Beginnings at the End of Love: Rebecca West’s Extraordinary Love Letter to H.G. Wells in the Wake of Heartbreak

“I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else.”

Beginnings at the End of Love: Rebecca West’s Extraordinary Love Letter to H.G. Wells in the Wake of Heartbreak

“If during the next million generations there is but one human being born in every generation who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of our universe,” the great English writer and feminist Rebecca West (December 21, 1892–March 15, 1983) wrote as she contemplated suffering, survival, and the will to keep walking the road to ourselves in her 1941 masterpiece Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Three decades earlier, West had honed this heroic insistence on inquiry into suffering on the bludgeoning whetstone of her own heartbreak. At only twenty, after calling him “the Old Maid of novelists” in a scorching review of his novel Marriage, she had fallen madly in love with H.G. Wells — one of the era’s most venerated writers, twenty-six years her senior, married (to a woman who shared his skepticism about the institution of marriage), and the father of two young boys. The magmatic affair ended after several months, severed by Wells. At first attracted to West’s electric intellect, he cowered upon discovering that this selfsame electricity coursed through the whole of her being — she was too intense, her love too alive — affirmation of Henry James’s famous indictment of Wells: “so much life with (so to speak) so little living.”

In one of the most remarkable letters ever composed — a masterwork of inhabiting one’s multitudes and contradictions with the full dignity of each faction, the bold along with the desperate, the broken along with the whole — penned in March 1913 and found in Anna Holmes’s delicious Hell Hath No Fury: Women’s Letters from the End of the Affair (public library), West channels the confused magnetic maelstrom of push and pull familiar to any rejected lover, but channels it with a level of lucidity and fiery self-awareness rarely accessible to the rest of us:

Dear H. G.,

During the next few days I shall either put a bullet through my head or commit something more shattering to myself than death. At any rate I shall be quite a different person. I refuse to be cheated out of my deathbed scene.

I don’t understand why you wanted me three months ago and don’t want me now. I wish I knew why that were so. It’s something I can’t understand, something I despise. And the worst of it is that if I despise you I rage because you stand between me and peace. Of course you’re quite right. I haven’t anything to give you. You have only a passion for excitement and for comfort. You don’t want any more excitement and I do not give people comfort. I never nurse them except when they’re very ill. I carry this to excess. On reflection I can imagine that the occasion on which my mother found me most helpful to live with was when I helped her out of a burning house.

I always knew that you would hurt me to death some day, but I hoped to choose the time and place. You’ve always been unconsciously hostile to me and I have tried to conciliate you by hacking away at my love for you, cutting it down to the little thing that was the most you wanted. I am always at a loss when I meet hostility, because I can love and I can do practically nothing else.

And then, in a passage that justifies Virginia Woolf’s later description of West as “hard as nails… a cross between a charwoman and a gipsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes… immense vitality… suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence,” she adds:

I was the wrong sort of person for you to have to do with. You want a world of people falling over each other like puppies, people to quarrel and play with, people who rage and ache instead of people who burn. You can’t conceive a person resenting the humiliation of an emotional failure so much that they twice tried to kill themselves: that seems silly to you. I can’t conceive of a person who runs about lighting bonfires and yet nourishes a dislike of flame: that seems silly to me.

As the universal pendulum of the jilted swings from blame to self-blame, from self-righteousness to self-abasement, she throws herself from the clocktower of heartbreak into the always impenetrable unknown that follows the end of a great love:

You’ve literally ruined me. I’m burned down to my foundations. I may build myself again or I may not. You say obsessions are curable. They are. But people like me swing themselves from one passion to another, and if they miss smash down somewhere where there aren’t any passions at all but only bare boards and sawdust. You have done for me utterly. You know it. That’s why you are trying to persuade yourself that I am a coarse, sprawling, boneless creature, and so it doesn’t matter. When you said, “You’ve been talking unwisely, Rebecca,” you said it with a certain brightness: you felt that you had really caught me at it. I don’t think you’re right about this. But I know you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing-room in an unnecessary heart-attack.

That is a subtle flattery. But I hate you when you try to cheapen the things I did honestly and cleanly. You did it once before when you wrote to me of “your — much more precious than you imagine it to be — self.” That suggests that I projected a weekend at the Brighton Metropole with Horatio Bottomley. Whereas I had written to say that I loved you. You did it again on Friday when you said that what I wanted was some decent fun and that my mind had been, not exactly corrupted, but excited, by people who talked in an ugly way about things that are really beautiful. That was a vile thing to say. You once found my willingness to love you a beautiful and courageous thing. I still think it was. Your spinsterishness makes you feel that a woman desperately and hopelessly in love with a man is an indecent spectacle and a reversal of the natural order of things. But you should have been too fine to feel like that.

