Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #4: On Woolf on Cavendish

This week’s assignment offered a choice of character depictions. I opted to go with reviewing Virginia Woolf’s 1925 essay, The Duchess of Newcastle, from The Common Reader First SeriesIts subject is Margaret Cavendish the Duchess of Newcastle. I very much enjoyed getting to learn about her. Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

***

It is difficult to come away from Virginia Woolf’s essay on the life of Margaret Cavendish with anything but a sense of admiration for the person the Duchess of Newcastle was: a libertarian who lived life on her own terms, a prodigious thinker, prolific writer and designer, all-round force of nature and perhaps proto-feminist. What is even more remarkable about her life is the context within which it was lived, times which seen from the lofty, enlightened heights of our 21st-century sofas seem like the dark ages. Given the latitude to explore and later express a non traditional interpretation of the roles of daughter and wife by both her mother and husband, we get the sense that virtually every thought she had was encouraged and articulated in some shape or form with no attempt to self-censure. It helped perhaps that there were no children to encumber her free spirit. Given Virginia Woolf’s own life and character – and reputation for being a free spirit of sorts too  – the largely positive portrayal here does beg the question of objectivity given the tendency in all of us to eulogise those who inspire us and worship them as heroes.

How then could one look to build a balanced, more nuanced view of her life and work? As a starting point, one could perhaps look to see what the opinions of her contemporaries were. The consensus appears to be that she was considered a maverick of sorts, an assessment which lives on in her ‘Mad Madge’ nickname. What we know of the societal context and the social mores of the time suggest that this assessment errs on the more negative side of Virginia Woolf’s. No surprise there as even in our day those who benefit from societal power structures tend to take a dim view of non-conformists as mavericks and upstarts. That this is the view which survives is thus a backhanded compliment of sorts and casts a positive light on her legacy.

A second task would be to ascertain how much of her work survives in the various archives. A search in the national archives website identifies over 700 items which suggest that there was enough interest in her work to preserve it. Tracking down a few of these works and where they are stored would constitute a valuable activity, both for the works themselves but also the prestige of the collections which house them. That her life and legacy are the subject of a number of ‘serious’ academic investigations is also another indicator of the heft of the ideas which she espoused.

A third prong to the investigation would be to attempt to assess what debt current thinkers and philosophers owe to her by how much she is referenced and how ideas she raised have been incorporated into their works.

My belief is that each of these prongs taken together would help build a composite picture of the life of the Duchess of Newcastle. From the little I have seen already, I am beginning to side with Virginia Woolf.

Writing Creative Non-Fiction – Assignment #3: An Interview of Sorts

This week’s assignment was to interview someone, summarizing what we learned about them in 300 to 500 words. Here goes.. Image by Clint McKoy on Unsplash

***
R was hunched over his phone typing furiously when I pushed the door open and walked into the restaurant, one of the many that dot the roadside on this corner of the seaside boulevard. I was three minutes late but he, ever the most punctual of people, had arrived early and was in the middle of typing an acerbic note to me.

In the 11 years since I first met him, six of which were spent cooped up in the same office space, memories of questionable banter and several meals and evenings out; a veritable tour of brews – and the uninhibited honesty that comes with having those – and cuisines are a large part of what remains. That we opted to do this over food was entirely in keeping with that shared history, particularly given the reasons: he opted to retire a year ago, I am on the cusp of moving on from the organisation that was part of our lives for all those years. It thus felt right to catch up properly before I headed out.

Selecting a main took more time than usual as it was our first time in a Turkish restaurant, the choice between the varieties of kebabs, casseroles and koftes somewhat overwhelming. For drinks, though it was more clear cut, ‘an EFES* for the young man’ he declared as he waved his hand in the manner of one holding court. Over food, our conversation turned to the subject of our time out here in this grey corner of Scotland, more than 30 in his case.

‘It’s the longest I’ve been in one place’ he said and then proceeded to reminisce on his life before the ‘Deen. Madras, Delhi, Goa, Aden, Perth in Australia, London, Perth in Scotland were a few of the places he mentioned, all of which he’d spent five or less years in, thanks to the somewhat itinerant lifestyle of a father who was in the diplomatic corps. I was curious as to why he hadn’t taken the opportunity of being retired to move somewhere else, warmer perhaps. ‘Aberdeen feels like home now’, was his response. All that is left elsewhere are tenuous links to vaguely familiar extended family members – “Our fathers have all died”, he said. “Us kids didn’t bother to stay in touch, we’ve all made other connections.”

In the tone of his voice, I sensed a faint nostalgia, once I know only too well. It is the burden of the prodigal to go out into the world – to a far country – to seek his fortune. At the best of times, that home can become a distant memory, at its worst home can become nowhere.

* a Turkish beer, settled on because in a few weeks time I’ll be working out of a ‘dry’ country…

17. A Prayer for A Season of Overwhelm

Photo by Dylan Sauerwein on Unsplash

For the Week 2, Friday’s #LiveLent Devotional, particularly apt given the state of play of the coronavirus pandemic.

***
Worn and weary
from the tears
of fitful crying
I find myself
stretched straining
like a string
to hold together;
one hand sinking
into a slushy earth
and the other
tottering like a tree
listing in a storm.
As these waters
reach my neck
as breath begins
to slip and my body
begins to yield
to these dark depths
Abba be a rock
be a shelter
from the storm
be my anchor.

15. Baptism

Photo by kaleb tapp on Unsplash

Today’s CoE #LiveLent Devotional invites us to reflect on baptism, and how it is a symbol of our death and resurrection with Christ. Here goes:

***
I come
to this water,
let me go
beneath its flood
and die, and then
arise reborn,
raised to freedom
and new desires.
Let me sense
your welcome,
your voice
speaking once
but echoing
across the hills
and the valleys
telling me, welcome
lost son, my prodigal
returned.

12. Water

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

For Day 10 of the CoE #Livelent Devotional, the focus being the second day of creation with water being brought forth…

***
First comes light,
making lost things
found, dark places
bright and clear
and beautiful again,
and then comes water
to wash and clean
and bring life
to all the dead
and dying things.
May the dark places
of our hearts be lit
and whole again
and our hands clean.

10. Light…

Photo by Milada Vigerova on Unsplash

For Day Nine, the invitation is to reflect on light and heat and the benefits access to electricity brings to people around the world. That immediately brought to mind the Parable of the Lost Coin, and how for all the sweeping and cleaning, the lost coin is found because of the illumination light brings. Here goes then:

***
You realise
that light is good
when the thing you lost
is found, wedged between
the corner of your bed
and the cold wall,
that tiny space
worn beige by
the tyranny of time.
When in the shiver
of a winter night
you wrap your hands around
a cup of warm tea,
its chipped edge and faded art
a reminder of all its seasons of use,
you realise that light is good,
and the darkness all around fades.

9. Song of The Light

Photo by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

For Day 8 of the Church of England’s LiveLent devotional for Lent.
***
Tell
the darkness
there is no room here,
that though small
and weak and flickering
in the wind, your light
will be a bulwark, a
hedge against the
pressure closing in.
You’re a city on a hill
a light raised high
for all to see.
Shine.