Breaking Free: Prisons in Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ and Sarah Waters’s ‘Affinity’

 

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Breaking free. Photography by Mike Dodson/Vagabond Images

We must actively engage in releasing women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice, writes Jessamy Baldwin.

By reading Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace,which is set in C19th Colonial Canada and Sarah Waters’s Affinity, which is set in Britain in the 1870s, we are able to travel back in time and bear witness to significant female narratives that would most certainly have been repressed during the Victorian period in which they are set. Negotiating our way through the various physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ of these two historical novels, we too experience the numerous dark and claustrophobic realities with which many women were faced in this era.

Atwood and Waters, like their female characters, “throw the system out, make it stagger” (Waters 209) as they challenge female captivity, cultural constructions of femininity and inescapable female physiology that led to the social imprisonment of women and their exclusion from public discourse.

Affinity dismantles conventional notions regarding heterosexual relationships through Margaret’s rejection of marriage and by the potent insinuation of sexual bonds between women. Waters also presents us with the “queer career” (162) of Spiritualism where female passion can be performed and the gothic physicality of Millbank prison, a place which is symbolic of other ‘prisons’ such as Margaret’s own home.

By contrast, Alias Grace follows the fictional account of Grace Marks, the “celebrated murderess” (Atwood 25), as she recalls her life and imprisonment to Dr.Jordan. We feel the oppressive atmosphere of The Kingston Penitentiary and sense Atwood addressing larger issues surrounding the countless confinements imposed on women in the Victorian period. The women of Affinity and Alias Grace refuse to be bound within culturally constructed binaries of femininity and their stories present us with brave and stimulating narratives that break free of female imprisonment, in all its forms.

Both these novels express the significant struggles for women in the Victorian period to fulfill the culturally constructed feminine ideal of being “disembodied, spiritual and above all, chaste” (King 10). The model Victorian woman was supposed to be virtuous, devoted and submissive, similar to the ‘Angel’ depicted in Coventry Patmore’s 1854 poem ‘The Angel in the House’ or was otherwise considered the other end of the scale, the ‘Whore’. The friction between these contrasting archetypes is epitomised in the dualistic qualities of Grace who is seen as “a model prisoner” (Atwood 5) but admits “It’s not easy being quiet and good, it’s like hanging onto the edge of a bridge when you’ve already fallen over” (Atwood 6). She is portrayed in varying lights, sometimes as “an innocent victim…too ignorant to know how to act…a good girl with a pliable nature” (Atwood 25) and others as “an inhuman female demon” (Atwood 25) in the form of her dark double Mary Whitney. Jamie Walsh, Grace’s previous admirer and eventual husband articulates these contrasting ideologies when she goes “from being an angel in his eyes and fit to be idolized and worshipped… to a demon” (Atwood 418). Indeed, women could quickly descend into dishonour or rise into adoration and the boundaries between these positions were hazy and volatile. Therefore, imprisonment in either of these categories was both likely and extremely limiting.

However, while such regressive beliefs of women’s roles dominated society, they were not universal. Many women wanted to escape the prison of domesticity and the obligation to fulfill these normative social roles, yet this was easier said than done in a society where “gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly [and] women’s are so easily stifled” (Waters 229). Yet the introduction of factories due to the Industrial Revolution in the C19th meant working class women could earn money for themselves and thus be incorporated into the public workplace. Middle class women were increasingly able to walk for pleasure, an activity that had been previously frowned upon, suggesting some progress. Moreover, Barbara Bodichon’s setting up of the Women’s Suffrage Committee in 1866 helped lay the foundations for the Suffragette campaigns that were to come.

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In Alias Grace, Mrs Quennell exemplifies this desire for increased opportunities for women by advocating “an enlarged sphere for women” (Atwood 94). Her Spiritualist gatherings at the Governor’s house, where Grace works during a period of her imprisonment, allow women to gather in a free space away from their private, domestic spheres. Opinions among men also varied. In 1869 John Stuart Mill argued that women should be given the vote in The Subjection of Women. Yet John Ruskin’s famous lecture ‘Of Queen’s Garden’ given in 1865 maintains a similar view to Patmore’s vision of woman as the sacred guardian of the home. Certainly, views on women differed greatly and Atwood states in the afterword to her novel that “attitudes towards [Grace] reflected contemporary ambiguity about the nature of women” (538).

Such ambiguity was increased due to socially conditioned notions of femininity that were projected onto society, meaning that many women became imprisoned by the narrow lives they were expected to lead as pure, mythologised entities. Many women, such as Margaret’s mother in Affinity, were indeed happy to stay within the traditional female stereotype of a good wife and mother and “there were many women, including feminists, who argued that woman’s highest fulfillment came from motherhood” (King 9). Interestingly, Elizabeth Blackwell, who was the world’s first trained, registered woman doctor, still claimed that women should look after their bodies so that they may be fit and healthy for motherhood.

However, many women struggled to keep up with the ideal that was expected of them. They were supposed to be nurturing, natural mothers because “that is their function” (Waters 209) and at the same time fulfill a virginal and delicate role of femininity all at once. Thus the path to being a perfect woman was extremely narrow, contradictory and confining. Indeed, the ways of Millbank, like the ways of Victorian society, were “rather narrow ones” (Waters 215).

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“Like swans drifting along on unseen feet” – descriptions of women in Alias Grace. Photography by Sankar Govind, via Flickr Creative Commons

A poignant image from Alias Grace in relation to this is when the women visitors to the Governor’s household are portrayed “like swans drifting along on unseen feet; or else like the jellyfish in the waters of the rocky harbour” (Atwood 24). Swans appear virginal, white and regal and yet if one looks at their feet below all the angelic splendour and moving water, the desperate struggle to stay afloat is clearly evident. Women in the Victorian era had to convey outward composure, yet beneath this calm exterior they too struggled to remain above water as they attempted to achieve the ‘Angel’ status. Similarly, the female prisoners in Affinity are expected to “be silent, and still, [but] they are restless and pacing their cells” (Waters 71). Atwood’s use of the jellyfish image is also interesting because it conveys the sense of invisible female strength. Even though women were supposedly transparent and lacking in substance, they could sting and show initiative if necessary, as Grace and Selina both demonstrate.

The novels also deal with contemporary anxiety over what would happen if women were to ‘break out’ of their socially conditioned roles as wives and mothers. Atwood and Waters’s female criminals remain “undetectable and unknowable” (King 72) because they reject “the terms by which Victorian gender discourse attempts to categorise them” (King 72).

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Howells argues that Alias Grace is “very much tied up with C19th anxieties about women and what they might be capable of (151). Margaret contemplates what would frighten her family more, Selina “being a spirit medium, or a convict, or a girl” (Waters 315) emphasizing social anxiety over all these entities. When Miss Haxby speaks of how “the urge that has been slumbering is woken in her; and then she almost cannot help herself” (Waters 177), we can recognise apprehension over female autonomy. Mr. Shillitoe also conveys this desire to mould women who are “ignorant of shame and duty and all the finer feelings” (Waters 11) into the Victorian ‘Angel’  ideal and imprison them physically and intellectually, as “they must spend the great part of the days alone, with their cell walls about them…their tongues we still” (Waters 11). The matrons at Millbank also use hobbles “on women only, never on men…to restrain a prisoner when she has a mind- as they often do” (Waters 179). Indeed, to have a mind of one’s own was not part of the ideal Victorian woman’s composition.

Moreover, sexuality was not something Victorian women were expected to possess or display. Therefore, Selina and Grace’s sexuality is “what really interests them” (Atwood 30) and anxiety over this contributes to their imprisonment. Margaret and Dr. Jordan are enthralled by the subtle sexuality of their charges and Grace knows that “they don’t care if I killed anyone, I could have cut dozens of throats, it’s only what they admire in a soldier” (Atwood 30). Therefore, fear of female sexuality and the male desire to lock this away from the public domain is clearly evident through the novels’ linking of female criminality and sexuality. Indeed, Grace’s gender greatly affected her destiny because so deeply does her crime transgress the womanly ideal that “the authorities are still driven to either find her innocent, or to classify her as ‘criminal’, ‘idiot’ or ‘minor’ in order to explain that transgression” (King 72) .

Many people at the time felt the female body was always “the potential source of deviance, particularly of sexual deviance, and consequently requires constant observation, in the form of surveillance and treatment or even punishment” (King 67). Therefore, Grace’s gender may have saved her life but it also leads to her loss of freedom due to her ensuing imprisonment and continual observation by authority, something we also see in Affinity. However, a failure to maintain such authority can be seen in Dr. Jordan as he tries to use his “forbidden knowledge” (Atwood 94) on Grace in his attempt to “open her up like an oyster” (Atwood 153). Despite supposedly possessing the “powers of life and death” (Atwood 94) and the possibility that he “may once have held a beating female heart” (Atwood 94), Grace never succumbs to giving into his genuine desire which is to have her confess her sins to him. Indeed, it is as though people want Grace to judge herself and “confession is presented to her as the only route to freedom” (King 73). Reverend Verringer, the prison chaplain, urges her to confess because “the truth shall make you free” (Atwood 91) but it will merely imprison her in her role as evil murderess and allow others the satisfaction of solving her puzzle.