I would give my whole life to feel your arms round me again.

I wish you had loved me. I wish you liked me.



She adds a postscript of heartbreaking resignation:

P.S. Don’t leave me utterly alone. If I live write to me now and then. You like me enough for that. At least I pretend to myself you do.

But just as Wells had failed to account for the consanguinity of her character qualities, West too failed to account for his — the all-consuming love confessed in this letter, aimed at winning him back, was the very thing that had made him run in the first place. His curt three-line response, found in Lesley MacDowell’s excellent Between the Sheets: Nine 20th Century Women Writers and Their Famous Literary Partnerships (public library), made this painfully clear:

How can I be your friend to this accompaniment? I don’t see that I can be of any use or help to you at all. You have my entire sympathy — but until we can meet on a reasonable basis — Goodbye.

For all her passionate nature, West’s intellect was too great to let her make the same mistake twice. She issued no more personal appeals. Instead, she threw herself into what had brought them together in the first place — her professional devotion to her craft. And then the seemingly miraculous but not altogether unexpected happened. When she published a characteristically perceptive and lyrical essay about a Spanish café singer in the July issue of The New Freewoman, she received a letter from Wells that must have honeyed her soul both as a writer and as a lover, but also bittered with its confused mosaic of professional praise and misogynistic punishment. (It is telling that Wells found and read the essay despite its publication in a literary magazine that only existed for six months — he was clearly keeping a keen eye out for her work, perhaps the era’s equivalent of Instagram stalking.) He wrote:

You are writing gorgeously again. Please resume being friends… [Your essay] was tremendous. You are as wise as God when you write — at times — and then you are atortured, untidy… little disaster of a girl who can’t even manage the most elementary tricks of her sex. You are like a beautiful voice singing out of a darkened room into which one gropes and finds nothing.

West took her time to respond. No record survives of when and how she did. But by November, they were lovers again. In January, West found out she was pregnant and decided to keep the child. Wells would later blame himself for impairing her promising career with his carelessness:

It was our second encounter and she became pregnant. It was entirely unpremeditated. She wanted to write. It should not have happened, and since I was the more experienced person, the blame is wholly mine.

Their son, Anthony West, was born in the final months of World War I. West and Wells remained lovers for a decade, but grew increasingly unhappy in the relationship, both personally and professionally, until Wells was ready to admit that they “did harm to each other as writers.” Only when they separated did West’s career soar to its influential heights. They remained friends until Wells’s death. “We did at times love each other very much,” he reflected after the collapse of the romantic relationship. “We love each other still.”

West and Wells in 1923, just after the end of their romance. (Photograph: Alfred L. Shepherd)

Perhaps the rift came not from the absence of love but from the misalignment of values in what they both held at the center of their being: their identity as writers. Wells, by his own admission, would “rather be called a journalist than an artist.” West, in her trailblazing account of Balkan culture — the culture of which I myself am the product, — went on to pioneer a new aesthetic of journalism that was equally a work of truth and a work of art, animated by her fundamental conviction that “art is not a plaything, but a necessity, and its essence, form, is not a decorative adjustment, but a cup into which life can be poured and lifted to the lips and be tasted.”

Complement with Rilke on how to break up with integrity and Van Gogh on heartbreak as a vitalizing force for creative work, then revisit Hannah Arendt on how to live with the fundamental fear of love’s loss.

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Marie Kondo and Salina Yoon Present KIKI & JAX! (plus a giveaway)

I have something today that will spark joy in book-loving hearts—a picture book collaboration between de-clutter queen Marie Kondo and prolific author-illustrator Salina Yoon!

Introducing KIKI & JAX…

Salina, how did you feel when you were offered the co-writing and illustration gig on Marie Kondo’s first children’s book?

At first, it didn’t quite register. I’d heard of Marie Kondo’s book, “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up” because it was a bestseller for months on the NY Times list, but I had not read it. My agent was overjoyed with the idea of collaborating with her, so I knew it was something to be excited about! I started to research articles about Marie, and found that she was an international superstar—and this was BEFORE we knew anything about the upcoming series on Netflix, “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo!” I happened to read about the Netflix series on the Washington Post while on vacation when our project was already in progress. My jaw dropped to the floor!

