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Ten muses at a spider-strewn cottage

20 September 2019

Sarah Hosking introduces a new collection of short stories by women writers, including an extract from one, by Maria McCann


Woman at her Desk, by Leo Lesser Ury (1898)

Woman at her Desk, by Leo Lesser Ury (1898)

CHURCH COTTAGE, in Clifford Chambers, a village near Stratford-upon-Avon, is a tiny 18th-century cottage that shores up the adjacent churchyard and its thousand years of accumulated graves. The view over the peaceful churchyard is enchanting, especially during daffodil time, and the Hosking Houses Trust bought it 20 years ago.

The trust was founded to give reality to Virginia Woolf’s 1928 polemic A Room of One’s Own, in which she famously said that “a woman needs a room of her own and money if she is to write.”

St Helen’s towers over Church Cottage, and the bell tolls throughout the 24 hours, although the immediate neighbours lying in the church­yard are very quiet indeed. They are too quiet for some, but inspiring for others, and we have, to date, hosted well over 100 women writers who write about all sorts of topics.

These include novelists and poets, biographers, theologians, and historians, as well as yoga specialists and hat-makers, photo-journalists, and translators. They stay for between one week and three months, and we usually include a bursary.

All this costs money — and so does running Church Cottage, which is old and creaky and rains down spiders. We are engaged in constant fund-raising, but nothing succeeds so well as raising one’s public profile; so, three years ago, we commissioned an anthology of stories.

Two features were to be important in each story, although it was left to each writer to decide how to do it. First, the immediate environment, comprising the church and its hump of land above the neighbouring River Stour were to be incorporated in some way.

Second, we wished to give prominence to the Tudor poet Michael Drayton, who was a friend of Shake­speare’s. He lived in the village, and the first line of his most memorable sonnet — “Since there’s no help, come let us kiss and part” — gave us our theme and our title.

So, ten well-established, creative writers were commissioned, and, three years later, how have the stories turned out? We had not expected so many ghosts, and certainly had not expected a spaceship. We had thought that more would be made of our immediate local history, but this was never intended to be a collection of sweet reminiscences of times past. We have vicars in crisis and weird poets, we find out why Shakespeare left his wife only his second-best bed, and we sympathise with the local planning department. We have jilted women, and funerals, and schoolgirls skinny-dipping in the river.

But all books depend on their publisher, and the Canterbury Press could not have served us better. So, please, buy the book so that we can continue making “A room of one’s own” a reality on the proceeds.

Sarah Hosking is founder/secretary of the Hosking Houses Trust.

 The house in which the Kiss and Part stories were written

‘So much death, and she had failed to notice!’ A
n edited extract from “Colossal Wreck” by Maria McCann, one of the Kiss and Part stories

SHE’S spent too long thinking about the dead husband. The thing, as she called it, was unpredictable — sometimes she escaped entirely — but when it struck, it struck.

The graveyard outside the window couldn’t have helped.

Her problem was that anything connected with death, if dwelt on for long enough, could trigger panic. Sometimes, as now, it wasn’t so bad, merely a freezing in her mind; at other times it approached terror. Either way, it put paid to any creative work. Occasionally, it attacked her in the company of strangers, and excuses had to be made.

In such situations Jane put the whole thing down to her unfortunate name: she had been 17, she would explain, and in a film-studies class before she realised that a Jane Doe was not a Bambi-like creature wandering the forest but the nameless woman buried under the ferns. That much was true: while other students laughed, Jane had sat speechless and shocked. Her name, that she had always thought pretty, signified death and decay. It had been one of the most hateful experiences of her life.

In reality, the realisation about her name hadn’t sparked her phobia; that had existed for years before. The name added to her troubles, how­ever, and seemed to lay her under an intimate, unspeakable curse.

Any reference to death or dying, any thought along those lines, might bring on the thing. Particularly bad were death’s accoutrements and trappings. Tolling bells, tombstones, maggots, rot, the Reaper — all filled her with dread. The word “macabre” could have been coined to describe the taboos that constricted her life: she was unable to watch horror films or attend funerals. When, in a TV drama, a dog in woodland suddenly whined and began to dig, Jane reached for the remote.

