(c) Stephen Howells

INTERVIEW by by Kath Stansfield

NWR Issue 98

Stevie Davies

NWR: Many of your novels could be categorised as historical fiction in that they are set in time periods removed from the present day, including the end of the Second World War in The Element of Water, and Egypt in 1949 in Into Suez. The Eyrie is rooted in the present day but a character’s experiences of the Spanish Civil War are remembered in such a vivid way that parts of the novel feel as if they slip into historical fiction. What is it that makes the past attractive to you as a novelist? What draws you to particular time periods?

SD: I do think of myself as an historical novelist: I remember sitting up in bed as quite a small child in shock at the thought, ‘There are bones all around us in the earth – all the millions of people who’ve lived and died. Who were they?’ The magnitude of that – opening out into so many questions, about death and religion but also about the lives of those who went before. And then again, I was born just after the end of the Second World War, when Swansea was still in ruins – and I thought that ruins were how towns and cities were meant to be.

Later I realised that I was a child of war and of the Cold War – with a dad in the RAF, we led a nomadic life, on the move in Egypt, Scotland, Germany. Always in the aftermath of some great and grave event. Our world was a hierarchical structure ruled by men – a caste-bound patriarchy. I got a view of the rather nasty underbelly of the British Empire. I was always in trouble as a child for thinking against the grain and questioning the ‘obvious’. I was politicised in the 1960s. My work as a literary critic and popular historian, chiefly in the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, made me aware of the gaps which denote women’s lives in the pages of history.

In my fiction I wanted to give a heretical girl’s-eye-view. Hence the insightful child Nia in Into Suez in the run-up to the Suez fiasco questions the racism on which the Empire was predicated; Francesca in Kith & Kin shows the shadow side of hippie culture – women as prey of the radicals; the Quaker Hannah Emanuel in Impassioned Clay is executed as a witch and heretic in the English Revolution; Red Dora Urquhart in The Eyrie spent her most vivid and passionate life as a Communist volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. In her, I could contemplate the predicament of a revolutionary spirit in the wake of twentieth-century ideologies.

You ask about the vividness of Dora’s Spanish Civil War experiences: memory is the foundation of consciousness and identity. Young memory is perhaps the most powerful and formative of all. And history is – or should be – a form of group memory: the loss of historical awareness is a dangerous form of amnesia. Personal memories have often informed or triggered my depiction of history: for instance, when I was eleven I was sent to a boarding school in Schleswig Holstein where I was deeply homesick: that hiraeth has coloured my whole life. It was only much later that I learned that the school where I suffered my little quota of initiating human pain had an epic history. The school, in Plön amongst the beautiful lakelands of north Germany, had been a naval base where High Admiral Dönitz was made Führer of the Third Reich after Hitler’s death – a rule that lasted 20 days. This was arevelation: my childish experience now linked to the cycles of European history. From the lake where the schoolchildren swam, Nazi helmets and insignia were dredged – jettisoned by fleeing soldiers in 1945: that seems to me a pregnant figure for memory itself. From this coincidence came The Element of Water, set in Nazi Germany and postwar Europe.

NWR: As you suggest, military conflict features in much of your work. Even in Kith & Kin, a novel rooted in Swansea in the 1960s which is dominated by the claustrophobia and destruction of family ties, the Vietnam War hovers in the background, a cause which the younger, more radical characters use to define themselves, in opposition to their parents. Most fictional explorations of history will inevitably touch on war of some kind but I wondered to what extent you consider yourself to be a political writer, as well as a historical novelist.

SD: I do think of myself as a political novelist. I can’t imagine contemplating history without political engagement. But it’s a kind of double thing: being true to 1649, say, – as true as one knows how – whilst writing as a modern in 2012. The past is foreign territory – another country where they do things differently and have different ideologies and languages – but its creeds and crises can often seem like foreshadowings. Not that history duplicates itself: it doesn’t really. But it’s compelled by earlier events in swerves and loops and tangents; it constantly refers back. And because human nature is a constant, an earlier struggle – for instance, the struggle of radical women in the English Revolution to have their say; the striving for a Socialist republic in Spain– has everything to tell us about our conditions now.