Mine would have been, too! (Until I realized I had to clean it up!)

How did you decide on the style of the illustrations?

I wanted to make this book extra special, so I actually tried many different styles before deciding to do the one I used. I even sketched out human girls as characters before deciding to do the animal ones in the style of Penguin and Pinecone. What ultimately made me choose this style is because I was told that Marie’s favorite book was PENGUIN AND PINECONE. If she loved that book, then I knew she also loved that art style, and my stylization of animal characters. So I reigned myself in and stayed with the Penguin art style for the Kiki and Jax book—and she loved it!

What do you hope young children (and their parents) will take away after reading this book?

I hope that both children and adults will reflect on what matters most to them in their lives-—and consider letting go of the things that get in the way of it. By letting go of the clutter that doesn’t spark joy for us, we’ll find a greater appreciation for the things we do have. Finding joy from what we already have is the best joy of all.

How adorable! The characters and colors really pop!

OK, confession time! Have you let some things go after working on this book?

You know, I’ve always been pretty tidy because my mom is EXTREMELY tidy. But it turns out I could be much tidier when I looked at my things with a different filter—the Marie Kondo filter! There was one week earlier this year that I thought Marie would be coming over to my house (this visit had to be cancelled), but the thought that Marie was going to see my home made me tidy in a hurry! I unshelved ALL of my books in my office, and filled many boxes for book donations. I kept about one third by using her method of holding each book and seeing if it sparks joy for me. Another motivation was that now, I have room to buy new books to spark even MORE joy!

I also let go of many pairs of shoes that never fit right, but felt too guilty to let go of because I hadn’t worn them enough. The KonMari method taught me that I shouldn’t hold on to things because of guilt. I should only hold on to things that spark joy! I thanked my old pairs of unfitting shoes, and donated them to Goodwill. If you’re a size 6, go look for some nearly-new pairs of shoes at Goodwill’s in San Diego! 🙂 Unfortunately, I’m a size 5.

So I do practice what I preach in this book with Marie Kondo. I wholeheartedly believe in her method of tidying!

Thank you, Salina! Happy tidying! (Will you come do my house next???)

OK, one thing I know folks will never part with is one of the 3 copies of KIKI & JAX signed by Marie Kondo and Salina Yoon that Salina is giving away!

Leave one comment below to enter. Three random winners will be chosen next Tuesday, November 20th.

And yes, all the winners of previous giveaways I haven’t yet announced will also be up next Tuesday.

So get your entry in now!

Good luck!

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The French Lieutenant's Woman: a novel that comes from both the head and the heart

Fowles may do the most postmodern thing ever – disavow postmodernism – in his re-creation of a Victorian novel, but it isn’t a cold or showy exercise

At first glance, The French Lieutenant’s Woman appears to be a modish, postmodern product of the 1960s, a dry intellectual exercise carefully designed to draw the reader’s attention to its own artificiality. In the very first paragraph, John Fowles tells us his book is set in 1867, 100 years before he wrote it. From then on, he drops in invitations to step outside the text and think about the person writing it, alongside the variously fraught characters he’s pushing around Victorian Lyme Regis.

He even interrupts himself in chapter 13, just to say:

I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. If I have pretended until now to know my characters’ minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (just as I have assumed some of the vocabulary and ‘voice’ of) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does.

Related: The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles is our Reading group book for November

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Tips, links and suggestions: what are you reading this week?

Your space to discuss the books you are reading and what you think of them

Welcome to this week’s blogpost. Here’s our roundup of your comments and photos from last week.

Let’s start with some Reasons To Be Cheerful. Nina Stibbe’s comic novel is “just what I wanted now” says lonelybloomer:

Funny, light, touching, sarcastic. Like Adrian Mole, but with a girl (for the record, Adrian Mole is my desert island book). I just love the working-class British struggle, and books where everyone eats toast. I see there’s more to come in the series, and I’m excited to read it.

Merricat and Constance are two of the best protagonists in fiction and Jonas is one of the best cats. Narrated by Merricat, an intelligent, emotionally disturbed, sensitive girl of 18 (but who seems younger), it’s such an engaging, tightly written and convincing book.

The genius of Jackson’s writing is the way it mixes a creeping sense of horror with wonderfully cozy descriptions of life at the house. Plenty of other writers would have made the latter deliberately saccharine, but I found myself desperately wanting everyone to leave Merricat and Constance alone to enjoy their idyllic life. Which, given the actual events of the book, says something about the spell that Merricat’s narrative voice is able to cast.

