Great Stacks of Scribblings 

The S houshold should have a black spot on the front door, to warn off anyone disinclined to catch the plague. But this might deter the various delivery men bringing the Christmas shopping, so all that has been posted is a terse threat to anyone who dares to ring the bell and wake the baby. After two weeks of being coughed and sneezeed upon by three virus-ridden children, I have developed my own viral yuckiness, and then bacterial grossness, and have not left the house, except to go to the doctor’s, in, ooooo…ever so long. However, on antibiotics and sundry other wonders of the modern pharmaceutical industry, I decided to attempt a bit of housework today, a bit of sorting out, a bit of clearing out, and what interesting discoveries there are to be distracted by when one isn’t really invested in the task at hand…

In amongst spare teaching handouts, folded into books, tucked into folders and between the pages of old notebooks were reems of paper covered with bits of stories. I knew these were there, of course. I come across them regularly, but this time I decided to consolidate old drafts into one place, and found I had several hundred pages of fiction written over the past twelve years, much of it from that period in my life when I was working hard at being a failed philosopher.


Back when Mrs S was newly Mrs S, she was living in St Louis, Missouri, while Mr S was working in London, and attempting to finish up her PhD in philosophy…quickly. Three years of postgraduate coursework, undergrad teaching, and four written comprehensive exams (in Ancient, Medieval, Modern and Contemprary philosophy) into the degree, Mrs S was facing the next hurdle: oral comprehensive exams. These are a fairly big deal in the program: two hours of examination by a panel of five senior professors in the candidate’s declared area of specialisation. Mrs S was being examined on Ethics, beginning with Plato and Aristotle, continung through Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, Mill, Kierkegaard, and on to some modern virtue thinkers like Alasdair McIntyre and feminist thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Claudia Card. There was even bit of TS Eliot & Dante thrown in. Given the breadth of the material, and the level of expertise expected from an oral exam candidate, the prudent and correct thing to do in the days and hours leading up to the ordeal would be to make and review systematic notes on central arguments, controversies and themes, refamiliarise oneself with key passages and have a practice question or two with one’s director of studies. But Mrs S had been spending a lot of her time writing cheap romance — she was still ostensively trying to be a philosopher, and so committing the time effort to anything less fluffy seemed somehow less defensible than writing a page or two of drivel here and there, in between marking essays and reading serious, work-related texts. Now, despite a nagging feeling that she was totally unprepared for whatever was going to happen that afternoon, and because she copes with stress primarily through dissociation, Mrs S spent the morning of her oral comps attempting to write a credible sex scene (if credible is the right word), as this was all that her tawdry romantic fiction was lacking. An hour or so before she had to leave she was siezed with a mild sort of panic, which did not spur her to do any actual work, but did motivate her to get off the couch and go bake some muffins, in case the panel of her ethics exam committee was bribable. 

The lesson to take away from this whole sad tale is that if this is how you prepare for a major exam academic philosophy may not be your calling. Sadly, Mrs S did not get the message that she had already chosen writing over academia for her exam went surprisingly well, though she was quite short with a usually-beloved professor who asked her a question about Deontology and Utilitarianism because she was so over that whole pseudo-controversy she just couldn’t muster the enthusiasm to think about it any more. After the exam they all had muffins and in due course the letter arrived saying that she had passed, with distinction. 

So, conveniently forgetting the three and a half years of actual graft that had gone into that result, Mrs S mentally shrugged and took this surprising result as vindication of her ever-diminishing attention to matters philosophical. This is of course directly responsible for her less-than-successful attempt to actually write a dissertation. She got as far as outlining an argument (after a reading of Plato’s Phaedrus), that the proper end of moral philosophy is not knowledge of ethics, per se, or the discovery of decision procedures, but the formation of the soul; and so because only a very great fool would think that philosophical essays can properly form the soul, clearly the philosophical essay is not the correct form for moral philosophy. So let’s spend some time looking at Augustine’s Confessions, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, and TS Eliot’s Ash Wednesday instead… There are days when Mrs S would still like to write this dissertation, but given the monumental mess she made of her course in the end, this seems unlikely. The subtext was, after all, ‘Go away. I just want to write novels,’ and philosophical dissertations really have no business having subtext of any kind. What Mrs S will write, someday, is a post on why all novels, indeed all literary stories, are works of moral philosophy, whether they intend to be or not, and even if they intend not to be. But now we have had enough philosophy for one day. 