The best example of this would probably be Into Suez, my latest published novel. It took ten years to research and write: so much to learn – about East-West misunderstanding and conflict, the British occupation of Egypt and the throes of Egypt’s struggle to free itself from our yoke in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The beginnings of modern ‘terrorism’; the humiliation of the West. But the more I studied this, the more I needed to try to get my head round roots of conflict that are still so raw today – the declaration of the State of Israel, the genocidal assault on Palestinians, and then again, the Holocaust and its effect on Zionism.

The more you study history, the more of an utter mess it seems – so cloven and conflicted. This is of course of the deepest interest to a novelist: I made all my characters in Into Suez blemished. Complex or compound character always seems to me to be both more interesting and truer to life. I study myself and I see so many inconsistencies. Joe, the lovable Swansea ex-steelman and Nia’s adoring dad, is a casual racist; he’s a working class conservative, without education, low in the social hierarchy, full of sweetness and humour but with a dark streak of racism and misogyny. Where did he get that? It was written into social norms. The characters’ tragedies are born of individual flaws – but false values are also rashes symptomatic of their cultures.

Most powerfully, I saw in the build-up to the Suez fiasco a foreshadowing of the West’s ill-advised and destabilising assaults on Iraq. I demonstrated against the Iraq War in 1990-91 and in the ‘million’ march against the Iraq War of 2003. I burned to write about that. I wrote instead about Suez as a kind of template for our foolish little country’s self-image as a world policeman – a policeman running amok where he isn’t wanted.
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NWR: That’s interesting when your 2007 novel The Eyrie is brought into the equation with Into Suez. The character of Red Dora in The Eyrie is also appalled at the likelihood of war in Iraq. She too marches against it, directing her anger towards the Prime Minister. That novel is set at a point where the balance is tipping to war, despite the protests. Then the war takes place, and as a writer you turn to Suez. The decision to write about the past instead of the present seems part of your reaction to the war, a conscious choice to look at this question of foreshadowing. In The Eyrie Dora feels that the peace movement doesn’t offer strong enough opposition to the war: ‘marching up and down with placards was not going to achieve anything’. She accuses the PM of letting the peace movement demonstrate ‘as a way of letting off steam harmlessly’. Dora turns instead to computer hacking. Can writing – novels in particular, in this case – offer something that more traditional campaigning can’t? Is writing a form of protest?

SD: In a real way, these wars are all one war, in its many phases. Thank you for looking so carefully at the character of Dora, who is perhaps the only character in my fiction about whom I still hallucinate, if that’s the word: she seems completely real to me, someone I’ve known and loved. I’m at a loss to explain this satisfactorily. Her sources were the testaments of the women who served with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, especially in, for instance, the cave hospital of Santa Lucia where Dora was an administrator. Her bearing and something of her spartan nature remind me of my own mother (but not her political commitment – both my parents were working class conservatives for most of their lives). Dora’s beliefs and principles are those that animated my husband, Frank Regan, who died in 2007, the year The Eyrie was published. Frank was nearer than myself to Dora’s generation; had been imprisoned as a pacifist as an eighteen year-old at the end of the Second World War.

While Dora is a hawk of a woman, Frank was a dove of a man. He lived long enough to see a proof copy of The Eyrie and underlined a few sentences. These: ‘And as far as Dora was concerned, all the battles she cared about had been lost. There was nothing left for Red Dora to do. Just being an old person with failing health was not enough.’ I think Frank’s underlinings go to the very core of the novel’s inspiration – to try to explore the aftermath of the great utopian creeds and ideologies that united the Left in the twentieth century – and then failed them. Dora is a disillusioned remnant of an heroic era. Her path now is into the personal world she neglected. The block of flats, The Eyrie, is a little commonwealth of precious friendships between unlikely women. Dora is difficult and cantankerous but she inspires love and learns it. It’s a faith of mine that an old tree is never beyond putting forth buds and leaves. Dora nourishes late and contrite love for a dead daughter, Rosa – a lass nearly as impossible as she is herself. She researches memory – external memory, so to speak – papers in an old pouffe, letters hidden in books, documents kept from MI5’s surveillance and released on a government website under the Information Act.

