Jane Austen wrote of ‘the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush’. This has always summed up for me the art of the short story – that miniature canvas on which a writer has to sketch so finely.
Sixteenth century sculptress Properzia de’ Rossi resorted to carving fantastically intricate work onto peach, cherry and plum stones – filched from the kitchen midden – when the male-dominated art world took issue with her desire to chisel anatomically correct male biceps and inner thighs out of ruddy great chunks of marble. How very unladylike! Get back to the drawing room, miss, and stitch me a sampler!
In Renaissance Italy, aspiring artistes like de’ Rossi chafed against dabbling in domestic minutiae cos they wanted to make it big (literally), doing things on the same grand scale as their male counterparts. Understandably.
Jane Austen didn’t have it much easier, though – working at a table in a draughty thoroughfare for household traffic, required every few minutes to leave off scribbling and go trim a bonnet or make up a fourth at cards. If anyone interrupted me with that regularity and impunity, I’d have been done by now for blockbustericide (doing someone in with the Wilbur Smith I use to stop a table leg wobbling).
Austen suggests that discipline, as much as necessity was the mother of her creative invention. Possibly, the constraints she wrote under fostered good habits of not wasting a word or a minute – of carving a world into a plum stone.
Nowadays, thankfully, you don’t need a Y chromosome to knock up an Angel of the North, or have to root about in the compost to release your inner Barbara Hepworth.
But there’s a flipside to female artistic emancipation: if you do have the luxury of time, space and support, you begin to panic that you aren’t using every minute wisely (amazing how much of my time involves making coffee, watching rubbish telly and following the antics on the bird feeder).
In fact, first world women today – we’ve got it all, haven’t we? The vote, biscuits that don’t break off at the first dunk, our own internet line to the garret …
So give thanks to the gods of temporal and geographical serendipity – and go write something!