Book Review: Victorian Secrets: what a corset taught me about the past, the present and myself by Sarah A. Chrisman
How do you make a book about wearing a corset gripping? Because I was gripped at two am, turning each page to find out what happened to Sarah Chrisman, adventuring though Victorian attire. Her book blends titbits about corsets and their history into a narrative of what happens when you wear a one in everyday life, and both aspects are surprisingly interesting.
Did you know that those skeletons they say had ribs deformed by corsets were actually bent out of shape by the preservation process? That they weren’t just for the wealthy—maids and labourers had corsets designed to support their work? That they were astoundingly cheap? Have you ever thought carefully about those claims that women had bones removed to make their corsets fit? Because it was the era before Florence Nightingale; a badly broken leg was usually a death sentence, they’d saw it off without anaesthetic and then you’d die of an infection. That corsets, in short, weren’t like you think they were?
While we’re learning about corsets of the past, we join Chrisman on a journey as she transforms from an ugly duckling to a swan during a year (and a bit) of tight lacing. She immediately learns to sit up straight and walk tall (corsets don’t allow slouching). She used to eat in restaurants known for their big portions (in America!) until her stomach hurt, but there’s no room in a corset for overeating, so her heartburn is cured and she begins to lose weight. As her wardrobe becomes more and more Victorian, she learns to walk elegantly in kitten heels, wash her hands regularly and not wipe her dirty fingers on her trousers.
It is a little drastic. I couldn’t help thinking that those lessons could have been mastered without steel or whalebone. To make up for it, though, she tells her tale with an enjoyable acerbic approach to, well, everyone except her husband. She isn’t going to let polyester and rayon at the Victorian fashion show go by without protest. It’s rather fun, being on the inside, reading all the things you don’t allow yourself the freedom to say, or think. Her reaction to “I crafted it from things at the thrift store,” is as scathing as the one I always wanted to give. Such fun!
Then one’s sympathies begin to shift. The tipping point for me is when Polly (I hope to God that isn’t her real name) turns up at a Victorian ball in a blue polyester ball gown. This monstrosity is so memorable as to be referred to chapters later, when she makes her next appearance, Polyester Polly. I begin to think: poor Polly. Polly has turned up at a social event with the outfit she can afford. How much should she be maligned for it? How many people should be lambasted for failing to live up to Chrisman’s standards of attire? How evil are her fellow massage class students who use too much oil, is her mother for questioning her choice to tight lace, is her mother in law for talking too much? She is so primed to take offense, she’s even sure that cardiologist in the coffee shop queue is looking at her funny.
Chrisman seems relentlessly negative about everyone around her. The following come under serious fire: people who drink coffee; people who have mobile phones; people who run cars; people who wear synthetic fabrics; modern medical practitioners; and most of all feminists.
Sarah began to seriously lose my sympathies exactly half way through the book. She travelled to a cheap custom corset maker, and despite her misgivings when she noticed a pair of handcuffs for sale, handed over much more money than she’d been quoted as a deposit for two corsets. Escaping, suitably fleeced, she writes the shop off with: “to me, corsets are about Victoriana, not sadomasochism. My idea of proper wrist accessories are jewelled bracelets, not handcuffs.” Because, yeah, it was the BDSM that went wrong in that transaction.
There’s a paradox at the heart of this book: the only person sufficiently motivated to write it must be a zealot, and a zealot cannot give the impartial view the book requires. Sarah Chrisman has all the enthusiasm of a convert. She believes in corsets enough to wear one night and day, to spend serious money on them and attend all the relevant conventions and high teas. Somewhere along her journey, she goes to a Victorian place where we can’t follow. Sure of the old fashioned method, she ignores medical intervention on her broken foot in favour of a concoction of camphor. She tells us women’s lib has gone too far and we should recognise our inherent differences (say, dontcha know that in oppressive societies women often have power in domestic settings?). She has any number of health tips, but I find it hard to take health advice from an era in which the main source of vitamin C was jam.
