On becoming a writer

Gladys Holman Hunt by William Holman Hunt

From "A Real Life Education" by novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Susan Minot:

"I never wanted to be a writer. That is, I never had the notion I wanted to be a writer. I started the way other people did, writing compositions in school. I liked doing that; it pulled at my imagination with a sort of elastic tension I enjoyed. The same thing happened when I made up games with Fairy Tales by Mary L. Gowfriends or put on plays with my brothers and sisters. There was something about elaborating on the world that gave great pleasure.

"But I also also enjoyed art class -- art wasn't even a like a class it was so good; you got to make things with your hands -- and I liked science. Whou wouldn't? We got to go outside and collect pollywogs in the pond. We got to dissect frogs and see the secret goings-on inside. If I had a thought about it, which I didn't because I was not practical, I would have pictured myself as an artist. I could picture painting in a studio with easels and brushes, or, even better, out in a landscape with a box of paints.

"But a writer? I had no picture in my mind of what being a writer was. How could I aspire to that? I'd never met a writer. What did a writer actually do? What did a write have, words? I did not come from a literary family, despite the fact that two siblings and one step-sister became writers too. (And I would not be surprised if there were more to come.) My youngest sister, Eliza, who is a novelist, believes that part of it was our having to relay information among the siblings -- there were seven of us and a lot going on -- which encouraged our putting things into words."

Portrait of Katie Lewis by Edward Burne-Jones

"When I left home for boarding school I becan to write on my own -- prose poetry, journal writing. It was the first time I had a room of my own, and I found that writing was a way both of being alone and of finding what was going on inside of myself. Instead of doing homework, I wrote pages of stream-of-consciousness long into the night.

Elisabeth Siddal Reading by Dante Gabriel Rossetti"The novelist Jim Harrison has said that he is suspicious of any budding writer who is not drunk with words. I was completely inebriated. I was compelled to write; it became a compulsion. I wrote out of desperation. In the great turmoil and gloom and euphoria of adolescence, I found there was nowhere to express the chaos of the emotions I was feeling, nowhere but in words. I began to rely so much on writing that I was living a double-life -- one in the world and one on the page. The one on the page was more intense, more satisfying and for a long time much more real....

"I am very fortunate to make my living by writing, though I feel I got to this point through no more design than having followed an often bewildered instinct and by simply always writing. I believe that what an artist needs most, more than inspiration or financial consulation or encouragement or talent or love or luck, is endurance. Often the abstraction of using only words frustrates me -- I write on paper with a dipped pen and ink, and type on a manual typewriter in order to have some three-dimensional activities with my hands -- but again and again I discover how far words are capable of going, both in the world and on the page.

"The fact is, this side of the mind, nothing goes father than words. With words I am able to do those things that first intrigued me when I was young, those things that made me feel most alive -- I am able to paint pictures, collect things from muddy ponds, dissect insides, make things up, put on costumes, direct the lights, inspect hearts, entertain, dream. And, if it goes well, I might convey some of that vitality to others, and so give back a drop into that huge pool of what other artists have, as strangers, given me: a reason to live."

Portrait of Winfred Robers by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale

Pictures: A portrait of the artist's daughter, Gladys Holman Hunt, by William Holman Hunt (1827-1910), a founding member of The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood; "Fairy Tales" by Mary L. Gow (1851-1929); a portrait of Katie Lewis by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898); a sketch of Elisabeth Siddal reading by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882), another or the original members of the PRB; a portrait of Winifred Robers by Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale (1872-1945).

Words: The passages above come from "A Real Life Education" by Susan Minot, published in The Writing Life, edited by Marie Arana (Public Affairs, 2003); all rights reserved by the author.


Tunes for a Monday Morning

The Order of Release by John Everett Millais

Today, songs of soldiers and sailors and the ones they leave behind, from the English, Irish, and Scottish folk traditions -- with art by Sir John Everett Millais (1829-1896), a founding member of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Above: "The Soldier and the Maid" performed by Said the Maiden (Jess Distill, Hannah Elizabeth and Kathy Pilkinton), from Hertfordshire. Their lovely first album, Here's a Health, was released last month.

