Category: Oxford University

Bad juju, daguerrotypes, ghostly nuns, and other matters.

I was in Oxford last week to attend a series of workshops as part of my Masters in Creative Writing. I arrived a day earlier in order to ready myself before the headlong dive into workshops. One of my favourite things to do when I have some time to myself is to look at antiques. There’s a lovely antiques store called Antiques On High (Broad Street, Oxford) not far from the Sheldonian Theatre. I’ve picked up some Wedgwood pieces there for next to nothing in the past. This is a wonderful warren-like store to browse, with trinkets and fossils and artworks and books and art deco jewellery and etchings and everything you can imagine. They also have a small selection of daguerrotypes. According to daguerrobase.org, a daguerrotype was “…the first commercially successful photographic process (1839-1860) in the history of photography. Named after the inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, each daguerreotype is a unique image on a silvered copper plate. In contrast to photographic paper, a daguerreotype is not flexible and is rather heavy.The daguerreotype is accurate, detailed and sharp. It has a mirror-like surface and is very fragile…Numerous portrait studio’s opened their doors from 1840 onward. Daguerreotypes were very expensive, so only the wealthy could afford to have their portrait taken. Even though the portrait was the most popular subject, the daguerreotype was used to record many other images such as topographic and documentary subjects, antiquities, still lives, natural phenomena and remarkable events.” Fascinating!

I was immediately drawn to this very striking and unnerving portrait of a mother and son. The cost of the daguerrotype was a mere 35 pounds. I thought to myself, “I have to have it.” I sought permission to photograph the daguerrotype and I WhatsApp’d (I guess this is a verb now) the photograph to both my husband and a close friend. I was looking for their approval to go ahead with the purchase, something I don’t normally do. The daguerrotype was so exhilarating to look at, but there was something so alive about it too. The sullen portraits appeared to be full of energy. I wondered where I might keep such a precious historic item. Under the bed? Framed on the wall? In a box? And there was the small issue of ‘juju’. My husband and friend hinted at their reservation. Who were these people? Where did the daguerrotype come from? What’s its history? And isn’t this daguerrotype a little too creepy to keep in your house? In spite of my initial glee at coming across such an unusual artefact, I left Oxford without the daguerrotype. And I’m still thinking about it. I like its subtle creepiness. I suppose there’s still time to phone the shop and buy it. Would you?

 

 

I also climbed Oxford’s Carfax Tower on Sunday morning. It was a sunny one and I got this great picture. I think it was worth the claustrophobic winding stair lung-busting clamber to the top.

 

 

 

 

Oh, and…there’s a viral video doing the rounds. It features my old school, Mount St. Michael’s in Claremorris, Co. Mayo. The convent was home to many, many nuns in its history, and the bulk of the convent building has recently been demolished. Watch the video and see if you can locate the silhouette of a nun in an upper window! I’m close to certain that this is a hoax, but it’s fun to see my old school hitting the headlines.

I’m feeling rather sociable. Let’s connect on Goodreads!

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.” Buy it now!

Reading List: Books about Female Friendship (and some books about women in groups)

This year, I’m looking at female friendships under oppression as an aspect of a literary criticism assignment for my Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University. There aren’t very many literary books with positive female friendships forming a primary narrative. Female friendship, whether positive or negative, is an altogether unlikely subject matter in literature. I had to scour the internet to piece together a reading list, and once I’d gathered all of the books, I really had mixed feelings about those books I’d sourced and went on to read. Depictions of female friendships and female peer relationships penned by women authors are very often a landscape of jealousy, competitiveness, and betrayal. Hey, I get it. Readers want intrigue, drama, crisis. But it seems as though the conflict in novels dealing with female friendship always arises from within the friendship. Comparatively, male friendships fare rather well in literature, and the conflict comes from forces outside the friendship. Consider Frodo and Sam, Theo and Boris, Harry and Ron (okay so that’s not literature so much), Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, amongst many others. Hm.

I’m not sure that the female friendship has ever been honoured very effectively in the fiction novel. The closest I’ve come to a good and satisfying portrayal of female friendship is in the book My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. And I did not love that novel.

Vera Brittain wrote, “From the days of Homer the friendships of men have enjoyed glory and acclamation, but the friendships of women, in spite of Ruth and Naomi, have usually been not merely unsung, but mocked, belittled and falsely interpreted. I hope that Winifred’s story may do something to destroy these tarnished reputations and show its readers that loyalty and affection between women is a noble relationship which far from impoverishing, actually enhances the love of a girl for her lover, of a wife for her husband, of a mother for her children.” (Hence, Testament of Friendship, all about a great and long-lasting friendship with the writer Winifred Holtby. More details in the Reading List below.)

