'From the beginning, Davies saw writing as a matter of recording communications from the unconscious. In a light-hearted 1948 talk, he described the process, basing his account on "a certain amount of practice and a few vague intuitions." When an idea occurred to him that seemed "to demand embalming" he would immediately jot it down, lest it vanish, in a notebook he always carried for the purpose. Then the idea would seem "to acquire a life of its own," presenting itself in dramatic form, growing and sometimes transforming itself utterly, until it settled into a final shape. Only then, when it had become "an aching tooth which has to be pulled," would he commit the play to paper. He has described the process of writing his plays and novels in similar terms ever since. When an interviewer asked, soon after the publication of Fifth Business*, how he went about developing a character, he replied: "You don't. The character arises in your imagination and then you go ahead. I know this sounds terribly pompous and grandiose, but you don't really do it; it's something that happens and you write it down. You can't sit down and say, 'Now, I think I'll think up a funny Jesuit,' and do it, because you'll get a mass of eccentricities; you won't get a live person. But if one arises in your mind, and he's got all his oddities and you see him hopping around and doing things, then you just write down about it. This is what imagination is. It's not invention, you're more passive than that. You listen to your ideas; you don't tell them what to do." And in 1989, after describing the writing of Fifth Business, he concluded: "It is this sort of explanation, I know, which persuades some critics that an author is an idiot savant, who does not know what he is doing. But that is a misunderstanding of the creative process. The author may not know consciously every detail of his story when he begins it, but his Unconscious knows, and it is from the Unconscious that he works." '
You can read the full story here, but wasn't there a similar thing a few years ago called the McLuhan test which involved page 69, suggesting there's nothing new under the sun ...
For fun I picked up a favourite novel of mine, One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes (there's a very early Cornflower post on it here, should you not already know it) and looked at p.112 - it's as perfect as any other page in that book.
The Robertson Davies biography I'm currently reading has on p. 112 a good example of Davies' early experiences providing material for his later novels. The same goes for p. 125 from which I'll quote because it's more of a curiosity:
At boarding school in Toronto, Davies had a Scottish music master called Richard Tattersall -
"In World of Wonders he made use of one of Tattersall's tales to establish the way the immensely rich and powerful Jeremias Naegeli lived in his Swiss castle, Sorgenfrei. Years before, Tattersall had responded to a Glasgow newspaper advertisement - 'Organist wanted for employment in a private house. Must be a gentleman' - and found that his employer was to be the millionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The organist's duties at Skibo Castle, Carnegie's great country house, were specific but not onerous. He was to play Bach chorales while Carnegie ate his breakfast, and after a free day, he and Carnegie's many male secretaries would be responsible for taking any unaccompanied ladies in to dinner (the reason a gentleman was wanted). After dinner he was to hold himself ready as soloist or accompanist, whichever was required."
If you're interested in reading about a timeless - and highly demanding - way of life; living with a deep-rooted connection to a place, and all that that means; a necessary, keen awareness of the natural year; farming sustainably in respect of the landscape; people who are "tuned to a different channel"; shepherding, and the ways of sheep, then I strongly recommend you get hold of a copy of The Shepherd's Life.
It's a very down-to-earth, clear-eyed account of the author's own family history and how it has formed him, and of the rhythms, customs and practices which make up a Herdwick sheep farmer's life in the valleys and on the fells of the Lake District. It's illuminating, engrossing, and excellent.
So far, so very good: I'm finding Claudia Renton's prize-winning biography of "three sisters at the heart of power", Those Wild Wyndhams, thoroughly engrossing. It's described as "a spellbinding chronicle of the last days of Edwardian England," and while I'm still in the Victorian period with the girls as youngsters, it's gathering pace and promising much interest.
To return to Thursday's post for a moment, Patrick Leigh Fermor mentions Mary Russell Mitford and Our Village in one of his letters to Deborah Devonshire quoted in In Tearing Haste. MRM was a member of the same Northumberland family from which DD (née Mitford) was descended, and she replies with the following aside:
"When the French Lady(i) wrote Highland Fling(ii) Lady Redesdale(iii) suggested it should be called Our Vile Age (see?) but Evie(iv) had just done Vile Bodies so it wasn't."
"If choice must be between two seasons, each so full of charm, it is at least no bad philosophy to prefer the present good, even whilst looking gratefully back, and hopefully forward, to the past and the future."
From Our Village by Mary Russell Mitford; the cover from my 1909 edition (J.M. Dent, English Idylls series) is shown here.
I'm reading Humphrey Carpenter's most interesting Secret Gardens: A Study of the Golden Age of Children's Literature, and I've reached the chapter on Kenneth Grahame. Carpenter identifies two poles of personality in Grahame, the Wanderer and the Home-lover, and says that all his writing was a product of the tension between those two, The Wind in the Willows being "the outstanding result of it".