Below: "Saucy Sailor" performed by Steeleye Span: the groundbreaking folk-rock band of the 1970s, which is still going strong. The singer, of course, is the great Maddy Prior.

Above: "Lovely Molly," beautifully sung by Ione Fyfe, from north-eastern Scotland. The rest of the band is: Luc McNally, Callum Cronin, and Charlie Grey.

Below: "Bonny Light Horseman" performed by another fine Scottish singer, Siobhan Miller. She's accompanied here by Aaron Jones, Jack Smedley, and Euan Burton.

Above: "I Wish the Wars Were all Over" performed by Eliza Carthy and Saul Rose at St. George's Church in north-west London. The daughter of folk stalwarts Norma Waterson and Martin Carthy, Eliza Carthy has been performing traditional and contemporary music since the 1990s, becoming a folk legend in her own right. Saul Rose tours with Carthy, Jim Moray, and performs as a duo with fiddler James Delarre.

To end with: "The Lowlands of Holland" performed by Ye Vagabonds (brothers Brían and Diarmuid Mac Gloinn), from Dublin, Ireland. The video was shot during their European tour with Irish folk/rock musician Glen Hansard, and the ballad itself starts two minutes in. I love these lads, and recommend their Briar & Rose EP (2015) and first full album (2017).

The Child of the Regiment by Pre-Raphaelite painted Sir John Everett Millais


The art of creating a life

Pre-Raphaelite paintings by Kate Bunce  Evelyn de Morgan  Maria Spartali Stillman  Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale  Emma Sandys  Joanna Mary Boyce

If your general impression of Pre-Raphaelite women is that they all drooped languidly among the lilies, beautiful and passive, their role confined to inspiring the famous men around them...well, think again. There were many fine women artists and artisans in Pre-Raphaelite circles and the Arts & Crafts movement, including the painters whose work is above: Kate Bunce, Evelyn de Morgan, Maria Spartali Stillman, Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale, Emma Sandys, and Joanna Mary Boyce. They pushed against restrictive Victorian norms of gender, class, and sexuality to lead creative, courageous lives, making art and craftwork that still inspires their fellow Romantics today.

One of my personal favorites is Barabara Leigh Smith Bodichon, a painter of landscapes and nature studies faithful to the plein air doctrine of early Pre-Raphaelitism. Few of her paintings survive today -- and those that do, I have to admit, don't place her in the top tier of Victorian artists. But viewing her life in its entirety as a work of art, I stand in awe of what she created.

Detail from Landscape with Iris by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

How could we not be inspired by Barbara Bodichon? She palled around with Morris, Rossetti, and Elizabeth Siddal; she was best friends with George Eliot; she foraged and botanized with the great landscape designer Getrude Jeckyll; and she was a hugely important figure in the early British feminist movement. When she wasn't off climbing remote mountains with her women friends, her rucksack crammed with art supplies, she published the influential English Women's Journal, established the Society of Female Artists (while pressuring the Royal Academy schools to open their doors to women),  ran a popular London salon for discussion of art and politics, and was the co-founder (with Emily Davies) of Britain's first university college for women: Girton College at Cambridge.

As part of the Langham Place Group, Barbara fought for four fundamental rights which benefit every woman in Britain to this day: the right to vote, the right of access to education, the right to work and keep ones own wages, and the right for married women to retain their own legal identity and property. She changed the world she lived in, while also pursuing love affairs, international adventures, and living a rich, full artist's life. She was vivid, she was brave, she was beloved by her many friends, she was mourned by thousands when she died, crowds thronging the streets as her funeral passed by...

Ventnor, Isle of Wight by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

...and then she was largely forgotten.

Historian and feminist scholar Pam Hirsch suggests one reason why. Barabara, she notes, "did many things, and historians seem to find it easier to understand and write about a man who pursued one 'great' goal. Women's lives and women's histories often look different, more diffuse and (perhaps) harder to evaluate."