Precisely because the writer of this sort of book has to go to an extreme to do so, she also has to deal with everyone else’s reactions to her choices. Some of those are very positive, but that means that you have to read, again and again, of people telling her she looks lovely. By the last chapter I was ready to tear out the next page in which a stranger gives her a compliment. The negative responses are explored, too, and one gets the feeling that Chrisman is taking the opportunity to say to us everything she wished she’d said at the time. These are not reports of two way exchanges or opportunities for reflection, but opportunities to be indignant. The effect is a lack of balance that undermines Chrisman’s case. One side of the argument (hers) is well explored, and she often speaks of ‘educating’ people, but now I want to know more about the views she was arguing against, and until I do I shall take hers with a pinch of salt. Chrisman’s anti-feminism is tiring, but Polyester Polly’s omitted reasons for decrying the wearing of antique clothes would hold my interest.
Mixed in with all that, though, are some interesting nuggets. I rather liked her point that it’s underwear, not biology, that prevents women from peeing standing up. She makes many of the discoveries that I have about how Victorian clothing and practices are better suited to the world than modern things. Natural fibres are warmer, more breathable and stay cleaner. Ankle length skirts and petticoats are cosy and practical. Washing your hands gets them cleaner than sanitizing them. Kitten heels make for an elegant gait. She’s so enthusiastic about split crotch bloomers that I think I want a pair.
Nevertheless, I’ll keep some aspects of modern life. Central heating, say. And medicine. I’d love to go to one of Sarah Chrisman’s presentations of antique clothing. Just don’t put me next to her at a dinner party, she might find herself being ‘educated’ about feminism and the joy of handcuffs.
Last week I went to the launch of The Palace of Curiosities. I kind of hate the author for her fabulousness. I first came across Rosie Garland on the front desk at a first fetish club, where she was beautiful and terrifying. I got to know her better as Rosie Lugosi, the compere who outshines every performer on the burlesque circuit. Then I discovered she’s an established poet. And the singer in the March Violets. I get the impression she has a day job, too. To make it worse, Rosie is lovely. She makes you feel like a truly fascinating creature while her gaze is upon you. I try not to talk to her too much, because I don’t want the self-loathing that happens after the come-down. I thought I’d probably be safe as long as I didn’t sit too near the front while she read from her book. It turned out that wasn’t difficult to achieve, there was quite a crowd.
Rosie answered questions from the floor. How does she find time to write? I’d love to know. I don’t seem to find enough, and that’s with a boyfriend who does all the cooking, a social life that mostly involves overhearing other strangers’ conversations while I type, and a job so part time it doesn’t cover the rent. I’ve even decided that daily hair washing isn’t worth the temporal investment. Rosie told us that she loves writing, it’s what she gets up for in the morning, which didn’t seem like the answer. It doesn’t matter how much I love writing, or skiing, or baking cakes, if what’s actually necessary is eating breakfast so I don’t fall over, showering so that I’m socially acceptable, and going to work where they expect me to do things other than writing, skiing or baking for money. If you don’t have work, then you’d better spend the morning finding some, rather than doing what you enjoy and hoping the rest will sort itself out. So I’m still in the dark. Some writers say they solve the problem by getting up an hour earlier, but since that inevitably leads to going to sleep an hour earlier, too, that just means the laundry won’t get hung up and I won’t read any books at all. It doesn’t sound awfully practical.
People asked the usual questions about who you’d want to play your characters in a film of your book, and what it’s like to win a big prize (rather nice, apparently). I sat hoping that someone would ask about her office. She mentioned, like most writers do, that she scribbles on trains. I love the idea of writing on trains. I pack my laptop or my fountain pen with the intention that I’ll be pen beautiful prose while countryside whips by. Then the train jerks wildly and my pen scrapes across the page. Or there’s a man sitting in my pre-booked seat, refusing to give up the power point, and my laptop dies. Or other travellers’ conversations are riveting. Why does the man in front speak only in English while his partner replies consistently in French? Is there a clue in the half of the conversation I can understand? Why is that loud girl so proud to share her knowledge that Old Trafford football ground is, “the oldest football stadium ever to be bombed in World War II.” Did the bombing of football stadiums have a significant impact on the war? Is there a hidden history of football stadium bombings, ignorance of which is like ignorance of the incendiaries on the roof of St Paul’s? What’s going to happen now that the woman behind me has told the man she’s with, “You’ve said things like that before, and if you say them again. I will not listen. I will walk away. Do you understand?”
