The sun shone so warmly on Tuesday that it made a welcome addition to our small party headed to Edinburgh for our second day of bookish events. We’d read and discussed The Little Stranger at length in advance of Sarah Waters’ spot but we learned some new things too.
Waters talked about the gothic of everyday life, how gothic provided an ‘idiom or vocabulary’ to explain anxieties, and she spoke of the writerly challenge of moving dialogue and plot from an insight into the Victorian underside, her ‘usual’ period, when it was ‘easier to get away with making it up’, to a time-period within living memory.
Waters explained how she’d deliberately chosen a ‘red brick Georgian House’, one that was ‘rational, square, light’ as a contrast to the unexplained goings-on inside the house and she admitted that in the book she includes ‘gestures’ to other creepy literary houses: The Fall of the House of Usher (which also has a Roderick), Rebecca’s ‘Manderlay’, Miss Havisham’s house in Great Expectations and also Bleak House. Surprisingly, Josephine Tey’s, The Franchise Affair also got a mention.
Waters talked about the historical background of Tey’s book and said she’d been influenced by Tey’s reworking of an event from the past (eighteenth century) into the post-war era to reflect a time of fracture and dislocation in society. The IIWW provides an important backdrop to The Little Stranger. However, as one of our party pointed out before the talk, Faraday doesn’t mention his war experiences in the book. It’s more a cumulative effect through Faraday, Betty and the Ayers’ family, Faraday and Caroline’s relationship, and through the crumbling decay of Hundreds Hall, that Waters depicts the break-up of class-society.
Quite a bit of time was spent on poltergeists and ghosts. Waters spoke of her interest in ghostly goings on and in the paranormal, although she didn’t come down on any one side or the other about whether she believed in their existence. She’d left it up to the reader, she said, to determine the ending and the ultimate meaning of the menace that haunts Hundreds Hall.
The best part of the hour, though, although it was all very good, was the end Q&A session. One particularly acute questioner asked about ‘possession’ and wondered whether the early scene where Farady takes the acorn is a ‘gesture’ towards ‘the rape of the lock’ and whether it refers to Faraday’s desire to possess Caroline and through her, the house.
It is the opening scene when Faraday, aged ten, visits Hundreds Hall for the first time. His mother, a former servant, leaves him for a minute and he explores the forbidden territory of the house alone. Here’s the scene from The Little Stranger, p. 3.
I was an obedient child as a rule. But the curtain opened onto the corner junction of two marble-floored passages, each one filled with marvellous things; and once she had disappeared softly in one direction, I took a few daring steps in the other. The thrill of it was astonishing. […] I was drawn to one of the dustless white walls, which had a decorative plaster border, a representation of acorns and leaves. I had never seen anything like it, outside of a church, and after a second of looking it over I did what strikes me now as a dreadful thing: I worked my fingers around one of the acorns and tried to prise it from its setting; and when that failed to release it, I got out my penknife and dug away with that. I didn’t do it in the spirit of vandalism. I wasn’t a spiteful or destructive boy. It was simply that, in admiring the house, I wanted to possess a piece of it—or rather, as if the admiration itself, which I suspected a more ordinary child would not have felt, entitled me to it. I was like a man, I suppose, wanting a lock of hair from the head of a girl he had suddenly and blindingly become enamoured of.
**Writer’s note: Waters explained that she wrote this crucial scene very late on in the whole writing process. Looking back at it now it brings the whole book together and encapsulates everything that occurs.
Next up was Victoria Glendinning’s event. [After a delicious lunch, of course]. No one of our group was familiar with her writing but from a snatched bit of ‘research’ in the ‘signing tent’ [where authors’ books are displayed like dirty laundry] we found she’s written quite a lot – here’s a link to her books on Book Depository
She’s a biographer and author and has written on Trollope, Rebecca West, Edith Sitwell, Elizabeth Bowen, Leonard Woolf, Vita Sackville West, Jonathan Swift as well as fiction titles such as The Grown-Ups, Electricity, and Flight. We felt pretty bad that we hadn’t read any of her books but made up for our lack in the bookshop.
The reason for her visit to EIBF was to talk about her latest book: Love’s Civil War. Elizabeth Bowen and Charles Ritchie: Letters and Diaries, 1941-1973 (Simon & Schuster).
Glendinning gave an informed talk about how she got hold of the original material, how she arranged and edited it and, overall, provided a really good introduction for those [like us] who weren’t familiar with either the book, Bowen’s writing, or the Bowen/Ritchie relationship.
Bowen’s love for Ritchie was intense, it seems. He was a high-flying diplomat, a self-confessed philanderer and gad-about, a bachelor when they met but he married during their affair of some 30 years. They rarely spent more than a couple of days together but this forced separation actually worked to keep them together.
Ritchie’s letters give a fascinating insight into the male psyche. He’s selfish, self-obsessed, in lust more than love but gradually, he falls for Bowen. Here’s what he writes at the beginning of their relationship on 29 September 1941:
Our first few days and nights were like one of her intensely poetic short stories. But the affair threatens to develop into one of her long psychological novels in which I see myself being smothered in love and then dissected at leisure. If I am not cruel now, she will be later … The truth is I am sick of the whole thing and wish it was over. (p. 24)
The ellipses are where Ritchie cut away the mss so that we only get a glimpse of the full extent of his feelings. While disappointing, it’s a truer picture than if he told us everything. Glendinning writes, ‘gradually Elizabeth Bowen became essential to Charles Ritchie, and to his sense of himself’ (p. 2).
Glendinning also touched on her other books and told us an anecdote about a visit to the Virginia Woolf society to promote her biography of Leonard Woolf. Someone asked a question and when she asked, innocently, to ‘which Woolf’ the speaker referred, she was informed, ‘there’s only ONE’.
…..All in all, another highly educational and enjoyable day at the EIBF.