Introductory Reading List of Books about Women’s Friendships

TLDR? Here’s the Goodreads List I’ve compiled featuring all the books (and please add your own.)

(Note: I don’t really do Classics)

First up is a non-fiction book that’s rather archaic, yet exceedingly poignant. Testament of Friendship: The Story of Winifred Holtby by Vera Brittain. The book was first published in 1940. Winifred passed away of Bright’s Disease when she was just thirty seven, and Vera had admired her friend so very much that she composed this book in her memory. Brittain lost her fiancé and her brother in the First World War, and her friendship with Winifred helped her to cope with the overwhelming loss. Brittain writes so eloquently on the subject of her friendship with Winifred. [Sidenote: Do we ever reflect on our friendships until they are gone from us? It is often in its absence that we come to recognise the glory of a friendship and see it as being significant, life-changing, a high point of one’s life.] Their friendship becomes romanticised in the novel, but not in a saccharine way. [And why shouldn’t friendship be romanticised, as an acknowledgement of its beauty and importance?] Here’s a lovely rendering of Winifred’s personality as depicted by Brittain:

Winifred had an infallible consciousness of the other person’s standpoint; usually she put her friends’ wishes first and her own second. When she wrote letters she invariably began by referring to her correspondents’ interests and problems. If she answered the telephone she always replied, however disastrously the call had interrupted her, as though the speaker at the other end were the one person whom she wanted to hear. In conversation she seldom discussed her own troubles; she encouraged other people to talk about theirs. She was never offended; she seemed to be quite without the apparatus of sensitive pride and vulnerable dignity used by the person who lacks confidence to defend his ego against a world of which he is deeply suspicious…She never committed the deadly sin of undermining another person’s self confidence, for she knew that self-confidence takes half a lifetime to build up but can be destroyed in half an hour…The result was a gracious magnanimity, a never-failing charity, which evoked love by the warmth and generosity of the love that it gave.

What’s particularly special about the book is that much of the friendship is catalogued through letters to-and-fro, a practise we’ve abandoned in the modern age. It was a time when people were careful about their communications with friends, noting the intricacies of their lives with consideration, and relaying complex feelings to one another in letters. It happens that both of the women were important writers themselves, heightening the readability of the book. I wonder how many women would relate to the following sentiment, as composed by Winifred to Brittain:

‘Babies are a nuisance, of course,’ she wrote me at the end of 1926 when I was making up my mind to embark on a family. ‘But  so does everything seem to be that is worth while – husbands and books and committees and being loved and everything. We have to choose between barren ease and rich unrest – or rather, one does not choose. If I were you, I would be rich. Even if it ultimately kills you, you’ll have been alive and we all have to die, even those who have never lived.’

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood. A formative friendship helps us to understand ourselves and to forge a sense of identity. It is through the feedback of these formative friendships that we come to understand ourselves. Our sense of identity may evolve and shift, and so the friend relationship may fulfil its need, and so dissolves. In Cat’s Eye, Elaine is haunted by a painful formative friendship she had with a girl called Cordelia, a friendship that became idolatrous, sycophantic.

As children, friendships help us to feel belonging and acceptance:

I want some friends, friends who will be girls. Girl friends. I know that these exist, having read about them in books, but I’ve never had any girl friends because I’ve never been in one place long enough. 

These early friendships can also bring to light any of our apparent defects, as in this excerpt from a scene where Carol, another friend, comes to visit:

Carol comes to my house and takes it all in—the unpainted walls, the wires dangling from the ceilings, the unfinished floors, the army cots—with incredulous glee. “This is where you sleep? ” she says. “This is where you eat? These are your clothes? ” Most of my clothes, which are not many in number, are pants and jersey tops. I have two dresses, one for summer and one for winter, and a tunic and a wool skirt, for school. I begin to suspect that more may be required.

The book is an unsettling series of painful recollections that could well resonate with women who’ve experienced cruelty in their early friendships. It’s not the easiest of reads, but is painted with an unfortunate accuracy.

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. This book has been a literary sensation for its profound portrayal of the friendship of two young girls living in Naples in the 1950’s. It is a place where women are belittled and sidelined as the norm – their husbands, fathers and brothers wielding a great deal of influence over their destinies. Even mothers have little faith in their daughters, occasionally jealous of their achievements. Status is conferred through right marriage, church attendance, conformity, and behaving ‘as a woman should’. Elena and Lila struggle to improve their circumstances, facing a battle to be acknowledged for their precocity, and to satisfy their ambitions. These struggles introduce competition into the friendship, adding to the usual stressors of a girl’s adolescence. [I think Ferrante did a really good job with this one and she got a lot of things right. However, the writing style really irked me, and it seemed jagged and unfocused in parts. This could be down to the translation – the work was originally composed in Italian.] The book is one of a foursome known as the Neapolitan Quartet.

