It’s been a minute

Well… what hasn’t happened in five months? In no particular order:

  • Graduated (see figure 1)
  • Worked (for a split second) in a solicitor’s office
  • Got a publishing internship (but a few days after complaining this outcome was about as likely as my becoming an astronaut, as it happens)
  • Got some freelance work out of the above internship (still broke though, nothing changes)
  • Went to Denmark with one of my best friends (see figure 2)
  • Moved house, to a different county – hello Yorkshire, and all your hills
  • Planted a small crop of potatoes on an allotment thanks to my mother’s partner
  • Started learning to row (pictures inevitably forthcoming)
  • Applied for PhD research at the University of York

And:

  • Got accepted for PhD research at the University of York

Yeah… Apparently I’m still not ready for the real world and shan’t be for another three or so years.

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Figure 1. ‘Thank @#!? that’s over’

You’re simply bursting to hear about the vicissitudes of the obscure author of this obscure blog’s life path are you not? Then let me indulge you.

As I mentioned, I had a little bit of work in a solicitor’s office over Christmas and January – that I was using to save some pennies for my up-coming unpaid internship in the big city – a job that I managed to land through no effort on my part but through the generosity of my aunt and uncle and their friend, the solicitor in question. This poor woman… I was utterly useless – consistently killing the shredder, arguing with the scanner, creating amateur (though very neat) spreadsheets, and being forever flustered by the telephone – I can’t begin to comprehend why she wished me to continue working there. In reality, the only reason anything got done was because she had a very patient long-standing employee who was willing to clean up after me. No joke, he is long overdue for a significant a pay-rise…

In any case, my lack of administrative virtuosity and associated feelings of shame and self-loathing at my uselessness, along with more than a little boredom (not that I’m not grateful for the work, I can’t stress how appreciative I am, but my word it was dull) made me question the trajectory of my life and chosen career. Before I even got to London I was asking, would not the world of the publishing industry be just the same for an entry-level bodkin such as myself? Am I willing to graft and slog away for a job in an industry I’m primarily considering due to a combination of familial and societal pressures to GET A REAL JOB, being relatively good at spotting spelling mistakes, and not knowing what else to do with English Literature degrees? Becoming an editorial assistant won’t make any great dents in the behemoth that is my student debt, so that’s not a plus either.

I’ll not lie, I’m dreading it.

Perhaps, sitting in front of that day’s multitude of finance spreadsheets and plastic bags overflowing with receipts, I was thinking too fast and it all was going to be fine. Would I wait to find out? No, no I would not. What, as it turns out, am I pretty good at, and what do I really enjoy? Moreover, what of those things, can I conceivably pursue as a fulfilling career?

So I began the search for a supervisor (a cringe-worthy process that deserves its own dedicated blog post), wrote a research proposal, and sent off an official application to York.

Fast forward through some embarrassing – only on my part, of course – but very helpful emails and phone calls, I’ve managed to secure an incredibly talented academic to

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Figure 2. ‘Go stand over there’. Copenhagen’s Marble Church behind

supervise me throughout my research and can go into my internship feeling as though a weight has lifted. My application is, even at this early stage, looking quite positive, thus the pressure to furiously network and charm my way through February to a paid job in a publishing house is somewhat relieved and I feel I am free to just enjoy myself.

Which I do! Very much so, in fact. I shan’t elaborate any further for now for fear of rambling on, but suffice it to say I learnt a lot, worked hard, discovered that kindles are actually alright, and was very lucky to be offered a little bit of freelance work once I finished the month in the office.

Fast forward again through a couple of months, a house-move, and a holiday, and I finally hear officially from York whether or not I’ll be joining them in September… Even though this, in then end, was more a formality than anything else, not knowing for certain caused more than one fretful night, so when I at last received confirmation of an unconditional offer I spent the next two days erupting in fits of laughter (which ended up being the silver lining in a very tiresome week of babysitting my darling hairy sister [the cocker spaniel, Merry], who decided to eat something suspicious-looking by Saltaire canal that gave her some obscene diarrhoea. If it was up for debate before, my plan to not have children is now non-negotiable…). And what’s more, I have been offered an en-suite room in the graduate college, so I’ll FINALLY be living on campus – third time lucky and all that.