When I’m determined to write, passengers go to much greater lengths to prevent it. They organise stag parties going from dull city to dull city, carrying alcohol, noise and harassment. Should I write, rather than keep an eye on the scared looking girls up the carriage, knowing how glad I’ve been for support when groping men won’t let me past to go to the toilet? I’m going to need the toilet, for that matter. It would be nice if a girl could write and pee in a public place without the need for a battle plan.
I have to conclude that trains don’t work for me, even though, if I was a proper writer, I’d be so obsessed with the words that I’d be able to block everything else out. Home doesn’t work, either. Depending on my energy levels, I get either distracted or depressed by the washing up. Coffee shops are good, but costly in coffees, and they start giving you looks after three or four hours. They don’t do that at the university library, but by the time I’ve travelled to the nearest station, walked up Oxford Road, found a power point away from chattering students and settled down, I get about half an hour’s work done before I’m starving. Packing up, going finding lunch, coming back and doing another hour takes up the rest of the day. And all this is assuming I don’t get distracted by the books. And it’s a costly option, if you factor in the inevitable library fines.
So last year, I did something crazy. I joined a private library. It’s not my fault. I was seduced. The library has a domed roof letting the light fall on Victorian books. It has a members only reading room, lined with leather bound books and glass fronted cases. There are armchairs by the fire. Elizabeth Gaskell’s husband borrowed books for her from here. There’s a gallery under the stained glass dome, with changing displays, for when I just hate this paragraph so much that I just have to walk away. The collection of books is interesting enough to merit browsing, but small enough that I can’t be carried away by research into every new idea. Lovely staff serve lunch, jammy toast and (although I haven’t yet had a day bad enough that I’ve needed to order it) wine. On free days, I can sit, in absolute comfort, and write all day.
I’ve been here three and a half hours, and I’ve written 4,000 words, if you count this post. I worry, though, that if I was a real writer, I’d be able to write anywhere. The words are pushing to get out, and surely even in a cold, mouldy outhouse, on a stag-infested train, on a rattling tram next to a talkative drunk, I’d be able to put them on paper. If I wasn’t spending my time going to author events and blogging about them, and instead getting some writing done.
I’ve spent a lot of my life worrying about being attractive. I started in my teens, from the position of believing myself to be grotesque and repulsive, as most people do. I spent a while trying to learn to be less repulsive from my peers, who had their own strategies, from sex to self-harm, and settled for a while on religiously following magazine beauty tips. I soon stopped, because they were obviously stupid, and often contradictory.
I got older. I felt less grotesque. I learned how to be attractive from conversations and observation of friends, a method which promotes constant comparison. Like anyone faced with a situation they can’t control, but really need to, I created achievable goals. If I keep my eyebrows plucked, my hair styled, my legs, armpits and pubis shaved, my face made up, and my clothes flattering, I’ll be attractive. When that failed, I relied on inherent, if transitory qualities. As long as I’m under 30, I’ll be attractive. That sort of thing.
At some point in the last few years, all of the things I used to do to ensure I was attractive fell by the wayside. Shaving is a faff. Wearing foundation gives me spots. Daily washing and styling uses up valuable sleeping time. I’m not willing to pay the heating bills that sexy nighties cause. In fact, I’m not even willing to stump up for a new silk nighty at this juncture. Some of my university friends are turning thirty this year.
A strange thing has happened. I haven’t got less attractive.