Dr. Jordan becomes infuriated by the knowledge that Grace is withholding information from him and deduces that “her strongest prison is of her own construction” (Atwood 421), yet this mental prison is what keeps her alive. “Her only way of claiming any private space is by refusing to have her identity defined by men in authority… whether they be lawyers, jailers, clergymen or doctors.” (Howells 32). However, while Grace avoids mental imprisonment, she is still physically confined in Kingston Penitentiary. While James McDermott is hanged, she is sentenced to prolonged suffering because she is a young female. The sense of female violation is poignantly depicted in the image of her being torn open like a peach that is “too ripe and splitting open of its own accord” (Atwood 79). Still, “ a prison does not only lock its inmates inside, it keeps all others out” (Atwood 421) and despite this potential for weak flesh, she says, “inside the peach there’s a stone” (Atwood 79) suggesting she is far stronger and determined than Dr. Jordan and other male authorities have assumed. In order to preserve the ‘alias’ of female grace and innocence, she “must conceal her more knowing, sexualised self” (King 81), she must hide her stone among the fleshy peach.

Waters describes Millbank as being extremely similar to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon. It “is so curious a shape, and must be approached, so darkly, through so many gates and twisting passages” (Waters 7). There is a “tower set at the centre of the pentagon yards, so that the view from it is of all the walls and barred windows that make up the interior of the women’s buildings” (Waters 10). Continual observation is fundamental to this design, the lack of privacy is essential not only for security purposes but as a means of punishment which will ideally lead to degradation, submission and repentance. Grace also notes how in Kingston “nobody…does you the courtesy of knocking” (Atwood 39) and “they make the windows high up … they do not want you looking out, they do not want you thinking the word out” (Atwood 275).

Such focus on the interior relates to the Victorian notion of women as unsuitable for intellectual thinking and the belief that their energy should always be directed to the intramural, the private and the domestic. Such confinement and lack of communication makes the prison inmates mad and alone. Thus the symbolic function of Millbank and Kingston represents the isolation many women, like Margaret, would have felt in their destined roles and their own homes during this period.

Indeed, Margaret distances herself from the expected dominant Victorian ideology of femininity, admitting that “idleness did not suit me “(Waters 46). She also resists from submitting to the normative heterosexual relationships all women were supposed to take part in. Dr. Jordan, like Margaret, is also afraid to marry and be “imprisoned in an armchair by the fire, frozen in a kind of paralysed stupor, with his dear wife winding him up gradually…like a cocoon, or like a fly snarled in the web of a spider” (Atwood 340). This anxiety of being imprisoned or trapped by normative social functions is clearly evident and we can see how these characters across these novels are endeavouring to resist these cultural constructions.

However, while Margaret “may attempt to make the system ‘stagger’, as an unmarried female, she must suffer for her difference…a prisoner not in Millbank but in her own home” (Kontou 183). Even though she does not have to answer to a husband, she is stuck in a state of limbo, she is merely “a paper doll, nodding its head” (Waters 242), with no real independence due to her mother’s domineering presence. The ‘dose’ of medicine given to her every day makes her flesh go “quite numb” (Waters 205), thus emphasizing her anaesthetized and prison-like circumstances.  She is well aware of the monotony that awaits her in the future because she does not adhere to the traditional ideology of Victorian femininity, she believes she “shall grow dry and pale and paper thin…like a leaf, pressed tight inside the pages of a dreary black book and then forgotten” (Waters 201). She is caged in, “more firmly unevolved than ever” (Waters 208) and Selina even tells her that she is “like all of us at Millbank” (Waters 208).

The road she lives on is also named ‘Cheyne Walk’ which can be taken to symbolise her invisible chains and disguised imprisonment where she has begun to “feel myself a ghost” (Waters 307). Her mother tells her “your place is here…not at the prison…you must take up your proper duties in the house…you are not, in fact, Mrs. Anybody. You are only Miss. Prior” (Waters 252-3). Her mother’s condemnation over her single status and adamant orders to fulfil her duty all resemble the degrading and officious attitude of many of the prison warders and matrons across Alias Grace and Affinity.

The compelling physical descriptions of Millbank prison in Affinity and The Kingston Penitentiary in Alias Grace are extensions of the physical imprisonment of women in a patriarchal society where their physiology is seen as their only value and their social role is extensively conditioned. The correlation between Millbank and the individual female body and the female body at large is evident when the Porter speaks to Margaret about Millbank, “she seems quiet to you, I dare say. But some nights, Miss. Prior, when there ain’t a breath of wind, I have stood where you are standing now and heard her groan – plain as a lady” (Waters 312). The personification of the building greatly emphasizes the larger issues of the era where ‘prisons’, both physical and mental, were imposed on women. The groaning accentuates not just the unhappiness of the women inside Millbank, but the desperation and entrapment of women outside the gaol walls. With tightly corseted bodies and restricted intellectual development, we can see how the representation of such longstanding physical and mental confinement is implied in the prison buildings which are suffocating and “so solid and so antique” (Waters 7). The Governor’s wife in Alias Grace says to a group of women, “we are virtually prisoners ourselves” (Atwood 26) highlighting this link between institutional and domestic prisons.

During the period in which these novels are set, women’s bodies were subject to male desire and scrutiny, resulting in unwanted pregnancy, disease and sometimes death as a result of both, they had a serious lack of control over what they did with their bodies and how they were seen in society. Nancy’s illegitimate pregnancy with Thomas Kinnear and Mary Whitney’s death due to a botched abortion, after being made pregnant by her employer’s son, show Atwood engaging with how the female body was subject to male desire and the physical peril and social oppression that resulted from such domination. The restricting and male-dominated society in which the characters live traps women from all angles and punishes them for their natural physiology. Physical abuse of the female body is also alluded to as the prisoners are restrained by “handcuffs…gags [and] and strips of leather” (Waters 179) which has violent sexual undertones.

Indeed, both novels suggest that the majority of female prisoners are mere victims of sexual exploitation and poverty. The crimes for which many of the women are imprisoned, such as theft and prostitution, are not even proven and undertaken through a desperation to survive. Margaret illustrates anxiety over this volatile sentencing and false incarceration when she admits “I had begun to worry that the men might take me for a convict just arrived and lead me to a cell and leave me there” (Waters 9). Also, Grace notes how many of the women in the Toronto Lunatic Asylum, where she spends some of her imprisonment, are “no madder than the Queen of England” (Atwood 34) but simulate insanity in order to escape domestic abuse or the harshness of the winter weather, thus emphasizing the absurd nature of a patriarchal culture that imprisons women regardless of whether they fulfil their role as the ‘Angel’ or as the ‘Whore’. Psychiatrists such as Henry Maudsley argued in the early 1870s, that women were prisoners because of their sex and that their mental ability was directly related to their reproductive organs.  He stated that “whether they care to be mothers or not they cannot dispense with those psychological functions of their nature…however much they might wish it…they cannot choose but to be women” (qtd in Kontou 183). By contrast, I would argue that while female physiology was important in a woman’s life, it was the socially conditioned view of femininity, domestic confinement and the divergence between sexuality, marriage and motherhood which imprisoned them in their bodies.

Even though Grace eventually marries, it is not a young or reckless marriage; she says “at least the two of us know what sort of bargain we have got into” (Atwood 526). The power she holds over Mr. Walsh, because he continually pleads for her forgiveness, ensures she has authority in the union. However, the nature of the marriage is undoubtedly disturbing as he betrayed her at her trial, it calls into question the degree to which it will offer her ultimate freedom, as Lovelady remarks, “it is an improvement but not a triumph” (205).

Though she is free from Kingston Penitentiary, she is reliant on a male, admitting “I did not have many other choices” (Atwood 524) and Lovelady argues this points “to a certain inevitability of marriage at the end of a woman’s story” (204). Mr. Walsh, as she prefers to call him, is only aroused through Grace’s retellings of her victimisation in prison which prolongs her feelings of entrapment and subjection. Howells argues that she “remains trapped within a variety of male fantasy scripts which are moulded by medical and social discourses about criminals and women” (36).  Indeed, “she is freer than she was at the beginning of the novel, but she is not altogether free” (Lovelady 192) and this ambivalent ending is emphasized even further when she believes herself to be three months pregnant. The heaviness she feels “might as easily be a tumour, such as killed my poor mother… it is strange to know you carry within yourself either a life or a death” (Atwood 533). Once again this notion of the female body as important to a woman’s destiny is significant.

The female body is given more freedom through the use of Spiritualism in both novels and lesbian power in Affinity. Waters and Atwood give their female characters a chance to break free from the culturally constructed ‘prisons’ that defined normal female behaviour and femininity often depicted in contemporary Victorian fiction. In this sense, they become spirit mediums themselves as they connect the modern voice with the Victorian past. Kontou argues that Waters “creates a fictive (and potentially subversive) space in which stories that have been previously suppressed or untold can find a home” (172), she creates a kind of “counter history, the antithesis of the ‘great lives’ and ‘great works’ of men” (172). Moreover, she states that Waters “uses Spiritualism as a way of imagining a Victorian lesbianism without forcing a modern, anachronistic conception of same sex desire into a world that could not openly accommodate it” (Kontou 186).

