19 September 2019
‘Kiss and Part’ is a uniquely unusual book. It is a collection of original short stories by ten of the country’s most eminent women writers. Admittedly that in itself is nothing especially out of the ordinary, albeit it offers a timely snapshot of the rich trove of inventiveness that characterises British twenty-first century female literary talent. The ten stories are united by a common theme, a common raison d’objectif; but nor is that what sets this collection apart. What does make it different is the nature and ingenuity of that common theme. To explain, I must transport you to a small village close by Stratford-upon-Avon.
The village is Clifford Chambers. Some have called it one of Warwickshire’s best kept secrets for it is tucked away around a single no-through road leading to an elegant Manor that truncates the carriageway and where you must perforce turn and retrace your steps. The Manor holds part of the clue to the book’s theme for in the seventeenth century it was home to Lady Anne Rainsford. She was muse to Shakespeare’s friend and poetic contemporary Michael Drayton, parts of whose monumental topographical work Poly-Olbion may have been written while he was staying with her. Words from one of Drayton’s sonnets inspired the new book’s Kiss and Part title.
Now transport yourself forward four hundred years to another Clifford resident, a woman of boundless energy, vision and disarmingly effective powers of persuasion named Sarah Hosking who chose the village in which to establish the Hosking Houses Trust. This small charity gives older women writers (the word ‘older’ is hers not mine!) a secluded stay in a tiny cottage together with modest funding to ‘start, continue or complete innovative work on any subject whatsoever’.
It is the cottage, the charity, the village and Michael Drayton’s words, with a nod to the Hungarian textile designer Tibor Reich who worked in Clifford Mill just after World War 2 that collectively provide the inspiration for the ten stories.
The writers comprise a Who’s Who of modern female authorship: Jo Baker, Dame Joan Bakewell, Jill Dawson, Lucy Durneen, Dr Catherine Fox, Professor Maggie Gee, Maria McCann, Elizabeth Speller, Salley Vickers and Professor Marina Walker several of whom have availed themselves of the Trust’s beneficence. And how rich and varied have been their interpretations because while unusual, the collection of writings is at the same time uniquely compelling, sometimes amusing and imbued with levity, sometimes worrying, challenging and unashamedly dark.
It is a convention for reviewers of outstanding literary anthologies to say it would be invidious to single out any individual contributions among such a creative phalanx. But nonetheless space imposes invidiousness upon me so I shall highlight three. First Salley Vickers’ ‘A Merrie Meeting’, an absorbing description of a possibly apocryphal gathering of Shakespeare, Drayton and Ben Jonson in The King’s House (now The White Swan) in Stratford. Second, Catherine Fox’s ‘The Turn’ whose central character is a camp vicar with a mid-life crisis for whom the Clifford writers’ retreat has become an ecclesiastical hostel. And last Jo Baker’s ‘The Fabric of Things’ ‘an erotic adventure of wakening sexuality featuring two very different young women who, swim, scandalously naked in the River Stour’. That contribution at least should sell a few more few copies.
In her introduction to the book, Dame Margaret Drabble writes evocatively of ‘one tiny village in Middle England, from which the ripples spread outwards to reach us all.’ She is correct in implying you do not need to know Clifford Chambers, let alone be fortunate enough to live there, to appreciate this deeply thought-provoking collection. As Dame Margaret indicates, it must appeal to devotees of fine writing everywhere. But for those who do know Clifford, Sarah Hosking has set another provocative challenge, this time one of identity. She notes ‘Any similarity between the characters in the stories and people in the village of Clifford Chambers is entirely coincidental’. Really Sarah?