While I’ve been distracted by other things, like earning a living and writing a novel, I’ve forgotten to compare myself to other people. Suddenly, now I’m not noticing the miniscule differences, I can see how attractive most of my friends are. The ones who value grooming, the ones who rarely shower, the ones who’ve lost weight, gained weight, not bought a new outfit in a year, the ones in porn and the ones who hide behind laptops and screen personas. I’m not delusional, I don’t suddenly believe that we’re all equally beautiful and special, but I do note that we make an attractive group, me and my friends. . I wish I could go back and tell my thirteen year old self. I wouldn’t tell her that it’s ok, she’s attractive after all. I’d tell her that being attractive isn’t half as hard as everyone makes out.
It would be nice to think that this is the result of some kind of inherent, immutable beauty shining though. Sadly, I don’t think it is. Beauty is something that catches your attention when you aren’t expecting it, you can notice it when no one else has. You know beautiful things about your partner that no one else does. It can make you interesting, but it doesn’t necessarily make you attractive.
When we talk about attractiveness in ways that affect us personally, like who to spend your life with, it operates a lot like beauty, and it’s mostly dependent on personal taste. In superficial interactions, though, personal taste doesn’t come into it so much. In these, attractiveness is a category, and you can assess it in a glance. The category of attractive woman is what the men at the library are reacting to when they say mildly flirtatious things, what the shop assistant reacts to when she suggests a particular dress, what makes people glance at my boyfriend to decide whether he belongs next to me. It’s what divides me from the overweight girl in the baggy clothes when men look around the room at dancing. They don’t seek beauty, they don’t search my face for evidence that I’m their deepest desire. They look just long enough to determine where I belong in the order of things. That doesn’t mean the overweight girl isn’t beautiful, and I’d be very surprised if she didn’t turn some of the men on. When they approach her, though, they do it differently to how they approach me. When they watch her dance, they do it less openly, and when they thank her, there’s a very slightly different tone. I bet she doesn’t get asked why she doesn’t bring her boyfriend along as often as I do, but that’ just speculation.
Now that I’ve noticed this (yes, you might say that it took me long enough), I’m horrified to notice the ways my categorisation is, and is not, in my control. I’m almost in the category by default because I’m under forty (yes, I moved the goalposts), have an acceptable BMI, and no visible impairment. I suspect that being white helps, too, if only because in a mostly white culture, it doesn’t carry interpretive questions or baggage. The biggest factor under my own control is probably my weight, but even here I have a natural advantage in my height, which allows me to get podgier than a short person before anyone notices. After that it’s mostly a case of not doing things: not getting lots of piercings or tattoos, not wearing crazily colours stripy things, getting dreadlocks, hanging spikes and metal from my clothes. I’d have to put some effort in. Just not caring enough to shave or dress prettily wouldn’t cut it.
I ought to be reassured to discover how easy it is to be attractive. Mostly, though, I’m looking at the rules of the club, and wondering why I wanted in.
I spent most of the weekend making porn. On Sunday, I waved a friend off as she went to another city to make porn. On Monday, I read this article. I sighed, and wondered why we’re still having the same conversation.
To summarise: Lying feminists pretend that porn is feminist. It isn’t. Porn is not about freedom, but economics, and therefore stems from abuse, involves coercion and incites criminality. There is too little feminist porn, and in any case it hardly seems to be porn at all. If feminist porn succeeds, it will be absorbed into the mainstream and made toothless. We should ban pornography outright, or at least ask questions about where it comes from. The pornography-meat metaphor isn’t getting tough and stringy.
If you’ve read Gold’s article, with all its prolonged blow jobs and anal penetration, my weekend of semi-clothed photographs, like the one below, and spanking story writing will seem tame. It was hardly ethnically-specific disembodied penis performs opaque metaphor.* Tame things don’t count in the debate about contemporary pornography, because the conversation is always about hardcore film, which allows for specific feminist narrative. Female performers are cast as victims, making them unreliable witnesses until they’ve stopped performing and started talking about how much the experience damaged them, or played on their childhood trauma. The narrowing to one type of pornography, and one narrative of it, effectively silences women.
