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A Room of one’s own… or not?

Some reflections on needing space to write, written before lockdown…

Published by Aurora Metro

By Anne Sebba

A Room of one’s own… or not?

Sitting, standing, working or simply being alone is a necessary condition for any writer. At least relatively alone. Some journalists are able to block out the background noises of a hectic newsroom and be alone in their heads to find the stillness and stimulation necessary to create. Luckily I trained in such a noisy, frenetic newsroom in the days when Fleet Street was synonymous with such places. I worked alongside reporters, often called firemen, never firewomen, who really did wear trench coats and dangled cigarettes as if they had just emerged from the set of a Hollywood detective movie. There were no remotely female friendly shops or cafes, just smoky pubs, where ‘a lead’ or ‘a scoop’ was discussed. It was the early 1970’s, less than 30 years after the end of World War 2. Yet I failed to realise how close it was to that War until I had to do nightshifts and would park just below St Paul’s in a bomb crater repurposed as a large open car park. On those occasions, the graveyard shift, the news floor was truly silent. But the rest of the time the shouting and bustle, fury and adrenaline (or was it testosterone?) trained me not to be precious about needing silence. But silence is precisely that: precious.

My first full length book after I left Reuters (or, more correctly, after they asked me to leave when they learned I was pregnant) was a biography of the novelist and playwright Enid Bagnold, a Sussex neighbour of Virginia Woolf who longed for Woolf’s admiration.  I learnt from Bagnold as much about the art of writing itself as about carving out the time to write.  If I could only have imbibed by osmosis the way she eschewed clichés. Her own birth she described as ‘sperm shot across two centuries to arrive at me.’ Such an earthy – and original – simile was typical of her prose, which she once described as ‘beautiful vomit’. But she also gave practical advice to mothers trying to write with children at home in the days before going to a coffee shop to set up your laptop was the norm. Go into your study, she advised, assuming every woman had such a room, and close the door whether you are writing or not. Find something to work at even if just a letter. Today social media makes this all too easy but of course is usually little more than a distraction, displacement activity.

A Room of one’s own… or not?

And yet recently (with age?) I have started to think differently about needing absolute silence. Now that I have so much of it, I am not sure I am so keen on it. After all I am often the one to speak out loud while writing recognising that sometimes I need to hear how the cadence works. Let’s agree for the moment, ninety years after Virginia Woolf herself wrote her ground breaking text, about the inviolable principle of a room of one’s own, especially for a woman who may be able to write only in the snatched interstices of a day caring for children. But when we emerge from that room just how much interaction is useful with readers?

What about another room in which to share what you have written? Although nobody else but you is going to create the book, article or short story, many writers find some measure of collaborative effort and discussion (or just plain editing) a necessary spur or corrective. Most writers strike a balance; do the initial creating alone but have a first reader – a spouse, partner, professional editor or grown child with whom to discuss what you’ve written. (Although perhaps it’s not such a good idea to be in the same room when this first reader reads.  Shouldn’t you let them undertake this poisoned chalice of a task alone, out of earshot of any grimaces or groans? )

How do I manage this balance of solitariness versus the rest of life?  I invent small treats or rewards for myself, as insignificant as going to the local supermarket. Sometimes I go for walks in Richmond either along the river or through the park and since I live within a stone’s throw of where Virginia herself lived and worked – Hogarth House in the for her not so aptly named Paradise Road – it is hard not to wonder if the source of my peace of mind and inspiration was ever a source for her?  Since she produced some of her finest work during the decade she was here I cannot believe that Richmond was wholly inimical to her creativity. Other times, I give lectures around the country and travel to research information which may well be extraneous to my overall subject simply to make sure I have some interaction with the rest of the world. I like it when other people say to me:  ‘Have you read this book? Have you thought of that approach? Have you considered interviewing X?’ Sometimes I might even take my laptop to work on in bed … it’s a temporary room of my own but I like to feel the vibrations of life elsewhere in the household.

But there is of course alone and total isolation and most of my writer friends dislike total isolation but crave alone in short bursts.

All of this has been brought into sharp focus for me by my current preoccupation: I am writing a biography of Ethel Rosenberg, a woman sent to prison in 1951, living in solitary confinement for the last two years of her life, who wrote to her husband in another part of the prison regular letters of powerful emotional depth, insight and (in my view) some literary ability. Both Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been condemned to death for conspiracy to commit espionage and could see each other only occasionally when he was brought to sit in a cage next to her cell. They could not touch. Yet, when the letters were published, some anti-communist critics criticised Ethel’s style as ‘petit bourgeois’ or ‘full of bathos’ or complained that she tried too hard because she used a dictionary to find a more unusual word and a notebook to store phrases. It’s a salutary reminder for me that what I may consider being alone is a far cry from this; total isolation. I find it extraordinary that she wrote at all, that she (mostly) kept her spirits above the lowest depression level and functioned as a dignified human being with fire in her belly and integrity. Pretentious? Striving for effect? What writer doesn’t strive for that, male or female, whether in a room of one’s own, a prison cell or a crowded noisy café? We may need a room of our own most of the time but we need to feel the vibrations of life as well. Some of us need that more than others.

Ethel Rosenberg : An American Tragedy will be published in UK and US in June 2021

How Chickens helped soothe my Grief

One thing I never thought I would be doing this summer was mucking out a smelly chicken coop. I’m fond enough of animals (well, dogs) but nobody would describe me as the rustic type.