The novels she wrote under the name of Jane Darke were her escape from all that. Her nom de plume was a knowing joke: there was nothing dark about her books. They were pure froth: celebrations of pleasure and passion in which British women yielded to the charm of suntanned Frenchmen and Italians, in the process consuming much good food and wine without gaining so much as a kilo.

The women were canny, however, and (since Jane’s selling point was retro romance) they yielded only up to a point. Men might strut around bare-chested, storm, rant, or even command: they still had to wait until the wedding night. In Jane Darke novels, the battlefield of the sexes was so crowded with power plays and manoeuvres there was no room for corpses.

And yet death had secretly wormed its way into her fiction. Jane had found this out by accident one night when she was entertaining her friends Julia and Paul Sankey. The Sankeys had arrived early; it was understood between Jane and Julia that this was never a problem, and Julia was not above rolling up her sleeves and helping, if need be. On this occasion, however, everything was under control. The three of them were drinking and chatting in Jane’s kitchen as the scent of roast lamb rose on thermals and wafted temptingly about the room.

The two women were close friends. It was Julia who, without telling Jane, had sent her first, self-published novel to the romance blogger Fanny Hill, who had tweeted ambiguously that you could give a Jane Darke novel to your grandma. If this was intended as a sneer, it backfired; there were lots of grand­mas out there whose grandchildren didn’t know what to buy them. Slowly but surely, the wave began to build. Older women recommended the book to reading groups as “proper romance, the way it used to be”, and younger ones read it in a spirit of satire — but they read it.

At last, in a dream-come-true ending worthy of her own fiction, “Jane Darke” had been offered a publishing contract: old-fashioned romance was back from the dead and living on the Med. As a result, Jane considered Julia Sankey not only her dearest friend but also the Fairy Godmother of her writing career.

Smiling at the Sankeys, she took out the lamb and set it to rest. Paul waved the wine bottle at her and she nodded her acceptance of another drink. Julia was talking about a crime novel she was writing, in which a young boy was kidnapped and accidentally killed. “I’ve been reading up on bereaved parents,” she said, “but I still feel a bit — I mean, of course it would be unspeakable, that goes without saying, but unless you’ve had kids yourself, you know? I usually avoid dead kids. Like you don’t do parents.”

Jane said, “What?”

“In your novels.”

“I didn’t know you still read them.”

Paul said, “She needs some light relief after all her cadavers.”

Jane repressed a shudder at the word “cadavers”. “Well, it’s very sweet of her. But no parents, Julia? Really?”

Julia laughed. “Join the club. Someone pointed out to me that all my policewomen have names beginning with R: would you credit it? Rebecca, Rosie, and Rachel.”

“Not intentional?”

“Not in the slightest.”

They agreed that the creative mind worked in peculiar ways. Jane said, “With romance, though, would you expect to read about their parents? I mean, it’s all about the mating game.” Mentally, she was listing the heroes and heroines of her last three books, who were all, as it happened, orphaned long before the start of Chapter One.

“Actually,” she said, “I see what you mean. Perhaps it’s because I’m adopted.” Julia looked uncomfortable. Jane laid a hand on her shoulder. “It doesn’t bother me. Mum’s Mum, as far as I’m concerned. I don’t remember my natural par­ents.”

Afterwards, she had sat mulling over those orphaned heroes and heroines. So much death, and she had failed to notice! Could it be true that her characters were orphans because she herself was orphaned? Surely not. Some choices came down to instinctive crafting, so deeply embedded in the writer’s practice as to be second nature.

It was over a year since that conversation, but Jane still fretted about it. Because of it, she had given Laurent de Mazel a father for as long as he needed one, although, by the end of the novel, Papa was seen only in flashbacks, being, well, dead. But now, sitting in a darkened cottage with bones stacked against the walls, she realised something else. Of all the fictional women she had read about, and of all the March sisters, she had borrowed the one who died young.

Kiss and Part, a collection of short stories with an introduction by Margaret Drabble, is published by Canterbury Press at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.30).

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