The Spiritualist Movement was particularly popular in the 1850s and it certainly represented a blurring between the public and private spheres as men, women and children would gather in the drawing room of a house to interact with spirits. Such distortion and breaking down of socially conditioned and imprisoning spaces illustrates how female imprisonment in the domestic sphere could be improved through such gatherings. Spirit mediums such as Florence Cook became famous and were invited to work in both public lecture halls and private homes therefore illustrating how the profession enabled such women to transverse social boundaries by possessing a job in a time where female professions were extremely limited. Indeed, Spiritualism was a means by which women could influence those around them and Atwood said that it “was the one quasi-religious activity of the time in which women were allowed a position of power” (‘Afterword’ 540).

This is evident in Grace’s ‘double consciousness’ which is the explanation she gives for not remembering how the murders took place. Grace uses contemporary dependency on the supernatural to insist that any evil resulted from possession by Mary Whitney. Moreover, in Affinity, Selina and Ruth’s séances allow them to engage in suggestively sexual experiences with both women and men which were usually forbidden outside the bonds of marriage. Indeed, Waters’s novel certainly explores how “oppressive social forces drive women into assumed heterosexual identities and how suppressed lesbian desire could express itself through what outlets were available” (Kontou 179).

However, some people regarded such autonomy through Spiritualism as limited because spirits chose to possess the bodies of women due to their passivity and therefore increased likelihood of possession. Yet, while many people held this view, which was not surprising considering the notion of the ideal Victorian woman as passive and lacking in physical and mental strength, there can be no denying that it did offer more physical and mental freedom for women. The sitters were allowed to physically interact with the female medium; she had her hair loose, wore no shoes and had on loose clothing rather than a restricting corset. Therefore the traditional Victorian customs and laws of decency were abandoned.

While the medium may perform passivity, she is also being able to perform passion and therefore engage in actions outside social convention. Many women made money through Spiritualism and were able to break free of cultural constructions of femininity, thus showing that it was a complex means of introducing female empowerment. Waters said in an interview that her novel was “about the pleasures and dangers of darkness, the pleasures of it being when you are in control of it and the dangers coming from when you are at its mercy” (123). Indeed, we can see how Spiritualism allows women to have a voice and be in control of the darkness but in other physical and socially conditioned ‘prisons’, the women are vulnerable and left in the darkness, at the mercy of an external authority.

Women who were literally sent to prison in the C19th had no voice at all. Grace conveys her anxiety about being forgotten, she thinks she “will shrivel…dry out…turn into a skeleton…be found months, years, centuries from now and they will say who is this, she must have slipped our mind” (Atwood 38). Waters even noted how many of the records she used from Millbank “tended to be official records that were written by men” (‘Interview with Sarah Waters’ 123) and therefore the stories of individual women needed to be re- imagined by her in order to escape the ‘male gaze’. Affinity and Alias Grace fit into the attempt by second wave feminists to “map out an alternative female historical landscape” (King 3) which will free stories that have been silenced or imprisoned in supposedly irrelevant chambers of history.

The novels are examples of “herstory rather than history, offering alternative feminine perspectives on a tales of criminality and violence” (Howells 29), something which was not permitted in public discourse at the time. Grace is made to represent a wide range of Victorian constructs of ‘Woman’, she is “victim, madwoman, murderess, Dr. Jordan’s muse” (Howells 152) and an individual female voice. Atwood, like Waters, is rebelling against a history which has not allowed “the real woman’s voice or the true story of the past to be recovered” (Howells 152). Indeed, David Glover and Cora Kaplan argue that “modern feminist critics use the Victorian period to revisit the unresolved issues of what kind of opposition gender is and what kind of ethics and politics can be assigned to traditional femininity” (qtd. in King 6). By freeing the stories of these women and filling in the gaps where their particular stories were lost or forgotten, Atwood and Waters help to resolve issues from the past by building a female literary tradition that considers all types of women and relationships, regardless of what was considered socially acceptable at the time in which the writing is set.

Alias Grace and Affinity provide us, as modern readers, with contemporary female narratives that certainly would have been silenced in the Victorian era itself. By exploring anxieties surrounding the female body, tackling Spiritualism and lesbianism as well as the culturally constructed and physical ‘prisons’ in which women were placed, we are given an opportunity to appreciate  perspectives that have been imprisoned in the past. Moreover, whilst Waters and Atwood address problems felt by the female population at large, they concentrate on specific women’s stories and particular female experiences which make them so engaging to read.

The novels themselves are all about actively voicing these stories and experiences, essentially giving such women “back their place in history, not just as victims but as agents” (King 3). The continual mystery surrounding Selina Dawes and Grace Marks “throws into sharp relief the inadequacy of so-called scientific knowledge to define or contain them” (King 72). We recognise through these women, as well as Margaret Prior, the “very real desire for literal escape” (Lovelady 183), whether that be from the prison buildings themselves, their homes or the socially conditioned roles assigned to them. Mrs. Quennell remarks that “stone walls do not a prison make” (Atwood 97) and this is what Atwood and Waters are essentially claiming in their novels. That an ‘Angel’ is never far from a ‘Whore’, and indeed, freedom never far from imprisonment. We must actively engage in releasing such women from their physical and culturally constructed ‘prisons’ by re-creating their stories and finally giving them a voice.

 

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.

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Rewriting fairytales: the bloody chamber

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These are no children’s bed time stories…they are fierce, dark, erotic and gothic. Photography by Mike Dodson, via Vagabond Images

“I am all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the old bottles explode” -Angela Carter

Reading Angela Carter’s collection of opulent short stories, The Bloody Chamber (1979), is like riding an exhilarating roller coaster. You think you can predict the twists and turns of the ensuing ride, but are instead taken on an electrifying, exotic journey that will stimulate you from beginning to end. The Bloody Chamber injects new energy into traditional tales and motifs by deconstructing and transforming some of the core elements that support such stories. This essay intends to explore how Carter’s text presents us with a complex and original expression of a forceful feminist vision. It dismantles and explodes long-established depictions of women within the fairy tale genre, which “encoded the dark and mysterious elements of the psyche” (Makinen).

By re-shaping these tales, Carter was “deliberately drawing them out of their set shapes, out of the separate space of children’s stories or folk art and into a world of change” (Sage); these are “no children’s bedtime stories…they are fierce, dark, erotic [and] gothic” (Gamble).  This is specifically achieved in the intense and vibrant title story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’, which tells the story of a young woman’s seduction into – and escape from – a deadly marriage. Subsequently, Carter also “attempts to decolonise our habits of thought” (Makinen) by working within and against fairy tale conventions in her bid to expose how Western culture has “shaped limiting concepts of gender and sexuality” (Bristlow and Broughton).

As a woman who personally and publically identified herself as a feminist, it comes as no surprise that Carter’s stories within The Bloody Chamber are informed and influenced by her feminist principles. Indeed, she has declared:

“It’s been amazingly difficult… trying to sort out how I feel that feminism has affected my work, because that is really saying how it has affected my life and I don’t really know that because I live my life, I don’t examine it” (Carter ‘Notes’).

Indeed, as Alison Easton has noted, it is important that we understand Carter’s explorations of gender and female sexuality in The Bloody Chamber within “the context of the many different, contested positions that feminism has taken over the past thirty years”. Within this continual feminist debate, issues surrounding pornography, sexuality, violence and the representation of women intensified in the late 1970s and 80s which would have significantly influenced Carter’s work and prompted critics to readily respond to The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman, which were both published in 1979. While many feminists agreed that pornography “reflected a sort of distilled essence of the entrenched binaries of patriarchal gender relations, the conflict revolved around the extent to which pornographic representations could be appropriated” (Benson 37) to adequately critique it and suggest alternatives. Subsequently, for many feminists who saw pornography purely as the eroticization of male power and female weakness, the stories in The Bloody Chamber, which are permeated by sexual violence, sexual gratification, erotic desire and sadism, were unsuccessful in achieving a feminist objective.

The question of what precisely Carter’s objective was with The Bloody Chamber, has also divided critics. Never occupying a particular or specific feminist position and being continually influenced by contrasting ideas and notions relating to gender and sexuality, Carter was able “to critique phallocentrism with ironic gusto and to develop a wider and more complex representation of femininity” (Makinen). Yet some early critics, such as Robert Clark and Patricia Duncker, saw her wide ranging feminist agenda as too ambiguous, the latter felt she was “rewriting the tales within the strait-jacket of their original structures” (qtd. in Makinen) and remained unconvinced that Carter was able to completely escape the conservative gender stereotypes often exemplified in traditional tales and motifs. Others stated that she failed to make the old bottles explode in the spectacular way she had hoped and “gets locked into… conservative sexism despite her good intentions” (Makinen). Also, that the strong pornographic nature of her tales and the fairy tale genre itself, could not be appropriated to critique and map alternatives to gender binaries, especially considering the role of fairy tales “in the installation of these very traditions” (Benson).