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Wentworth College, where I shall be living. [Photo not mine, links to University of York website]

I could go on, but I’ll end with a three-part conclusion. First and foremost, it wouldn’t be kosher to not express my gratitude to everyone and everything, both positive and negative, that played a part in the crystallization of what had hitherto been a dream that I had not seriously entertained due to a) lack of faith in my abilities, and b) an apathetic attitude of ‘I’ll do it one day’. Secondly, the dog recovered but according to my mother decided she needed to be hand-fed her food piece by piece for a few days after going back home. Princess. And finally, as much as I don’t know what will happen over the next three years (there is the very real possibility I will despise PhD life and will swear off academia as vehemently as I’ve sworn off high-heeled shoes [why so painful?]), with the prospect of blood, sweat, and tears in a big library over a glorified essay that may potentially be my bread and butter on the horizon, I feel content in the knowledge that I’m doing what I want to do, not what I’ve been pressured into.

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A Few Ruffled Fevvers

She felt her outlines waver… For one moment, just one moment, Fevvers suffered the worst crisis of her life: ‘Am I fact? Or am I fiction? Am I what I know I am?’

Trying to get onto the bottom rung of the publishing ladder is like trying to sneeze with your eyes open – painful and apparently impossible. Entry level jobs require a candidate to have months of unpaid internships under their belt (no guarantees, of course), yet even those internships have their own hoops that need leaping through – unpaid work experience (note repetition of ‘unpaid’) with local newspapers, for example, is a prerequisite, but expecting a reply to your polite requests is like expecting your letter from Hogwarts (not that I’m bitter or anything)… Is it any wonder that, as fireworks month blusters and blows on towards a dull and overcast December, my morale is as low as Britain’s cloud cover and my summer of studying in the library feels like a beatific experience that doesn’t belong to me at all, but to someone else. An alternate me, perhaps, in an alternate firmament, a me with goals and purpose and fortitude who permits me to share these echoes of her life so that I may form my fuzzy half-memories.

I’m certainly romanticising it all – my studies this year were mediocre at best and I mostly just resented it – but opening countless rejection letters does that to a person. How, then, to escape the doldrums of getting-nowhere-fast? Who else finds herself desperately miserable, with a broken wing and discoloured plumage – a ‘lopsided angel… down on her luck’ – but with the strength of will to re-arm herself with beaming exuberance, lending solace from the pages of her story?

Who else… but Sophie Fevvers?

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My much-loved second-hand copy of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus

This winged-woman hatched from an egg and raised in a brothel, a circus aerialiste and extraordinary creation of the equally extraordinary Angela Carter (*small explosion from inner-monologue: haven’t been able to contain my excitement over the discovery of her poetry in the back of a cupboard*), has been making my heart sing for years, so much so that I made the decision to have her leaping, Rubenesque, champagne-drinking and eel-pie-eating, indecorous and deliciously grotesque image marked indelibly upon my skin. Fevvers, you might say, really has my back…

Where do I even begin to describe the joyous pyrotechnics of this magic realist Victorian pastiche? I’ve tried twice over two dissertations, and I still don’t think I can do Nights at the Circus, Fevvers, or Carter herself justice – a feeling, I’m sure, that is shared universally by Carter’s acolytes. In terms of plot, Fevvers drags you, breathless, through fin-de-siecle London, on tour to St Petersburg, and across the Siberian wilderness, allowing us intimate access behind her spangled veneer of high-flying circus-star celebrity, down to the inner earthiness of her ‘exquisitely feminine squalor’. What we and American journalist, Jack Walser, must try to discover about this dazzling part-woman-part-swan is: is she fact, or is she fiction?

This uncertainty, this mysterious element of Fevvers’ identity, is what I believe makes her one of the most captivating heroines that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. It isn’t something that can be simply confined to one monolithic question, either, it is multi-faceted, palimpsestic, and sparks off in all directions – is this winged New Woman truly the ‘only fully-feathered intacta in the history of the world’? is she really a virgin? does she, or doesn’t she, have a belly button…? The complex play of appearance versus reality encapsulated by the Cockney Venus (a magical theme that bleeds into almost every other part of the narrative) forces her to question the nature of her own reality – and it is this existential crisis that makes Fevvers, the larger-than-life Helen of Troy, truly relatable. I mean, everyone throws a wobbler once in a while, right?

