Alice Thomas Ellis found that housework was the best form of writerly procrastination. She would dither at the Aga for a while, do some laundry and prepare the dinner, her mind turning over the thing she needed to write. Then she would lie on the couch with a packet of cigarettes watching an old movie, by which time she would be ready and the words would fall out in a torrent before anyone had time to wonder where she was.
In this as in much else, Ellis – whose real name was Anna Haycraft – was the opposite of Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own is a pillar in the feminist literary canon, but it is also a book about writing. It narrates the daily life of the writer when she is doing all the activities necessary for writing besides the putting of words on paper: time at the desk, time to think uninterrupted, to drive “through London in an omnibus” or have “luncheon in a shop by herself”. In this way, A Room of One’s Own narrates the kind of life that, Woolf argues, a woman writer needs if she is to flourish. The reader is invited to follow her as she wanders through London, economically free and unencumbered by family responsibilities.
Woolf asked: what conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art? And she offered her own answer: “freedom”. Anna’s answer, however, was “suffering”. Two of her seven children died in her lifetime and it was the death of her 19-year-old son Joshua that started her career as a novelist. He fell from the roof at Euston Station and lay in a coma for a year. Her notebooks from this time are heartbreaking. They record the process through which writing fiction emerged as the painfully logical result of her efforts to stay sane.
While Joshua lay in the hospital bed, as mysterious and unresponsive as a newborn baby, Anna began taking notes for Birds of the Air, in which the bereaved heroine acts on Anna’s own compulsion to follow her son into death. The prose of Anna’s own words to Josh merge into novelistic prose: “You were born in an orange painted room. No waters broke, a dry birth. It hurt a bit. Nothing like as much as it hurts now. How can you die without my permission? My dear child … COME BACK TO ME … She had lost interest in the exterior usual world that people took for granted. She knew and wished to know better another world that began inside herself but did not finish there.”
In her own life, as in her novels, it was Anna’s friendships with other women, including fellow novelists like Caroline Blackwood and Beryl Bainbridge, that helped her to live with bereavement. The friendship that structured her everyday experience was that of the indomitable Janet – nanny, secretary, driver, a regular character in the “Home Life” column, who also appeared in the novels under the guise of the steady, street-smart companion with criminal connections and a gypsy’s view of family loyalty. Janet spent her life working for Anna. From the age of 20 she would arrive in the morning and do whatever was needed – clean out the fridge, help cater for a lunch party, help pull the shopping basket through Camden Market, take the kids out, drive to Wales, type up a manuscript, or just sit at the kitchen table and drink.
At the legendary Haycraft parties, the great and good would gather in the hallways and sitting rooms, each hoping to receive a bit of Anna’s wit, but she would hover downstairs by the Aga with Janet and smoke, preferring the easy company of a familiar friend with whom to gossip. In Anna’s final notebook, written on her deathbed, there are snatches of thoughts about the past, lists in which she tries to find appropriate objects to leave her many loved ones, observations on dying (“The time may have arrived in my life when I can use the Exclamation Mark!”) and then, out of this muddle, the surprising: “I must try and understand (!) that Janet isn’t coming with me … I see her familiar, well-loved face at the barrier.”
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