Thursday 31 December 2009

An Extraordinary Woman: The Muse At My Shoulder

On New Year’s Eve I take a Celtic delight in the pagan celebration of the end of one year and the anticipative celebration promise of the year to come. This day also was (is?) my mother Barbara’s birthday and I think of her. She was an extraordinary woman.Barbara With Grahame

Although we were (are?) very different personalities, I have inherited many things from Barbara . There is this desire to run away, expressed in the delight in travel. For her, with a family of four to bring up on her own and no resources, this was confined to books, maps and the globe of the world. Then things became just a bit easier and in her fifties she went to Denmark on her own. After that, year by year, she travelled further and further.

I was in my thirties when I started. Paris first. Then Moscow, Then different parts of America. Then Italy. Then the far East. Then New Zealand. Then Poland. Then back to France. Always France.

Being imbued with the Puritan work ethic Barbara would have approved of the fact that much of my travelling has been about the writing of novels. Evidence for this would be the working titles for some of my novels: for example, The Russian Novel (The Self Made Woman) ; the Singapore Novel (Long Journey Home); The Polish Novel (The Woman Who Drew Buildings); The London Novel (The Lavender House). Honesty’s Daughter was, for a time ‘The American Novel’. And my new novel for 2010 is The French Novel (Title still brewing…)

Sadly, Barbara was only here on earth to read my first novel Lizza in printer’s proofs. But in all these travels - in all this writing – she has been at my shoulder.

Although it is fiction, Lizza is based on a fragile sliver of Barbara’s young life.

‘I stayed up all night reading it, love,’ she said, when she read the proofs. ‘Couldn’t stop. Do you know that foreman? Well his real name was …’

It seemed that much of my pure invention was real. Which brings me to another of my bequests from Barbara: some kind of psychic acuity. Her oldest sister was a full blown medium but Barbara herself was highly sensitive. This psychic acuity probably explains why - as I write - I hear my characters talking, see them walking. It could explain the fact that when I’ve written about a place – even a place thousands of miles away - and checked it out later, I find that it’s already there, in my drafting book.

This psychic predisposition is there as a kind of ‘sleeper’ in many of my novels, but with my new ‘French Novel’ I have come out and centred the narrative on the psychic predispositions of my character Starr and the way she relates to space and time. New departure! It’s been great to write.

I’ve benefitted from other bequests from Barbara –a love of the realities of history, a cherishing of the resonance of the spoken word, an innate story telling gene – all these would merit further stories here.

But an important bequest worth mentioning has been Barbara’s role model as a Barbara in Uniform working mother with little regard for the domestic side of life. This has allowed me to write rather than dust, to make stories rather than make the bed. It has stood me in good stead all my working life and been instrumental in the production of so many novels.

However for now the greatest bequest to me is her continuing presence around me and her pleasure, through time, at what has happened in my life – my new novels, my good teaching, my extraordinary family.

Happy Birthday Barbara, dear Mum and extraordinary muse.


PS After I wrote this, I found the Ernest Hemingway quote for my Inspirations (left). Seems to fit.


  1. Oh, I'm reading this with tears in my eyes (truthfully, actually splashing down my cheeks). As you say, she is always at our shoulders, encouraging, inspiring, coaxing and admonishing. In some ways, it is odd to say I miss her as she is such a living, vibrant influence in my life. Happy birthday Barbara; I hope we haven't messed up too terribly the plans and dreams you had for us. Dxxx

  2. A beautiful and touching post, Wendy, and one that resonated for me as it contained so many similarities and parallels to and with the bond I had with my late mother. (Was particularly struck by the psychic acuity - yes, we shared that too!) Like you, I have paid tribute to my mother on my blog and I felt so proud to be able to do that. She was also born in December so this time of year always brings a host of memories; Christmas has never been quite the same since she died in 1995, at the age of 87. A day rarely passes when something or other reminding me of her and this seems to intensify as I grow older. These days, when I look in the mirror, I see my mum looking back at me.

  3. A lovely post Wendy.
    I was moved.
    How interesting that your mum's stories have shaped your writing so profoundly.
    My mum's way of looking at the world and her stories have had such an impact on my world-view and hence my writing.
    It is lovely that you still have that connection with your mum.

  4. A beautifully wrought post...I love the image of your mother at your shoulder, encouraging you.

    Also, the psychic predisposition idea is captivating.

  5. A beautiful and touching post on which to end the year Wendy- how proud she would be(is) of what both you and Debora have achieved - also, of course, of lovely son and grandson.

    A x

  6. Dear Debora - you above all know the truth of this. Your were special for her. mx
    Dear Al - it seems to me that we carry the stories of our families and practice magic on them so they are something quite other and are accessible to many many people. w
    Dear L_R S
    Nice to see you here and to feel your presence.
    Dear Avril - Thank you for this. We both appreciate the enduring power of family, I think.


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