What’s in a desk?

Yes I am still talking about the desk.

The more I live with it, the more things I have to say about Storm Jameson’s desk.

This thing is less about me and more about the reactions of my friends and colleagues who come to see the desk.

They are very telling about certain assumptions that we make about writers from the past, cultural capital and, of course, gender.

So very many people have now seen Storm Jameson’s desk, in situ in my old house in Newcastle and I hope that some people are going to come see it in my new house in Norwich.

What remains highly amusing is the reactions to the desk. And perhaps I am partly responsible in referring to it as Storm Jameson’s “desk”.

‘Oh…it’s not how I imagined it’

‘Oh…wow. How…unusual.’

‘Oh I thought it would be some big polished oak thing with secret drawers and a key…’

All of these reactions have left me feeling slightly bemused but also have been terribly revealing about the sorts of things we expect from writers, and women writers in particular.

Storm Jameson was by no means working class, she was part of a burgeoning Northern middle-class, among the first to send their daughters – as well as their sons – to university.

Nonetheless, her daily life, unlike the more leisured of her contemporaries – I’m looking at you Virginia – how-many-servants?-Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen etc. – was a mix of the activities of a moderately successful writer and the domestic drudgery endured by women for centuries.

When not writing her novels until the early hours of the morning, she was scrubbing floors, washing clothes and cooking. Well, she was until she began to make a moderate wage and bought herself out of this domestic ‘trap’ (as she referred to it) by bankrupting herself living in small hotels and boarding houses.

Nonetheless, her desk reflects her lifestyle. It is an enormously practical item.

An Arts and Crafts Refectory table, by a well-known craftsmen, it was desirable as an item in itself quite aside from its literary connections.

It is also very large, very solid, and without a scrap of leather or polished veneer in sight.

It is quite the opposite of the Vanessa Bell-decorated, small and elegant writing desk belonging to Woolf, recently bought by Duke University.

It is large, practical, bulky.

As a desk, to be honest, its a delight. There is lots of space for all of my gubbins (good Yorkshire word there, Storm) and plenty of room to spread out the myriad of different jobs for which I might need it – writing, teaching, paying household bills.

Its practicality belies an important point about Storm and her generation: They were not leisured and they wrote to live. Their desks were practical work articles and were probably not bought with that express purpose but adapted from another household use, over time.

It would be inconceivable to buy an item of furniture to sustain one’s writing, frivolous even.

It is particularly fitting in fact that it was most certainly meant to be a kitchen table – how many burgeoning female novelists, then as now, wrote at the kitchen table when the children had gone to bed and the washing up was soaking in the sink?

Just like its owner, the desk is testament to a certain era of women’s writing, of opportunities but also of battles still to be won.

In many ways, it would be easier if it was small, polished and elegant, but then I rather cherish its Northern awkwardness.

Like both of its owners (!) it is somewhat cumbersome and often refuses to fit into the spaces one had in mind for it. But that’s part of its charm.

It is also an important testament to the types of sacrifices and compromises which women had to make in order to be allowed the space and time to write.

 

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