Tracing the home-lover aspect, Carpenter refers to the many moves Grahame had to make during childhood and remarks,
"[they] must have played a part in his obsession with creating a snug, little home for himself, which runs through The Wind in the Willows (Mole End, Rat's bachelor home, Badger's splendid underground quarters) and may also be discerned in his early essays and letters. To a friend, he confessed that he had a recurrent dream of
'a gradual awakening to consciousness in a certain little room, very dear and familiar ... always the same feeling of a home-coming, of the world shut out, of the ideal encasement. On the shelves were a few books - a very few - but just the editions I had sighed for, the editions which refuse to turn up, or which poverty glowers at on alien shelves. On the walls were a print or two, a woodcut, an etching - not many ... All was modest - Oh, so very modest! But all was my very own, and, what was more, everything in the room was exactly right.' "
As we enter October I've looked back at my reading journal (kept since 2002) to see what I was reading on this day in previous years. Unsurprisingly, some books remain vivid in the memory while others have faded. I've marked with an asterisk the ones I'd particularly recommend.
Have I lived a good life? What have I done for others that they will miss me when I'm gone? These self-interrogations crowd in upon us as we grow old, and according to taste can be either a spur to action or a counsel of despair. In reading Henry Marsh's story of his career as a neurosurgeon, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death and Brain Surgery, there are many dark episodes of unmerited suffering or sudden, cruel tragedy; lives ruined or cut short in spite of, or worse still because of the efforts of medical science. But this is not a fatalistic misery memoir. The author is a humane and generous man who is well aware that the patients under his knife are not anaesthetised specimens but real human beings, with their own sometimes messy and complicated lives, and it is this sympathy - in the literal sense - which shines through the whole book. He is frank about his mistakes, frustrated by the often bizarre bureaucracy of the NHS, but through all the confusion there emerges a bracing but ultimately positive message. Life is precious and fragile; any of us may be struck down at any minute; but that makes it all the more important to savour life and to treat other people well. This is an exceptional book by an exceptional and admirable person.
'He should take care to produce books at regular short intervals. He may continue this process for years without any really striking result in fame or money, and he may pessimistically imagine that his prolonged labours are fruitless. And then newspapers will begin to refer to him as a known author, as an author the mention of whose name is sufficient to recall his productions, and he will discover that all the while the building of his reputation has been going on like a coral reef.
'Even mediocre talent, when combined with fixity of purpose and regular industry, will, infallibly, result in a gratifying success.
'But it must never be forgotten that while the reputation is being formed, the excellent and amiable public needs continuous diplomatic treatment. It must not be permitted to ignore his existence. At least once a year, and oftener if possible, a good solid well-made book should be flung into the libraries.' "
I've been in New York for a few days, staying - appropriately - here.
Mr. C. and I occupied the Biography room at the hotel; each floor is dedicated to one of the ten major categories of the Dewey Decimal System, and within that each room reflects a topic and is lavishly supplied with books accordingly, so we had much good reading from which to choose.
I am only a few pages from the end of Linda Lear's excellent Beatrix Potter: The extraordinary life of a Victorian genius, and I've been spinning it out, reluctant to leave not only a meticulously researched, beautifully written biography, but also the Lakeland world of the last century, and the book's very detailed picture of Beatrix and her abiding interests and passions. If you're at all interested in the subject, I recommend it most highly.
" 'If it were not impertinent to lecture one's publisher,' [Beatrix Potter told Harold Warne], thoroughly exasperated with his literary timidity, 'you are a great deal too much afraid of the public for whom I have never cared one tuppenny-button. I am sure that it is that attitude of mind which has enabled me to keep up the series. Most people, after one success, are so cringingly afraid of doing less well that they rub all the edge off their subsequent work.' "
Beatrix was writing to her publisher about The Tale of Mr. Tod, a departure from her previous books in that the principal characters were villains. Her original opening lines ran, 'I am quite tired of making goody goody books about nice people. I will make a story about two disagreeable people, called Tommy Brock and Mr. Tod.'
In the end a compromise was reached, 'Beatrix agreed to drop "goody goody books" and substituted "well-behaved" for "nice" ', but it's her self-assurance in the face of her publisher's conservatism which I find so interesting.
"Beatrix wrote to Norman Warne just after Christmas with obvious pleasure, 'Did you ever happen to see a review of the Tailor in The Tailor and Cutter, the paper which the mouse on the bobbin is reading?' She had given a copy to her old Chelsea tailor, who in turn, had shown it to a traveller from the trade journal telling him how Beatrix had sketched his shop. The 'beautiful review', as Beatrix called it, appeared appropriately on Christmas Eve. It read:
... we think it is by far the prettiest story connected with tailoring we have ever read, and as it is full of that spirit of Peace on Earth, Goodwill to Men, we are not ashamed to confess that it brought the moisture to our eyes, as well as the smile to our face. It is got up in choicest style and illustrated by twenty-seven of the prettiest pictures it is possible to imagine."