Nature studies by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

Born in Sussex in 1827, Barbara was the daughter of a radical Member of Parliament, Ben Leigh Smith; granddaughter of the abolitionist William Smith; and cousin to Florence Nightingale. Her parents were never married, although they had six children together -- a shocking breach of Victorian propriety which strongly impacted Barbara's early life. The family was financially comfortable (Ben Leigh Smith had inherited property in Hastings), well-connected politically, but were not welcome in the more respectable circles of society.

Sketch of Elizabeth Siddal by Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon"When each of his children reached 21," writes Sussex historian Helena Wojtczak, "Ben broke with tradition and custom by treating his daughters the same as his sons, giving them investments which brought each an annual income of £300. The combination of an unconventional upbringing and a private income placed Barbara in an extraordinary position for a mid-Victorian woman. Whereas most women were raised to be obedient and expected only to marry, bear children and live in subordination to a husband, Barbara was free to live her life almost as she pleased. Money could not buy everything, however; for example her brother Ben went to Jesus College Cambridge in 1848, but Barbara was denied such academic opportunities, since no university would admit women. But she did not succumb to housewifery; she became a painter and social reformer. Despite her wealth Barbara eschewed high society and allied herself with the bohemian, the artistic, and the downtrodden."

Barbara herself said, charmingly:

"I am one of the cracked people of the world and I like to herd with the cracked, such as...queer Americans, democrats, socialists, artists, poor devils or angels; and am never happy in an English genteel family life. I try to do it like other people, but I long always to be off on some wild adventure, or long to lecture on a tub at St. Giles, or go off to see the Mormons, or ride off into the interior on horseback alone and leave the world for a month."

Entrance to Scalands by Barbara Smith Bodichon
(Scalands was the artist's home in Sussex)

I wish I could have known Barbara Bodichon, and her whole vibrant circle of smart, fearless women. I'd like to gather them all around the dinner table, along with a few smart, fearless friends of my own. We'd open a bottle of wine and sit back to to hear their stories -- marveling at all the things that have changed, and commiserating about all the things that haven't. And then we'd tell them, thank you. We'd tell them that we never take the rights they won for us for granted. And we hope that we, too, can make the world better for those who follow after us.

Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon

Pre-Raphaelite Women: To learn more about the Barbara Bodichon, I recommend Pam Hirsch's fascinating biography: Barbara Leigh Smith Bodichon: Artist and Rebel (Chatto & Windus, 1998), and Charlotte Moore's reminiscence: "Aunt Barbara's Fireplace" (The Spectator, June 2010). To learn more about the women of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, I recommend  two excellent blogs: Stephanie Graham Piña's Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, and Kirsty Stonell Walker's The Kissed Mouth.

Credits:  The quote by Helena Wojtczak is from a short article on Bodichon which appeared on the Hastings Press website, and now can be found on the Victorian Web; all rights reserved by the author. Some of my text above first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2011 (in the "Inspiring Women" series of posts).


Grandfather's Garden Studio

The Love Song (inspired by a Breton folk ballad) by Edward Burne-Jones

In her charming little book Three Houses, novelist Angela Thirkell looks back on the houses of her late-Victorian childhood -- including The Grange, an 18th century house in North End Lane in West Kensington, London, the home of Angela's grandparents: Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones and his wife Georgie.

Edward Burne-Jones and his granddaughter Angela"On Sunday my grandparents kept open house," Angela remembers. "Two or three extra places were laid at lunch for any friends who might drop in, but whoever came, I sat next to my grandfather. I was allowed to blow into the froth of his beer, 'to make a bird's nest,' or to have all the delicious outside from the mashed potatoes when they had been browned in the oven. If, disregarding the truth, I said that at home my toast was always buttered on both sides, my statement was gravely accepted and the toast buttered accordingly. There can have been few granddaughters who were so systematically spoiled as I was and it is a legend that the only serious difference of opinion which ever arose between Gladstone and Burne-Jones was as to which of them spoiled an adored granddaughter more."

