‘The thin universe’: the domestic worlds of Elizabeth Burns, Tracey Herd and Kathleen Jamie
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As Elizabeth Burns’s paradoxical phrase ‘the thin universe’ suggests, the home is a place of both limitations and possibilities. Domestic life has been regarded by some as a spirit-sapping hindrance to creativity, recalling Cyril Connolly’s famous declaration that: ‘There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hall.’ This thesis examines the ways in which Burns, Herd and Jamie demonstrate how domestic life, for all its restrictions, can prove to be the ally of art. The home is a repository for childhood memories – shown in my analysis of Burns’s ‘Rummers and Ladels’ and Jamie’s ‘Forget It’ – and it is during this formative period that our ambivalent relationship with the home begins. The desire for comfort and safety can be felt alongside the tug towards the outdoor world of adventure and independence, a push-pull longing found in Herd’s ‘Big Girls’. Herd carries this longing into adulthood in ‘A Letter From Anna’, as does Burns in ‘Woman Reading a Letter, 1662’, and Jamie in ‘Royal Family Doulton’. Section one is my examination of this complicated sensation. The darkness that can make the home a hell features in Burns’s ‘Poem of the Alcoholic’s Wife’, Herd’s ‘Soap Queen’ and Jamie’s ‘Wee Wifey’. Contrastingly, the blissful events that take place there are evoked in Burns’s ‘The Curtain’, Herd’s ‘Rosery’ and Jamie’s ‘Thaw’. In section two I seek to prove that such extreme events, from the abuse suffered at the hands of an unfeeling mother to the delights of new parenthood, prove that the home cannot be dismissed as sequestered or mundane. And yet, dismissed it has been. Why bother depicting one’s ‘wretched vegetable home existence’, as Wyndham Lewis wrote, when one could ‘give expression to the more energetic part of that City man’s life’? Burns bemoans this attitude in ‘Work and Art/We are building a civilization’, and the idea that ‘home crafts’ like embroidery cannot be miraculous in themselves is dispelled by Herd’s ‘The Siege’ and Jamie’s ‘St Bride’s’. The celebration of the domestic interior found in paintings by, for example, David Hockney and Gwen John is similarly seen in the poetry of Burns (‘Annunciation’), Herd (‘Memoirs’) and Jamie (‘Song of Sunday’). Section three aims to show how the Bugaboo in the hall can be the ally of art, and – ‘thin’ though it may sometimes feel – the home is a universe in which infinite poetic possibilities exist.