There’s a book I’ve been reading this week, Rosemary Ashton’s 142 Strand*. It’s about how the Strand used to be the base for journalism and publishers in Victorian times (especially radical ones, and some pornography), before Fleet Street took over. Bohemian people galore.
I’m finding it fascinating though I’m not too far in yet. It’s especially about the growth of one small publishing house and adjacent shop, owned by a Mr Chapman, that ended up catering to allsorts of radical thinkers (atheists, anarchists, socialists, fringe scientists – some of that science is now mainstream; some consigned to crankiness of the past) – and George Eliot and her not quite husband. Mr Chapman bought the booksellers and publishers in his little section of the Strand from a concern already going; published lots of famous religious thinkers of time – many Unitarians, and ex Unitarian minister and one of the founders of Transcendentalism – (mixture of Plato, Kant and Coleridge): Ralph Walso Emerson (backed by Carlyle, of Sartor Resartus fame).
He carried on doing this sort of publishing, so had small but loyal following, who bought his books and published their own via him. A bit incestuous, like the Bloomsbury set later on, with Virginia Woolf. He had very little money though, as it didn’t bring in much. Reading this section, about his trouble paying bills, I was finding it strange how I simultaneously had a vision of the eternal romance of the idea of the striving artist or activist, going short for principle…and then being quite a bit surprised that it feels the same today in many ways. Anything that is actually worth doing (aside from acting or other areas of art where you have genuinely hit it lucky and big) seem to pay a pittance. Job security and a decent wage seem to come from jobs that if you really thought about them and lined up your beliefs next to them…might not mesh.
The earnest Mr Chapman tried a branch out with mesmerism books (seen as a lash-up of spiritualism and cutting edge science), which became a fad during 1840s (again as it had done in the age of Mesmer himself, sometime earlier). Harriet Martineau, intellectual and political short story writer backed his ideas with a glowing review, believing it had cured her of a brain tumour. It brought in few more readers. Astute of him to back this fad just before it really got going.
There seemed to be many copyright problems in this age– copyright law was only just instituted, and was complex and unreliable – even lawyers despaired of making it mean anything – and that was the situation over here; in the US, piracy in publishing was completely standard at the time, as authors as famous as Dickens and Gaskell had found out. There was practically no point taking it to court either, as it was so accepted as just what happened. Now that’s something that has changed rather since then, in both countries.
The thing that really got his press and bookselling business noticed was Mary Ann Evans (soon to be George Eliot), translating a copy of Strauss’s Life of Jesus, which took an uncompromising and typically German thorough look at the Old Testament prophecies and their following through in the New Testament, and concluding the tome was mostly mythical. (Some critics argued with him, and not all were strictly religious – James Martineau did, saying he used logic on something logic could not be used , which is a very Victorian and still enduring idea. (That sometimes I agree with and sometimes I don’t…)
Also, in his early years Mr Chapman published the brother of Cardinal Henry Newman, Frances William Newman - the dissenter who got so dissenting people ended up thinking him an atheist. He published The Soul and Phases of Faith – and so echoed the back and forthing and discomfort many Christians felt with their faith at this time, that George Eliot notes, only 30 years later, that whilst people like her used to thrill to hear him, he was now almost unheard of and unquoted, despite affecting so many lives, so “beneficiently”. I haven’t got much further than Chapter 2, but the sudden sinking into the Victorian mindset of a few people and what they strived for is as always, fascinating. I read it when I’m not too tired on the bus, when I’m not doing the head nodding thing. Evening is best for this one, as in the mornings I like something lighter while trying to wake.
I sit in the coffeeshop in the mornings and try to do some writing exercises, before I go on. Trying to shore up one part of my personality before the rest of it is sorely tried. The fighting off of a cold all week and the taking care of Stanley and Fluffhead when I get in, who seem to be expiring of ManVirus (I don’t actually say that as a put down, I firmly do believe in manflu since I think I also get it!) has been causing a drought of writing; this week not much came. Too tired and vague. I did successfully complete one exercise, which was supposed to be a small flash fiction exercise – a snippet if someone’s life focalised by use of their tone, their attitudes shown through the tone of their voice. I wasn’t sure how much I liked or rated it, and I didn’t like her tone – so I must have made her a bit real, as I was bothering to dislike her, but here it is, since I’m sharing my writing this year, for the most part, with you, O Faithful Singular Reader (and where are all you people from Russia I used to have?!):
The thing is, he has no idea I’m watching him most of the time. He sits there, in the periphery of my vision, all day, to the left, working with the others. Just one month a year. I wait all year for this, and just the one month. But I can see him everyday then! He wears pressed blue shirts, good thread weave – he’s classy. He’s bred, you can see the public school in his manner and confidence. In the way he holds himself, the way he’s skinny. You can see his parents brought him up right, he’s friendly but not too friendly. He chats to me, but then he chats to the others. But I think he chats to me more. While he’s here I try and wear the clothes I think he will like the most, so that he can see that I am like him – well, not like him, but similar to him. That I am one of him. I wear the newest of my shirts, with the necklines that dip, but not too much. The trousers that look most executive. I won’t wear a skirt as I’ve only got short, and for a start I don’t like my legs, and for second, I think my boots with them would look wrong, a bit slutty. Though some of those girls in there with him, they don’t seem to care that they really haven’t got the legs for their little high shoes; or that their skirts are too short. They totter through the office and you think, who do you think you are?