Of course, Fevvers doesn’t just simply accept her crisis as a new state of being; she acknowledges it, bows her head to it, and then spreads her one working wing in a symbolic ‘eff it’ gesture – shabbily triumphant. At the risk of sounding terribly romantic, is this not something that I, from the depths of my melancholy, must also do?

‘To think I really fooled you!’ she marvelled. ‘It just goes to show there’s nothing like confidence.’

Over the years that we have been introduced, this woman, my own personal Winged Victory, is forever lending me enough comfort to pick myself up, dust myself off, and bloody well get on with things. I see Fevvers everywhere now, incarnated in my nearest, my dearest, in distant connections, in male and female. This past week I have finally seen some success – my CV now doesn’t look quite so depressingly sparse, huzzah – thanks to the remarkable generosity of people around me, and I will never be able to express how grateful I am. I’m learning that it isn’t always necessary to be truculent in one’s self-sufficiency, accepting a little lift onto that supporting thermal from someone else’s wing-beat is perfectly alright, but the trick, says Fevvers, is to just have confidence.

 

Lost in Austen



I’ve never really felt like a romantic person. As a teenager I had no idea about any of that stuff, perhaps because my friends and I were a very special brand of feral – spending all day running around on the Northumbrian moors, stalking sheep or throwing rocks pinched from Hadrian’s Wall in to cowpat to see who could make the biggest splash (yes, I’m afraid you read correctly, I said teenager, I clung white-knuckled to my childhood pastimes in defiance against my physical and hormonal upheaval). So when young ‘love’ did blossom, I suppose I dipped my toe into the sickly-sweet-Hollywood-teen-movie pool of romance to see what all the fuss was about. And I did so wholeheartedly, I was well and truly swept away with it all to the point I assumed that this would be it – marriage, babies, happily ever after…

It didn’t work out.

Aside from us being far too young and emotionally green, I think the relationship spontaneously combusted because I needed it to. The romantic and doting girlfriend didn’t feel like a good fit for me, but hey, at least I gave it a go. Since then I have tried several variations on this theme for size, each time becoming incrementally more cynical (a point my mother believes to be very sad, but I readily disagree), and increasingly more true to myself. It’s not that I don’t believe in love, I know it exists in scientific terms – the result of pheromones, neurotransmitters, and all that – I just don’t believe that romance really applies to my life. And that’s fine by me.

But that doesn’t mean I won’t read about it. My word do I like a good romance novel! Within very strict parameters, of course: if it wasn’t written by Queen Austen, chances are I’ll have an allergic reaction to it (if anyone, though, wishes to accept the challenge of finding a romance that won’t make me lose my breakfast, I’d love to expand my horizons. Come at me). Having only recently discovered the magnificent wit of Jane Austen’s writing after a lifetime of enjoying film and television adaptations of her works, I’m still steadily working my way through her oeuvre; so far, I think Emma just clinches the number one spot for me and I must have about five glorious copies of it. I’ve actually already written an essay on class subterfuge via conspicuous consumption in Emma to the tune of 8,000 words, and aside from needing a bit of light relief, there is some subtle nuance to Elizabeth Bennet’s and Fitzwilliam Darcy’s relationship that I believe makes Pride and Prejudice a more poignant fit with the general thread of this post.

I shan’t bore nor patronise you with a synopsis of the narrative, it’s one of those that if you haven’t either read it or seen a film version (I’m thinking specifically of Colin Firth in a pond, but the ITV’s modern twist with Jemima Rooper from which I have purloined this blog’s title is also excellent), then you’ve probably absorbed the story through osmosis – and if not, then I despair! What I will do is try to tease out an issue that may or may not be the result of my own misguided interpretation of the text.