Nevertheless, such evaluations of Carter’s work can be seen as dangerously missing the powerfully ironic point she puts across in her transformation of traditional tales and motifs. Yes, she uses narrative structures that are based on old-fashioned notions of women and men’s sexual roles; but Carter utilises such story lines as working construction sites in her renovation of such concepts. Carter chose to use elements from fairy tales because those were the stories that developed through oral tradition and she saw them as “the most vital connection we have with the imaginations of the ordinary men and women whose labour created our world” (‘Virago Book of Fairy Tales’). Therefore, by tackling such deep rooted customs and concepts, the reader is forced to respond due to familiarity with the old story when faced with the implications of the new one.

Moreover, considering patriarchal distain for the proto-feminist actions of the witty, salon women of the 17th Century, from which fairy tales began to circulate, “it is ironically apropos that Carter, a feminist, should now speak through Perrault’s tales” (M. Roemer and Bacchilega), and cleverly undermine their core principles. Although her intense and colourful writing style may not suit everyone and “the savagery with which she can attack cultural stereotypes [is potentially] disturbing, even alienating” (Makinen), it nonetheless remains brilliantly perceptive and invigorating to read. Makinen also argues that those critics who fail to understand Carter’s subtle ironies do so because they fail to “position themselves outside phallocentric culture”.

Angela CarterFrom the Fay Godwin Archive at the British Library

Carter forces us to radically question our beliefs surrounding the cultural constructions of gender and female sexuality

 

Carter’s marvellously gothic title story, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is a feminist re-write based on Charles Perrault’s traditional fairy tale, ‘Bluebeard’. Her story also heavily draws on the eccentric life of the French aristocrat and sexual libertine, the Marquis De Sade. The Marquis’s chamber is also “that private slaughterhouse of his” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and signifies the dark, fetishized world of Sadeian erotic fantasy. Carter expanded on representations of sexual violence and her interest in the Marquis de Sade in The Sadeian Woman (1979). This too received mixed criticism from feminist critics, and Susan Kappeler condemned her depictions of women as mere objects of male pornography. However, what Carter depicts in The Bloody Chamber and The Sadeian Woman is an alternative view of women’s sexuality as entirely unrelated from their reproductive and biological role. Indeed, “during the 1970s, Carter had been re-reading fairy tales and Sade in tandem and bleakly contemplating the fate of good, powerless girls, the Red Riding Hoods and the Sleeping Beauties of the world” (Sage ‘Angela Carter: The Fairy Tale’) .

‘Bluebeard’ is a well-known European folktale which has contrasting characteristics depending on its origin, “in Norway the husband is a troll, in Italy, a devil, and in an ancient Greek version, death itself” (Lokke). However, Carter uses the basic elements from Perrault’s tale, namely the rich and powerful man who marries a series of young wives, gives them the key to a forbidden room but prohibits them from entering it, thus testing their obedience to him. Each woman gives into her curiosity which is revealed by the blood stained key, yet while the previous wives are killed by Bluebeard and locked in the chamber, the cycle is broken when his current wife is rescued just in time and he is then killed.

In comparison to ‘Bluebeard’, then, ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is far more sexually violent and pornographically explicit. Carter once said “you mention folk culture and people immediately assume you’re going to talk about porridge and clog dancing” (qtd. in Sage ‘Angela Carter: The Fairy tale’) and that in actual fact, “the latent content of those traditional stories… is violently sexual” (qtd. in Ozum). Indeed, similar to many fairy tale motifs, the ‘Bluebeard’ story is “grotesque in essence” (Lokke), so as readers we are prepared for the evil in the narrative. Carter then cleverly uses these inherent expectations to alter how we view the intensified sexual descriptions and violent images in her tale; subsequently we are forced to question rigid sexual binaries and gender definitions.

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Within moments of beginning ‘The Bloody Chamber’, we are lured into its narrative and enticed by the profusion of lush, sumptuous, erotic prose that seduces and repels us all at once. Photo via Spike_dennis via photopin cc

 

In ‘The Bloody Chamber’, though the female protagonist is potentially a victim to male pornography and is an object of male property at first, she is able to surpass this oppression and realise her own potential for independent sexuality. Moreover, the Marquis’s “victimisation of women is overturned and he himself is vanquished by the mother and daughter” (Makinen). The traditionally old, domesticated fairy godmother who solves all the problems in fairy tales such as Cinderella, or the valiant hero or future lover who saves the day is transformed and rewritten in ‘The Bloody Chamber’. In true feminist fashion, it is the fearless, Amazonian mother who rides to the rescue, “a wild thing… skirts tucked around her waist… as if she had been Medusa” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). This intervention of the mother is unusual in The Bloody Chamber and in Carter’s other work where mothers are typically absent from the plot. The other stories in the collection contain either a lost mother or no mother at all, similar to her novels such as Wise Children or The Magic Toyshop in which the former skips a generation to focus on grandmothers and the latter deals with mother figures in place of biological mothers.

Unlike in ‘Bluebeard’ where the bride’s brothers come to the rescue, the Marquis is overcome by female autonomy, he is “impotent at last [as the] dolls break free of their strings, abandon the rituals he had ordained for them since time began and start to live for themselves” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). Indeed, “with his removal, the rigid dichotomy of his eroticised power games is shattered and the space he once occupied is recovered and reconfigured” (Gamble), the female protagonist comes to realise that she does not need a rich husband and refuses to be the victim of a “puppet master” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). By contrast, in the original ‘Bluebeard’, the woman immediately marries “an exceedingly pleasant man, who soon made her forget the bad time she had with Bluebeard” (Perrault) emphasizing her continual reliance on male authority. Therefore, as Lucie Armit argues, it is critics like Duncker “who remains ensnared” in patriarchal narratives, through their inability to recognise the powerful transformation the female protagonist undergoes in this story.

Furthermore, while Perrault’s tale is narrated in third person and we remain relatively distant from the woman in the story, Carter’s story is narrated retrospectively by the woman herself. This shifting focus towards the woman’s physical and mental journey is “foreign to the traditional fairy tale” (Lokke) and provides us with an exuberant reading experience that “actively engages the reader in a feminist deconstruction” (Makinen). We experience the protagonist’s transition from innocence and dependence to maturity and independence. When initially asked by her mother if she is certain she loves the Marquis, she replies, “I’m sure I want to marry him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), thus demonstrating her initial fixation on marriage because it is the next stage in her socially conditioned female role. However, by the end of the story she is happy to give away the inherited money from her dead husband to various charities and runs a school for the blind at the castle. Therefore, the typical fairy tale journey of poverty and unhappiness towards wealth through marriage is here remodelled so that female autonomy rather than wifely subservience is the happily ending.

Moreover, while in Perrault’s tale the woman accepts she “must die”, in Carter’s, she tells the piano tuner “I’ve done nothing; but that may be sufficient reason for condemning me” (‘The Bloody Chamber’), she shows a lot more female gumption and is less prepared to receive punishment for her curiosity. Therefore, while Perrault is warning his readers or listeners against over inquisitiveness and wifely disobedience, Carter is conveying the opposite. The murderous Marquis also represents all symbolically murderous marriages where the man destroys independent female desire for his own corrupt purposes. Indeed, Carter is redefining the basic associations of women in fairy tales, innocence is inferior to knowledge, sexuality is empowering not degrading and the knight in shining armour may be a “indomitable mother” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) riding to the rescue or even the heroine herself in her conquering of individual fears or social convention. Such deconstruction results in an entirely new collection of stories which convey liberating realities for women, where they can live independently of patriarchal dominance or exist simultaneously through mutual desire, as shown in ‘The Tiger’s Bride’ or ‘The Company of Wolves’.

The Red Riding Hood character in ‘The Company of Wolves’ displays confidence and self-assurance. She bursts out laughing and says “she knew she was nobody’s meat” (Carter) in response to the traditional exchange between the wolf and herself over the animals large teeth which are “all the better to eat you with” (Carter 138). By utilizing the older tale and transforming the meaning of such fundamental elements to convey the sexual freedom of the modern Red Riding Hood, we can see how Carter enhances her own feminist narrative by such recognition and transformation. Subsequently, she critiques conservative and limiting depictions of women and gender notions through a complex interplay of old and new.

The Red Riding Hood of Perrault’s tale is described as an innocent, little girl whereas we are told that the girl in ‘The Company of Wolves’ had “just started her woman’s bleeding”(Carter), that “her breasts have just begun to swell” and though she is a virgin, “she has her knife and she is afraid of nothing” (Carter). Therefore, Carter remaps the stereotypical female victim into a woman who is in control of her “magic space” (‘The Company of Wolves’). In her assertion that she is “nobody’s meat” (‘The Company of Wolves’), she refuses to be the victim or prey, she gives in to her desire “freely” (‘The Company of Wolves’) and therefore embodies independent female desire. Moreover, the female protagonist of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ is arguably more ignorant and passive at the start of the story, before she has come into contact with sexual violence, however she soon possesses a “dark new-born curiosity” (Carter) about the forbidden chamber after her first sexual experience. E.B.Manley argues that she is “a woman in process, someone who is exploring her subject position and beginning to tell her own story” and this desire for knowledge and truth is empowering. It allows her to eventually recognise her potential for corruption if she remains the female object, she does this by discovering what lies inside “the kingdom of the unimaginable” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and eventually overcoming her husband’s patriarchal power games.

