Saturday, November 04, 2023

Writers on Writing: Oliver Onions, "The Beckoning Fair One"

 While sitting in front of a mountain of grading, undone reports, an overdue writing project, work on my new project, and other guilt-making items that piled up when I had a flu/cold the past couple of weeks and had no brains to deal with anything, I did what any sensible person would do: scroll through Twitter/X until I could face even one thing. 

Even in its current state, with the needle firmly in the red zone of "hot mess," Twitter/X surfaces the occasional happy dog picture or something equally unexpected and welcome. This time, it was a set of BBC videos from the 1970s featuring women over 90 talking about the restrictions of growing up at the turn of the century. One was Berta Ruck, a romance novelist (had never heard of her), who was married to Oliver Onions (ditto); Onions was the author of Widdershins, a collection featuring what is apparently a classic and highly esteemed ghost story, "The Beckoning Fair One." 

"The Beckoning Fair One" is about 44-year-old Paul Oleron, who, tired of shuttling between his work room and his lodgings, moves into an old house leased to him by a highly reluctant landlord. He delights in fixing it up, having it painted a delicate white, and figuring out that a square hatch above a half-door is a powder-closet: put your head with its elaborate headdress through it, have your servant shoot the "powder-pistol," and your hair would be all powdered and ready for society. 

But Paul is not just an inquisitive man with a flair for decorating. He's a literary novelist with a tight deadline, and while he's admiring his rooms and speculating about their former occupants, his half-finished novel Romilly Bishop, about which he had been enthusiastic before moving in, languishes. His loyal friend Miss Elsie Bengough, a popular novelist, challenges him about when he defends where he lives: 

"Anyway," Oleron summed up, "I'm happier here than I've been for a long time. That's some sort of a justification."

"And doing no work," said Miss Bengough pointedly.

I won't spoil the story for you (it's at the link), but Oleron gradually abandons Romilly Bishop, and things ramp up as they have a way of doing in ghost stories, until an unexpected conclusion.

But what was striking was that the ghost story here--the gradual psychological horror, the shifting of consciousness--was really about the process of writing, or rather avoiding writing. All the rationalizations are there: Oleron solves a mystery in his surroundings and decides to knock off for the day rather than doing any writing; he excuses himself for not writing but "knows" that tomorrow will be better; he decides that what he's written is lousy and needs to scrap everything to pursue some nebulous vision; and with the new and improved Romilly, he has this exchange with Elsie: 

"And has Romilly progressed much better for your being cooped up?"

"I think she has. I'm laying the foundations of her. I shall begin the actual writing presently."

This ghost story is a cautionary tale. If I don't want to end up like Oleron, I shall indeed begin the actual writing presently.

Edited to add: This is the second time wig-powdering has come up as a blog topic. I sense a trend.