Darcy was not of a disposition of in which happiness overflows in mirth; and Elizabeth, agitated and confused, rather knew that she was happy, than felt herself to be so…

As I have already said, I’ve spent many hours immersed in Miss Bennet’s world via my television screen; have read people’s gushing, sycophantic words about hers and Darcy’s love; and watched some very brilliant documentaries upon the subject, so when I finally began reading the novel which is universally accepted as the archetypal love story I of course expected to be (pleasantly) overwhelmed by the intensity of Elizabeth’s and Darcy’s romance.

But I wasn’t; expectations did not quite live up to reality. Aside from finding the character of Mr Darcy strangely underdeveloped – the result, no doubt, of his being belligerently reserved – in such a way that I found almost uncomfortable, I could never quite believe Elizabeth’s professions of love and found them to be as stunted as Darcy’s character. I never believed her to be truly happy whilst I was still granted privileged access into her psyche through the omniscient narration, and her predictions of future happiness were marred by her current angst. For me, Miss Bennet had to do more than convince her sister, Jane, and her father of her feelings for Darcy, she had to convince herself in equal measure. Is she not just talking herself into this? Is she just trying this on for size? I constantly drew parallels between Elizabeth and my teenage self, she more intelligent and scintillating than I but perhaps just as naïve, and possibly about to enter into a lifetime’s commitment that I had managed to escape.

And yet still I found myself inwardly cheering for the lovers at the novel’s culmination, not because it felt right but more because that’s the way it was written – it was meant to be this way, it always had been this way, and always will be this way. It was expected. Perhaps a little too simplistic in its final stages (let’s face it, that proposal was a little naff, was it not?), and despite my misgivings about the authenticity of Lizzy’s happiness, I still adored this novel. What isn’t right for me, might just be right For Mrs Fitzwilliam Darcy.

Gifts from Serbia


So, on the kapia, between the skies, the river and the hills, generation after generation learnt not to mourn overmuch what the troubled waters had borne away. They entered there into the unconscious philosophy of the town; that life was an incomprehensible marvel, since it was incessantly wasted and spent, yet nonetheless it lasted and endured ‘like the bridge on the Drina’


In today’s culture of ‘internet-everything’, we are finding that our relationships are moving increasingly farther from the physical realm of flesh and blood, and ever deeper in to the dizzying void of the digital space. The triumph of social networking sites has seen meaningful and sincere communication – enhanced by those subtle bodily movements, honed and perfected over the millennia of our sociable simian ancestry that reveal enduring support, empathy, and intense vitality, and which have become a crucial factor in our psychological well-being – reduced to withered and generic statements (‘happy birthday bro’, ‘hope ur ok babe xoxo’) typed hastily on a person’s Facebook page redefined as the new and dangerously low benchmark of acceptable social exertion. How desolate. I realise I am about to say nothing new, here, but it is the paradox of social media as the facilitator of endless cyber connections to one another that makes us more lonely.

That isn’t to say that this removal to the digital space is a universal and monolithic movement, I’m sure plenty of people still enjoy significant relationships unhindered by the interfering-internet, I’m merely suggesting that this is becoming a very rare and difficult ideal to achieve. As such, when someone does indeed flout the current norms of social interaction by doing something more than just the bare minimum, it strikes a chord within. Time, then, to apply this to my own life (and aptly continue the theme of my last post)…

Before flying back to her native Serbia, a friend I made during my short time at Warwick surprised me with an unexpected parting gift: a bear hug (actually, this was very much expected), and The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić. Needless to say this was one of those moments that I shall forever treasure.

Yogolsavian writer Ivo Andrić's 'The Bridge on the Drina'

Yugolsavian writer Ivo Andrić’s ‘The Bridge on the Drina’

Written whilst Andrić was living in Belgrade during the Second World War, The Bridge on the Drina spans approximately four centuries, from the Ottoman empire to the Austro-Hungarian administrations of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Throughout the 400 years of social and political upheaval, the one element that remains constant in the tide of narratives that describe the complex relationships of the people of Višegrad, ebbing and swelling as violently as the waters of the eponymous river, was the monumental bridge itself. This bridge (the Mehmed Paša Sokolović Bridge, to be precise) does not simply connect land cleaved in two by the Drina, but is for the bridge’s creator a powerful symbol of unified, healed divisions between himself as a young Serbian boy, and his estranged mother from whom he was taken as a child – a theme that Andrić progressively builds upon until it reaches national significance.

