Thursday, 16 February 2006


Since I stopped being subsidized by the government to read books and say interesting things about them, the way I read has changed entirely and I’m still really excited by it. I don’t mean the reading itself, or even the absence of nagging thoughts when reading in bed or on the bus that, really, you ought to be paying more attention, but more the process of choosing what to read next.

This morning I finished The Silent Woman* by Janet Malcolm. I loved this book, and would recommend it unreservedly to anyone who likes to read biography, anyone interested in literature as an idea, an art or a profession, to anyone who just likes stories. I’m not going to bore you with my clumsy review of it, but go here if you want to see further praise.

I picked it up at a second-hand book sale some friends of my parents arranged to raise money to go teaching in Nicaragua, and it’s been sitting on my shelf for about a year. When I finished The Home-Maker on the bus, knowing that this would happen, I had taken the precaution of also having in my bag my constant companion and best friend of a book, Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf.

I’ve been reading this for over a year now. I started it in the autumn of 2004 and read it alongside the texts I was reading for university until I handed in my dissertation and put it aside to concentrate on reading for my finals. (And started knitting, but that’s another story). During the exams themselves I returned to it, burying myself in it as I sat by the wide open window in the deep summer night when I could no longer read any more Renaissance literature or criticism of D H Lawrence. Since then I have read it in little bursts, the odd page here and there before bed or between books when I want to step just briefly into a world I have long dreamed of and imagined, with one of my favourite critics as friend and guide, spinning it out because I am not particularly anxious to find out what I’ll do when I’ve finished it. I might even have to start it all over again.

The Silent Woman suggested itself to me for two reasons. First, it had come towards the top of my to-read list after watching Sylvia on TV one weekend. Secondly, I had bought it entirely on the strength of Hermione Lee’s comment printed on the back ('One of the most gripping and provoking things I have read about biography'), so it seemed an obvious choice when I now wanted something small to carry around with me.

One of the things I loved about The Silent Woman is Malcolm’s character descriptions, brilliant sketches of the appearance of each person she meets in writing the book, and, where possible, evocative descriptions of their houses. On one of these visits to interview an acquaintance of Plath’s she meets Frances Spalding in a house I would truly love to visit, now researching a biography of Duncan Grant. I came across this passage on the Eurostar on the way home, having been deeply impressed by of Jane's post on February 6th, which immediately made me want to read the Spalding biography of Vanessa Bell. Guess how excited I was, then, when this arrived in the post this morning?

Ta da! Sadly it's now out of print now, so I ordered it on Amazon from a third party seller and it arrived the next day! I’ll let you know how I get on.

In knitting news, the kidney warmer looks like this.

Or at least it did a few hours ago, and it doesn't look any different now although the size of the ball has decreased significantly. I don't know why it's curling so much, and I don't really care (although of course all suggestions gratefully received!). To no-one's surprise this is mindnumbingly boring knitting, even though I am doing the whole thing in purl stitch to practise my purls and to make it marginally more interesting. The only good thing about this is that I'm making it for someone else, and that the quicker I finish it the warmer my sister is and the less bored I am.

I've also decided to pull out of the Olympics. My hot water bottle cover is only about two inches long and I am avoiding it. I’m not entirely enamoured of the yarn (Jaeger matchmaker merino 4 ply) which is a bit splitty and sticky and doesn't feel any nicer to knit with than the Patons Diploma Gold DK which is I'm using for the kidney warmer. It's not going to make the thick cuddly hot water bottle cover I had wanted. (I know twine and thin little sticks aren’t going to make a thick hug of a knitted cosy and I should have thought a bit more instead of blindly following the pattern. I guess if I was doing the stranded colour-work version there would be two strands of the yarn traveling across the inside to make up a thicker fabric). If the Olympics weren't involved I would return this yarn quick as a flash and swap it for some that I liked more. And since there is yarn that I need to buy for Monday, and more yarn to buy for a plan I'm hatching for the end of March, this is what I've decided to do. Yes I'd really like a finishers' button, but there are other things I want to be getting on with.

*I have yet to read Ben Jonson’s Epicoene or the Silent Woman. Can anyone tell me if Malcolm’s choice of title is a reference to it?

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