And if you are wondering: No, Mrs S cannot write a good sex scene. Or at least not one she would dream of publishing. Look elsewhere for your smut.


Of the great stacks of writing I unearthed, there were scenes and even whole chapters from projects barely developed, or now abandoned, as well as no fewer than four earlier incarnations of various parts of The Artist and the Serpent. There are long tracts from another fairly advanced project, tentetively entited Tenebres (after the Benedictine Holy Thursday candle-lit prayers), which I cannot decide whether to continue or not. It is weighty and theological, though, I think, a grippingly good story. It has TS Eliot epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter, and an underlying meditation about the nature of marriage and human brokenness. A light adventure of detective fiction it is not, but rereading it has reminded me that some of it is actually fairly good. Then there are various riffs on characters that have not yet been incorperated into any story, paragraphs rewritten in different voices to try and find the right ‘fit,’ whole chapters written in completely different settings or even centuries than those in which the stories are now (in my mind) set, some scenes I would never now use for plot reasons, and some that are so stunningly, laughably bad that I should probably burn them (but won’t).

For at least a half hour I was discouraged by all this. Hundreds of pages, a small subset of what I have actually produced, written over more than a decade, and I have no finished product, nothing that I can publish, nothing that seems to justify the great volume of paper and ink consumed or the hours lost in another world. But I have rallied, mostly because there is definite progress to be observed in all these pages.  My schedule is wonky, but the process is there. (I just don’t finish well without a firm, externally-imposed deadline. A professor from my undergrad days recently requested that I actually finish a novel before he dies. I would love to oblige. I just need something a bit more precise to be getting on with. My husband despairs.)

All that self-regarding revelation aside, this blog has been helpful, for when I feel I should be posting, I procrastinate by writing what I should actually be writing. In an attempt to make it do even more for me (personal blogs by their nature are not really audience-regarding) I am adding a new page called Scribblings (at the top of this page, next to the About and The Artist and the Serpent pages) where I will sometimes post bits and pieces of fiction I’m working on. The longer these stories are just sheets of paper in a folder that no one else is allowed to read, the longer all of this will take. One way or another, I shall persuade myself there is enough external pressure to require results.  The first post on Scribblings is the discovery I made that most interested me. (Of course, I’m having a major plotting crisis with my main project so I am very prone to distraction…) It is the opening 1400 words of the first book in a series of four that I plotted one weekend a few years back, having given myself the writing prompt “write a YA series that’s better than Twilight.” For hypothetical marketing purposes I have called the books Out of Time, Out of Place, Out of Synch, and Out of Love, and I have decided that a bit of time travel would be more my thing than vampires and werewolves. When I came across this opening, I thought “Hmmm, I’d actually like to read the rest of this book…in fact I’d like to actually write the rest of this book.” My next challenge is to find a passage in The Artist and the Serpent that makes me think the same thing. (170 pages in and I hate it at the moment. HATE IT.) In the mean time, if you fancy a spot of fiction, click over to Scribblings and give it a go.

Angst, Eliot and Puffins

Mrs S has spent the week in a state of acute literary frustration. The novel wasn’t working so she spent a couple days writing embarassingly unironic smut about beautiful people with slightly tragic pasts. It seemed to lack a plot, so she set part of it in Zurich, and threw in a few arms dealers in a peripheral kind of way. It was only marginally better than E L James’ best efforts, or so she hears, but in her defence Mrs S didn’t try to dress up violence as romance, relying instead on clichéd sentimentality. Then she pulled herself together, put away the purple notebook (the height of Mrs S’s organisational ability is that she keeps a purple notebook for purple prose) and tried to address the plot and sequencing issues that are hobbling her more serious writing. Meanwhile, she realised that she hadn’t considered any adventures recently, and sat down to blog. 

The background sound to all of this activity was the older children’s indescribably boring school-supplied reading books, and so she tried to write a humorous piece about how the schools were destroying children’s capacity to love the written word. But it turned out as joyless and turgid as the books she was condemning, and she could not bring herself to click “publish.”