Furthermore, once the girl from ‘The Company of Wolves’ and the wolf have recognised and fulfilled their mutual desire, when she has “laughed at him full in the face” and “ripped off his shirt for him”, she is able to sleep sweet and sound “between the paws of the tender wolf”. This is because she is not a female victim or object; she is an independent sexual woman who has transcended the traditional, subversive woman commonly depicted in traditional fairy tales and it is clear that “both male and female benefit from the transformation of the old power relations” (Gamble).

Despite Duncker’s opinion that the girl from ‘The Company of Wolves’ simply sees rape as inevitable, “she wants it really, they all do.” (qtd in Gamble) and that Carter fails to transcend ideology, this particular reading of sexual awakening feels incomplete and limiting. Robert Clark also maintains that though the Red Riding Hood figure embraces her sexuality, she does so at the cost of “accepting patriarchal limits to women’s power” (qtd in Gamble).  However, it is important to remember how “later re-writings that take the genre and adapt it will not necessarily encode the same ideological assumptions” (Makinen). Indeed, Carter is showing that the women in her tales do have autonomous desire. At the end of ‘The Tiger’s Bride’, the tiger’s licking of the woman’s skin causes the woman who was “unaccustomed to nakedness” (Carter ‘The Tiger’s Bride’) to expose the female tiger that lies within her as an individual. She is left with a “nascent patina of shining hairs” and sees her new fur as incredibly beautiful, unlike her culturally constructed, innocent skin which she was so “unused to” (Carter ‘The Tiger’s Bride’).


So, instead of giving into male desire, Carter is showing how the woman in this tale is satisfying her own polymorphous desire, so it is “not women re-enacting porn for the male gaze, but…woman reappropriating libido” (Makinen) for themselves.


While mirrors are only mentioned briefly in ‘Bluebeard’, they play a vital role in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ as the female protagonist transitions from female object to female subject, E.B. Manley argues that “the mirror scenes establish the protagonist as oscillating between girlhood and womanhood, between a patriarchal view and her own definition of herself”. Indeed, they force the protagonist to reflect on her innocence and increasing desire as the story progresses. On the night before her wedding, at the performance of Tristan and Isolde, she catches herself in the mirror and sees herself through the eyes of her fiancé who watched her “with the assessing eye of a connoisseur” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), a gaze which suggests his carnal desire to consume and feed off her innocence.

She sees:

“the white dress; the frail child within it; and the flashing crimson jewels round her throat, bright as arterial blood… [and] sensed in [herself] a potentiality for corruption” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’).

This image also forebodes the Marquis’s wish to decapitate her at the end of the story. However, even at this stage she realises it was “my innocence that captivated him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’) and it is all part of his plan to corrupt her for his own pleasure. Attraction to innocence and naiveté is perhaps a reflection of mankind as a collective and is a motif which is traditionally represented in many fairy tales. I believe the protagonist is representative of the female collective in the mirrors of her bedroom, indeed, she watches as “a dozen husbands impaled a dozen brides” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber), thus insinuating an entire history of women who have been victims of unhappy marriages or violent abuse and therefore signifying a universal need to alter the way society understands female sexuality.

Recognising the innocent image in the mirror as one that has been socially conditioned to meet the needs of a phallocentric culture which itself desires domination over the female object, along with her increased knowledge of sexuality and violence due to her experience in the chamber, all help to increase her female independence. She almost succeeds in seducing her husband, by using the male desire for innocence against him, “a dozen vulnerable, appealing girls reflected in as many mirrors… if he had come to me in bed, I would have strangled him” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’). Faced with the reality of death as a result of female submission, she is no longer naïve.

By contrast, Perrault’s female character “almost fainted with terror” and flings herself at her husband’s feet, “weeping and imploring him to forgive her for having disobeyed him”. Consequently, Carter portrays powerful female sovereignty through the heroine and her brave mother, and therefore reconfigures the traditional motif of female weakness in traditional fairy tales.  Though both women are frightened by their experience, Perrault’s heroine does not progress as a character, unlike Carter’s.

The protagonist of ‘The Blood Chamber’ is extremely isolated in “the faery solitude of the place…cut off from land for half a day” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), whereas in ‘Bluebeard’, the woman is continually surrounded by “amusements…hunting and fishing parties, banquets, dances and suppers” (Perrault) and therefore has less need to soul search. Carter’s protagonist is forced to face internal conflicts and confront the woman in the mirror. Moreover, although we are told that the woman in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ goes on to live with her mother and the blind piano player, she is not reliant on either of them and is not victimised by the male gaze due to his blindness. Therefore, “the marriage of wealth and power, standard goal for fairy tale heroines, is rejected. She has been allowed through her initiation in the chamber, to understand and survive the deadly peril that kind of marriage holds for her” (Renfroe). By contrast, in Perrault’s tale, the young widow immediately “married an exceedingly pleasant man, who soon made her forget the bad time she has with Bluebeard” (Perrault) conveying the notion that dependence on a man was a traditional motif that Carter wanted to eradicate.

Nevertheless, the end of ‘The Bloody Chamber’ has caused some debate among critics. The red heart imprinted on the woman’s forehead due to the blood stained key causes her shame, but shame over what exactly is open to interpretation. It may well be the mark serves as a reminder to all women to never become victims of the bloody chamber, if indeed it represents sexual confinement or dominance by men. Lokke argues that the heart is a “badge of courage” and the shame can therefore be seen to result from her initial subservience to her violent and unemotional husband. The mark is a constant reminder of her knowledge of the human heart and forces her to realise she need not give into marital convention just because it is socially acceptable or economically beneficial. Indeed, even though her innocence becomes “subtly tainted” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’), this realisation and knowledge leads to her “recognition of the evil within her” (Lokke), that all men and women have the potential to succumb to, embrace or resist. Coming to terms with her potential for corruption signifies her maturity and “acceptance of responsibility rather than destructive self-depreciation” (Lokke). Therefore, the heroine’s experience of violent and sexual perversion, followed by her ability to recreate the castle into a school for the blind, shows how Carter is metamorphosing traditional images of the heroine marrying the prince charming, into modern projections of female knowledge and independence as the perfect happy ending.

Indeed, Carter takes emotions that have simmered just below the surface of classic fairy tales, of suggested carnal desires and sensuous cravings, of cruelty that is left to the readers imagination, and presenting them to us in rich, juxtaposing ways. We are thus forced to question the depictions of gender, violence and sex in traditional tales and motifs. The grand castle we see in numerous fairy tales is redefined and here becomes the larger container of the bloody chamber itself, it is seductively captivating, yet eerily isolated, it seems to exist “neither on the land nor on the water, [it is] a mysterious, amphibious place” (Carter ‘The Bloody Chamber’ 9), illustrating how Carter re-appropriates core elements of traditional motifs for her own purposes.

Within moments of beginning ‘The Bloody Chamber’, we are lured into its narrative and enticed by the profusion of lush, sumptuous, erotic prose that seduces and repels us all at once. The awakening of desire is felt from the very first sentence when the protagonist tells us how she “lay awake in the wagon-lit in a tender, delicious ecstasy of excitement, [her] burning cheek pressed against the impeccable linen of the pillow”. She also says how the pounding of her heart mimics “the great pistons ceaselessly thrusting the train” as she is borne away from Paris, “away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage”.

The protagonist’s experiences in the castle continually transition between the sensual and the violent and the language is extremely perfumed and poignant. As the story goes, our senses become even more heightened to the evocative language on the page, much like the vivid colours of a Disney fairy tale; we are drawn into the this particular story by vivid descriptions and intense images, which combine to produce an unnerving, yet exhilarating effect. The uncanny, sallow descriptions of her inhuman husband’s “waxen face”, which seemed like “a mask”, his resemblance to “one of those cobra-headed, funeral lilies whose white sheaths are curled of a flesh as thick and tensely yielding to the touch as vellum, his leather covered, pornographic library with its “rugs…dark panelling…lulling music…flames” and the “ruby necklace that bit into [her] neck”, are all images that heighten our horror and anticipation due to the foreplay of sensual language. The husband’s association with lilies which have phallic and death like associations, and the way he makes the bedroom look like “an embalming parlour” conveys his overall destructive nature and oppressive sexual perversion, in stark contrast to the heroine’s vitality. The protagonist is eventually able to overcome sexual perversion and defeat death and her husband, who is the embodiment of death itself. Lokke argues that by “acknowledging the glamour of sado-masochist self-annihilation as well as its ultimate brutality, ugliness and misogyny”, Carter maps before the reader how imperative it is that both female and male sexual desire is redefined on the grounds that the women is not the objective victim as she is often depicted in traditional tales, she should have control over her own sexual desires rather merely playing the sexual role a man has assigned to her.