Inside me, there’s a second wave feminist jumping up and down and waving a literature textbook. How were women kept out of the canon for so long? It wasn’t because they didn’t write, but because their writing didn’t count. The form was wrong, they wrote diaries when men wrote sonnets and plays. The content was wrong, they wrote about domestic affairs when men wrote about monarchs and wars. The perspective was wrong, they painted individual psychological portraits when men wrote with lofty omnipotence about huge casts of characters. Later, feminists dug out women’s writing, and re-drew the boundaries of literature to fit it in. We made the collective discovery that were women writers beyond Sappho, Julian of Norwich and Jane Austen. It had been hidden, not because it wasn’t there, but because nobody talked about it. Women’s work just wasn’t considered, for the most part, to be the proper stuff.
What’s this got to do with pornography? Well, some women are setting up hardcore porn sites, which may or may not look like the ones that are already there. Some women are posing for photos in their vintage lingerie, and whether they sell them or not, they’re still making porn, just as Anne Lister was writing in her diary when lesbian women weren’t represented in literary fiction. Lots of women are writing erotic stories, and say what you like about the quality of many of them, but after the Fifty Shades phenomenon, we can no longer claim that they don’t sell. Sometimes women express their sexuality, sometimes they do what they think the reader wants, or go along with the photographer’s idea. Sometimes they’re in it for themselves and sometimes they’re in it for the money. If I ere in it for the money, I’d have to admit that I’m doing it wrong.
I don’t share all of Gold’s fears about the effects of pornography, although I too am made uncomfortable by porn filmed with low production values, little respect for women, a large dose of racism and a set of linguistic and visual signs that would make Derrida weep. Feminist projects can fail to be feminist, and the label can be used by unscrupulous women with a crazy urge to make enough money to pay the rent. However, the reason that the few women doing feminist porn projects are the focus of all this adulation and criticism is that we’re still focussing on the porn that men produce and consume. While we look at them, and at feminist attempts to do what they do, we obscure work by women in other forms.
I’m not about to go into hardcore film. Spanking films, maybe. Nicely lit photographs of me wearing stockings and looking ecstatic about the fact that I have toes, definitely. Stories and novels, just you try to stop me! The latter things count, so I’m refusing to feel I’m not qualified to comment on the experience of making pornography.
Does making pornography feel feminist? Not really. It isn’t like an assertiveness training course or a take back the night march. In gender equality terms, it’s kind of neutral. I like it that way; not everything in life has to be a battleground. There’s a chance that the worry that I look podgy in this photo stems from a sexist cultural imperative for the female body to conform to unattainable beauty standards.** In that case, the most feminist thing to do is embrace the failure of my stomach to be flat, and post it anyway. I have a feeling I know what Tanya Gold would say to that.
*Who comes up with tags like ‘creampie’ and ‘black cock bangs x’ anyway?
**I also wish we’d remembered to take the cane off the wall before we took this picture, but I can’t think of an interesting feminist disappointment about that.
The last few weeks, I’ve felt like a wilted basil plant in a sauce of water. Basil plants aren’t fickle like bonsai trees or orchids, they suck the water up so fast you can watch the level drop, and their leaves are plump and green again within minutes. I’d been scared that I’d got into lazy habits, and would never quite get back to my normal self again. As I get better, though, I find that I don’t have to fore myself to do things. I’ve regained my ability to feel enthusiasm.
My novel is lying fallow as I churn out quick, simple spanking tales. It’s part of my plan to trick myself into activity by ignoring anything big and scary. Bank statements, work emails, overdue library books, dresses in need of mending, car insurance renewals, letters from the hospital, rising damp, difficult texts and emails asking about scheduling are all being ignored. New creative projects without an identifiable market (or competitors), pretty dresses, photo shoots, trips to the swimming pool and double macchiatos are all being pursued with enthusiasm.have to fore myself to do things. I’ve regained my ability to feel enthusiasm.