The problem this week is that the words were no fun anymore. There was  no beauty, no joy, no play. It reminded her, as things sometimes do, of a passage from T S Eliot’s Ash Wednesday:

Because these wings are no longer wings to fly

But merely vans to beat the air

The air which is now thoroughly small and dry

Smaller and dryer than the will

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still.

Lovely verse. Eliot, though apparently serious to his deliberately-English core, knew how to play with words, and this is why he is a joy to read. He is good to read for many other edifying reasons, but it is the turn of phrase that makes the heart to flutter and leap upwards. The children are not equipped for deep analysis of The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, but they shrieked with laughter when she read to them “I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.” They were delighted with the image of “The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes.” 

Getting back to playing with words seemed to be the key to undoing all the angst of the week. Mrs S would never claim that poetry is the one and only means to impart a love of language, or that one must read poetry to one’s children or they will never learn to love to read. (It doesn’t work on all kids. Some respond to non-fiction, some to adventure, some to fantasy, some to sports-type stuff.) Nor would Mrs S claim that a bit of verse cures all authorial ills, but tonight Mrs S read one of their favourite poems to the children, and they said parts of it along with her, so she knew it had made more of an impression than the horrible school books. And she felt much better and wrote much better afterwards. So, if you too have any lexicographical blues, or if you have a poetry-susceptible child, Mrs S recommends The Puffin Poem, by Florence Page Jacques:

Oh, there once was a Puffin

Just the shape of a muffin,

And he lived on an island

In the bright blue sea!
He ate little fishes,

That were most delicious,

And he had them for supper

And he had them for tea.
But this poor little Puffin,

He couldn’t play nothin’,

For he hadn’t anybody

To play with at all.
So he sat on his island,

And he cried for awhile, and

He felt very lonely,

And he felt very small.
Then along came the fishes,

And they said, “If you wishes,

You can have us for playmates,

Instead of for tea!”
So they now play together,

In all sorts of weather,

And the Puffin eats pancakes,

Like you and like me.


The Effects of Fresh Air on Literary Criticism

Mrs S has just returned from two blissful weeks in the wilds of Northumbria. She could happily have remained indefinitely in the former-Methodist-Chapel-turned-holiday-cottage, in a tiny little village called Halton Lea Gate, nestled between the northern Penines and the Scottish Borders, in landscapes naturally soft and cushy, despite their grandeur, through the sheer number of sheep that reside there.  And thus entrenched she would have had no needs beyond pen, paper and reliable childcare. There was something stirring about the landscape that moved Mrs S not merely to poetry, but to mythology. Poor Mr S had to listen, on several occassions, as his wife complained that Peter Jackson really could have filmed the Lord of the Rings trilogy in the UK, for Northumberland was surely perfect. In truth it’s not that Mrs S objects to the New Zealand landscapes, but it would have been lovely to have a Tolkien tourist attraction or two to visit. As it was, they enjoyed themselves greatly at the Roman points of interest, mining and aeroplane museums, sundry churches of delicate ancient beauty, and in the landscape itself. Whenever they were ‘at home,’ and no one needed feeding, Mrs S had her pen and notebook in hand. She has never been so productive. (Not all of her writing was for the novel, which will annoy Mr S greatly to discover, but a great deal was accomplished nonetheless.) Then, after two weeks in pleasing proximity to Hardian’s Wall, the S family reluctantly made the five hour drive home to Hertfordshire.

The morning after returning home Mrs S was talking to her mother, the Matriarch, waxing lyrical about the beauty and wildness of Northumbria, and detailing her pie-in-the-sky ambition to move there. She must have over-egged it, for the Matriarch said something unexpected:

‘So, you’ve become a Bronte-lover.’ 

Lest the reader be deceived that this was a benign observation, the Martiarch’s tone should be said to have been deliberately incredulous, the implication that ‘we don’t do that sort of thing in this family’ crystal clear.

Mrs S was left speechless, her mouth moving without linguistic effect. How could one’s mother be so cruel? Surely the Matriarch knew that two weeks in the North could never transform a dedicated acolyte of Jane-Austen into…that. There is a world of difference between enjoying a bit of untamed countryside in one’s travels and developing a taste for untamed emotion in one’s reading. Needless to say, Mrs S was deeply wounded by this insinuation, but could not go off and sulk without proving the Matriarch’s point.

