Plus ça change

I’ve had a little hiatus here thanks to book fair season (Bologna Children’s Bookfair and London Book Fair with only a week of exhausted stumbling through mountains of emails in between), but now that’s over and I’m back to work, back to working on a thousand different projects at once, which is just how I like it.

This Saturday I’m presenting a paper on the publishing history of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, and I spent the weekend researching her biography to add to my paper. I always find biography both inspiring and depressing. That intimate look into someone else’s life, their personality, which forces you to confront the fact that people in the past were not simply characters on a page, to behave in cliched (understandable) ways and to make logical choices. They were human beings, not always perfect, not always nice. It’s a good reminder to have, because otherwise researchers might fall into the trap of idolising their subjects (not that I was ever in danger of idolising Vera Brittain, but I have had one or two fannish moments in my past!).

I found it interesting to read about Brittain’s engagement with the publishing industry. Her jealousy of Winifred Hotltby’s first success (her crit partner and flatmate by today’s terms), Britain’s struggle to find time to write while managing a household with two young children, her agent’s concern that the interest in the ‘war books’ genre had faded by the time Brittain completed Testament of Youth, her ‘almost’ affair with the head of Macmillan… This is what I love about history. Take away the glamour of the past — the letters and telegrams, the Chelsea townhouse with servants, the Pullman carriages where passionate embraces are stolen— and you realise, not much has changed!

In a letter to Holtby in which Brittain confessed that she needed a break from her children and her house, and time to work on her book, if she was to remain sane, she wrote: “It is boiling in my mind and I shall become hysterical if I am prevented from getting down to it very much longer…”

This sentence really struck a chord with me. Not only does it perfectly describe how it feels to be caught in the throes of a big project, but it’s also very inspiring. Don’t be prevented from doing the thing you need to do now. Just get down to it, as if your mental health depends on it. It probably does.


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