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15 Writers’ Bedrooms – an insight into creativity

capote woolfhemingwayo'connor

masters  burroughs  plath  thoreau

hugo  dickinson  seymour  roach

proust  morpurgo  faulkner

Reblogged from Susan Johnson on Twitter, via Literary Style, http://t.co/XO0u3TJC2y

It’s true; we find the secret lives of others fascinating. Especially if those others are writers. We get to know them through their work, and we yearn to learn more about them as people…

We feel a kinship, with their experiences or with their characters, and we begin to imagine what their lives must be like. We read biographies about them, tour their homes and visit their graves, all in an effort to gain insight into their own particular genius. And nowhere is the essence of the artist more present than in the bedroom. It’s here that one can intuit much about a writer’s process. Is it a hermit’s lair? A sanctuary? A work space? Is it the place where they do all of their best work, or the place that allows them to leave that work behind?

Whatever it may be, often what it is most is a space that reminds us that, genius aside, writers are people… just like you and I.

Top row, left to right: 1. Truman Capote: The author’s bedroom at his Hamptons beach house is simple, but elegant.

2. Virginia Woolf : Full of details — the bookshelves house the author’s artful collection of books, many of which she recovered with colored paper. 3. Ernest Hemingway: Light floods the Nobel Prize-winning author’s bedroom at his Key West home.

4. Flannery O’Connor: The author did most of her writing at the desk in her bedroom. The aluminum crutches were used to help her get around her parents’ dairy farm.

Second row, left to right:

5. Alexander Masters: This author’s bedroom reflects his process — he just wakes up and starts writing. The crocodile above his bed is a talisman and was featured on the cover of his book, Stuart: A Life Backwards.

6. William S. Burroughs: Patti Smith, a friend of the Beat writer, sits on the bed in his room at The Bunker on the Bowery.

7. Sylvia Plath: The Pulitzer Prize-winning author stayed for several months at the Barbizon Hotel for Women. This image is taken from an advertisement for the hotel and suggests what Plath’s room may have looked like at that time.

8. Henry David Thoreau: Intent on simple living, Thoreau furnished his 10’x15′ home with only the necessary basics – a bed, a table, a desk, and three chairs.

Third row, left to right:

9. Victor Hugo : Dark, rich and red – Hugo’s bedroom at his home on the Place des Vosges in Paris’ Marais district is all that you would expect from a writer heavily influenced by the Romanticism movement.

10. Emily Dickinson: Most of the poet’s writing was done at a small writing table in her bedroom.

11. Miranda Seymour: Another author that prefers writing at a small desk in her bedroom, this writer has slept in the same room, on and off, since she was 14 years old.

12. Mary Roach: One might expect something a bit more macabre from the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, but the bedroom in the writer’s craftsman home in Oakland, California is simple and serene.

Bottom row, left to right:

13. Marcel Proust: A victim of asthma and severe allergies, Proust’s bedroom was a masterwork in shelter and seclusion. All apertures were shielded or sealed, and the walls and ceiling were covered in cork to protect the author from the dust and noise of the outside world.

14. Michael Morpurgo: Technically a writing room — the author of War Horse designed this room around the bed, where he does all of his writing — in longhand.

15. William Faulkner: More of an office with a bed — the Nobel prize-winning author outlined the plot of The Fable on the walls of the room and then shellacked his notes to preserve them.

 

 


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A PASSION FOR MIDDLEMARCH: REBECCA MEAD’S LIFE IN FICTION

mead             ge

Rebecca Mead                                             George Eliot

The Road to Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead             Published by: Text, $32.99

Why do we love some books more than others, and revisit them again and again? Perhaps we identify with their heroes or heroines; maybe a writer’s style speaks to us in a singular way; or we view the novelist as a role model, a light to guide us.

For Rebecca Mead, that special novel is George Eliot’s Middlemarch. She’s read it every five years or so since the age of 17. Born in England, Mead moved to New York after university and has worked as a journalist ever since. Now a staff writer for The New Yorker, Mead’s new work – part memoir, part biography – takes Middlemarch as a starting point to revisit both her own life and Eliot’s. By deconstructing the novel, she re-interprets it through a 21st century lens, and shows how her life has frequently paralleled and been enriched by its story and characters.