In conclusion, by writing stories about fairy tales, which each reader would have previous assumptions and associations, then subverting the original messages, Carter forces us to radically question our beliefs surrounding the cultural constructions of gender and female sexuality. The fixed gender binaries and stereotypes often depicted in oral and literary tradition are exploded in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ and the rest of the short stories. While new wine in old bottles was a motivation and underlying principle in all her work, this logic was epitomised in these revolutionary tales which are incandescent throughout. Despite the ethereal quality to her work, Carter once wrote that she was “in the demythologising business” (‘Notes’) and was determined to break down the “lies [which are] designed to make people feel un-free” (Notes). Indeed, by critiquing and transforming traditional tales and motifs, The Bloody Chamber forces us to interrogate conventional narratives and decolonise our ideas surrounding sexual freedom and the depictions of women within the fairy tale genre.

A fully referenced version of this article appears at www.jessamybaldwin.co.uk 

About the author of this essay

jessamy-baldwinJessamy Baldwin is an avid globetrotter and Bristol based freelance writer. She has a BA in English Literature, an MA in International Journalism and writes about travel, food, history, literature and current affairs among other topics. She has worked in New Zealand as a communications advisor within government relations and as a newspaper columnist, in Malawi as an English teacher, in the Channel Islands as a news reporter and in the UK as a deputy editor in chief and freelance journalist. Always on the look-out for her next adventure and the perfect ‘cosmo’, Jessamy’s dream is to run her own content agency and keep exploring the world, pen, paper and camera in hand.

Book Review: The Inevitable Gift Shop by Will Eaves

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An artistic movement is forming. One that is open to spontaneity, artistic risk, emotional urgency and one which flies against traditional models. Will Eaves’s latest book, The Inevitable Gift Shop, is an example of this movement displayed in written form. We may call it a book at first mention, rather than a novel or a collection of poetry, because really this is simultaneously both of these things, and at the same time, something else and something new entirely. A combination of prose, poetry, literary critique and philosophy, it is collage, it is memoir, it is anything and everything that you want it to be. If there were rules to writing – which there aren’t (probably) – this book is rewriting them.

While mainstream publishing continues down a well-trodden but not exactly adventurous path – Julian Barnes suggests in an interview with the Paris Review there is little objective beyond “publishing copies of novels that are copies of commercially successful novels” – Eaves is cutting an entirely new path, machete in hand, through bush, briar and jungle into uncharted artistic territory.

So what does this new territory look like? In one word – episodic. In sections ranging in length from a single line to two or three pages, are contained mini-narratives and episodes, which sit alongside poems, and abstract thoughts and expressions of ideas. For instance, here runs a complete section early on in The Inevitable Gift Shop:

“The novel is the autobiography of the imagination”

Such lines make us question whether we feel we are reading a novel; an autobiography or, perhaps most intriguingly of all – an accurate representation of creative imagination.

Imagination, after all – and, indeed, so many of our thoughts and ideas – does not run in linear patterns. Rather, it comes in flashes; moments of clarity and inspiration. As Daniel Dennet notes in Consciousness Explained:

“While we tend to conceive of the operations of the mind as unified and transparent, they’re actually chaotic. There’s no invisible boss in the brain, no central meaner, no unitary self in command of our activities and utterances.”

Traditional forms of fiction, therefore, do not to justice to the reality of the human mind. Conventional fiction teaches us that life and our thoughts are coherent – they are linear and whole, neat and wrapped up. When the truth of the matter is quite the opposite; our lives, and our ideas, are fragments, and we stumble upon them as though they were bright splinters.

Eaves’s previous book – The Absent Therapist­ – worked within a similar form and structure. It brought together a succession of mini narratives, and a multitude of different characters and protagonists. In The Inevitable Gift Shop, we are again introduced to different characters, but more than anything, the protagonists in this book are ideas. We might call The Inevitable Gift Shop collage – a collage of the ideas that are created within the human imagination.

What’s fascinating about works of collage in literature, where short paragraphs and vignettes are brought together as a collection of fragments to create a whole – alongside Eaves’s latest two books, think Reality Hunger by David Shields or What I heard about Iraq by Eliot Weinberger – is the exciting sense of newness contained within them. In Reality Hunger, Shields contests that neither fiction nor non-fiction, in their current forms and structures, adequately meet the needs of the 21st Century reader. And in this new structure we see again here in The Inevitable Gift Shop, we perhaps see a possible alternative model for writing and literature. This is something Eaves touches upon early on in The Inevitable Gift Shop:

“A literary convention is a retrospective abstraction. It exists only in relation to the experiment or the revolution that overturns it. It doesn’t exist until someone does something new and you see how far you’ve come. Form and content, in other words. There is a widespread misconception about form, as the poet Elizabeth Jennings once pointed out: it is not a jelly mould into which one pours content. Rather, the two things are co-eval. Form will arise to express content, and the established forms (sonnets, novels, collage) are those that, like an evolutionary convergent body shape, have by long trial shown themselves to be optimally expressive.”

The novel and the sonnet have been with us now for centuries, with precious few innovations in form and structure between their invention and now. Collage has been with us since the 20th Century and has largely existed within visual media – art, montage in cinema. The marriage between collage and the novel (and indeed poetic forms) as displayed here is perhaps the beginning of a new revolution that overturns previous literary conventions. The question one might rightly ask when you see how well books like The Inevitable Gift Shop work is, “well, what’s taken so long?” It feels as though the book almost proves that the narratives we are accustomed to are long overdue a makeover.

In Self Help, Lorrie Moore wrote that “plots are for dead people” – the traditional narrative format and structure cannot serve the living. Eaves breaks apart the traditional model for something far more engaging; and far more alive. The poetry is, at times, penetratingly devastating simply for the real, life-lived truth it exposes – consider the line from The Crossings, for instance: “you choose a friend for life as you might choose a seat”. While the prose moves you, as you read it, through ideas and emotions, asking you to seek out new ways of looking at the world.

You can recognise good art and good writing if it surprises you. And, boy, can this book surprise you. Just as you are critiquing Shakespeare’s 37th Sonnet, a line of pure magic – “I eat fish with a clear conscious because they neglect their young” – will fly out and catch you off guard, shifting the tone in an exhilarating rush.

The structure of Eaves’s novel allows readers to pull away from notions of narrative as an important – or indeed central – part of any story or essay. This is important, because it allows us to move toward contemplation, and is more conducive to helping us expand our own understanding of both the ideas contained within the book, and the thoughts and ideas they inspire within us as we read.

Consider, for instance, Eaves’s skilful and fascinating literary critiques and analysis – present throughout the book in analysis of Shakespeare’s sonnets, but also Madame Bovary, and indeed the works of other literary critics. One of the longest sections in the book focuses on William Golding’s The Inheritors – a brilliant novel in its own right – and Eaves guides us through Golding’s book, its plot and themes, and leaves us considering not only the novel; but “the whole of human history” – a concept so brilliantly large and fascinating in itself that we immediately find our imaginations stirred, our horizons widened.

The writing is sharp and fresh, and the work as a whole is inquisitive, analytical, contemplative; significant. Subtitled “A memoir by other means”, there is something incredibly personal about the book, which is surely appropriate for a memoir, and in the end it leaves you feeling as though you’ve spent a long while in the intimate company of a stranger, who nonetheless somehow feels achingly familiar.

Frequently hilarious– “really what tortoises teach you about is abusive relationships” – there is almost a cinematic element. Both through the vivid descriptions of the natural and man-made world, and also in the way the collage effect feels not unlike a visual montage; whereby overall meaning is not to be found in any one section or episode but instead created by the juxtaposition of each of the different fragments and bits and pieces intercut together. Of course, while a viewer’s relationship with a montage is relatively binary – you watch the images on a screen in front of you – the reader’s relationship with The Inevitable Gift Shop is far more interesting. It’s interactive. By picking through the options, it’s possible to arrange the overarching narrative in different ways; and to find new meanings contained within it.

It’s a book that demands to be read and re-read – and then re-read again; both front to back, back to front, and in all other manner of combinations. The perfect book to revisit.

The tricks of the essayist; a sympathetic summary

Essay

In his magnificent 1866 guide to the art of conversation – Martine’s Handbook of Etiquette, and a Guide to True Politeness –  Arthur Martine provided the following advice for those who find themselves in “disputes upon moral or scientific points”:

“Let your aim be to come at truth, not conquer your opponent. So you shall never be at a loss in losing the argument, and gaining a new discovery.”

In these heady days of the babbling Twittersphere and online trolls; of half-baked, half-formed comments on the echo chambers of Reddit and Facebook; it is fair to say that such advice is rarely heeded. Indeed, the artillery we deploy when hidden behind computer screens and keyboards is less reasonable argument and more simple menace: it is reaction, rather than response. They are opinion, rather than critique.

Yet it needn’t be this way. Rather than believe the falsehood that we must be right at all costs, it is surely preferable that we all engage in active discussion and conversation – and look to deploy skills that enable us to better understand the world around us, and in turn advance the collective understanding of humankind.