I must say, I found this novel a rather challenging read. Andrić (quite rightly) writes upon the assumption that his readers are au fait with the novel’s focus upon religious and political relations between the empires and territories that it concerns (my friend tells me that The Bridge on the Drina is often studied as part of the curriculum in Serbian high schools all across the country), but since I am in no way familiar with the complex history of the Balkans I perpetually had to resort to the internet for help, an action that highlighted my immense ignorance and induced a certain amount of guilt because of my blindness. The untranslatable words and Serbian/Turkish names that peppered the novel were a rather more happy challenge for me to attempt to pronounce, but again made me and my very English tongue feel rather foolish. The final challenge, and perhaps the only hindrance to my full enjoyment of the novel, was the translation itself; clunky, repetitive, and by no means accurate (there are plenty of misspellings and words that I cannot actually be certain are genuine), Lovett F. Edwards’ efforts to translate Andrić’s crystal clear literary style’ into English were not wholly successful.

That said, there were endless passages that I can only describe as truly haunting, and which, bizarrely, were made all the more evocative by the stark translated prose – I’m thinking of two examples most specifically, the first of which being an exquisitely melancholy myth, associated with the bridge’s construction, that tells of a mother’s anguish as her children are sacrificially bricked into the bridge, and a rather gruesome and lengthy description of a public impalement that takes place on the bridge’s kapia.

The children were walled into the pier, for it could not be otherwise, but Rade, they say, had pity on the on them and left openings in the pier through which the unhappy mother could feed her sacrificed children… In memory of that, the mother’s milk has flowed from those walls for hundreds of years

Brutal and beautiful, this novel is complicated and wonderful. Difficult, yes, but, I believe, an incredibly important novel. I am not surprised at Andrić’s being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for his entire oeuvre, of which The Bridge on the Drina is the jewel in the crown. Whilst the bridge survives 400 years of war and peace and war again, is symbolic of healing painful personal separations, and is the linchpin in the functioning of Višegrad and facilitator of effective communication between the town’s hostile factions, for me personally this bridge is a simple symbol of an enduring friendship that could never have been expressed so frankly via a medium so fleeting as the internet.

Belated Birthday Books


Our Vassar education made it tough for me to accept my womanly role


Since I have always been one of those shameless people who cannot visit a second-hand bookshop – or any bookshop, library, domestic shelf, in fact – without leafing to the very navel of the most yellowed tome (actually, mine isn’t a particularly discriminatory habit, and as such extends even to brand new textbooks), diving nose-first into the cradle of the volume, and filling my insatiable lungs with its unique bouquet before finally grabbing my nearest companion and inviting them to do the same in ecstatic staccato – ‘SNIFF IT!’ – I am perpetually surprised by how few of my friends and family present me with books for my birthday or Christmas. Then again, buying a book for someone is always a risky business, like promising your best friend that you have found them the most perfect romantic partner but, upon introducing them to one another, you find said friend eyeing your choice with contempt and fiercely contemplating the merits of severing all contact with you for having so dreadfully misjudged their taste. As Queen Austen has shown us, matchmaking is never easy

The Group

McCarthy’s ‘The Group’, Virago Press. (Links to Virago website)

Regardless of the potential strain upon our friendship, however, one of my dearest friends took the plunge and gave me Mary McCarthy’s The Group for my 24th birthday back in February of this year. Having no prior knowledge of the novel or its author, my first impressions were formed by the cover alone which, unfortunately, filled me with dread as it conjured preconceptions of lacklustre mummy-porn of the most pedestrian style (no offence, of course, to Virago Press, of whom I am an ardent admirer). Off to a shaky start… Fortunately, not only am I very aware that one should never judge a book by its you-know-what, but my friend apparently knows me inside out, so once I finally got around to reading it this week I was pleasantly surprised.

More than that, I loved it, and can absolutely see why this novel – McCarthy’s most popular – hit the New York Times Best Seller List in 1963, and remained there for close to two years. Set in 1933, The Group follows eight female graduates of the exclusive Vassar College, detailing their post-graduation exploits and various struggles – including sexual relationships and marriage, contraception, sexism, child-rearing, and financial hardship to name but a few.