This is great progress. Every couple of days I find myself swept on a wave of activity, planning and general fizz at the possibilities. I rush to the library, type fast through lunch, read stories, type more, edit. I leave light headed, wondering why I’m hungry, and sometimes convince the lover to buy me a piece of cake and more coffee at the station, while I tell him about the exciting things I’ve done, the exciting things I’m planning. At home, I fiddle with another aspect of the project, or another project entirely. The lover makes me dinner, points out it’s time for bed. I don’t want to sleep, I want to tell him about all the new ideas I’ve had, I want him to tell me how to fix a technical problem or who is going to want this anyway, when I’ve finished it. Then, with the sudden, horrible thought that I’m wasting my time, real life comes crashing in. I still haven’t returned my library books, my aunt’s phone calls, the school skirts from Marks and Spencer. I’m not earning enough to pay the bills, and I’m concentrating all my efforts on pointless projects. I’m tired and my eyes hurt. I lie awake thinking up new ideas I don’t write down because the rising bubble they make in my stomach is soon popped by the thought of what I’m going to say to the doctors, or how I’m going to make it to work with this headache.
Twice last week I managed to whip the stress to such a pitch that I gave myself a migraine. The day-glo cherry on top was that, one of those times, the cost of migraine drugs was a contributing anxiety.
I suspect a bit of mania can be good for writing, but how does one integrate it into kink? I have the enthusiasm for play, without any level-headedness, without the self-awareness to negotiate, to subtly move the scene along, or provide self-care. My recent scenes have been a bit hit-and-miss, and when they have worked I deflate immediately afterwards, starving, exhausted, confused. So that’s another worry to keep me up at night. How long can I carry on writing about kink, without doing any?
I don’t like books about walking a long way in cold climates. I know why people read them, it’s all about the resilience of man and the discovery that while we feel weak and worn during the slog to the office, we would shine if truly challenged. All the same, it’s not a surprising discovery that if you get very cold your toes fall off, and not everyone gets to make friends with the Dalai Lama at the end of it. Often, you just die, and even if people briefly think that was noble, it isn’t going to make you feel like it was a better idea than staying home and making model planes.
However, in the last few weeks I’ve obsessively imbibed apocalypse stories. The Year of the Flood, Life As We Knew It, Jericho (trust me, you have to be obsessed to finish that), Survivors, The Death of Grass, All Fall Down (about the Black Death, which felt like the end of the world) and other plague books set in the future and the past (in the case of Doomsday Book, both). They tell us the same things as long-walk-in-the-cold books, that we can survive extreme conditions—the breakdown of society, little food, no energy—and, because it’s easier than that, that we can survive every day life. Why the obsession? I think my everyday has something to do with it. I’m looking for stories of people surviving what I’m surviving. Cold. Uncertain food supplies. And more cold.
This is my first winter in the Very Cold Flat. The windows are cracked and single glazed and there are no radiators in the lofty rooms. Mankind lived without central heating and double glazing for thousands of years, I realise, and they did it without little electric heaters on wheels, but everyone was doing it. People wore clothes appropriate to the temperature, and if you looked silly in the jumper your granny knitted, so did everyone else. Not now, though. I’m the only person I know who can see my breath in every room of my house, and most of my friends don’t wear mittens to bed. There’s something debilitating about cold. I don’t want to leave my warm spot, in my warm bedroom, and go to the cold living room. I don’t want to get chilled styling my wet hair, which has led to the discovery that I have a natural centre parting. I don’t want to take off my mittens to wash up. I can’t do laundry, because in these temperatures my clothes will never dry. I guess I’m not getting hot and sweaty in my three pairs of socks, anyway.
It’s not just the cold, though, it’s the money. I’ve been sick for a long time, and that doesn’t combine well with temping and self-employment, so it’s months since I made enough to cover the rent. Being sick is thrifty in its own ways—expenditure on coffees, drinks and meals out has fallen significantly—but you can’t stop eating. The lover’s been helping by cooking and hiding left overs in the fridge and freezer (a machine I’ve considered turning off, since the temperature dropped). Some days he surprises me with pats of butter or bags of bagels. It’s lovely. It does, however, mean that my fridge currently contains a lump of goat’s cheese left over from Christmas, half a bottle of tonic and cucumber that failed to become a crudité on New Year’s Eve. Food appears, or doesn’t, according to the vagaries of the lover and his train times. Yesterday I finished the Christmas cake for lunch.
