The Contents of Writers’ Handbags …

How much can you tell about a person from the way she writes?

(and I am limiting myself to the feminine gender for the sake of this blog – however biased and partial that might seem!)

The other day I was re-reading one of Penelope Lively’s wonderful novels. I love them all and have read all of them numerous times – initially, of course, for their stories, but in more recent years to see quite how she does it. They are relatively short. Not a word is wasted, nothing surplus to requirements as it were. No fussy unnecessary adverbs or time-wasting delay with the narrative. Yet she manages to tell a compelling story, a highly organised story and create entirely believable characters.

Which led me to think that Penelope Lively is no doubt a very organised woman. A tidy woman. A woman whose drawers and cupboards are neat and never filled with laddered tights that can never be worn. A woman who can use cling-film efficiently and does not lose the top of the toothpaste tube or have lipsticks without tops and a pool of old receipts and used tissues festering at the bottom of her bag.

It’s what I now think of as The Handbag Test.

What would this particular writer’s handbag look like?

Margaret Drabble, another writer I love and hugely admire and constantly re-visit, is of an entirely different nature, I suspect. I can imagine Margaret Drabble’s fridge filled with various, dubious left-overs that eventually get thrown out after weeks of gradually shifting their position to the back row to lose status and appeal. Her prose is again narratively compelling, rich where Lively’s is sparer and her characters somehow more volatile, precarious, in the way they conduct their fictional lives.

Margaret Drabble’s handbag? Oh definitely large and the sort that collapses on the floor of the car, spilling contents, some of which never quite make their way back into the bag and are discovered months later rolling their way to the back seat.

Anita Brookner’s handbag would, of course, have been of exquisite Italian leather. One of those upright bags that accommodate only a power compact (do people still have those things with mirrors and neat little puffs to dab at their noses?) a neatly folded, cotton handkerchief and a Letts’ diary with narrow pencil in its spine. And as for her kitchen cupboards and shelves – only tins of anchovies and olives and bottles of premier cru Beaune and artisan cheeses would dare make an appearance. Can you imagine Anita Brookner ever buying baked beans or a Ready-Meal? No. Exactly. Her prose reveals all.

Several years ago, I went to the Winchester Writers’ festival and met the fiction editor of Woman’s Weekly. At the time, the magazine was publishing a lot of my stories, both in the weekly magazine and in their Summer Specials. The editor looked at me and said, “I would recognise you from your stories – you look like the way you write.” Fortunately, I never contributed any crime or fiction filled with dark, sinister types ….but it was an interesting comment and no doubt one that holds some truth.

Some writers spend time describing what their characters look like – others leave it entirely to the imagination of their readers.

Some writers describe clothes, the way someone walks, talks – others ignore these aspects.

And do we notice the inclusion or lack of such things when reading the novel? Does it enrich our understanding of a character, their motivation and attitude or detract from the power and vision in the readers’ minds?

I can never decide whether a reader wants to know such details or finds them an intrusion. I know I need to feel I can ‘see’ my characters, but worry sometimes if I am delaying the story too much by such descriptions.

What do you think?

And do try the Handbag Test next time you are reading a novel – and even the shelves of the fridge test to see if they are likely to be pristine or potential sources of food poisoning – it’s surprisingly revealing!

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