Was that lady your mother, dear?
after Frances Towers, 1885-1948
Her sentences invented copper—What consolation has algebra ever been to a broken heart?—but who wouldn't say such things if you’d worked in the Bank of England and later as the beloved ‘Miss Fay’, teacher of English and History in a school in Harrow where your sister was Headmistress, on the back of being born in Calcutta, the eldest if five children, to a father who was a British Government telegraph engineer? Apparently—the children prove this—there was a mother. Perhaps she was at Fay’s side when she died suddenly, sharply, of pneumonia that New Year’s Day, lonely as a crossed-off calendar. Oh, she’d written stories and articles and entered literary competitions and travelled passionately to mountains and galleries and developed a taste for the Gothic but her book—her beautiful book—was published the year after her death. Useless as spent semen. (Read all her stories at once, mind, at you might feel like you’ve overdosed on soft-centred chocolates.) As proud as Lucifer and as detached as a fish, perhaps from heaven she found a crueller way of being the kind Literary Daughter, of eschewing boorish heroes, booing Jane Eyre. After all, more Hours spent with pencil and paper…might have led to inquiries in this Kingdom of Minor Classics. Of all kinds, with darker knowledges. If, for example, her mother had not been the daughter of an officer in the Indian Army, her brother killed by a tiger, the family finances not so tight, if they had all not been so blown about the street in cool, dusty London, then—still, though departing without a will, her death certificate read ‘Authoress’. Grief is spelt with the ink of spilt milk.
Calm, calm intelligence
after Dorothy Whipple, 1893-1966
Your final novel broke my heart: ‘A very good novel indeed about the fragility and also the tenacity of love’ wrote the Spectator in 1953. It was then spectacularly ignored for fifty years. I love the way you wrote ‘fairly ordinary’ tales about the destruction of a happy marriages, yet they are not—ordinary: each tragedy wears unique (if mass produced) shoes (it is the wearer, and her own ankles, that make such claims), and each demise of love makes for compulsive reading. I like your characters, they are what I have always (unfashionably) wanted to be: that strange creature, a happy housewife. Still, disaster will strike, and it is often spelt ‘MAN’ and reads something like ‘Husband, in a moment of weak, mid-life vanity, runs off with a French girl’. Dorothy, you superb stylist, you of the calm intelligence and the preoccupations of a Midlander: you entrance me with your simple prose and spot-on psychology. ‘We have all delighted in this unjustly forgotten novel; it is well written and compelling.’ Some were made into films. You were married a long, long time. You died. Did you also make jam?