Anyone who thinks historical fiction is trash needs to read Renault. The politics of 4th century BC Sicily are very like our own times, and the re-creation of Greek theatre with its actors and techniques is very interesting

A love story, I suppose, but the plot acts more as a vehicle for the author’s sweetly vicious social observations. I suspect she would have been a malicious presence at a cocktail party – you wouldn’t even realise she had slipped a stiletto between your ribs until you turned away and noticed the blood pooling in your Gucci loafers.

I’ve been enjoying Valley of the Dolls as a bestseller-y kind of combination romance novel/sordid show-biz expose, but I just read what may be the greatest cat-fight in literature, which had me laughing and chortling for five pages. I had to see if I could find the scene from the film; I did, but it’s no match for the book’s version, which just has so many wonderful touches that serve as grace notes to the confrontation. Ah, the inimitable art of a master author!

When this was first published in 1962 the ancient blood sport of cockfighting was on its last legs in the US, only still legal in Louisiana and New Mexico. Yet Willeford’s novel has gained admiration and a cult status by far more than just the aficionados of the sport, and that is his huge achievement. Another, is that it has aged so well… Willeford writes boldly and with sympathy for his flawed hero and the sport which the reader initially can see only see as barbaric and cruel, with a revulsion for those involved, and is steadily won over by the wonderful writing; a fine example of the power of great literature.

If you’re in need of a pick-me-up then may I heartily recommend. Daft? Yes. Formulaic? Yes. But God in terms of writing, narrative and language then you’re in the hands of a true master.

It makes me recall something that Stephen Fry once said … that a large proportion of Wodehouse’s readership came from those confined to prisons and hospitals. And that all of us, for a greater or lesser part of our lives, are sick or imprisoned in one way or another, all of us in need of this remarkable healing spirit, a balm for hurt minds.

Why does anyone need permission from Harvard to make a movie about Emily Dickinson?

Mick Herron rereads the novels of John le Carré.

A beginner’s guide to becoming obsessed with Jeanette Winterson.

More proof of the heroism of librarians in a report into how libraries are helping to cope with the US opioid crisis.

William Burroughs wrote a treatment for a film called Bladerunner. (But not that one.)

Continue reading…

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Poem of the week: Drunken Bellarmine by Emily Berry

Seething with contradictory impulses and emotions, this character study is also full of life and wit

Drunken Bellarmine
after Renee So

In this spirit of affliction I beheld two things,
that shame is also revelry, and a body
is a spillage, or an addiction. I do not know
if this thing belongs to me, tipped-up set of weights
that promises, but never delivers, equilibrium.
I cannot make manifest this collection of feelings,
but look at me: I want to be loved for the wrong reasons.
I mean I want to be hated for the right reasons.
I have been lonely. Every time I say the word ‘I’
I am ashamed. When I say ‘I want’ I am triply
ashamed. I want my shame to be a kind of proof
that deduces the world, and that’s the worst
shame of all. I have been theatrical, entropic,
parting with myself for company. This heartsore
will not stop weeping and look, the sky is sick,
knitted too tightly; my face is up your sleeve
like a card trick. DON’T LOVE ME: I am guilty,
fatalistic and sticky round the mouth like a dirty baby.
I am a shitting, leaking, bloody clump of cells,
raw, murky and fluorescent, you couldn’t take it.

Continue reading…

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How to Write Your Memoir Like a Novel

A few years ago, I went to a workshop in New York City for writers. There I was surrounded by a group of novelists. As someone who loves to write fiction, I was interested, but at the time, I wasn’t working on a novel. I was working on a memoir, a book about a series of adventures I had in Paris called Crowdsourcing Paris that was published just a few weeks ago.

“Is this a waste of time?” I thought. “Can the techniques they’re teaching at this workshop actually help me write a better memoir?”

And for you, if you’re working on a book about your life, what can you learn from novelists? Are there any fiction techniques that you can apply to your memoir writing?

In this post, I want to share what I learned both from the workshop and since then about writing a memoir. If you’re writing memoir, I think these techniques will change your writing process and result in a much better book.

And if you’re working on a novel right now, pay attention too, because these same techniques will help you with your writing.

Can Memoir Writers Learn from Novelists?

As I was sitting in that workshop in NYC, it began to dawn on me, slowly and then all at once, how similar memoirs and novels are.

Before we talk about what memoirists can learn from novelists, let’s talk about what makes a good memoir in the first place.