My cupboards don’t seem bare, there’s probably something edible hiding in there somewhere, so I sent the lover off to the arctic region of the flat to make a list of what I have: eleven types of flour, oils, the Christmas chocolate haul, £50 worth of tea and six jars of homemade jam (one with added glass shards). That would be great, if it wasn’t for the final problem in my post-apocalyptic kitchen—the oven died on Christmas day. I wonder if you can make bread in the microwave? I’ve been munching luxury Christmas cake, Finest biscuits, Hotel Chocolat chocolates, all the time wishing for a good, solid, vegetable dish.
So what have I learned from my apocalypse research that could improve my situation? I’ve learned to stockpile tinned food and bottled water, although I think I’d go for dried lentils and chick peas, and raisins, since they’ve got more calories by weight, and if you’re not near a source of fresh water you’ll die anyway. That’s something I should have done earlier, though, in the supermarket trips of yore. I’ve learned that when the apocalypse comes, one usually finds oneself in the company of a trained fighter and someone who knows a lot about how to make and repair things. Unfortunately, I’ve ended up with a scientist who has a gammy hip, and an asthmatic audio-engineer who’ll be useful only if the threat is the aliens from Mars Attacks. If it got really bad, I could rush across the country to my father, who may be more resourceful, but the same memory always puts me off: when he came to drive me home after I broke my collar bone and elbow, and he didn’t let me off loading the car. Maybe that’s the kind of determined approach that would get me through the end of the world, but I think I’d rather share my lentils with someone else.
If a real apocalypse comes, I’ll probably owe it to the Lover and his wife to stick with them. The lover’s wife, in a fit of insanity, offered to sleep at mine for a few days and give me the use of her house. It’s heavenly. There’s central heating, not one, but two ovens, and even her cat’s warmer than mine. My first night there was so fabulously toasty that I took off my jumper to sleep. I got up in the morning, pressed myself against the radiator, and looked at the snow coming down outside. Then, because the apocalypse hasn’t happened yet, my phone rang. “I just wanted to let you know the heating’s broken,” my boss told me, “bring a jumper.” And so it begins again, but I know I’ll survive, because imaginary people have been through worse.
I have a strong dislike of blog posts apologising for not having posted, and promising renewed blogging enthusiasm. “Who,” I think, “do you think you are? Do you think we were all sitting around saying to ourselves, ‘I wonder why so-and-so has stopped writing her wonderful blog posts? Is she having a lot of sex, or has she been kidnapped? Or both? I do wish she’d return and share more of her scintillating insights with us.’”
With a little self-hate, therefore, I will give my excuses. I’ve been sick, horribly, horribly sick. It happened gradually, looking back, I can see the accommodations I made without realising, and as my reserves of energy drained, what I dropped, what I struggled on to do, and what became a roaring dragon of a task nesting in my life.
Blogging was one of the first things to go. It held on a little longer than sex and kink, but eroticism is, as Bataille points out, a supreme waste of energy. Writing is, too.* Driving long distances went a year ago, it gave me headaches that made getting home again was a terrifying and dangerous feat, so I get the train. Dancing, munches and kink events held on until about six months ago. Going out isn’t just tiring, it’s risky—what if I’m hit with extreme tiredness, nausea, a piercing headache, miles from home? So life whittled down and down. I sleep, sometimes I eat, I go to work and get sent home. I stop going to the supermarket, and order, sporadically, online. I don’t cook. I don’t wear pretty clothes, I wear the yoga trousers I no longer yoga in, even to bed, and I sleep eleven hours a night. I don’t read difficult books, and then I don’t read books at all. I sit in bed and watch films without subtitles. I get to level 21 in Skyrim. I develop a terror of my work email account. Now and again I go to work, and call the lover, crying, from the car park, because my head hurts so much I don’t know how to get home.