As you note, Dora attempts to pursue her radical career through the new technology of the computer age. But in truth, her actions are impotent. The member of her family closest to Dora is stroppy Angelica – ‘Oh Nannan, you are really, really famous.... Me and Sam are so impressed.’ Angelica’s unfocused spirit of adolescent rebellion might – just might – flower into something more intelligent. There’s room for hope. But I think the political feeling that emerges from the novel is, at best, a kind of active and stoical quietism. What can be done in the wake of the heroic moments of history – by Dora and also by Eirlys, veteran of the Welsh language movement? In the end it may have to be enough to stand.

I am a lover of Milton: ‘They also serve who only stand and wait’; ‘Who best/ Can suffer, best can do’. You ask whether writing can offer a variant or better form of protest than campaigning militancy. It is a form of testimony, isn’t it, a testament, a witness. But first and foremost a novel is that very modest thing, a story about people we should engage with. You get to love your people – and they will almost always carry you into areas of contradiction and complexity, into which your pre-existing strategies and agenda for a book will not fit tidily. I don’t know whether fiction can claim to change people’s minds: such a claim puts the author on a very high horse indeed – although I can think of novels I read in youth that changed mine – George Eliot’s Middlemarch and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Perhaps it makes better sense to adapt something beautifully phrased by Emily Brontë in Wuthering Heights: ‘I’ve dreamt in my life dreams that have stayed with me ever after, and changed my ideas: they’ve gone through and through me, like wine through water, and altered the colour of my mind.’ Perhaps reading sometimes has this dreamlike suffusive power to colour our minds.
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NWR: What about the Brontës, and your non-fiction work more generally, in relation to your fiction? You’ve written a great deal of literary criticism, with a number of books focusing on the work on the Brontës as well as John Donne, Shakespeare, and Virginia Woolf. The Brontës were writing in the nineteenth century, the era of the great realist novel, as was George Eliot who you mention above. Your work is rooted in realism, to an extent, but your style often seems to me to have modernist leanings. Readers are granted access to your characters’ thoughts in such an intense and open way that we often follow their swerves of subject, giving a sense of stream of consciousness. There’s an impressionistic quality to your work too which reminds me of Woolf. How would you define your writing style and to what extent does your literary criticism impact on your fiction?

SD:Thank you for another detailed and penetrating question. I wonder if the answer might reside in the fact that I started my writing life as a poet? I think the fruits of my poetry only showed when I turned to writing prose narrative. From the age of sixteen to my late twenties I read at least as much poetry as prose: my passion was for Renaissance poetry, which I also taught – Spenser, Milton, Shakespeare, Donne, Vaughan. There’s an emotional and intellectual intensity in these writers that speaks to me at the deepest level and I have sections of their work by heart. I also studied the Bible intensively as a young person: when faith died, its poetry and the gospel values lived. So, while you are absolutely right to note that I have a commitment to nineteenth-century realist fiction, perhaps the strange ‘extra’ you intuit has something to do with the fact of starting out as a poet.

I do honour realism, as you surmise: its techniques and skills form the base for all prose fiction writing, whether modernist, postmodernist, magic realist etc – and its problems are as intransigent to me now and as alluring as they’ve ever been. How to realise a mushroom on the page? To capture a face as it turns? Words are nothing but air: how can we conjure with them to create the illusion of a substantial world apprehended moment by breathing moment? I love the copiousness of the English language and its rich hoard of near-synonyms, the result of historical borrowings from legions of invasions: by Romans, Norsemen, Normans on the one hand and by our imperialist adventures on the other.

