Among the battered manuscript boxes in my old black filing cabinet, you won’t find the draft of my first novel. It’s gone, the victim of a long-standing conflict for women between the dream of a writing life and the urge to domesticity.
Katherine Mansfield was my heroine and role model. Born in New Zealand in 1888, she too had embarked for England as a young woman determined to make her name as a writer. Through privation and illness she continued to write and publish story collections that made her famous. I could do that too, I told myself.
But there was a variation to our respective histories I had not counted on. In New Zealand before we left, I had given birth to a stillborn daughter. Looking back, I understand that depression fueled by guilt and buried grief over this loss exacerbated the homesickness and culture shock I experienced that first year in England. My unsuccessful search for a writing job did not help. In traditional wifely fashion, I had held off until Tony found work, in a company based west of London, then scrambled, in an unforgivingly tight rental market, to find us somewhere to live nearby. By the time we were settled, a lengthy daily commute into London seemed overwhelming.
I also ran into a catch-22: even though I had been a member in good standing of the New Zealand journalists union, no paper or magazine in London would hire me unless I was a member of the British journalists union, and it was not possible to join that union without first having a job on a paper. When the local newspaper in Windsor turned me down for a posted job because I refused to promise not to get pregnant and ‘waste their time,’ I decided the best thing to do was to start work on my novel and to have another child. I believed, naively, that I could handle taking care of a child and having a writing career. In retrospect, any kind of job would have made better economic sense. We were desperately poor, but the dream of making my way as a writer still held.
I don’t remember much of the plot of that first novel. Two main characters were New Zealand immigrants to England, like ourselves. There was also another couple, and some symmetry of cross-coupling, probably influenced by the Iris Murdoch novels I was reading. I remember feeling uneasy that the plot line was uncovering a sense of dissatisfaction and disillusionment in my own life and that I didn’t know how to resolve the story.
By the time we left England five years later, my world revolved around our two small sons. I found it harder and harder to find time to work on my novel. I pushed aside the dissatisfactions with my own life that the novel echoed. In California things would be different, I told myself. I would devote my life to being a good mother. One bleak winter afternoon as we were packing up to leave the tiny house we had bought in Egham, Surrey, I came to a decision. I was alone, Tony at work, our older son playing at a neighbor’s house, the baby asleep upstairs. Outside under a lowering sky, the baby’s nappies, frozen into boards, hung motionless on the clothesline. Inside, a small coal fire burned in the grate. I sat on the floor in front of the fireplace and fed the unfinished draft of my novel page by page into the flames.