The very thought that Mrs S could become a devotee of the Bronte sisters is more than laughable: it threatens to undermine the whole stability of her existence, which is founded upon the very Austen-ian lesson that the greatest romance is not only compatible with the most ordinary of virtues, but indeed depends upon them. Insensible to the depth and worth of Jane Austen’s writing, Charlotte Bronte found only an unforgiveable lack of feeling:

“She does her business of delineating the surface of the lives of genteel English people curiously well; there is a Chinese fidelity, a miniature delicacy in the painting: she ruffles her reader by nothing vehement, disturbs him by nothing profound: the Passions are perfectly unknown to her; she rejects even a speaking acquaintance with that stormy Sisterhood; even to the Feelings she vouchsafes no more than an occasional graceful but distant recognition; too frequent converse with them would ruffle the smooth elegance of her progress.”

-12th April, 1850, in a letter to W.S. Williams

Elsewhere she complained of Austen’s refinement, writing to L.H. Lewes that:

“Why do you like Jane Austen so very much? I am puzzled on that point. … I had not seen Pride and Prejudice till I read that sentence of yours, and then I got the book. And what did I find? …a commonplace face; a carefully fenced, highly cultivated garden, with neat borders and delicate flowers; but no glance of a bright vivid physiognomy, no open country, no fresh air, no blue hill, no bonny beck.”

-12th January, 1848 (Is this the passage that put the Matriarch in fear of Mrs S’s literary soul?)

These allegations are shocking in two senses, the first being that they are mostly untrue, and the second that to the extent that they do apply, they are virtues, rather than shortcomings, of Austen’s writing.

To begin with, Jane Austen’s acquaintance with the passions is apparent in dozens of passages, but to take but one example, it is hard accuse the author of any lack of feeling in the letter of Captain Frederick Wentworth to Miss Anne Elliot in Persuasion:

I can listen no longer in silence. I must speak to you by such means as are within my reach. You pierce my soul. I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone forever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own than when you almost broke it, eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you. Unjust I may have been, weak and resentful I have been, but never inconstant. You alone have brought me to Bath. For you alone, I think and plan. Have you not seen this? Can you fail to have understood my wishes? I had not waited even these ten days, could I have read your feelings, as I think you must have penetrated mine. I can hardly write. I am every instant hearing something which overpowers me. You sink your voice, but I can distinguish the tones of that voice when they would have been lost on others. Too good, too excellent creature! You do us justice, indeed. You do believe that there is true attachment and constancy among men. Believe it to be most fervent, most undeviating in 


Maybe Charlotte Bronte never read Persuasion (and certainly she could not have known that Ciaran Hinds would portray Captain Wentworth to great effect in the film adaptation) but still: it packs a punch, does it not? Mrs S is frequently misty-eyed and breathless after reading this passage. What more can the poor man do? Bleed onto the page? Needless to say, Anne is appropriately flustered by receiving such a letter, and after eight and a half years of dignified anguish and seperation, the lovers are reunited. But whilst they may mourn lost oppurtunities — Captain Wentworth urgently asks Anne if she would have become engaged to him six years earlier when he returned to England between voyages, and she replies that she would have — Austen is very clear to point out the greater happiness the couple now enjoy than could have been theirs in the beginning:

There they returned again into the past, more exquisitely happy, perhaps, in their reunion, than when it had first been projected; more tender, more tried, more fixed in their knowledge of each other’s character, truth, and attachment; more equal to act, more justified in acting.

And this perhaps is the type cultivation of which Charlotte Bronte speaks so slightingly. For Jane Austen’s characters feel the strongest passions, but are not overcome. They do not run wild. They are pruned, the more glorious bloom to produce, for what is cultivation but the work of man to direct and heighten the bounty and beauty of nature? The end of a Jane Austen novel is consummation, not abandon. Anne and Wentworth, Elizabeth and Darcy (& Jane and Bingley), Elinor and Edward (& Marianne and Brandon), Fanny and Edmund, even Emma and Knightley, and, in a different way, given the satire underlying Northanger Abbey, Catherine and Henry: they all reach maturity in the fulfillment of their romantic longing, but only because each in his or her lover finds support, even enoblement, of virtue and palliation of vice. It is not merely their passions that are satiated, but something deeper in their souls. Austen heroines (and heros) do not give in. They grow up. 

