A Contributor reflects...
Siân Cleaver has recently completed her fifth profile, for Sarah Waters' Tipping the Velvet. We asked her to tell us about the titles she's chosen, her experiences of Book Drum, and the appeal of creating such a wide variety of fascinating bookmarks.
As this was my ‘Tournament Profile’, CCF was my very first experience of creating bookmarks. Once I’d got used to the practical side of up-loading images etc, I particularly enjoyed trying to find the perfect match between the bookmark and the image; in general, I’ve found that this is best done when you’ve got plenty of time to browse at leisure through Wikimedia Commons and Flickr. This not only means that you get to choose what feels like exactly the right picture for a particular bookmark, but it’s also a way of coming across some great pictures which you probably wouldn’t otherwise get to see.
I was also pretty surprised to find out how much useful material is available on the internet. For example, with CCF, I was surprised to come across a really comprehensive dictionary of Sussex dialect online which was not only invaluable in explaining some of Stella Gibbons' dialect words, but really fascinating in its own right. What’s interesting, too, is the way different bookmarks take you back again and again to the same area. With CCF, I looked at quite a bit of stuff about ‘The Bloomsbury Group’ and they’ve come up again repeatedly in other books I’ve profiled like A Room of One’s Own and Brideshead Revisited. This means that you learn an awful lot about a subject in a way which feels really interesting and so painless compared to other methods!
As regards the novel itself, it was a real eye-opener to realise how much I’d not understood on the many, many occasions I’d read it before doing the profile. I haven’t read it again since, but I’m sure that reading it with such an in-depth understanding of almost every reference, every unusual word etc., will give a new twist to a book which I thought I knew inside out.
Although I had read this book before profiling it, I wasn’t particularly familiar with it. For example, I hadn’t really taken on board the clever way it was fictionalised nor the distinction between Virginia Woolf and the narrator. What was surprising with AROOO was how clever and subtle the structure of the book is and what an accomplished and knowledgeable writer Virginia Woolf was. Some of the things I bookmarked were historical events mentioned in passing, which were not central to the book, but I found bookmarking these curiously interesting. What came through to me clearly is that I believed that I knew about all sorts of things (like the Spanish Armada or Charles Dickens or whatever) but researching a bookmark brought home to me how little I did know. The experience was one of feeling I was being re-educated about some basic things, but in a fun way. The thing about AROOO, of course, is that a lot of the references are about relatively obscure aspects of British history (e.g. the obscenity trial involving Radclyffe Halls’s book Well of Loneliness which I had never heard of), and it’s amazing how much you learn. Another thing you notice the more you bookmark is the interconnectedness of things, and it’s often very surprising to see how events or people fit together in unexpected ways.
This was another book I had read on numerous occasions. I have also read a great deal about the lives of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, and found myself drawing on this whilst doing the bookmarks. I had read a biography of Stella Gibbons which I found very useful when profiling CCF, and I made a point of reading a biography of Evelyn Waugh again before profiling Brideshead Revisited. I don’t think that information/knowledge beyond what is available on the internet is essential for bookmarking, but I do think it gives an added edge to a profile.
Once again, I was amazed by how much I had not previously understood in my many readings of The Bell Jar. In fact, I started noticing whole sentences in the text which I felt I had never seen before. Some of the things I found out surprised me so much, and again it was an opportunity to learn an enormous amount about subjects my previous knowledge of which had been incredibly vague or non-existent; I’d never before, for example, been aware of the dreadful story behind the reference to the Rosenbergs in the opening line, or how curious some aspects of the sorority/fraternity systems are.
Another unexpected effect of profiling The Bell Jar was to bring home to me that the things in the book actually happened to Sylvia Plath herself (I knew this, of course, at an intellectual level beforehand) and I came away from the profiling feeling so much sadder about her personal history than I’d ever felt before, and much more aware of how courageous she’d been in writing the novel.
On a lighter note, I would never have anticipated that there was much musical mileage to be had in The Bell Jar, but there’s actually an awful lot of musical references, and the scene where she sets off down the ski slope takes on a whole new feel when you have the Wunderbar song from Kiss Me Kate playing in the background!
Even though saying this (and no doubt hearing this!) is starting to sound like a bit of a bore, I was gobsmacked at how many references in B.R. (and there are an awful lot of them) I had failed to understand on previous readings, and at how much understanding them enhanced my appreciation of the book.
Another revelation for me was that Brideshead Revisited is essentially a book about religion (although it seems obvious in retrospect). It was only when I tried to explain things said by Cordelia (which had previously seemed quite incidental to the main story) that I realised the way intricate detail about Catholicism is woven into the fabric of the book. Although not in the least bit religious, I really enjoyed learning about Catholicism and knowing what words like ‘rosary’ and ‘the Blessed Sacrament’ actually meant. It really rejuvenates a book when you see aspects in it you’ve not seen before, and I’m looking forward to reading B.R. again in a way which will feel like the first time, even though it’s probably about the twentieth!
The final thing to say about bookmarking B.R is that over a few pages towards the end of the novel, I felt I was taken through the whole gamut of European history in the 1930s, from the point of view of someone who was actually there. Issues like the Abdication Crisis and the rise of Nazism in Germany came so completely alive as I bookmarked fairly casual references to some of the figures involved. Certainly, I shan’t forget in a hurry the shock I felt when I researched a passing reference to Joseph Goebbels and discovered that he and his wife had killed their six children in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin before killing themselves, and that there was the most poignant picture imaginable of the children with their parents available on Wikimedia Commons.
I began my profile of Tipping the Velvet without ever having read the book, and without knowing the meaning of the title! In fact, I read it in front of the computer, bookmarking line-by-line as I went along (apart from jumping ahead to read a few of the more titillating sections in the centre of the book).
What I soon realised with this novel was how carefully researched it was, and how much it has to say about the Victorian music hall and the early days of British socialism once you understand the significance of the references. As I bookmarked, I almost felt that I was going through the same research process as Sarah Waters must have done when writing the book. This was a surprising experience to have and one which strikes me as quite unique in terms of revealing the structure of a book – in profiling Tipping the Velvet I felt that I was taking a crash course in the construction of a historical novel.
In short, then, profiling can reveal some very unexpected and surprising aspects of books with which you may think you are already highly familiar. What those aspects are going to be is a totally unknown quantity, and that, I think, is part of the charm of profiling. I don’t want to give the impression that creating bookmarks is nothing but fun and discovery; it does have a more mundane side to it, creating maps and links and checking dates and writing lists and so on. However, even in those more mundane bookmarks, I don’t think I ever come away from them without at some point having thought, Gosh, I never knew that!