But then I also never thought I would be saying goodbye to my beloved life partner and husband of 43 years. The two are not unconnected.

Read More

Women in Public Places

Millicent Fawcett Statue

Walking around London these days it’s hard not to be struck by the number of large, often life-sized bronzes in public places. In a selfie obsessed generation, tourists can often be seen posing on the bench in Bond Street in between a rigid Churchill and Roosevelt. Yet a mere 3% of all statues in public places are of women. What a pathetically shocking statistic. And most of those are of Queens or allegorical figures. How can we expect children to grow up with a healthy view of diversity and range of careers open to them if all they see around them are images of successful men?

There is a major statue of Millicent Fawcett by the artist Gillian Wearing being prepared for Parliament Square to commemorate the anniversary of (some) women being granted the vote in 1918. Wearing’s design will show Fawcett in her prime, aged 50 in 1897, the year the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies was formed. Some 52 other suffragist campaigners who fought for the right to vote for women will at least have their images engraved on the plinth.

About time too. But even that may not yet go ahead if planning permission is refused. I was asked this week to write in support of the statue to the City of Westminster Millicent Fawcett Statue

And I have just spent an hour or so talking about Virginia Woolf and the need to have her commemorated in Richmond-upon-Thames where she lived for about ten years from 1915- 1924 and I now live and work. You might think that Richmond would abound with blue plaques and busts of one of its most famous residents, one of the most famous women writers of the last century, a brilliant diarist and the founder of literary modernism. But no. Because Virginia suffered from severe mental illness throughout her life and made a remark, often quoted, about Richmond and death (she would, she said, if given the choice prefer the latter) it is assumed she hated living here. In fact it was a highly creative period for her. She wrote short stories in Richmond, her first novel, ‘The Voyage Out,’ was published the year she moved in and, together with husband Leonard Woolf, began publishing at the Hogarth Press, which they founded in Richmond.

My words were being filmed for a promotional video intended to help raise money for the Virginia Woolf statue, the first ever full figure life-size bronze depiction of her. There is a campaign underway to fund the statue, which has already been designed by award-winning sculptor Laury Dizengremel and which has Virginia seated on a bench. It will deliberately show a smiling, friendly Virginia, in the hope that young people will set next to her and feel something of her spirit and be inspired. For more information or better still to donate go to https://aurorametro.org/virginia-woolf-statue/

The Questions People Ask

One cover, two books

After giving several talks about Les Parisiennes and speaking to reading groups about the choices facing women in Occupied Paris, I now realise what the number one question from the audience is: what would you have done? I also realise that I don’t have a clear cut answer and have found myself saying different things on different occasions. It is an impossible question. I have always shied away from ‘what if’ questions on any historical subject. We cannot re-create all the other variables that go into making one straightforward answer. If I were a mother I would do one thing (sleep with a Nazi if it meant giving a crust of bread to my child and my action was not treasonable?) If I were a daughter of elderly parents I might do another, if I were a singer or dressmaker would I sing to a German audience or make clothes for a German woman? Who knows? On Monday I might do one thing on Friday another, in 1941 what might be murky could be clear cut by 1944. Would I deliberately cause trouble by walking out of a restaurant if the enemy walked in: what purpose would be achieved by that? Would I instigate a revolt in a prison if by my actions others would suffer? How do I (or those of my generation who have grown up in peace) begin to imagine what it felt like to be frightened, to feel a permanent visceral sense of tension?

Every talk I give results in a fresh set of questions focusing on different aspects of my book. It keeps me on my toes. This week I was asked why didn’t French women instigate more revolts against the Occupiers? Why aren’t there more women in French politics today? (Actually, I think there are quite a few).  Which characters do I like best and what have I learned from my research? And it is not just old people in my audience asking the questions. I have had young history teachers who flatteringly tell me they wish they had brought their ‘A’ level class. I am often asked: What happened to all the Franco-German babies?

Often, the questions aren’t questions at all but statements; so many people have stories of their own that they want to share of an aunt who survived a camp, or of an uncle who was killed, or of a friend of a friend. Did I by any chance come across this particular woman or, is it okay to publish the diaries of someone who their mother knew during the war but did not survive? Often there are questions which I am barely qualified to answer but I can usually refer the questioner to someone who would be and then this torrent that seems to have been unleashed usually has to be stopped or we’d overrun our time. None of my other books provoked this amount of questioning.

 

Reviewing the reviews

Reviewing the reviews

One of the few enjoyable aspects of reading reviews of one’s own books (amid the violent heart lurchings which ensure that some authors determinedly never read their own reviews) is seeing what different aspects or anecdotes strike a chord with different reviewers.

One that several reviewers have noted with Les Parisiennes, and which is key to my book, is what women do in extremis to survive and what survival means to different people. I have written a piece for this month’s PORTER magazine about how some women in Paris under German Occupation believed that remaining stylish was key to their self-respect and even a form of resistance as it proved their determination not to give in.

Lucy Yeomans, in the editor’s letter, commented “at times of uncertainty fashion has historically responded with both flair and flamboyance …a subject touched upon in Les Parisiennes…”

In terms of world politics, it is hard to imagine a less certain time. Will Britain (or world fashion) manage to respond to this time with either flair or flamboyance? It would be good to think so!

Watch this space!

Read the review here