Consider now Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s magnum opus. The eponymous heroine has many admirable qualities. Though she is prudish and moralistic, but there is courage and determination there as well, and a true desire to be good, to do right. And she never compromises…until she does, of course. How is it that Jane and the revamped Bluebeard-figure Edward Rochester end up together? Does the rake and attempted bigamist reform? Indeed not, but since his first wife, the mad, bad Bertha, dies (maybe, possibly, but not proven, by his hand, though certainy in part through his cruelty and neglect), it was at least legal in the end. And he was maimed and blinded in the house fire, so his fidelity was more or less assured through lack of other options.  But is Rochester humbled and reformed? So unconvincing is the text on this point that when, at the age of fourteen, Mrs S read the famous line “Reader, I married him,” she tossed the book aside and did not pick it up again until six months later to grudgingly and with gritted teeth read the final pages. Just when one thinks Jane has had a lucky escape from the clearly unbalanced St John Rivers, she goes running back to some low-budget Byron with an extremely unadmirable moral flexibility and sinister sense of entitlement. Circumstances, not characters, evolve in Charlotte Bronte’s novel. Passion wins. But does Jane? Does Rochester, even? That is less certain.

Contrast this with the famous reform of Mr Darcy in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the novel specifically maligned by Charlotte Bronte in the passage above. Unlike Jane Eyre, who accepts Rochester’s proposal of marriage, “poor and obscure, and small and plain as [she is],” in Rochester’s stated estimation, Elizabeth Bennet, hearing a proposal rather similar in content and tone pulls Mr Darcy up with the words 

“I might as well inquire why, with so evident a design of offending and insulting me, you chose to tell me that you liked me against your will, against your reason, and even against your character?”

(Charlotte Bronte wants a “stormy Sisterhood” of the passions: did she even read that scene? Did she think that the logic behind the objection undid the fervour with which it was presented?) It is one of the few deep regrets of Mrs S’s life that she has never received an unexpected proposal from a deeply arrogant man, having read and reread this masterclass in setdowns hundreds of times since she was twelve. In this scene we have the crystalisation of the central problem of the book: pride (& prejudice, for now Lizzy must discover and suffer from her own misapprehensions). And this problem is not created by external circumstances, but by the nature of the characters involved. If Lizzy had accepted Darcy despite his disdain for her, despite his defects, even if she had managed to feel flattered enough by his attentions or dazzled enough by his fortune to form a passionate attachment of her own, Pride and Prejudice would have become a garden variety tragedy, for passion would win, but it would bring no happiness. How could it? He was not the man she deserved, and if she accepted less than that she would not be the woman he imagined. Character, not feeling is the basis of a sound marraige for Jane Austen, as we hear in Lizzy’s reflections in the midst of the scandalous Lydia and Wickham affair:

She began now to comprehend that [Darcy] was the man who, in disposition and talents, would most suit her. His understanding and temper, though unlike her own, would have answered all her wishes. It was an union that must have been to the advantage of both: by her ease and livliness, his mind might have been softened, his manners improved; and from his judgment, information, and knowledge of the world, she must have received benefit of greater importance.

…But how little of permanent happiness could belong to a couple [i.e. Lydia and Wickham] who were only brought together because their passions were stronger than their virtue, she could now easily conjecture.

This, rather than any insensitivity, is why Austen skims over heartfelt declarations with little detail. And how right she is to do so. What could knowing Darcy’s words add to the description of what followed Elizabeth’s acceptance of his second proposal. The reader is assured that “he expressed himself on the occassion as sensibly and warmly as a man violently in love can be supposed to do.” Elizabeth is so overcome she cannot meet his eyes, or even look at him, but only listen to his words of love. The passion is there, but it is only an embellishment, proof of the nobility of character that each has won in the end. The important words Austen records. Darcy relates the transformation of character wrought by his “dearest, lovliest Elizabeth”:

“By you I was properly humbled. I came to you without doubt of my reception. You showed me how insufficient were all my pretentions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”

This, in a line, is what is wrong with Charlotte Bronte’s conception of romance. Rochester is manifestly insufficient to please a woman worthy of being pleased, and so, in being pleased by him, the otherwise worthy Jane Eyre is debased. That is what happens if, in the end, one’s passion is stronger than one’s virtue. 

