Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females

One of the most important books in my life, for reasons far too complicated to go into, is David Lodge’s 1988 novel Nice Work. One of the main characters is a lecturer in nineteenth-century English literature called Robyn Penrose, who is working on a book about women in the nineteenth-century novel, called Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females. Work commitments being what they are, Robyn doesn’t get enough time to write. At one point in the novel, she finds herself in a hotel in Frankfurt: a luxurious space, geared entirely to the comfort of its guests. And she thinks, idly, if I had three weeks here, I could finish Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females.

I first read Nice Work when I was sixteen, and over the years, there have been times when I’ve been somewhere, and thought: if I had three weeks here, I could finish Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females. Well, obviously not Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females, but whatever it is I’ve been working on. I wrote a chunk of my PhD in an anonymous hotel in Lisbon where we went one very rainy Easter, and another chunk in a lovely café in the Oud St-Jan complex in Bruges, fortified by beer and coffee and apple cake. I wrote significant bits of the Book That Didn’t Find a Publisher in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, one of the loveliest places ever, and there are coffee shops all over the place where I’ve squirrelled myself away in corners to read, and think, and sometimes to write.

I am not writing Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females right now, but I am writing, one of the biggest and most exciting things I’ve worked on. We spent half-term in Oslo, in a beautiful apartment with a comfortable nook for writing, and if Oslo wasn’t so darned expensive I’d happily base myself there until this book is finished. The best place to write that I’ve found this year, though, has to be the Mareel Arts Centre in Lerwick, a light, airy space looking out onto the water, with fabulous coffee and a quiet gallery where people sat with laptops and did whatever they wanted to do.

It’s going to take me far longer than three weeks to finish my own Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females, whose title is still undecided. I’m trying to set aside one day every weekend for writing, but it’s hard. Work intrudes: we’ve just had a department review that’s taken up huge amounts of time and emotional energy, and there is always planning, and marking, and other stuff to do. It’s a balancing act.

Virginia Woolf wrote about the need for a room of one’s own: Cyril Connolly said that the pram in the hall was the enemy of good art, and Susan Bassnett described trying to work with the washing machine’s thrum in the background. Space, and time, and the chance to think: to not have to pack everything away at the end of a session of working, or get up to check what’s in the oven, or break off because there’s something that needs doing for tomorrow.

There are lots of us doing this. We carve out space and time; we lose ourselves in the lovely flow of words and ideas. It’s exhausting. But we do it. We write, to paraphrase Charles Hamilton Sorley, because we like it: we do not write for prize.

Big shout-out to all teachers who are writing. My blogging has been less frequent, of late, because of Domestic Angels and Unfortunate Females, but I am still here, and still thinking.

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