A stimulating gathering at Newnham College Cambridge where the Literary Archive holds manuscripts from many alumnae, three of whom came to talk about their fictions. All three – Margaret Drabble, Patricia Duncker and Jenn Ashworth – agreed on the novel as exploration. Drabble called novels maps and guides to how one [or more precisely] women can explore their futures; she cited Mary MacCarthy’s The Group, Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar and Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook as pathfinders, noting how their characters negotiated the then prescribed role as homemaker, as in Plath’s cautionary account of Mrs Willard knotting herself into a floor mat from strips of her husband’s old suits. She described pushing her own characters out into the world, to create a future 'in which we will not be afraid', and of following them beyond the story.
Patricia Duncker was re-reading Maria Edgeworth, Mary Wollstonecraft and Jane Austen, but described her own fiction as a mix of Gothick and picaresque, about people on the edge; each novel also invokes an opera that acts as its key. Neither plot nor character are as important as language, which takes writer and reader into uncanny realms where secrets explode like landmines. Duncker grew up with the Bible, which was as useful as it was deeply unsettling, as with Jehovah’s strange act of self-revelation whereby Moses might not see the Lord’s face as he passed in a cloud of glory, but just his back parts.
Jenn Ashworth, author of Cold Light and The Friday Gospels, spoke of reading Muriel Spark and Kenzuo Ishiguro, and of the Mormon upbringing in Lancashire that inspired her attention to what can’t be spoken in, say, a given family, as well as providing comic imagery around chastity as piloting an aeroplane or eating cupcakes. While disavowing realism, she says her task is to create voices. The Book of Mormon – obviously a new must-read, thanks too to the movie – is at her back together with the sect’s practice of spiritual journals, where forbidden tales are told.
Asked about the anger that seems to fuel her writing, Ashworth exclaimed, not anger, but rage, ragged and violent. Duncker finds pleasurable energy in writers who rant or obsess; an overt agenda, even if or especially when misogynistic makes for an exciting read. Drabble commended Bridget Jones as a serious modern courtship classic, and Helen Small’s survey of the philosophical aspects of old age, the Long Life, which is inspiring her own current writing.
Coincidentally, the Orlando site of women’s writing in Britain from the beginning to the present is available online for free – for the month of March.
It should open here http://orlando.cambridge.org/