As she writes:  “What would happen if I stopped to consider how Middlemarch has shaped my understanding of my own life? Why did the novel still feel so urgent, after all these years? And what could it give me now, as I paused here in the middle of things, and surveyed where I had come from, and thought about where I was, and wondered where I might go next?”

Middlemarch, Virginia Woolf said in her 1919 essay re-appraising Eliot, “was one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”.  By then, Eliot had fallen out of favour. Her moralistic authorial interpolations were viewed as sanctimonious, her views on how to build a better society considered old-fashioned, ill-suited to a modern world. Woolf’s essay in the Times Literary Supplement was a first step in re-establishing Eliot’s reputation.

Yet in her day, Eliot’s star shone bright. The daughter of a provincial clergyman, she was unconventional and ambitious. From her early teens she realised she was an agnostic and refused to accompany her father to church.  Headstrong and rebellious, she turned her back on her family’s expectations of a good marriage and moved to London to live independently. She adopted the pseudonym ‘George Eliot’ when she first started publishing novels, to be judged impartially by her peers and avoid being pigeon-holed as a “woman writer” (it’s almost scary how contemporary this sounds). But long before that, Marian Evans edited the thinking person’s magazine, the Westminster Review, translated, wrote essays and was an integral part of the Victorian literary scene.

She was not a good-looking woman. Portraits display her big nose and lantern jaw. Henry James describes her as charming despite her unfortunate plainness. But her voice was melodious, her conversation scintillating. When she met the writer and social campaigner George Henry Lewes at the age of 38, she moved in with him freely, even though he was still married.  Despite the shocked tut-tuts of society, they lived together contentedly  for over 20 years until Lewes’ death.

Mead  contrasts this meeting of minds with the marriage of Middlemarch’s heroine, Dorothea, to the pedantic clergyman Casaubon.  Straight-laced, puritanical and mean-spirited, he is the polar opposite to the passionate Dorothea, a young woman whose stifled  intellectual yearnings lead her to this ill-fated choice. Dorothea longs to escape her provincial roots and become her husband’s partner and helpmate as he writes his great opus, ‘The Key to All Mythologies’.  But he deliberately sidelines her and the work is never finished. Middlemarch portrays a doomed marriage with extraordinary exactitude and empathy. Through her research, Mead traces the possible models for the couple, Mark and Francis (sic) Pattison. He was a young, ineffectual Oxford don. She was a forward-thinking young woman who, unsatisfied by a partner so obviously  her intellectual inferior,  eventually divorced him and remarried.

Still, Mead judges Casaubon more kindly now than on her first reading of the novel. Eliot, she says, was able to recognise the limitations of human beings, and one of her strengths as a novelist is her uncanny ability to write about stumbles and failures, characters whose endings are unspectacular and whose lives are unremarkable. It is this, says Virginia Woolf, that makes Eliot among 19th century novelists, “so large and deeply human.’

Mead’s ever-changing relationship with Middlemarch  and with Eliot herself is at the heart of this book. She literally grows up with the novel and reads it anew with fresh insight and admiration. As an adolescent, desperate to leave her seaside childhood home, Mead  identifies with Dorothea’s  longings for travel and intellectual challenges, yet later she reflects as an adult on her youthful pretensions, and the importance of home in moulding personality.  As a writer, her transition from the provinces to Oxford, to New York and to a career in journalism echo Eliot’s own life path.  Even her relationships are viewed through the prism of Eliot’s experience. On becoming  a step-parent, Mead recalls Eliot’s own emotions towards children not her own whom she comes to care for deeply. Eliot’s social conscience, far from preachy, is a reflection of seriousness and commitment to society which Mead also strives for in her own work.

The Road to Middlemarch binds two very different women together through their shared love affair with a novel. Exquisitely researched, it sheds new light on Eliot and on 19th century fiction. Mead has written an engaging, wise and fascinating tribute.

I’ll be interviewing Rebecca Mead in the next edition of my Pageturners podcast next month.