Comfort rather than pleasure was perhaps the keynote
by Lesley Hall
It is like looking through the wrong end of a telescope over these long months of staying indoors and going nowhere to contemplate what, at the time, I thought was the precursor to the usual year’s round of conferences and meetings and research and travel. In mid-February I went to a conference in Granada, Spain which was held in the very lovely Carmen de la Victoria, in weather that was a welcome change from London at that time of year. Besides the exciting sessions and much animated discussion over coffee, lunch, and dinner, attendees also had the enormous treat of a specially organised tour with guide of the Alhambra.
And very shortly after my return any plans and hopes and expectations for the year were put on hold. I am still very saddened that it seems unlikely that I shall be able to get to the fabulous
Artemisia Gentileschi exhibition at the National Gallery, which had been on my must-see list ever since I first saw it was in prospect.
So what have been the pleasures of this strange and terrible year?
Well, there has been the happy opportunity to get back to Naomi Mitchison: for some while I have had a paper on my hard drive, versions of which I had presented at assorted seminars and conferences, and kept thinking that I should work up for publication. And lo and behold, there is an edited volume on Mitchison in prospect, and I have been enjoyably re-reading several of her works, and having productive thoughts about certain themes to do with reproduction she was dealing with across the decades. This led to so much re-working that it’s a very different piece now, but, on the other hand, the original included a lot of necessary background on Mitchison and general context for an audience that probably wouldn’t have much prior knowledge: which would have been inappropriate in a whole volume dealing with her life and works.
But a lot of the reading I was doing fell very much into the category of comfort reading – either re-reading of old favorites, or work by tried and trusted writers. There was quite a bit of getting absorbed in series, with their familiarity and repetition – though I found myself very picky about these – not all of them can really sustain the reader and I found that some I once enjoyed had lost their charm.
However there were new books (new to me) that gave me delight: in the category of tried and trusted writers, there was an unexpected Gail Godwin, Old Lovegood Girls, and on thinking it over, I must have first encountered her work nearly fifty years ago. There was the weird and lovely – well, it pushed some of my very particular buttons, I’m not sure how far that would generalize – LOTE by Shola von Reinhold.
I rather belatedly got to Bernardine Evaristo’s Booker Prize-winning Girl, Woman, Other (2019) – I think the first Booker winner I have read since Byatt’s Possession. And rather like the Byatt had an almost nineteenth-century richness: blending the panoramic with the individual, and revealing hidden connections. I also loved her New Statesman/Goldsmiths Prize Lecture, "The longform patriarchs, and their accomplices." She doesn’t actually name-check E. M. Forster and his ‘O dear, yes: the novel tells a story’: but kicks off with a sharp manifesto for story-telling: ‘The novel only exists because of the stories elaborated upon inside its pages’. Evaristo is among those bringing fresh stories into the novel and relishing its multiplicity and plurality, rather than gatekeeping and canon-izing.
So, I was not quite "curling up in the [non-existent] window-seat with Little Women," but that has been rather the vibe.
Lesley Hall was born in the seaside resort and channel port of Folkestone, Kent, and now lives in north London. She recently retired from a career as an archivist of over 40 years. She has published several books and numerous articles on issues of gender and sexuality in nineteenth and twentieth century Britain, and is currently researching British interwar progressive movements and individuals. She has also published a volume in the Aqueduct Press Conversation Pieces series, Naomi Mitchison: A Profile of her Life and Work (2007). She has been reading science fiction and fantasy since childhood and cannot remember a time when she was not a feminist. Her reviews have appeared in Strange Horizons, Vector, and Foundation, and she has been a judge for the Tiptree and Arthur C. Clarke Awards. She has had short stories published in The Penguin Book of Modern Fantasy by Women (1996) and The Penguin Book of Erotic Stories by Women (1995) and, most recently, is the author of the series The Comfortable Courtesan: being memoirs by Clorinda Cathcart and Clorinda Cathcart's Circle: https://www.clorinda.org. Visit Lesley's website.