Considering the political landscape of 1930s America, I found it refreshing to see a group of young women striving, however successfully, for their own autonomy independent of their fathers’ or husbands’ wealth, when the role of women was still largely limited to almost nineteenth century-esque ideals of domesticity and dependence – after all, the Angel of the House was good for nothing but marriage and childbirth. But, then again, should I really have been surprised at their aspirations of freedom when the novel was written in a decade that ushered in the second wave of feminism with the introduction of The Pill? Regardless, McCarthy’s frank examination of the sexual mores of the 1930s  was particularly enthralling, and I found myself utterly drawn in by Harald Petersen’s narrative of the sexual politics encapsulated by the pessary (for Harald, it functioned as the proverbial key to a good woman’s chastity belt, and even in Dottie’s – to whom the narrative was addressed – own naïve inner reflections the pessary represented nothing less than the marriage ring. Thus, what should be, in my eyes, the symbol of female sexual liberation, the pessary re-inscribed the regressive cultural attitude that women’s sexuality should be fanatically policed; it was, paradoxically, a symbol of masculine ownership over the feminine). Truly thrilling stuff, if you ask me.

To be perfectly honest, aside from minor stylistic niggles that I shan’t bore you with (occasional clunky sentences, but if I were to get hung up on this I should ask you all to call me a hypocrite), I cannot fault the book. The narrative voice, adapted so perfectly to capture each of the girls’ psychological intricacies and nuances, was beautiful, and I believed every single character. Witty as anything, I couldn’t stop reading – even after the small-hour-eye-burn had absolutely set in. And… it smelt delicious to boot.

“Hesitation of any kind is a sign of mental decay in the young, of physical weakness in the old.”


Sadeian Woman - Angela Carter


“To blog or not to blog” is a question that I have ruminated over for a number of years, having been repeatedly encouraged to commit my thoughts to [e]paper by my mother, since she – in what I believe to be an almost universal parent/offspring phenomenon – has much more faith in my calibre as a writer than I do.

At my most optimistic, I envisioned myself at my clapped-out laptop (who, by the way, was christened ‘Reliable Rodney’ after surviving countless bed-to-carpet tumbles in my first year at university) in a Carrie Bradshaw-esque tableau vivant, words having issued effortlessly from my fingertips whilst my own voice narrated this snapshot of my upward trajectory towards book-deal victory. How irresistible.

Of course, anyone with any knowledge of the Sex and the City franchise will know that Ms Bradshaw’s writing process is anything but effortless, and her path towards that elusive book deal is peppered with doubt and driven only by her formidable determination. It is at this point in my reverie that I would steadfastly talk myself out of the notion of starting a blog – ‘I am far too committed to my studies’, ‘I simply don’t have the time to spare’ I say, languidly draped over my bed and in the middle of the BBC’s 1995 Pride and Prejudice dramatisation for the umpteenth time. I am the first to admit these excuses are even poorer than my opinion of my own writing, and in hindsight, utterly ridiculous considering my love of books has carried me through a Bachelor’s and a Master’s in English Literature – surely I should have jumped at the chance of sharing this love with a wider audience than my friends and lecturers?

Well, no, actually. My crippling self-doubt is a force to be reckoned with. Furthermore, the longer I allowed myself to be a slave to my own delusions of perpetual academic toil, the more intensely I feared being terribly outdated – am I not too late to the blogging party?

Having found myself at a loose end (hopelessly unemployed) after my Master’s, however, I have finally summoned the courage (… and the time… [haha]) to banish my hesitancy and bite the blogging-bullet. Of course, now that the decision has been made to embark upon this mission, I am now faced with the challenge of deciding the focus and nature of my blog. Should it be astutely critical? An expressly academic beast bent upon applying complex literary theory to any and every book I choose? Do I even have the flair to pull that type of thing off in an entertaining manner? Probably not. As such, I have decided to promise you nothing as of yet. Rather, I shall merely extend you an invitation to skim over my forthcoming literary musings, meditations, and snippets from my inner monologue as I finally act upon my mother’s stout advice.