The realist writer is always an apprentice. How to follow the narrative of human relationships through, so that the reader is interested in the characters and follows their intertwined stories as if they mattered – and somehow related to the world as we find it? This in turn leads me to a major reason to value realism: its ethical and empathic possibilities. George Eliot admits us to the heart of Edward Casaubon, the barren old pedant, and to Bulstrode the Pharisaical banker. This is a forensic operation but also sympathetic or empathetic. When she was asked who was the model for Casaubon (the enquirer expecting to hear the name of the formidable scholar Mark Pattison), Eliot is said to have pointed ruefully to herself. That insistence on recognition of all that is human often sends a writer back to self-examination. When I want to write a cruel or jealous character, it is not observation of others (or not only that) that informs my knowledge and guides my pen but the streak of cruelty or jealousy in myself. Eliot knew also the necessary limits of empathy: ‘If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.’ No empathist – in point of fact - travels all that far from home – but any distance we can achieve offers enlargement of perspective.

I don’t see a wall of separation between the language of creative fiction and that of literary criticism. I believe one should write for the informed common reader, to communicate responses and ideas in (to adapt Ben Jonson slightly) ‘a language such as men and women do use’, rather than an arcane dialect of academic mandarin. I listen carefully to people speaking around me – and their words of course become words in your own head, part of the circulation of thoughts – and I allow my reading to soak through me. That makes it quite hard for me to detect specific influences. You would probably spot them more clearly than I do. You mention Virginia Woolf: I honour her work but, like Emily Brontë, she is a one-off job, sui generis.
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NWR: You mention the similarities in language that you strive for between creative fiction and literary criticism. Tell me more about the relationship between those facets of your writing life – creative and critical – in terms of theme. Your website contains several of your interviews and one mentions that the research you undertook for your critical book Unbridled Spirits: Women of the English Revolution 1640-1660 informed the novel which followed it, Impassioned Clay. Both books certainly tread the same temporal ground but they’re looking to different audiences. Could you tell us about your research process and why you wrote a fictional book about the same territory you had recently explored in non-fiction? Have you had that experience with any of your other books?

SD: In the prelude to Unbridled Spirits, I described the historian’s quest through antiquarian libraries as she acquaints herself with the testaments, whether published or in manuscript form, of long-dead people who bore burning witness in their own day. Unbridled Spirits is a work of popular history rather than of literary criticism. I tried to follow and understand the voices of the radical women who emerged in the English Revolution when the censorship of the press went down and maverick Puritan figures came out of the underclass to imprint their subversive and heretical views on the culture of their day. From the Leveller, Elizabeth Lilburne, to Katherine Chidley, the iconoclastic controversialist; from Mary Cary, the regicidal Fifth Monarchist prophet, to Anna Trapnel, the singing prophetess; from Margaret Fell, the founding mother of Quakerism, to Quaker Mary Dyer, hanged as a witch on Boston Common in 1660 while witnessing for religious freedom, the voices of the women of the English Revolution spoke fiercely through the silence of the antiquarian libraries I visited. I wrote in the prelude:

opening these books, one is arrested with a pang as if the dead got up and spoke forcibly, freshly, from the page, and the library stillness is filled with characterful voices arguing. The leaf, like a freckled face, bears all the signs of time, yet the voices retain their dissident energy... If there is a sense in which we are all informed by the whole of the past... then these women – from Mary Cary to Mary Fisher – being our past, are also part of us. Reading them, we listen in to voices from which our own tongue derives.

Historians and historical novelists alike experience versions of this haunting: the library becomes our dwelling place for, often, years – and we keep company with the living voices of the dead.