Of course Jane Eyre is a fantasy, as is Pride and Prejudice, so they don’t depend upon strict realism to be plausible.  Mrs S has no expectation of hyper-realism of story. It would be very dull to read, after all. The problem with Jane Eyre is not that it is fantastical. And the Austen-Bronte debate is not (or at least shouldn’t be) about who is a good writer and who is a poor one.  Mrs S can easily acknowledge that Charlotte Bronte, and her sisters, wrote with grace, verve, and beauty, even if she prefers the style of Austen. But in the end, stories don’t “work” just because they are realistic or well-written: they can only pull this off by being true to character. And Mrs S can never be persuaded by Jane Eyre, because in her own fantasies, to put it bluntly, no one is ever quite so stupid as Jane is in the end. 

The role of a novel is to show the beauty of virtue, and by extension the ugliness of its opposite. That probably sounds prudishly moralistic, and likely to lead to very wearying, heavy-handed tales, so let’s put it another way: all stories are moral, because they are about people. Stories tell us what is good by showing us what is beautiful. Jane Eyre is a confused tale that reveals un underlying moral confusion in its author. The reader spends nearly the whole book admiring Jane’s dogged perseverence in goodness, her refusal to be coerced, her courage in resisting Rochester, who is the embodiment of selfishness and incontinence. Then, without significant reform, Rochester gets Jane anyhow.  Does he suffer? Undoubtedly. But not all suffering is redemptive. The death of his first wife is sufficient to allow Jane to give in to her inexplicable passion for him, and the result is that all of Jane’s goodness, which was so poetically portrayed as the source of her strength and freedom, is reduced to a sort of legalism. Charlotte Bronte writes that Jane was happy. How improbable. The most that can be said is that, if not reformed, Rochester is at least hobbled in his tyrrany by his infirmity, and so there is a lucky sort of blissful ending, which tells us, above all, that life’s beauty rests not in moral character, but in getting what you want, whether or not the object of desire is worthy. And that is drivel.  

Jane Austen, too, has her share of overblown romance. The exchange between Elizabeth and Darcy in which she asks him how he came to fall in love with her, for one:

“My Beauty you had early withstood, and as for my manners–my behaviour to you was at least always bordering on the uncivil, and I never spoke to you without rather wishing to give you pain than not. Now be sincere; did you admire me for my impertinence?”

“For the livliness of your mind, I did.”

Now, that is pure smut. Mrs S cannot read that passage without needing a cold shower afterwards. Even Darcy and Elizabeth have to go immediately to write letters to their aunts — the most unerotic task there is — to cool down. (It would be a mistake find any sarcasm in this paragraph.) We now know that Darcy is rich, handsome, properly humble, generous and just; and on top of that he is attracted to women, or rather a woman, who is too clever for her own good, and certainly more quick-witted than he is. And yet the effect of the story is not spoiled by such flights of fancy, because the underlying moral picture is sound.

The knack that Jane Austen has for showing virtues to be romantic, and romance to be at the service of domesticity, is what makes her books the best escapist reading there is. All her heroines are different, each with her own faults, which is why it so delightful to see how Jane Austen brings them up to scratch for their happy-ever-after, and each is aspirational in her own way. The most enjoyable conversation Mrs S has ever had with another human being was during an interview for a philosophy graduate program. She was discussing Jane Austen with an older (male) professor who was likewise an admirer. He asked her at one point which Austen heroine she most identified with, and, with all the seriousness and deliberate archness a twenty-year-old can muster, Mrs S replied that she most wanted to imagine herself an Elizabeth Bennet, but lived in perpetual fear that she was truly an Emma Wodehouse underneath. The professor laughed and said “May you live long enough to be Anne Elliot, my dear,” which is a very noble benediction indeed, and one which Mrs S called to mind when the Matriarch accused her of crass romanticism. What would Anne do? Anne would show forebearance, knowing that Lady Russell would, in time, either be proven right or come to her senses. Hopefully the latter.


