Could It Have Been Written By A Woman?

Could It Have Been Written By A Woman?

Just over forty years ago, I was offered a place to read English Language and Literature at Oxford University. (Getting that out of the way in the first sentence, as per the cliché.) I did what was called ‘fourth-term entry’, ie I took the institution-specific exams in the first term of my final year of school. The previous summer I had passed A and S level French, so I was only studying for two A levels and one S level at the time. My Latin teacher lived a 30-minute train ride away and I only saw her once a week; my focus was mainly on English, which is just as well because I contracted glandular fever at the beginning of that term and spent most of it at home in bed. It was there that I discovered a susceptibility to reverie; in the spirit of the late Marion Milner, it was a time with no boundaries, hovering in and out of the corporeal world. My parents both worked and my sisters were both at school, so as weeks stretched into months I learned about solitude and interiority, my erratic temperature creating visions and imaginary companions. Just down the road was the cottage in which Blake swore that Milton entered his left foot; why shouldn’t I experience the ecstatic, too? 

I wouldn’t say that I developed an inward eye, and it wasn’t bliss – I was unwell, and a doctor came by regularly to give me painful penicillin injections (the conclusive diagnosis, which confirmed these as unnecessary, didn’t come until after they’d stopped). My fellow students were presumably out carrying on doing all the things which had caused my illness; at an assembly after my return the headmistress of my all-girls school (a comprehensive yoking the former grammar and secondary modern schools under one roof, literally, with ‘upper band’ and ‘lower band’ divisions) said nastily ‘There has been a lot of glandular fever around recently. You catch this through kissing. Susie Nicklin has glandular fever’, which ensured my return to scholastic endeavours was brief. In those days you only needed two Es at A level to be accepted to Oxbridge if you passed their own exams, so despite pages of flummery my letter of acceptance had specified I needed one E to get in, and not even my inability to conjugate Latin verbs rendered that unlikely. 

By the age of 18 my accomplishments were limited. I could speak fluent French with a broad accent du midi and a fine ear for the demotic as well as alexandrines. 

(I spent a summer in France just after my fifteenth birthday, working at a one-star hotel in Palavas Les Flots in the Gard, a departement I have loved ever since. I worked thirteen-hour days, seven days a week and they didn’t pay me because ‘that would be illegal, you are underage’. On Saturday nights we went dancing and got back at 0600 on Sunday mornings; four espressos later we started work again. On my first morning I asked a colleague if she’d ever visited England and she grinned, ‘Oh yes, that is where I get my abortions’. I agitated for a day off a week, which was eventually granted – well, they could hardly dock my pay – and then got grumbled at when others followed suit. The pocket money I had saved from up a Sunday job in a newsagent in Midhurst got stolen from my room, which I shared with four others, including the snoring grandmother of the hotel’s owner. I developed chilblains and varicose veins and a serious swearing habit picked up from the kitchen porters. It was glorious.) 

I could understand quite a lot of Latin – I sang with youth choirs and the mass made sense, at least – and I had read a stupid quantity of books. During that French summer I got through most of Camus and even Racine. (Writing this I realise I must have been the most pretentious person in Bognor Regis. For a summer job after I left school I worked in the accounts department of Butlin’s tallying up sales of burgers at their sites around the UK, and read Russian novels on my breaks.) That was about the limit of my talents. I couldn’t ride horses, or swim, or play tennis, or sail, or ski, or drive, or sew or knit or paint, or even dance well. I played the flute and the piano to grade V but my hand to eye co-ordination was too poor to make progress. The only touch of glamour in my life came through my work as an usherette at Chichester Festival Theatre, where I met Laurence Olivier and presented a huge bouquet to Grace Kelly (in trials mine was the best curtsey). 

When I started at Oxford I thought I’d be among peers (which, it transpired, I was, but only in the literal sense, as my tutorial partner was a punk and also an Eton-educated one-day-to-become-Viscount.) I’d already read some of the Victorian novels we would be studying in the first year and had packed everything on the list of required items (including a tea towel over whose design I’d agonised for days). After a sedate, sherry-fuelled freshers’ week – a far cry from today’s bacchanalia – I finally had my first tutorial. 