I’m deficient in B12. I don’t know why. I know injections are making me better. By which I mean, I worked for eleven hours this week, and only spent one day in a darkened room with a hellish headache. And I think I’ve told you the truth about my illness, but the memories are fuzzy. Apparently it’s something to do with lack of oxygen to the brain.
Then, in the middle of it all, came Christmas. When I’m not making enough money to pay the rent, when I’m shivering in my unheated house, and people expect presents. When I feel like throwing up, and life’s about shortbread and sprouts. And for the first time in my life, I was to host Christmas. On 2nd December I called the lover in tears, on a train from Leeds, unable to carry the Christmas decorations my father was going to throw out, if I didn’t give them a home. December days crept by, and lifting the hoover remained beyond me. I started gluing paper chain, it was repetitive, mindless, and hurt my muscles. The lover went away for a long weekend, I kept wandering to the fridge and away again, vaguely aware that I ought to eat, but with no idea how to solve the problem.
After my diagnosis—a very happy day—and my first few injections, I declared that I needed a Christmas tree. I was to be my main Christmas expense. It’s a moist day, mist clouds the windscreen and gathers in beads on the tree branches. There are shrubby trees with long, sprongly tops. There are fat green firs with short spikes, and thin ones that look like they grew up in a crowd, with their arms pinned to their sides. I like the grey-blue trees with long fronds and tiny fir cones. I run from one to another, getting the lover to stand them up so I can see their height and breadth, and check the branches behind. I choose one. I can’t see him behind it.
Do they deliver? Yes. But they don’t say anything more about it, and I’m suddenly so, so tired. The trees are now slightly wavy, slightly out of focus. It’ll fit in the car, they tell me, once it’s gone through the tree-trussing machine. I feel sick. The lover puts the car seats down and I try to put a blanket over the boot, but the tree man doesn’t listen. I don’t have the energy to fight. When the it’s in, I just want to get away. I scrape some tree sap off the mirror and return it to position. I can’t see the lover through the pine needles, but I grope underneath them for the handbrake, and ask him if there’s anyone coming from the left before I pull onto the main road. I drive a good fifty metres before I pull in and ask if we’re anywhere near the curb. I can’t drive home, I tell the tree. Everything’s gone wrong. There’s a rustling.
The lover called his in laws. We treated my dizziness with a kitkat and a coffee at the B&Q café, until they arrived like knights in a shining estate car. They carried the tree inside and lay it on the living room floor. It had grown at least a foot since we put it in the car. We stood around the prone tree and looked at the room: the curtains were closed and the heating was off. I could almost hear them thinking, “You want us to spend Christmas here?”
More people came to the recuse. The lover and his wife spent the evening cleaning, tying the tree to my bookshelves, hovering up its needles, and threatening me with canes when I got off the sofa and tried to join in. By Christmas, they had done my washing up, cleaned my house, done a supermarket shop with the in-laws, cooked a turkey, brought over a table and silver tableware, made hundreds of paper snowflakes, and God knows what else, because they sent me to bed.
Christmas worked. There was food and fizz and Christmas cocktails. The oven broke while we were making Christmas dinner, but that didn’t matter because I got more presents than anyone else. I can’t take responsibility for being a fabulous hostess at Christmas, but I can be amazed by my poly family, and my poly family’s family. They aren’t the type you expect to spend Christmas at their daughter’s husband’s girlfriend’s house. I don’t think they’ve ever been called dangerous free thinkers. I have to remind myself not to call them Mr. and Mrs., because they feel so strongly like schoolfriends’ parents, and not the ones who talked about being 60s radicals and wandered around the house nude. When I needed help with an oversized Christmas tree, they give it. I think that’s amazing.
I don’t know when I’m going to be better, but I do know I have help. For now, though, I have to go, because the lover’s in-laws are coming round to take away my tree. Maybe I’ll post again soon.
*I realise some people write for money, and therefore aren’t wasting their efforts but earning coffee tokens, but these people exist in negligible numbers.