Sula by Toni Morrison. In Sula, Sula Peace is the charismatic friend, and Nel Wright is the observer/admirer. Sula is an escapist, more worldly and daring, whereas Nel has conformist tendencies. The friendship is magnetic and transcendent in childhood and adolescence, but becomes toxic in adulthood. As children, Sula and Nel were virtually interchangeable, save for Sula’s birthmark. The birthmark may have triggered in Sula a sense of differentiation, a feeling that she did not fit in, that shaped her personality. This is a very strange and powerful book about female friendship under oppression (racial prejudice, poverty). The novel demonstrates that the social constraints and unjust expectations placed upon females force them to deny their own personhood, and that of their friends, leading to friendship crises.

Here are some more books dealing with female friendships, groups of women, and collaboration between women:

The Girls by Emma Cline. 2016’s hit novel inspired by the The Family, the name given to Charles Manson’s followers, made up of a high percentage of impressionable female teenagers and young women. The book is a first person narrative from the perspective of a young girl, Evie, who becomes involved in a similar type of set-up, after becoming entranced by one of the older girls in the group, named Suzanne. (Suzanne has echoes of Cordelia in Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood).

Who Will Run The Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore.The book is a lot of fun, but is relatively superficial in addressing the theme of friendship, the author preferring to entertain than illuminate. [I ♥ Lorrie Moore’s short story collection Birds of America! She’s fantastic.]

The Girls of Slender Means by Muriel Spark. The book reminds me more of a theatre script, as ‘ol Sparkie doesn’t delve very deeply into character. It does, however, feature a dramatic climax that is quite shocking.

On My To Read Shelf

I’ll update this post once I’ve completed them:

Girls on Fire by Robin Wasserman

NW by Zadie Smith, and Swing Time by Zadie Smith

How Should A Person Be? by Sheila Heti

The Group by Mary McCarthy

The Power by Naomi Alderman

The Girls from Corona del Mar by Rufi Thorpe

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

Dear Thief by Samantha Harvey

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

[Comment below if you’ve come across a proper friendship literary novel featuring women, that isn’t Sex and the City. It would be really useful for my thesis! Thanks.]

I’m feeling rather sociable. Let’s connect on Goodreads!

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.Buy it now!

 

So I’m now studying Creative Writing at Oxford University. Who’d have thunk it?

About this time last year, I was preparing my application for Oxford University to take part in their Masters in Creative Writing. There were many redrafts of my Personal Statement, valiant attempts to track down the appropriate referees, a scrabble to put savings together. I really, really, really wanted it. Anyway, I got all of my paperwork sorted out and became very singleminded. The course is competitive with up to 200 applicants for 30 places. I tried not to trouble myself with that and just focused on doing myself justice.

I got in. That was a Very. Good. Day.

So what’s it like? Speaking in very general terms…

It’s challenging. And you have to keep up. I’ve had to dig deep at times, particularly because of my job. It requires a great deal of discipline.

It is intellectually stimulating. I’m writing things that I never thought I could. I am meeting fellow writers from all over the world. I am realising how much my identity and culture and background play a part in my writing. I once thought that my perspective on the world was not unique but have realised that this is not the case. I am taking myself more seriously and paying closer attention to my ideas. In one word, it is expansive. Damn it, I didn’t intend to be so gushy.

I think it’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever done. And the photo opportunities are immense.

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[Selfie taken at the Sheldonian Theatre]

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[Matriculation Ceremony at the Sheldonian Theatre]

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[Just one of the very many beautiful college buildings, not sure which one this is. Seems there’s something to gape at around every corner.]

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[Spot the pigeon mid-flight! Here’s the very grand Ashmolean Museum, just around the corner from where I have my workshops.]

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[A filthy, coffee and lipgloss stained cup – sorry. But I do rather like the fabbo insignia.]

What I want from the programme is Challenge and Discipline. I have to rise to the great challenges presented to me. I have to find the discipline to work very hard at my ideas and get the words onto the page. Writers need to train like athletes, and we need to reach for something. We either set the goal ourselves or someone else creates the challenge for us.

I’m very glad to be at the beginning of something that I know is going to be life-changing.

PLUS: Why not read my terrifying novella, The Diary of Natalya Zlota, now available on Amazon!

People are saying, “The author captures you by letting you find things to identify with, and she unfolds details in perfect time…Smooth and disciplined, a pleasure to read! Perfect for a journey. I would love to read more.” Buy it now!