Following some general chat my tutor said briskly:

‘Here’s the essay title for this week and the criticism you’ll need to research.  See you next Thursday’ and I was perplexed. He said patiently,

‘As I explained, this week is Dickens. Next is Hardy, then Austen, Eliot, the Brontes etc.’

‘Which Dickens?’ 

‘All of them. And then all of Hardy. Eliot. Etc.’

I still remember the visceral sense of shock. 

‘I’ve read two’ I ventured – ‘Our Mutual Friend and Bleak House.

 A hard stare.

‘You were sent the reading list in December.’

My sense of injustice was stronger than my nerves. 

‘It just said reading list! It didn’t say they had to be read before we got here! I assumed that these were the books we would be reading! I remembered the tea towel!’. 

He shrugged. The heir apparent smothered a snigger. 

‘Well, you may have spent the summer inter-railing’ (all those bloody burgers! What price Dostoevsky & Tolstoy?) ‘but between now and next Thursday you will have read every novel by Dickens plus the necessary criticism. John Carey’s lectures are rather fine.’

And so began my second successive autumn term spent in bed, trying to keep warm, desperately hoovering up millions of words in shoddy second hand paperback editions from Blackwell’s, just across the road from my tiny, shabby room. Eight weeks in which I became disorientated, exhausted, almost hallucinating from inhaling so many plots, characters and locations. I worked in a local pub over the Christmas holidays and the whole Oxford thing felt like another feverish dream. 

When I got back I realised that I hadn’t considered what I should have prepared. But it turned out that this didn’t matter because we were studying something totally different. We were entering the Anglo-Saxon and medieval worlds, full of allegory, legend, poetry, violence, ritual, rhythm. Finally, I was on a level playing field. No one had read any of this stuff before; you had to say the words aloud to make any sense of them and then it was a glorious riot of alliteration, bouncing rhymes, repetition, humour. A green knight! A green chapel! Camelot! Beowulf! I was totally enchanted. No more cramming under a cheap duvet; you had to study this stuff with the delightful Bernard O’Donoghue, a great scholar and poet. It made sense from the start; even if I couldn’t understand it all I found it exhilarating. 

(I recommend the 2011 translation by Jane Draycott, with an introduction by the same Bernard O’Donoghue, published by Carcanet.)

One poem in particular was unforgettable. The incantatory, transcendental, late 14th century Pearl, presumed to be by the author of Gawain and the Green Knight, in which the writer mourns the loss of a daughter who reappears in a vision. We argued it must have been written by a woman – so much attention to detail, so moving:

Perle, plesaunte to prynces paye
To clanly clos in golde so clere,
Oute of Oryent, I hardyly saye,
Ne proved I never her precios pere.
So rounde, so reken in uche araye,
So smal, so smothe her sydes were,
Queresoever I jugged gemmes gaye
I sette hyr sengeley in synglure.
Allas, I leste hyr in on erbere;
Thurgh gresse to grounde hit fro me yot.
I dewyne, fordolked of luf-daungere
Of that pryvy perle withouten spot.

So when Peter Buckman sent me a manuscript entitled Pearl, by Siân Hughes, I was enchanted. Hughes’ writing is flawless, like the privy pearl without a spot; I hardly changed a word. She captures the spirit of the original and shows us consolation through legend, nursery rhymes, folk songs, as a daughter seeks to understand the reasons for the disappearance of her mother. I couldn’t be more proud to publish it at The Indigo Press, with an endorsement from Bernard, and we celebrated in Siân’s bookshop in Cheshire, just down the road from the green chapel itself. 

And a footnote: just over a decade ago I led a global programme for the British Council, 264 projects in 62 countries over three months, celebrating the 200th birthday of Charles Dickens, and before the key UK event I nonchalantly briefed our CEO over cocktails prior to a big speech he had to give on the novels. All of ‘em. 

About Susie Nicklin

Susie Nicklin began her career at The Bodley Head publishers and co-founded foreign rights specialist The Marsh Agency in 1993. She was Director of English PEN from 2002 – 2005, and inaugurated its translation programme (now PEN Translates). She was Director of Literature at the British Council from 2005 – 2013, creating international literary partnerships and events.

From 2015 – 2019 she was the owner of award-winning independent bookshop Dulwich Books, and she produced and directed ten literary festivals in that time. She founded The Indigo Press in 2018.

Susie Nicklin
Photograph © Sarah Hickson