Here are some things people love about memoir:

  • Tells an entertaining, engaging story
  • Life lessons you can apply to your own life
  • Getting a different perspective on life and the world
  • Funny and/or emotionally moving

When you look at those four criteria readers want in a memoir, you can see that three of them are exactly what many readers want in a novel. Which is to say this:

Novelists and memoir writers are trying to accomplish many of the same goals! The only difference is that memoir writers are writing their personal life stories.

I’ve been told again and again that my memoir, Crowdsourcing Paris, is a fast read. One person even read it in two days. A major reason that people have so much fun reading my book is because I wrote it like a novel, using the techniques we’re going to talk about below.

And if you’re writing a memoir, so should you!

How to Write Your Memoir Like a Novel: 4 Fiction Techniques for Memoir Writers

What can memoir writers learn from novelists? There are five literary techniques that I drew from my novel writing experience to write my memoir:

1. Limited Scope

When most people approach writing a memoir, they just start writing. They start with the day they were born, and if they can keep up with the writing process, they go all the way to the present moment.

But think of your favorite novels. There are certainly stories that span a character’s entire life, but what is much more common is the stories that have a limited scope, encompassing a specific situation. For example:

  • A quest
  • An adventure
  • A crime that must be solved
  • A new romantic relationship (or the unraveling of one)
  • Betrayal and revenge
  • A coming of age experience

Great stories, in other words, are rarely about an entire life. Instead, they’re usually about one intense period in a character’s life.

The same is true for your memoir. Instead of trying to write a historical autobiography, which is not the purpose of memoir, choose one very intense period of your life and write about that.

The best way I’ve found to choose that period is to write a premise. A premise is a single-sentence summary of your story. For memoir writers, your premise should contain three things:

  1. A character (i.e. you)
  2. A situation (the intense life event you experienced)
  3. A lesson

And you should combine those things into just one sentence.

Why one sentence? Because you can’t summarize your entire life in one sentence, but you can write about one specific situation.

Then, anything that doesn’t fit into your premise should be cut and put into another book.

Don’t try to write an autobiography. Instead, choose a limited scope for your memoir and write the best story you can.

2. Story Structure

Novelists think a lot about plot and structure. We have jargon we use, like  three acts, turning points, climaxes, inciting incidents, falling action, and resolutions. We spend time outlining, mapping our story, and even creating spreadsheets to track the rise and fall between each scene.

Memoir writers, though? They don’t think much about plot and structure. And it’s a shame, because this is the best fiction technique you can apply to your memoir.

When I wrote Crowdsourcing Paris, I wrote the entire first draft just based on how I remembered things happened. But then I went back and read my book and thought, “There’s something missing here.” I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it wasn’t accomplishing the things I wanted it to. There were a lot of good sections and a few bad sections, but it didn’t feel like a book yet.

When I wrote the second draft, I intentionally spent time outlining the plot and structure that I wanted to bring to the story. I rearranged the timing of events slightly to build tension and drama. I cut backstory and added flashbacks to increase the pace of the story and get the reader into the action faster. I rewrote scenes to heighten the suspense.

By the time I finished the second draft, it was a great story, not just a bunch of great scenes.

We don’t have time to get into everything you should know about plot and structure, but here are a few resources you can use to learn more about this for your memoir.

First is K.M. Weiland’s own series on the Secrets of Story Structure, which is thorough and so helpful.

For a quick guide, Matt Heron has a great Writer’s Cheat Sheet to Plot and Structure here.

I also love Story Grid’s approach. You can find an article on how to use Story Grid for your memoir here.

3. Show Decisions

Most writers are familiar with the advice, “Show, Don’t Tell.” The idea is that you should always show the important moments in a story, writing a full scene with description, dialogue, action, and narrative, not just tell the reader about it in summary.

But the question is what do you show? What’s the most important thing to show?

When trying to “show,” most memoir writers write about the bad things that happened to them, and that’s smart because you can’t show change and character arc without diving into the hard parts of your story.

But often, memoir writers leave out the most important part of those experiences: the decision.

Good stories are about characters who make decisions. That’s why every scene in your memoir should be centered on a decision, a choice that you made, usually between two bad things or two good things.

I get that this is hard. When you’re writing a story about your own life, it can be hard to find the decisions you made in a situation. After all, much of the time, the events in our lives are outside of our control, especially the negative experiences.

But these decisions are actually what drive all the action in your story, and if you are the main character in your memoir, you have to be the one driving the action, you have to be the protagonist, and you have to show your decisions.