Into this may step the non-fiction essay. The written argument or critique, which unfortunately often shows signs of disintegrating in response to the culture of the online newspaper comments section. Indeed, with a few exceptions – most notably the Guardian’s George Monbiot, perhaps – the opinion or comment pages on most of the UK’s newspapers, from the Guardian and the Independent on the so-called establishment left, through to the corporate propaganda at work in The Times and The Telegraph, are increasingly falling short of the high standards necessary for advancing human thought and consciousness through debate, discussion and reasoning.

What is lacking in so many of our debates and so many of the essays available to us, is the necessary rhetorical ingenuity, instructive in the art of countering potential criticism, which takes charge of conceivable counterarguments and thoroughly challenges them, seeking ultimately to debunk or disprove them. This is a problem for thinkers of all philosophical and political persuasions, because they are neither able to refute the arguments of others effectively, nor have their own arguments held up to the necessary scrutiny. How can Owen Jones, for instance, improve his argument when the only charge levied against him from those who disagree is that he is “a loony lefty”? Equally, how can those who challenge him hope to advance their own opinions instead, when Jones can easily dismiss such charges out of hand?

As is often the case, there are countless examples from history that illustrate how we can reinvigorate our arguments.

That’s so Blaise

Nearly half a millennium before modern psychologists identified the ‘three elements of persuasion’ – attunement, buoyancy and clarity – French physicist, philosopher, mathematician and inventor, Blaise Pascal, intuited these same mechanisms as he arrived at what he saw as the great truth about the secret of persuasion: that the surest way of defeating the erroneous views of others is not by bombarding the bastion of their self-righteousness but by slipping it in through the backdoor of their beliefs.

In his work Pensees, he examines the best strategy for changing people’s minds, distilling the art of persuasion into its essence:

“When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.”

Long before we invented psychology and learned to apply it in reverse, Pascal adds:

“People are generally better persuaded by the reasons which they have themselves discovered than by those which have come into the mind of others.”

On the origin of effective argumentative strategy

Two centuries on from Pascal’s intimations, Charles Darwin – who surely needs no introduction – provided supreme practical proof of the French philosopher’s insight, as he changed the way we think about the origin of life on Earth.

Indeed, Darwin’s singular genius of presenting and defending his ideas, and what it teaches us about the art of pre-empting criticism and effectively countering counter arguments before they are levied at our arguments, is explored by New Yorker contributor and essayist, Adam Gopnik, in his book, Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life.

Gopnik considers the unusual intellectual architecture of Darwin’s 1859 masterworkOn the Origin of Species — a book “unique in having a double charge, a double dose of poetic halo” — built into which was an ingenious and timelessly effective model for disarming critics:

“The book is one long provocation in the guise of being none.

Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great book, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity — and, at times, his guile. The habit of “sympathetic summary,” what philosophers now call the “principle of charity,” is essential to all the sciences.”

As the book progresses, Gopnik advances in more detail his thoughts on what lies behind this habit of “sympathetic summary”, and considers the essential principle, which lies at the heart of Darwin’s rhetorical excellence, which in turn illuminates the secret to all successful critical argument:

“A counterargument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin. This is charitable by name, selfishly constructive in intent: only by putting the best case forward can the refutation be definitive. The idea is to leave the least possible escape space for the “but you didn’t understand…” move. Wiggle room is reduced to a minimum.

This is so admirable and necessary that it is, of course, almost never practiced. Sympathetic summary, or the principle of charity, was formulated as an explicit methodological injunction only recently.”

The marriage of ideas and argument

What Pascal and Darwin illustrate in abundance, then, is the necessary ability to marry visionary ideas with a mastery of argument. But of these two aspects, it is perhaps the latter that is the vital requisite to convincing others that your argument bears most weight.

Think, for instance, of Alfred Russel Wallace, known for arriving at the same conclusions of Darwin – concerning natural selection and evolution – but failing to take any credit for this discovery for decades after his death.

The idea both men advanced upon is fundamentally the same: but could Wallace have posited his thesis as effectively as Darwin, and brought about the cultural revolution in thinking that Darwin did? He might have written the words and evidence in support of his own idea, but could he have answered the objections Darwin faced? The likelihood is not: because at its heart, the Origin of Species is a book of answers to questions that are expected to be asked, but have not yet been spoken, and it provides examples and evidence and counter arguments to faceless opponents yet to emerge.

An act of charity

Daniel Dennett, described as “our best current philosopher” and “the next Bertrand Russel”, picks up on some of the elements present in Darwin’s and Pascal’s works, as he probes some of the basic tendencies and dynamics necessary within essay writing. Most pertinently, asking the question “just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticising the views of an opponent?”

In his work, Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking, Dennet offers what he calls “the best antidote for the tendency to caricature one’s opponent”: a set of rules, or steps, laid out below as a simple starting guide to all aspiring and established essayists.

“How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.

  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).

  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.

  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.”

Such a strategy is ultimately simple in its theory, yet remains cuttingly effective. For it transforms your opponents – faceless or otherwise – into a more receptive audience for your criticism or dissent, which in turn helps advance the discussion, and the argument. Thus avoiding the risk that all philosophical and political debate becomes the sound of a single record stuck on repeat, exposing retried and reconstituted, regurgitated facts, figures and opinions round and round on a ceaseless merry-go-round of nonsense.

At its heart, this strategy is about seeing what people might say, turning it into what they ought to say, and then answering.

If only such a code of conduct could be advised and followed to all critical commentary online – though doing so in 140 characters might be a feat too far.

 

How not to write about music

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. "

“Writing about music is like dancing about architecture. “

Firstly, gratitude: Extensive thanks to Dan McGurty for his help with this piece.

Musical epiphanies

Musical epiphanies are fun. I mean specifically like when you just get a song where you never did before, which I often find happens when listening to the song in question out of its usual context – say you always listen to the whole album and this song’s maybe three-quarters through by which point you’ve stopped properly paying attention how you do to the openers, or you haven’t listened to this band in years and back when you did this was one of the ones you skated over, or, or – but whenever it happens, at least that first time, it is an out-of-nowhere fist clenched round the sternum, is like a body of water you long since convinced yourself was placid empty now suddenly come thrashing all leviathan, and all you can do is sit back and behold. But this I tend to find comes mixed in with a kind of regret, and also a kind of anxiety: lost time, coupled with the possibility that this is only temporary, the attunement will pass, and both of these down notes are maybe not just inevitable but actually necessary for the proper shape of the rush in that they make it that much more vital, immediate. And this is all pretty much instantaneous, which is kind of trippy. So: fun.

I’m pretty shit at listening to music so I’ve had probably six or seven musical epiphanies with Don Caballero (or Don Cab, if you prefer, which I do) alone, two of which were with the same song (The Peter Criss Jazz.) (Both of them, incidentally, happened when I was falling asleep; I don’t quite know what that says about me, or it, or anything, but probably not that much.) The first one – which was during the second movement – I was on a train, (somewhere in Yorkshire I think,) and actually it wasn’t so much that I was falling asleep as I was shifting back and forth between sleep and not, where you don’t entirely know where you are, or what that would mean, and then it doesn’t matter because where you really are is carried on the movement of this music, fluting and wind and gorgeous in the way of something behind glass and refracted and then I properly woke up. The next one – the first part of the song – I didn’t get until probably a couple of years later; I was mostly asleep on a floor, (in Edinburgh this time,) drifting again, and I think one of the speakers was like right next to my head which probably influenced matters somewhat, but the song it just opened up like I’d never quite heard before; like the mouth down into a cave, or I guess like a story.

*

I don’t know if this is a particularly common thing or not – based on the (again kind of few) people I’ve spoken to about it, I’m not sure that I know anyone else for whom this is true, but that might just be me explaining it badly – but I tend to (kind of, sort of, a bit) experience or conceptualise music visually. As far as I can tell this isn’t synaesthesia; there aren’t actual sense impressions or associations, particularly. More it’s as shapes, or as a series of lines. Picture an xy line graph, like plotted from a polygraph or a richter scale in many films. The line shifts over time, peaks and troughs, goes back on itself, overlaps, evolves. It’s like that, only it’s not the same because a graph is just that – is a graphical representation of data, which data is something and somewhere else. The graph is a signifier; the music – the image – is itself.

Only that seems somewhat incomplete, at least in that music itself doesn’t just exist; somebody made it, or somebody made the instrument that made it, or the device through which you listen to it, and so on and so forth but which would mean that the shapes are, in fact, a representation of something else: some data, or else information, whatever was in the musician’s head when they made it. Crappy morning. Argument between the bandmates. Relationship: complicated. Financial pressure. Producer’s insane. Extensive drugs. Any and all of these things are there because nothing about music – as all art – is inevitable, and however much it’s refined, however much that which is not the statue gets stripped away, it’s still fundamentally contingent. Only I’m not convinced that matters? However too much coffee the drummer had before the band started jamming, whatever phone call the singer got, the pianist’s sister’s pregnancy, it is or it can be basically meaningless in the listener’s experience of the music. (You don’t have to ignore biography, but it helps.) So at least in the event of experiencing, the shapes are shapes; are music; are themselves.

