About The Author
Polly Clark was born in Toronto and lives in Helensburgh on Scotland's west coast, a few streets away from where W H Auden wrote The Orators. Auden's struggle as he conceived this electrifying and genre-busting work was an inspiration for her debut novel Larchfield. As Literature Programmer for Cove Park she brings writers from all over the world to take part in Scotland's International Artist Residency. Her three poetry collections have between them won the Eric Gregory Award, been shortlisted for the T.S. Eliot Prize and twice been selected as one of the Poetry Book Society's books of the year.
Exclusively for Foyles we talked to Polly about hers and Auden's lives came to be connected, the sense of being gradually silenced by the roles of wife and mother and how questioning advice can mark you out as a troublemaker.
Questions & Answers
Could you describe how your life and Auden’s came to be connected?
I moved to the Helensburgh area some years ago to follow my husband’s job. I knew from the start that Auden had lived in Helensburgh and taught at Larchfield School for two years 1930-1932, but at the time I did not appreciate this for the artistic gift it was. Although like most people probably I was an admirer of Auden’s, I did not feel the kind of personal connection to him as a figure (particularly the figure he was then: a 24 year old gay man in a far distant time) that sparks the necessary passion for a writing project. It was not until a long time later, when I was feeling isolated with a new baby that I picked up The Orators, the text Auden wrote in Helensburgh, and it spoke to me profoundly, about everything that I was feeling. I had my heroine, Dora, in mind by now, and this was when I began to see that these two people and their stories were connected, although it took writing the novel to show me exactly how!
Already a successful poet, what made you want to write a novel?
Different ideas need different forms. I knew what I had to tell was a story, even before I knew exactly what it was, and poetry is not the right form for stories. Also, there was the matter of size: I felt there was a lot to say, the story was a complex one, and something Louis de Bernieres said came to me, that the novel as a form can hold absolutely everything that as a writer you have to give it. It can encompass all your poetry, all your emotions, all your philosophy. I have found this to be true. This doesn’t mean there will be no more poetry, I have just extended as a writer.
You experienced many of the things you put your heroine Dora through. Can you say more about that?
Much of the set up for Dora is inspired by own experience. She like me, leaves a life in Oxford (although a different one from mine) in order to build a life with her husband in Scotland. I too had a premature baby, and struggled to adapt to rural life on the Scottish west coast. Unlike Dora, I could not even drive. I named Dora after Freud’s famous patient Dora, a young woman who presented with paralysis and various ‘hysterical’ symptoms and told Freud that her father’s friend and then her father himself were sexually abusing her. Freud reinterpreted this confession back to Dora as her own unconscious desires, in this way denying her experience and silencing her. This sense of being gradually silenced is something that I definitely experienced because of the rigid roles that motherhood and marriage imposed. But Dora is a fictional creation: after the set-up Dora suffers much more than I did. She is a way for me to look at what happens if all these roles crowd in at once, if you really have nowhere to turn, and to ask questions about what it really means to lose your mind.
Do you think every first-time mother experiences, at least to some extent, a sense of having betrayed her ‘real’ or ‘old’ self? Is it ever possible to avoid, given the huge life changes any new baby brings?
While of course individuals respond differently, I do think that a high proportion of new mothers are pretty loopy for some time after the birth. Women who have their baby later in life are perhaps more aware of the loss of autonomous self, after all we have had many years of being fully formed people, in control of our destinies, and perhaps with an expectation that we are going to continue to be the authority on our own lives. The shocking aspect of motherhood, a shock of such magnitude that it is very dangerous for mental health in my view, is that the role of ‘mother’ (and indeed of ‘wife’) takes on a whole new force and meaning once you inhabit it. It is an undervalued and narrow role which society seems to take a strange glee in enforcing. Navigating this is extremely difficult and takes confidence and energy just when you have very little of either. To have total responsibility but zero authority is proven to be the worst combination for health and sanity, but this what is imposed on mothers with the expectation that they are somehow ‘naturally’ suited to it.
The visits of the health and social workers are truly frightening. Do you think it is actually relatively easy to end up being marked as somehow ‘unsuitable’? Dora may well have not been coping but her observations about these visitors’ attitude to her baby seem entirely reasonable.
Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you! Motherhood takes Dora into a parallel world of unkindness, which you do not see unless you’re in it. Again perhaps this particularly affects women who have had a life before their children: often you are receiving instruction from people with less education and life experience than you, who may be younger than you, but they have actual authority, for they are employed by the state. If you question advice you’re given this can mark you out as a troublemaker. If you are older you will probably know that much ‘advice’ is actually a current trend. Anyone who looks back over the last few decades will see how advice has swung this way and that. In my own time, the fuss over nuts is a very telling example. To avoid nut allergies in babies mothers about a decade ago were told to avoid all nuts during pregnancy. This has recently been shown to make a nut allergy more likely. But the force with which advice is pressed upon new mothers is almost irresistible.
How much is known about Wystan’s time at Larchfield and whether he actually found the ‘validation of all that he is’?
Larchfield was the boys’ school in Helensburgh and there was a girls’ school St Brides as well. Forty years ago, the two were amalgamated into Lomond School which still exists. About ten years after the amalgamation there was a fire which destroyed the building and most documentation, such as copies of The Larchfieldian which Auden worked on and which are mentioned in letters. I read Auden’s notebooks from his time in Helensbugh in the British Library and the (mostly brief) references to his time in the biographies. This was actually a very formative time for Auden: he published his first book of poems, wrote The Orators and had his first love affair whilst in Helensburgh. I had a handful of facts and a timeline, but then the total absence of documentation due to the fire. For the fiction writer that is the perfect balance! Actually I got much of the mood and feel of him and his time there from his own work, The Orators in particular.
Having finally come out to the young Callum whom he has befriended, Wystan feels he has failed: ‘Courage, eh? Where does it get one? I mean, really? What good does it do?’ Do you agree with him?
Courage is a virtue I suppose, so it’s not about how it benefits the one who shows the courage: so I agree with him in that way. Auden was actually called a coward for not coming back from America when war broke out and that failure to show patriotic ‘courage’ did affect his legacy. Artists are often expected to be somehow more virtuous than everyone else. I think the artistic drive towards personal authenticity requires great courage because, as my Wystan finds, and as Dora finds too, to be true to oneself always requires payment of a high price. In Dora’s case it is sanity itself.
You stayed in Helensburgh where, as Literature Producer for Cove Park, you bring writers from all over the world to take part in Scotland's International Artist Residency Programme. What enabled you to stay?
I have lived in the west of Scotland for nearly fifteen years, and have had so many of my formative experiences here. My daughter was born here and knows nothing else. It’s my home, the one I’ve chosen. Bill Clinton’s advice to bloom where you are planted is pertinent here.
Are you nervous about the reception your book will have there when it’s published?
There has been a very warm reception so far! The detective fiction writer Denise Mina set her last novel in Helensburgh, in a drug underworld based on some true events, which showed Helensburgh in a very dark light and it has been devoured in the town. Many real towns are the setting for crimes or dark stories, and actually I think Larchfield is an ultimately uplifting story… which brings a famous alumnus to life and puts Helensburgh on the map. I hope they love it.