This was one of the hardest parts of writing my memoir. But showing my decisions, more than any other technique I learned from fiction writers, was the thing that most impacted my memoir.

4. Kill Your Darlings

Kill your darlings,” said Stephn King. “Kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

I wrote over 100,000 words in my memoir. However, by the time the book was finally published it was only 52,000 words long.

That means I had to cut almost 50 percent of the book. Some of those scenes and paragraphs and sentences were amazing. I had labored over many of them for hours, even days.

And yet, they didn’t fit the story I was trying to tell.

You have to kill your darlings. You have to cut the sections of your book that don’t fit.

Doesn’t fit the premise? Cut the scene.

Outside of the limited scope of the story? Cut the scene.

No decision? Cut the scene.

Doesn’t fit the story structure? Cut the scene or rewrite it until it does.

This is one of the hardest parts of writing a memoir, but it can also be some of the most fun. I had several experiences where I cut a chapter and all of a sudden the flow of the story was so much better.

I use Scrivener to write my memoir, so when I cut things, I always put them into a folder of saved sections. Someday, I may be able to incorporate those sections into another book. Some, I even put back into the story after realizing the book really did need that section.

The point is you have to be willing to be ruthless. If you don’t, your story can easily get bogged down by the weight of a lot of good sections that don’t serve the purpose of your book as a whole.

This Is How to Write a Great Memoir

If you want to write a memoir that’s fun to read, not just something that passes on your life experience and legacy, learn the fiction techniques novelists know.

There are certainly great reasons to write an autobiography sharing your entire life experience, but unless you’re famous or a historical figure, don’t expect anyone beyond your family to read it.

But if you want to write a memoir that’s actually fun to read, then use the fiction techniques above to make your memoir good.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever thought about writing a book about your life? Which of these techniques do you think would be most helpful for your story? Tell us in the comments!

The post How to Write Your Memoir Like a Novel appeared first on Helping Writers Become Authors.

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Nature’s Lessons in Gender Equality, Gender Diversity, and True Love: The Male Pregnancy of the Seahorse and the Fearless Trans Fish of the Coral Seas

What the weird, wondrous, otherworldly animals of this precious planet can teach us about being better creatures ourselves.

Nature’s Lessons in Gender Equality, Gender Diversity, and True Love: The Male Pregnancy of the Seahorse and the Fearless Trans Fish of the Coral Seas

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals,” the great nature writer Henry Beston insisted nearly a century ago. “In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

Over the long sweep of evolution, our fellow creatures have developed wondrous forms and faculties far superior to our own — from the strange splendor of the octopus, endowed with Earth’s most alien consciousness, to the olfactory prowess of the dog, capable of accessing layers of reality wholly hidden from us. (“Never say higher or lower,” Darwin scribbled in the margin of a book. “Say more complicated.”) To fathom the worlds of such creatures requires that we “shed our human perceptions of length and breadth and time and place,” as Rachel Carson wrote in the pioneering 1937 essay that first invited the human imagination to consider this precious shared planet from the perspective of non-human creatures.

Art by Millie Marotta from A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals

But in the century since Carson and Beston, some of this world’s most extraordinary animals have been driven to near-extinction, vanishing from the biosphere, vanishing from the dictionary and from children’s imagination. Along with them vanish the voices we shall never hear — voices that can teach us a great deal about being better creatures ourselves.

Welsh illustrator and author Millie Marotta celebrates forty-three of these astounding creatures in A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals (public library) — a collection of short, stunningly illustrated encyclopedic “profiles” of wild and wondrous creatures: miniature dragons of the underworld, desert-dwelling fish, marsupial tree frogs, otters with a hundredfold more hairs in a square inch of fur than you have on your entire head, and the clandestine cousin of the extinct dodo. What emerges is a testament to naturalist Sy Montgomery’s conviction that “our world, and the worlds around and within it, is aflame with shades of brilliance we cannot fathom — and is far more vibrant, far more holy, than we could ever imagine.”

Art by Millie Marotta from A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals

Some of Marotta’s creatures contain in their hard-wired biology subtle allegorical answers to some of our most pressing sociological concerns and aspirations — particularly around gender equality, gender identity, and gender diversity. From the seahorse — one of only three known species, along with the pipefish and the leafy seadragon, in which pregnancy is allotted to the male — we get a lesson in subverting traditional gender roles not only in child-rearing but in child-bearing, as well as a stubborn defense of true love (or what we might have to begin calling, nowadays, monoamory), almost at the price of survival. Marotta writes:

Many species of seahorse remain faithful to their mates throughout the breeding season, greeting each other each day in a courtship dance. Other pairs remain monogamous their entire lives, among them the tiger tail seahorse, so named for its distinctive stripy tail.