At the same time, history intransigently resists our questions; the creeds and ideologies, language, dialects and idiolects of the seventeenth century are not our own. Early Modern English women’s writing especially, anomalous and suspect in its own day, a fragmentary part of the record, is not in pursuit of a feminist agenda such as prompted later generations. It is impregnated with Bible English and obscure biblical concerns. The historian is perpetually famishing. But the historical novelist thinks she knows how (using all her craft and canny invention) to find sustenance. Keeping carefully within the parameters of the historical record, the historical novelist imagines and creates in the gaps, with the aim of suggesting answers to some of the questions on which history is silent. Hence, in Impassioned Clay, I conjured Hannah Emanuel, the renegade Quaker, and her soul-mate and yokefellow, Isabel Clark, and – in a frame plot – Olivia, a later Quaker, unearthing Hannah’s skeleton in her garden, along with a scold’s bridle. Olivia performs a version of my own library search as she seeks clues to Hannah’s identity and nature. When Impassioned Clay was adapted as a play, In My Mouth, by Firenza Guidi, and by myself as a radio play directed by Julia Butt, Unbridled Spirits, there was a moving feeling of having returned these powerful and anomalous voices to something like living breath.

Those of us who are in love with books and with history are somewhat given to hallucinating. I was once lecturing at Haworth: my chairperson mentioned afterwards that a member of the audience believed herself to be an incarnation of the unborn child of Charlotte Brontë. She also knew of a trio who claimed to reincarnate the souls of Charlotte, Emily and Anne. The Brontës have long played strange tricks on the minds of readers – and the romance of visiting Haworth, seeing their intimate spaces so beautifully conserved at the Parsonage Museum, evokes a feeling of uncanny personal relationship. People often feel that they know and somehow are known by those passionate testaments, Jane Eyre, Villette and Wuthering Heights. The latter, especially, leads out on to a numinous territory, the moorlands and an ecstatic ‘other world’ – where Cathy and Heathcliff are contained in their mortal limitations but can ‘be’ one another.

I set my novel, Four Dreamers and Emily at a Brontë conference in Haworth with four Brontë-lovers, an aged widower; a woman who believes herself to be a descendant of Charlotte’s friend, Ellen Nussey; a useless lecturer (loosely based on myself in my least impressive moments) and Sharon, a waitress who somehow finds herself dragged along to this moorland world of illusion – and who comes out of the whole bitter-sweet farrago better than anyone, for her feet are on the ground. I loved writing the story, a tragicomic reflection on illusion and its dangers and compensations, each dreamer having ‘roamed the moor above Haworth, looking for Emily in a high wind.’
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NWR: To change tack slightly, you’re also a prominent reviewer for a number of publications, including ourselves. What is it that draws you, as a writer and a reader, to reviewing?

SD: Because reading is partly the life-blood of writing (the other part is living), I really value my work as reviewer for five organs, New Welsh Review, The Guardian, The Independent, Planet and The Warwick Review. In this way I hope to keep my finger on the pulse of modern literature in a way that might not happen if I were to go on my own sweet way, reading only what immediately attracts. I’m sent books I might never have considered otherwise. Each journal comes at the world of literature from a somewhat different angle: The Guardian, sends me especially fiction by women authors, and this month, The Warwick Review offered me the latest novel by Howard Jacobson. New Welsh Review recently sent me non-fiction works concerned with Welsh people’s cultural relationship with the Middle East, which I wrote up as a review-essay, ‘Lying Turks and the Pure Tongue of Eden’, published in the winter edition, NWR 98, available now.

There’s still a childlike thrill when the new book comes through the letterbox in its jiffy bag; it’s akin to greeting a new friend. The discipline of reviewing requires the dropping of preconceptions. I tell myself to come to every new read in an open-minded spirit –listening to its voice, tasting its language and lexis, allowing its people to roam through my mind space. Reading is a complex engagement – at once intimate and anonymous, so that the author seems intensely present despite being personally absent. The ‘I’ of the text at once bonds and remains separate from the ‘I’ of the reading mind. So many of the books I’ve reviewed have extended or corrected my perceptions and understanding. A writer is always looking for light on her or his own practice. Not that it’s necessarily a question of direct influence – I often think of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ remark about reading others’ poetry: his practice of ‘admiring and doing otherwise’.

NWR: That idea of a new book offering up a potential friendship is a lovely thought. Can you tell us about your new book, which I believe is out next year?

