Aislinn Hunter, author of The World Before Us, explores the importance of a writer’s belongings – specifically the ephemera they choose to surround themselves with as they write – and how such objects might add to a reader’s understanding of an author’s work.
When Virginia Woolf – then Virginia Stephen – first visited the Brontë Museum in 1904, the Society’s collection was housed above the Yorkshire Penny Bank in Haworth. Unswayed by sentiment, Woolf, in an article published in the Guardian that year, described writers’ museums as ‘mausoleums’, although she also acknowledged the value of such collections – the ‘deep interest’ a writer’s belongings would hold for the museum’s visitors; how such objects might add to a reader’s understanding of an author’s work. Of all the objects on view in the fledgling collection the ones that thrilled Woolf the most were Charlotte Brontë’s shoes (which are remarkably tiny given her stature as an author), her muslin dress, and a small oak stool that Emily Brontë took on her excursions over the moors and upon which Woolf imagined her thinking and writing.
The idea of the writer writing, of the physical space they occupy when they create a great work, of what they choose to surround themselves with, has always been a source of fascination. It is for this reason that writers are often asked where they write and with what implements. History is full of the details of great men’s desks – how Charles Dickens kept a ‘china monkey’ on his desk without which he couldn’t settle down, or how Sir Walter Scott kept his mother’s old toilette boxes and his father’s snuff box and etui-case on his desk – but as Victorian women writers rarely had a designated room to write in, let alone a desk large enough to hold their most valued things, we know little of what objects they kept with them when they sat down to work.
The things that writers surround themselves with when writing are often grounding things. If the moors were Emily’s office it becomes easy to see why they are so vividly present in Wuthering Heights. If family was one of the things that grounded Charlotte then the fact that she kept a plait of her sister Anne’s hair in amongst the quill nibs and wafers of her portable writing desk is understandable. The Canadian poet and philosopher Jan Zwicky keeps actual fragments of the ground around her writing desk: fossils and ammonites, stones she has collected from fields and rivers, shale from a lake. She has obsidian chips from near Yellowstone, pottery filled with earth from Taos, a glass bowl with small pieces of polished black gravel from the west coast of Vancouver Island – things kept because of their provenance and associations, some collected, some given as gifts. As she is a poet of the distilled – of the sifted or resonant instant – this grounding makes sense to me: as a way of maintaining contact with the elements that outlast us, the everyday earth that is both ordinary and extraordinary.
Helen Humphreys, who writes so beautifully in Nocturne about the memorial power of things, told me that she keeps a little earthenware pot on her desk. It belonged to her late brother, Martin, a pianist whose life and premature death are the central subject of her memoir. The pot is filled with the pencils that he used for composing – each one ‘still sharpened by him to a perfect, hopeful point.’ Beside the pot of pencils is a large, rusty nail used by the sculptor John Bisbee. For Humphreys both things ‘illustrate the industry of two artists I admire/admired and inspire me to work as diligently.’
One of my favourite photographs of a writer’s desk is that of Beryl Bainbridge’s, taken by Eamonn McCabe for a series on writers’ rooms in 2007. In my writing life I have often returned to Bainbridge’s novels as a study in craft: to try to uncover how she creates a mood, undermines an assumption, builds a scene. I remember seeing the photograph of her desk – its orderly disorder – and thinking that there might be a clue to her gift in its arrangement: the cherub figurines, stacks of books, the stuffed dog that sometimes sat with her while she worked on her old typewriter.
The strange thing about the act of writing and the writer’s environment is the way in which the writer is both present and absent in that space – how writing imaginatively necessitates a kind of leave-taking, an untethering. (This may be why Anne Carson has two desks – one for creative work and one for her more critical projects.) Alice Munro once described the early stages of her writing process by saying that she begins by staring at a wall, thinking ‘really dreamy, foundless thoughts.’ This is the double gaze: seeing something and nothing all at once, the imagined world taking shape over the lived one. Logically, the things a writer keeps on their desk often do the opposite – root a writer in a sense of the physical, bring the voyager back to a sense of self through the relationships, memories or allegories the objects stand for.
In my PhD thesis on Victorian writers’ things I wrote about writers’ desks as equipment, as a kind of Heideggerean gear that we slide into: desks and chairs and pens as cognitive scaffolding, tools that facilitate that wondrous translation of an individual’s imagination to words on paper – a translation that lifts off again when those inky letters take root and bloom in a reader’s mind. Looking up at my own desk now I see the same sorts of identity-solidifying things that I suppose any other writer might keep: photographs, figurines, talismans and totems that connect me to those I love and to the larger world. Framed overhead I have scraps of handwriting – my mother’s from a childhood composition lesson, a note from Dermot Healy on which he wrote ‘I think all words are’ over top of a sketch of a bird – and images that probably work inspirationally the way Humphreys’ nail and pencils do – a postcard of Simone De Beauvoir writing in a café, a young Alice Munro looking steadily toward the camera.
In Nocturne Helen Humphreys notes that ‘[e]verything holds memory’ which seems true to me (I am drinking coffee out of my late grandmother’s English china as I type this) but things also hold glimpses of who or how we aspire to be. In this way the objects that we surround ourselves with are both touchstones and points of departure, like those old stone markers on the road between villages – or a diving bell that sees the swimmer safely in and out of the water.
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