When breeding, the female deposits her eggs into the male’s brood pouch, found toward the bottom of his belly. He fertilizes them in his pouch, then keeps them there, safe and nourished, as they develop. After two to three weeks, hundreds of miniature, perfectly formed tiger tail seahorses burst out into the water. The babies, only 1 cm long, are immediately independent of their parents and drift away, at the mercy of the ocean currents.

Seahorses are rather inept at swimming, so when it comes to hunting they rely on stealth and disguise. Anchoring themselves to a piece of coral, and changing color to camouflage themselves from both predators and prey, they wait, toothless snout at the ready, to hoover up tasty brine shrimp as they drift by.

From the corpulent, fearless, luscious-lipped humphead wrasse of the Indo-Pacific coral seas — nature’s Orlando — we receive the ultimate affirmation of the transgender identity as a thoroughly natural mode of being.

Art by Millie Marotta from A Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals

Marotta writes:

Among the coral reefs of the Red Sea, a young female humphead wrasse leaves her deep — water cave to feed. She hoovers up vast quantities of mollusks, crabs, lobsters, sea cucumbers… but she is also one of a few species that will tuck into the toxic crown-of-thorns starfish. This starfish eats growing corals, so in eating them the humphead wrasse is preserving her own habitat, which is already damaged by fishing methods involving dynamite and cyanide. As she hunts, she must keep an eye out for poachers: As one of the most expensive fish in Southeast Asia, she is vulnerable.

At about seven years old, she is almost ready to mate. By nine she has grown bigger than most females her age, and as she keeps growing her skin changes color, from rusty red orange to a vibrant greenish blue, and she loses her ovaries and develops testes. Incredibly, she changes sex and becomes the dominant male — known as a super male. He is a giant among his species — up to 6 ft long and a colossal 400 lbs in weight. That’s more than two average-sized men. Only the very largest of females have a chance to become super-males and mate — and they will stay male forever.

Complement the lovely Wild Child’s Guide to Endangered Animals with Eve Ensler’s stirring letter to Mother Earth, sparked by the disappearance of 2.9 billion birds, and illustrator Jenni Desmond’s empathic picture-book invitations into the worlds of two other gravely endangered animals — the polar bear and the blue whale — then revisit this lyrical vintage chronicle of a year in the life of the majestic sperm whale and Sy Montgomery on what working with 13 animals taught her about being a good creature.

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Does it matter if Mary Shelley was bisexual?

Her letters show that the author turned to women after her husband’s death. It’s an important insight into intimate history – and an inspiring example

Mary Shelley is a queen. Daughter of modern feminism’s founder, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the radical thinker William Godwin, this rebellious woman wrote one of the earliest and most influential gothic horror novels: Frankenstein. Published in 1818, when Shelley was just 20 years old, it remains a work of genius that can still horrify readers with the depths of man’s depravity and pursuit of knowledge at all costs. It is also a novel that places love, and the desire for love in its absence, at the heart of life. For this, and many other reasons, Shelley has become an idol for those whose souls search for belonging in dark times.

She’s also someone who I thought couldn’t really become any cooler. After all, this is the woman said to have married her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, after losing her virginity to him at the graveside of her mother. And then, after he drowned in a storm in 1822, carried his calcified heart – the only thing to survive his cremation – with her, wrapped in a silk shroud, until her death in 1851. (It was found in her desk, wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems.) But this week, Fiona Sampson, author of In Search of Mary Shelley, taught me something new: Shelley was bisexual.

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Abraham Lincoln on Equality and the Slippery Slope of Exclusion

A prescient admonition against the infinite regress of “except.”

Abraham Lincoln on Equality and the Slippery Slope of Exclusion

“The North has always tried to establish its identity by cutting other people out and off,” James Baldwin told Margaret Mead in their historic dialogue about identity, race, and belonging. “The Northern identity is dependent upon whom you can keep out.” Half a century later, this aspect of the Northern identity has become in a great sense the national identity of the country that calls itself by the name of an entire continent. Its rubric of exclusion has been mirrored across the world, in the various international nationalisms that have cropped up as the reactionary politics of regressive ideologies.