''Pilgrim in the Garden'' by Edward Burne-Jones

The Wedding of Cupid & Psyche by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

After lunch, the children were left to their own pursuits: to explore the house, play games in the garden, or sneak into her grandfather's Garden Studio: a long, white, rough-cast building between the orchard and the road.

"It was a little alarming to us: the red-tiled entrance and steps which led down to the furnace-room where we were never allowed to go and where anything, one felt, might live; the iron grills in the floor to let in the warm air for winter days; the tall narrow slit in the outer wall through which the larger finished pictures were passed. Sometimes those pictures went to exhibitions, but more often straight to the friend or patron (in the very best sense of the word) who had commissioned them and was content to wait for years if need be for the perfect expression of the artist's mind.

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

"In this studio there was a very high set of steps with a higher and lower platform on which the artist worked at the upper portions of his pictures. I remember sitting on these steps, my head wrapped in a many-colored piece of silk and bound with a coronet, while my grandfather made studies of crown and drapery for one of the mourning queens in the great unfinished picture of Arthur in Avalon which is now in the Tate Gallery.

Burne-Jones at work in his studio"Because there is a certain likeness between the little girl who wore the coronet and some of her grandfather's pictures, she has also been asked whether she sat to him. As far as I can remember he never used me for a model except on that one occassion when I wore the crown and veil. Nor in any case could he have drawn me often, as I was not yet eight years old when he died.

"Neither did my mother who was a pure 'Burne-Jones type' sit to him much. The curious thing is -- and it ought to open a fresh field of inquiry into heredity -- that the type which my grandfather evolved for himself was transmitted to some of his descendants. In his earlier pictures there is a reflection of my grandmother in large-eyed women of normal, or almost low stature, as against the excessively long-limbed women of his later style. But the hair of these early women is not hers, it is the hair of Rossetti's women, the masses of thick wavy hair which we knew in 'Aunt Janey,' the beautiful Mrs. William Morris. When I remember her, Aunt Janey's hair was nearly white, but there was still the same masses of it, waving from head to tip. To anyone who knew her, Rossetti's pictures -- with the exception of his later exaggerated types -- were absolutely true. The large deep-set eyes, the full lips, the curved throat, the overshadowing hair were all there. Even in old age she looked like a queen as she moved about the house in long white draperies, her hands in a white muff, crowned by her glorious hair."

Laus Veneris by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Sometimes after Sunday lunch at The Grange, the children were put into a carriage "and taken to other gardens with studios in them, where our parents would talk and pace the paths, and we would play among rose trees and apple trees and the very sooty creeping ivy peculiar to London gardens.

Margaret Burne-Jones, May Morris, Jenny Morris, & Philip Burne-Jones

"All through the long afternoons the gardens waited for us. Draycott Lodge, where the Holman Hunts lived; Beavor Lodge and the Richmonds; the Vale, home of the de Morgans -- all bricks and mortar now. Melbury Road, even then only a ghost of its old self where the Princeps used to have their friends in a yet more golden age, and where the Watts still lived. Grove End Road, with Tadema's stories which were so difficult to understand until his own infectious laugh warned you that he had reached the point, the agate window and the brazen stairs. Hampstead, Chelsea, Hammersmith, gardens were waiting for us everywhere and people who made noble pictures and were constant friends."

Briar Rose by Sir Edward Burne Jones

Briar Rose sequence by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Briar Rose by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Although the circle of mythic artists here in Devon isn't quite so illustrious as the one Angela grew up in (Burne-Jones and his friends were, by then, among the most celebrated artists of their time), her words make me wonder what younger generations here in Chagford will remember about their myth-rattled, paint-spattered, faery-haunted parents and grandparents. And if any of them will write about it one day.

If they do, I hope they will be kind.

A detail from The Beguiling of Merlin by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The Mill by Sir Edward Burne-Jones

The passage above is from Three Houses by Angela Thirkell (Oxford University Press, 1931); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The paintings and photographs are identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.)