Earlier, he asked me if I wanted something from Starbucks, as they were going on a coffee run. He asks me this every day – joking with me. None of the others ever do this. I never carry on the conversation long. I think that would be obvious, and the others might see. And what would they think – posh lot, someone like him taking a serious interest in someone like me? So we keep it subtle. I chat a little bit, and then get on with my typing. Its enough. And if I turn around and do filing, I can see him anytime I want. I have to be careful to not watch his arse when he goes out. He’s so well formed…
Anyway, he offered me a drink, and I accepted a frappacino, and then he sent one of the other more junior ones to do it – he’s in charge, I think, after the one in the suit jacket (never takes that jacket off), that comes in and out every day.
He smiles at me when I catch his eye. He asks if I like the drink. This is it. I can’t really be with him, because we come from different places. But he likes me, and I like him. It is enough to know it. And here he comes, smiling and looking purposeful. Soon I go home to my husband, sitting in his old clothes on the sofa, watching his programmes.
See? She’s not really a nice person. So I felt like I did make her exist, but I wouldn’t want much more to do with her or to write a story with her in it. That’s what bamboozles me about some of these exercises…I write them but it feels like to no purpose, as I don’t like what’s produced and won’t use it again.
Anyway. I hope Stanley and Fluffhead get their ManVirus gone soon; and I hope Mum comes back too (as she’s sick also), as I feel life is on a pause of nothing much but getting up early, being stressed at work and coming home, with no decompression time and very little rest, with the lack of her help and the added caring for of the two men.
I have nothing much left to do but to observe people on the bus, and play out their stories in my head in between dozes. Or sometimes at the same time as dozing. There was a particularly ordinary looking woman on the bus on Friday, going home from work early due to a temporary Fluffhead emergency (now sorted). Obviously in a rush, and no personal stuff done all day, only working, she was holding a few letters that still needed opening. Balancing them haphazardly on her rucksack as she sat opposite me, trying to get her hair sorted and her snack crisps out. She settled to opening her post about 5 minutes later, and the rustling she made disturbed me momentarily from that odd half there and half not dream state you get into on transport. I couldn’t decide if my memory of her reaction to one of the letters was totally overblown and half dreamt, or if she really was this transformed by it. Needless to say, I was most perturbed I didn’t get a nose at what the letters contents actually were…But this is what I remember when I think of that journey that day:
A woman looks up, and her face shines. She puts down the letter. She is smiling in a moment of personal truth and freedom, and her hands are fisted on the letter, crumpling the edges she’s holding it that hard. It’s a moment of vindication, and she breathes in, her cheeks wide on her face, with the smile held inside her, no teeth, but it’s all over her face. She blooms in this moment, softly pink, softly cream – she is a rose wearing peaches in the sudden burst of sunlight from behind a tree, that breaks over her face as we move down the street. Her honeyed brown hair, held back off her face, shields her head from the warmth of the sun: its afternoon now. She glints with sunlight and she knows that finally, summer will come.
Obviously…I must have been a bit dreaming during that sudden overthinking of her business. Though, I hope it was a good moment for her…and I do wish summer would come. It was lovely going home that day and it still being light outside.
I doze off again, and have a hazy memory of Stanley and I in our old Stratford house where we used to let all the neighbourhoods cats come in and play, as we are Very Much Cat People. Kittens chasing string; mouse chasing – what do they chase? But they do go fast…right over Stanley’s foot, the other day, and through the room and out. Ever since, we have been looking for this mouse, and its friends. And not leaving crumbs out. Are they running within the walls, little Samuel Whiskers and friends, mice, rats, cats, all looking for each other, and make roly poly puddings? It’s the opposite of me now, sitting here turgidly, bumping back and forth on this bus, ever getting toward home, but never quite making it. Dream cat rubs soft fur against my cheek and I smile, or do I just twitch, the way sleeping people do? Another day, another day, same as the last, same as the last.
(*142 Strand - by Rosemary Ashton, Vintage, 2008)