More than a century before Baldwin, Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) issued a prescient admonition against this epidemic of divisiveness and exclusionary identity in a short, stirring letter to a friend, cited in These Truths (public library) — Jill Lepore’s masterwork of poetic scholarship, chronicling the complex and conflicted history of the United States.

Abraham Lincoln (Photograph by Abraham Byers)

On January 1, 1863, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which granted legal freedom to more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans — a public triumph of human rights, and a private triumph for a man who had faced the artillery of brutal criticism for his idealism and his determination to make a willfully blind and belligerent nation see slavery for what it was: a “monstrous injustice.” Although his courageous approach to criticism helped him persevere in the public eye, privately he often despaired — never more bleakly than when Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, allowing people within the two states to decide for themselves whether they wish to perpetrate slavery. Lincoln saw it as a colossal backward step for progress and a supreme betrayal of the Declaration of Independence — “progress in degeneracy,” a travesty of basic civil liberty, a travesty of basic morality, casting self-interest as the only inalienable right.

“Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of equal rights of men,” he wrote in a note to himself. “Ours began, by affirming those rights.” Devastated, incomprehending of how far his nation had fallen from its founding ideals, Lincoln followed the slippery moral slope of exclusion to its only logical conclusion in a chillingly prescient letter to a friend, penned in the summer of 1855:

As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it “all men are created equal, except negroes.” When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read “all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.” When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.

Complement with Zadie Smith on the see-saw of optimism and despair in cultural progress and philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of identity, then revisit Baldwin’s prophetic insight into divisiveness and its only cure.

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Patti Smith’s Imaginative Remedy for Insomnia

Soporific shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Melville.

Patti Smith’s Imaginative Remedy for Insomnia

Given that it serves as the brain’s built-in therapy mechanism regulating our negative moods, given that it acts as the brain’s janitor sweeping away toxins responsible for neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, sleep may be the closest thing we have a superpower — so much so that its importance is encoded into the 13 most important things I’ve learned about life. The clearest evidence of that importance comes from the extreme disruption of our functioning when sleep is taken away — the way we we grow unmoored from our own minds, adrift an arm’s reach from reality, unable to follow the ordinary threads that link one thought to the next, that fetch the right word, the needed memory.

Insomnia, then, is a particularly unforgiving and parasitic malfunction of consciousness that feeds on its host, feeds on our very sense of being. Of the many proposed but ultimately unprovable remedies for insomnia, from the folkloric to the clinical, by far the loveliest I’ve ever encountered comes from Patti Smith in Year of the Monkey (public library) — her unclassifiable and uncommonly poetic masterpiece at the borderline of dream and reality.

Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)
Patti Smith (Photograph: Jesse Ditmar)

In the disorienting midst of the 2016 election news cycle, when “an insidious insomnia” slowly begins to claim her nights, Smith resorts to an old mental game by which she tricks herself to sleep — a kind of shadow theater of the mind, inspired by Herman Melville and reminiscent of a Zen teaching. She writes:

I imagine myself a sailor in the time of the great whaling ships on a lengthy voyage. We are in the center of a violent storm and the captain’s inexperienced son catches his foot in a length of rope and is pulled overboard. Unflinching, the sailor leaps into the storm-tossed seas after him. The men throw down massive lengths of rope and the lad is brought to deck in the arms of the sailor and carried below.

The sailor is summoned to the quarterdeck and led to the captain’s inner sanctum. Wet and shivering, he eyes his surroundings with wonder. The captain, in a rare show of emotion, embraces him. You saved my son’s life, he says. Tell me how I can best serve you. The sailor, embarrassed, asks for a full measure of rum for each of the men. Done, says the captain, but what of you? After some hesitation the sailor answers, I have slept on galley floors, bunks and hammocks since a lad, it has been a long time since I have slept in a proper bed.

The captain, moved by the sailor’s humility, offers his own bed, then retires to the room of his son. The sailor stands before the captain’s empty bed. It has down pillows and a light coverlet. There is a massive leather trunk at its foot. He crosses himself, blows out the candles and succumbs to a rare and wholly enveloping sleep.

This is the game I sometimes play when sleep is elusive, one that evolved from reading Melville, that takes me from the mat on the bathroom floor to my own bed, affording grateful slumber.

Illustration by Judith Clay from Thea’s Tree.

Couple this tiny fragment of the wholly resplendent Year of the Monkey with Maurice Sendak’s antidote to insomnia, then revisit Smith on creativity, time, loss, and transformation, and her tribute to William Blake.

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