*

Depression is a funny thing. (Debatable). (But it kind of really is). There are explicable, empirical reasons for it, and it (both the state and specific episodes, or bouts) can be traced to triggering events, and to an extent it can be understood, sometimes fought (if that’s a useful way of describing it, which it may well not be) or otherwise dealt with, but I can’t help feeling like these are to depression – the experience of it – as the hangover the band had when they went in to record is to the experience of listening. The state of depression is itself. A concrete phenomenon, yes; separate from the fact of the chemical imbalance (or possibly more accurately the altered chemical balance,) the sensation itself is (sometimes, for some people, maybe) all but physical – something like nausea, but also something like pressure, and also like you exist twice: you are, and you are slightly – say five centimetres – shifted left, occupying or overlapping the same physical space, pulled simultaneously toward and against, unable to reconcile and unable to maintain that tension, but it’s really not as if you have much of a choice. (Whether one or the other of these iterations takes precedence – is the “real you” – is I guess up for debate, but me personally, I would say not.) But it is a dislocation beyond or beside the physical, as well; a separation from time into only moment. There is this, now, and it is unconnected to any then, because to suggest that there even could be a then in any direction would be to imply that now, that this, could be other than it is. Could be not this adrift. And colourless; or not so much colourless as no colour in itself but a muting or a greying of others, dragging all surrounding into its own leaden unevent. Flat, but also warped; wrong like an angle but at the same time inexorably right. This is it. This is what you are. Do I contradict myself. Very well I contain zero. I contain entropy. Depression is a slowing; is the inside of a collapsing mouth.

The first full movement of The Peter Criss Jazz – after the intro with the harmonics (I think that’s what they are) over the drums, in I think 6/8 or possibly 4 with a triplet feel, with the drill-sound tremolo bass hits underneath the layered guitar, at the edges the chords bleeding in, and over the top, around, the throughline guitar melody, coiling and fractured and barbed like a voice, like someone saying I can’t go on I’ll go on I can’t I’ll on I can’t I will can’t I: this – if music is noumenon, or is as close as we can get to direct experience – is the sensation of depression. Or if depression refers not specifically or not solely to the emotional state, but – as a clinical diagnosis – the concomitant physical effects, the triggers, all of it, then those two and a half minutes, stumbling and cyclical and subdued and a lurch through tangled water and with no promise of an end, are despair.

The second section’s something else. Tenser, more urgent, I think; the bass loop through the whole is nervy, hunted, and above that mark the repeating four-note melody colliding with itself in bent reflections on like a wire-edge balance, dancing round a vortex, step to keep above, always on, and it’d be frantic enough without the drums in cardiac landslide under, beating from the wire, but see where in the first section they were a structure underpinning, were the bones, here they pick up where that chanting melody left off: centre-stage, a torrent dragging through and where despair strips you of time, anchors you in windowless grey, here in this stretched-shape anxiety you’re hyper-aware of the passing, it’s all you can do to keep moving, to find anything like a stable footing, to keep up to the impossible evershifting now with the blood like caustic blink thrumming in your ears and your chest gone echo and your eyes patchwork out until it settles.

Which is in itself a key difference: in some way, this section resolves. Where the first movement spirals on itself, layering chords and loops and shaded by the leading melody but never really undergoing any fundamental change from where it starts, the second stays more stripped-down the whole way through while the drums build into a climax; and then there is a shift, and that four-note melody, at the end, has moved forward by one beat from the off- to the on. Surer footing, maybe. A different balance achieved. Story: someone climbs up a tree, comes back down from said tree having changed. It arcs out, this part, held just together with the loop but it’s an orbit deranged to shatter, to battering cascade and when it comes back round it has learned something out there in the dark.

*

The whole album is a classic

It sounded like a narrative to me, I guess is what I’m getting at, when I was mostly passed out on the floor. There’s a third movement to the song – after an interlude with these ghost-colour harmonics that curve and pan from left to right – and it is maybe best described as happy. All major-key swung rhythm and clatteringly bombastic fills over walking bass and the melody tangling over and this would make sense, as a conclusion, or a reward; through despair, then panic, into primary-colour relief. But it’s not; there’s no resolution, no single cathartic moment, it just continues into fade and the melody never exactly repeats but works through the chord always off-kilter, pushed back to where it nearly falls off the beat every time but just about makes it. Not calm; happy, sure, but no less tense, no less of a balancing act than ever before. It’s work; it is always going to be work. – but I mean this is projection, this is all subjective, this was no insight into the true nature of anything it was just I was half-awake and stoned and dumped and fucked up, and no one experience of anything whether music or depression or any anything can necessarily ever meaningfully map onto another, so, like, what the fuck. But then if music is a direct experience of some kind – not an expression of any one person’s particular emotional state, but a capturing of something that actually is – even then it doesn’t follow that we can hear it as such. By what mechanism could anyone, observed as we are, actually grasp it? Wouldn’t we just fit it as best we could into the shape of our own experience, twisting it where we have to, maybe widening ourselves where we can? Or: you hear what you hear; I guess I heard something that sounded familiar, and maybe some thoughts about getting better. Or maybe not so much getting as staying. (Which – to be clear – most likely requires somewhat more than a song.)

It is a bit of an odd one, though, even-especially within the context of the rest of the band’s music; I guess embedded within/necessary for the idea of a musical epiphany is the fact of not initially being that into the music in question, and I strongly did not get this song for, like, a while. (As previously noted: shit at listening to music.) You can maybe hear aspects of it prefigured in the stuttered, uncertain close-out of No-One Gives A Hoot About Faux-Ass Nonsense, or the swirling-embers-into-night end sequence of In The Absence Of Strong Evidence To The Contrary, One May Step Out Of The Way Of The Charging Bull but I don’t know you’d ever guess that they’d lead into this. Ian Williams (guitarist) has talked fairly extensively about taking influence from composers like Steve Reich and Terry Riley, particularly in terms of cyclical structures; he and Damon Che (drummer) famously despised each other, and given the different musical directions they pursued after Don Cab’s breakup – respectively, Battles, and a reformed (and significantly more straightforward math-rock) Don Cab – it’s difficult, as much as anyone might want to ignore biography, not to hear a tension in the architecture of the song. Personally I always visualise it as a line, and horizontal. Overhead are brief lights, like moments of frost formed and then gone in the air, which silvers at its edges; the line is both black and white at once, and it rises at intervals to the glow but always returns to flat. In between the line and the light are, variously, empty space; interruptions of tangling, like minor clouds by cross-hatching, and dense; an asemic scrawl of one symbol insistent, and repeating, and lit; and another line, like a ribbon, maybe paper and with both edges torn, and unfurling.

About the author of this post

David Greaves

David Greaves’ poetry and fiction has appeared in ‘Valve’, the ‘Verge’ anthology and ‘From Glasgow To Saturn’ journal, and his prose-poetry pamphlet, ‘Hinged’, was released by the New Fire Tree Press in 2011. He mostly doesn’t tweet at @dgrbolith

New anthology celebrates Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity

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In November 1915 Albert Einstein published his now world famous General Theory of Relativity. It introduced to physics new concepts, such as the curvature of space-time and black holes, and it made extraordinary predictions about the bending of light around massive objects. I Am Because You Are is a timely collection of new fiction and non-fiction from novelists and science writers, all inspired by the theme of Relativity. Each contributor treats the subject in their own unique way. The results are charming, witty, sometimes challenging but always accessible, presenting complex science themes in imaginative, easy-to-understand and highly entertaining ways.

Contributors include novelists Andrew Crumey, Dilys Rose and Neil Williamson, alongside popular science communicators Pedro Ferreira and Jo Dunkley. Edited by acclaimed, award-winning writers Pippa Goldschmidt and Tania Hershman, I Am Because You Are will be the perfect vehicle for both press and public to engage with this landmark centenary.

Michael Brooks, author of 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense, said of the new anthology: “Sparkling with wit and originality, making a virtue out of the frail humanity of science, these stories perfectly reflect the breathtaking poetry of Einstein’s greatest theory. Enlightening, entertaining and sometimes moving, this collection is a beautiful celebration of relativity’s influence on our cultural landscape.”

This collection of fiction and non-fiction is perhaps the way to mark the hugely important 100th anniversary of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity. And it’s publication by Freight Books taps into massive interest in popular science through imaginative writing.

About the editors

Tania Hershman spent 13 years as a science journalist, writing for publications such as WIRED and NewScientist, before becoming a full-time fiction writer. Her first story collection, The White Road and Other Stories (Salt, 2008), was commended by the judges of the 2009 Orange Award for New Writers. Her second, My Mother Was An Upright Piano: Fictions, was published in May 2012 by Tangent Books. Tania’s stories and poems have won various prizes, been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, been widely published and broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and 4. Her debut poetry chapbook will be published in Feb 2016.

Pippa Goldschmidt’s novel The Falling Sky (Freight, 2012) was runner-up in the Dundee International Book Prize. She has a PhD in astronomy and worked as an astronomer. She has worked as a writer-in-residence at several academic institutions including most recently the Hanse-Wissenschaftskolleg in Germany. Her short stories, poetry and non-fiction have been broadcast on Radio 4 and published in a wide variety of publications including Gutter, New Writing Scotland and the New York Times. Her story collection The Need for Better Regulation of Outer Space was published by Freight in May 2015.