Negative Capability

Michèle Roberts

A Diary of Surviving

Published by Sandstone Press 28 May 2020

272pp, hardback, £14.99

Reviewed by Alison Burns

Click here to buy this book


Readers like to hear about colourful spats between writers (think Paul Theroux and V.S. Naipaul) but how often do we get to hear about relationships between writers and their publishers?  The stories we do hear tend to come from the editorial side (Diana Athill, for example), reinforcing the image of the editor as an ever-patient and awesomely sane midwife to the gifted-but-sometimes-difficult author.  These tales, trailing with them clouds of bygone glory from the days when editors had (or made) time to edit, have romanticized both sides of the coin.

In this passionate, pleasure-loving and extremely angry diary of a year recovering from repeated rejection by her publisher, distinguished novelist Michèle Roberts throws off in one go the seven veils covering these mysteries.  For this reviewer it seems very sad that it has come to this – that a critically- acclaimed author should be deprived of the one thing all writers need: an editor who is supportive over the long haul, for as long as it takes. The text makes it clear that Roberts’ editor’s responses fell short of what might be expected for an author of her standing and achievements.

On every level, Roberts fights back.  Devastated by the refusal of her publisher to offer her a contract for the latest novel (an arrangement that would bring with it some financial as well as editorial support ahead of publication), she hits rock bottom and then, characteristically, decides to write about it.  What we, her readers, get thereby is a vigorous defence of what Roberts calls the wandering female mind.

In chapters recording one day a month, for a year, while pegging away at revisions to her not-good-enough novel in her basement flat in Walworth, Roberts reveals the private, inner side of her life.  One of her favourite activities is walking the streets.  How about that!  A woman, on her own, walking miles through London, for the sake of it – how dare she?  That’s the sort of thing we expect from Dickens, from Coleridge, from Iain Sinclair.  Surely there is something fishy in all this wandering about. But no: what we get is her vivid impressions of this element she swims in: London in all its polyglot, mish-mash glory.  And when not in London, we are given rural France, her mother’s country-of-origin, where Roberts owns a house and is part of another local community.

Undaunted by setbacks in her writing life, Roberts celebrates friendship, food, colour, clothes; considers modernism, feminism, religious faith; remembers love affairs; reads, daydreams; reaches insights about her need for approval.  Like a contemporary female Pepys, she gives us her gusto and her shameful moments in equal measure, while thinking, thinking, thinking and watching, and writing it all down.  An example chapter, on Bloomsbury, considers aggression, repression, madness, the pleasure of eating snails, the meticulous nature of editorial ‘pruning’, Dorothy Richardson, Virginia Woolf, the experience of not being breast-fed on demand.

Maybe she is more like Montaigne: of everything she feels or encounters, she asks, ‘What should I do with this?’  Her answers are bold, serious and life-enhancing.  Long may she continue to be published.

And btw, her novel The Walworth Beauty was eventually accepted and released by Bloomsbury, and reviewed acceptably. ‘This evocative tale of place, survival, and contact has a lingering impact,’ said Kirkus.








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