October is leaves—leaves swirling against shut doors and windows, swirling around the ankles as you walk.
October is wind and elegy—that breath of song that memorializes. It’s the perfect time for reading—and re-reading Yeats, a tradition I’ve tried to keep from one October years ago. At the Iowa Writers Workshop for a mere two months, I settled busily into routines of teaching, writing, and at the end of each week, babysitting for British novelist Angela Carter.
Like my own mother, Angela had been born into a working class family during the precarious years of the Second World War. The dismal poverty of Britian’s postwar years (nearly ten years of rationing!) and the kitschy Empire Day celebrations (Union Jack-waving commemorations of Allied victory over Axis forces!) were a shared inheritance. But the upheavals of the '60's--social, intellectual, moral, and utterly frightening to my mother for the way they upended long-established conventions--were, for Carter, the “front line” where she staked out her identity as a writer.
Although I didn't know it in my youth, Carter's life passage was not so different from my own. In her own words, Carter had made the transition from “little girl to ravaged anorexic.” She embarked on an early marriage as soon as she “finally bumped into somebody who would go to Godard movies with me and on CND marches and even have sexual intercourse with me, though he insisted we should be engaged first.” A significant part of Carter's legacy is the prose she published in British newspapers and magazines (collected in the 1997 Penguin volume, Shaking A Leg).
Writing about such wide-ranging subjects as pornography, sixties and seventies fashions, trends in publishing, national and international politics, cinema, and her own time on the maternity ward, Carter repeatedly confronted the “social fictions that regulate our lives.” She could look back, too, with affection at the “confused young person in her early twenties attempting to explicate herself via her craft.” Her essays, rich in their own right, are also a powerful monument to and through the woman writer’s intellectual journey.
These days the rhythms of teaching and family life mean that I’m lucky to get the occasional glance at “The Hosting of the Sidhe” tacked on the file cabinet next to the overflowing desk in my office. The sidhe--the fairy folk of Ireland, commemorated in legend, memory, and in song--sweep through the valleys of this poem, “ a rushing band” speaking of worlds beyond the visible, calling all who witness their passing (the swirling leaves) to empty their hearts “of the mortal dream.”
And when I think of Angela now, I'm deeply sorry that we shared so little: a few words here and there about the workshop, American writers' penchant for realism. I was painfully reserved, powerfully resistant to being drawn out of my shell, as if it were possible to successfully veil the confused young person I was. Answering questions only when asked in those days, I rarely posed my own. I hadn't a clue that this esteemed author and admirable woman had to construct her life the way she did a story--out of trial and error. In writing Carter's life, biographer Lorna Sage found a paradoxical beauty: the writer's successes were “built among the debris of past convictions.” A lesson I see that Carter tried to impart.
And now, years beyond the back-lit rooms of my tenuous apprenticeship, as another year’s nears its vanishing, I put finishing touches on Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond, a book that pays tribute—I hope--to the passage of time, to the complicated legacy of maternal history, to the mortal dream.
Causes Jane Satterfield Supports
Associated Writers and Writing Programs (AWP)
Association for Research on Mothering (ARM)