I finished writing this post I have received two more books about books.

So Many Books by Gabriel Zaid, a present from my sister. It’s a provocative book about book production its economics and its meaning today.

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe, a library reservation. The author and his mother discuss life and books as her life comes to a close.

My late arrivals notwithstanding, please add your nominations for #9 & #10 to this list?


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Filed under Books, Reading, Writing