A Dog Can Herd Ducks, but Mrs S Cannot Punctuate

  Mrs S has had a long day. She was a parent helper on C’s class trip to a Willows Farm. C considered the highlight of the day to be holding a guinea pig, as the animal in question was strawberry blonde, just like C. Children grow up so fast these days: even a four-year-old has opinions on how to properly accessorise with small animals. Next week she will probably want a strawberry blonde handbag chihuahua. (Note: she won’t be getting one.)  

   Mrs S, on the other hand enjoyed watching a sheepdog herding ducks through an obstacle course. Ducks waddling through a tunnel, over a see-saw, and up a tower before shooting down a slide, at the urging of a dog is something you don’t see everyday, unless you are the one who trained the dog to herd ducks. She spent much of the rest of the day wondering why it was called a sheepdog show. She was almost surprised when the group arrived at the sheep race and there weren’t any ducks; just sheep, which wore coloured harnesses and were, oddly, being ridden by cuddley toy lambs. Somehow, Mrs S would have preferred it if the sheep were jockeyed by baby monkeys. Or guinea pigs. Or ducks. But sheep riding sheep in a race seemed as odd as deciding to race sheep in the first place. Nonetheless, the race was exhilerating, and took place right next to the reindeer enclosure, so there was plenty to see.  

 Upon arriving home, Mrs S was looking forward to a a quiet evening of food, facebook, and undemanding television. But as is so often the case, facebook was the fly in the ointment, for one of the first things Mrs S read was a complaint from one of her most literate friends about people who double-space after full stops (periods). Having thought that, after a day watching a dog herding ducks, the world could not get any more strange, Mrs S felt herself grow giddy, and then indignant. There was a point of punctuation snobbery with which she was unfamiliar. Her previously solid grammar-nerd credentials were crumbling before her eyes. This simply could not be happening. Hoping to prove her friend a deranged crank, and save the reputation of her typing teacher, who was beginning to look like the villain in all of this, Mrs S sought help from her trio of editrices. (She does in fact know a male editor as well, but no grammar nerd worth her salt would pass up the opportunity to use a relatively obscure feminine plural, so only women were explicitly consulted.) Much to her horror, the editrices sided with her learned, but possibly unbalanced friend, who himself replied to her request for clarity on the spacing conundrum with a scathing article, and suggestion to ignore the ad hominems therein while still embracing the substance of the anti-two-space creed it espouses. To make matters worse, there was a decided age split in the one space and two space camps, and Mrs S did not like the side of the line she fell on (although the Matriarch, a writer and editrix herself, did have a beautiful rant on how the aesthetics of Millennials had no business dictating the norms of typography). Then Mr S weighed in by sharing details of an article he had read that claimed one should never use two spaces on a CV because it would reveal the applicant to be, bluntly, old. As a woman in her early thirties who has nonetheless been dying her hair to cover greys for nearly a decade, Mrs S almost wept at the thought that all the chemical manipulation of her follicles is in vain, for she double-spaces at the end of a sentence.  

Mrs S, like most others, has no particular reason for using a double-space, apart from the fact that she was taught at school that two spaces ought to follow a full stop, as day follows night. Both one-spacers and two-spacers argue for the aesthetic value of their preference, and that it is better for readability. Mrs S is somewhat ashamed that she has no real preference. Clearly both conventions are floating around, yet she completely failed to notice. Her main hang-up about dropping the (possibly) superfluous second space is that she doesn’t know how she will get herself to stop typing it. Touch typing only really works if you don’t think about it too much. Should she try to wean herself off spaces there will be an infuriating number of find-and-replace searches in her future. There will be the whole 130 pages (and counting) of the novel to fix. It will be trying.

After she calmed down, Mrs S poured herself a G&T she reflected that a day spent with 44 four and five-year-olds, watching a sheepdog herding ducks is not best time to make such a significant, life-altering decision. Either way feathers will be ruffled, friendships threatened, editrices irritated. Mrs S will take time to reflect. Does a second space perfectly compliment the first, like a strawberry blonde guinea pig nestled in the lap of a strawberry blonde girl? Or is it a grotesque over-embellishment, like a cuddly toy lamb playing jockey on a racing sheep? Mrs S isn’t sure, but she feels she is entitled, even obliged, to have a professional opinion. Afterall, every writer should be able to say ‘This is how you end a sentence. Period.’ (Space, space.)