SD: Awakening – will be published by Parthian in spring, 2013. It’s a tragic-comic or comi-tragic story (I can’t decide which) set in the nineteenth century, in the small fictional town of Chauntsey, near the cathedral city of Salisbury – my mother’s home-town – with excursions to west Wales. It reflects the Victorian crisis of faith in the wake of (amongst other seismic changes) rationalism, archaeological discovery and Darwin’s evolutionary theory. The central characters of Awakening are the Pentecost sisters, Beatrice and Anna, daughters of a Baptist minister, locked in what you might call sororicidal struggle – almost to the death. Darwin’s The Origin of Species, which spawned ‘village Darwins’ in Mechanics Institutes and debating societies, was subtitled The Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Which of the two sisters will turn out to be the fitter to survive?

Beatrice, the Calvinistic elder, attempts to coerce and master the questing mind of the younger, who is original in her thinking to the point of heresy, archaeologically inclined, an amateur botanist of sorts – and anomalous in her loves. From childhood, Anna makes little books out of flour bags and keeps a diary, thirsting to become a writer. Beatrice resorts to savage means to censor Anna’s views and ambitions. It’s a story of passionate sexual love and rivalry. But also of intense sisterly love. This theme, rhy dyn a dyr – ‘too tight breaks’, echoes that of my earlier novel, Kith & Kin. Each Pentecost sister struggles in the net (I was going to say the corsetry) of what was permissible to women in the constraining world of politicised medicine and misogynist law in Victorian England. Watch out for your doctor, whether GP, gynaecologist or alienist (mad-doctor): his mediaeval notions of medicine may be the death of you.

The story of Awakening is one of virtuous transgressors and transgressive virtue, in which some characters, like the renegade minister, Mr Kyffin, dance on the edge of madness; others turn to the séances of Spiritualism; dissenters look to Revival or Awakening to deliver them from the age’s infidelity. When Awakening comes, it happens darkly and in singular ways: as sexual discovery or as motherhood, as the finding or hearing of a voice in a fractured modern world. ‘Christianity is fissiparous,’ as Anna remarks, to Beatrice’s disgust: the Church splinters into sects and then the sects splinter and the splinters splinter, until each man’s hand is against his neighbour.

I chose to open the story at the year 1860, the year after the publication of On The Origin of Species but also to link the narrative with one of serial spiritual ‘awakenings’ in west Wales and the border counties. Through the pages of Awakening wander figures I’ve met in my nineteenth-century studies. Father and son, Philip and Edmund Gosse, are fleetingly encountered zoologising on the beach at Tenby; we glimpse Arthur Munby, who secretly married his servant Hannah; feminists Barbara Bodichon and Bessie Parkes have their moment; we sample the loquacity of Baptist celebrity-preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, extraordinary and (to me) hilarious in pretty equal measure. These vignettes are complemented by fictional characterisations that draw on qualities and episodes in the lives of distinguished Victorian women: Anna has more than a touch of Mary Benson, the brilliant and adorable lesbian wife of Edward Benson, the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as a pinch of Emily Brontë. Anna’s friend, the writer Miriam Sala, has a streak of George Eliot, and her sycophantic disciple Eleanor Jackson owes much to Eliot’s worshipper, the diarist, feminist and co-operative worker, Edith Simcox. In Beatrice there’s something of Fairford diarist, Sarah Thomas.

I should probably mention that I was myself baptised into the Baptist Church as a youngster and, though my path led into humanistic agnosticism, I see the church with a perhaps elegiac tenderness. John Clifford, who appears twice in Awakening, was one of the truly great ministers of the Baptist Church. The self-educated son of a Chartist, he worked from the age of eleven in a lace-factory, became a pastor and became one of the most liberal ministers of his age – ecumenical, open-minded, with an overwhelming social conscience. Finally, the surname Pentecost, so wonderfully emblematic, was in fact the name of one of my Salisbury great-aunts – a rather blessed inheritance. For at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles, endowing them with the gift of tongues to speak a charismatic truth. Voice, in other words.

Photo by Stephen Howell,Media Production, Swansea University


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