22nd October 2017
Yesterday I had the full-of-delights experience of attending a recording of RTE’s Book Show in Dublin. The occasion was a special edition focusing on a recent competition, a Letter to a Character. Readers wrote to an interesting character from fiction. I was thrilled to have my letter shortlisted, a communication with Nora Webster from Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name.
The event took place in the Smock Alley Theatre. Sinéad Gleeson was in conversation with Lisa McInerney, Anne Enright and Paul Howard. Actors Derbhle Crotty and Dermot Magennis read some of the letters, and Lisa O’Neill sang about two characters in her poignant textured voice.
The discussion was humorous, inspiring and entertaining. It was amusing to hear two of the panellists saying that they had never read Pride and Prejudice, which had inspired a clatter of letters, but that they felt they knew the characters anyway.
You can find out more about the show and the shortlisted letters on the RTE Book Show page.
The show is being broadcast on Saturday 28th October from 7.00 – 8.00 pm: don’t miss it!
You won’t hear my own letter on it – airspace was reserved for letters to famous characters recognised by a wide audience – but you can read it below. I love the intimacy of Colm Tóibín’s novels, and his ability to paint such delicate portraits of his characters without invading their personal space. He keeps a respectful distance from them; I tried to honour this in my letter.
My letter was also an opportunity to explore the spaces of the imaginary worlds which we create in poetry as well as in fiction, and how we enter, move around in and exit these spaces. It is never possible to emerge unaltered.
I came away from The Book Show recording with questions about how and why we connect with particular characters, how they grow beyond the page, and what letters I might write to the characters in my own novel-in-very-slow-progress.
Please don’t be alarmed by this letter, by this gesture from a stranger. I know how important your privacy is to you, and how much you suffered from the intrusive attentions of others after the premature death of your beloved husband. Living in a small town full of nosy neighbours must have been particularly difficult when you were floored by your grief as a young widow. You became a target for acquaintances such as May Lacey; they came into your house uninvited and told you stories about people you barely know, whereas your own stories about your dear husband have gone untold and unheard.
How it must have challenged you to be the focus of unwanted attention immediately after your bereavement, and then to be the recipient of months of snubbing and sideways glances. It’s difficult for women to stand their ground, to simply to be themselves without someone judging them and finding them wanting. I admire you for how you pushed through your grief and grew in confidence and strength. I applaud your assertiveness at work and your determination to be yourself.
You might take issue with my next comments. Please hear me out, and kindly accept my missive as a temporary encounter with someone who will never contact you again. Imagine me as a woman from another county who once sat beside you at the bus stop back to Enniscorthy. Think of us as two women with plastic bags at our feet, lost in our thoughts about the day that has passed, and the evening ahead. I think of you sitting in peace after tea, listening to your classical music records, enjoying your solitude and the companionship of favourite melodies and symphonies.
I hope that you will spare a thought in your solitary moments to your sons Donal and Conor, who suffered so much after their beloved father died. It seems to me that those poor boys lost their connection with you as well at that time; you were so absorbed in your own loss, that they might have been invisible to you. You knew what it was like to suffer the cold indifference of an unmotherly mother; surely you don’t want your sons to have an equally negative experience, which might scar them for the rest of their lives? Please believe that with willingness and open-heartedness, the pattern of silence and isolation across the generations can be disrupted.
I am not denigrating your sad story, Nora Webster. It touched me deeply. I urge you to shake out the tainted linens of the past, and fold them away into a trunk which you will never need to reopen. Turn your back on the past, and turn towards your sons.
I wish you all the best for the future.
With sincerity and respect,