More than a flash in the pan – stories from Household Commotion
From the writers at the creative writing workshops currently running at the House. Inspired by the Household Commotion exhibition on servants who worked for the Gaskell family.
Read and enjoy!
For the last time, in the house where I’ve been made to feel essential, I receive my night candle. Once I skipped upstairs, but now I drag to the attic in the wavering dark. Two years ago, it was, I arrived in blank trepidation, and her flamboyance enfolded me. Brought in from the wastes of the world, she gave me her little daughters’ first steps in education, and we all fell in love within her world of funny word-spinning. Then she stopped when her baby son died until I, with the light found in this house, helped put her in motion again. ‘We can never part now,’ she said. Never would I face the bitter outside again with no place for me. But now, so soon, she’s just fired out, ‘You must go. You’re failing my daughters.’ Did she ever imagine I’d match her in erudition, wit, personality? ‘I’ve found you a place with these friends of mine. O, and I’ll write to you. Here’s your candle’
James hid his novel in a tin box, pushed far back in the gloom, under the eaves, with spiders and other furtive, scuttling things. Gaskell was the writer in this house. She thought him only good for looking after pigs. This was not a hunch, but fact. For James skim-read her letters, loitering in the drawing room when the family were out.
Page by page, drop by drop, he siphoned off her ink, filched her bond paper, retrieved a snubbed dip pen from the waste basket. His own novel was a tale of war.
A simple Irish girl in service; Emma.
Poverty held her hostage to her mistress’s rules, harsh and unforgiving. Her secret joy, her sweetheart Victor, was forbidden. Her withered mistress forbade it.
Emma’s youthful longing, undiminished, fortified her as she laboured in the day, and gave a feverish beauty to her restless nights.
She took the hot iron in defiance of her mistress’s imperial command and with terror, yet supreme courage, pressed its tip against the tender whiteness of her left forearm.
The dizzying pain overtook her. The gushing water soothed the intense burning and with deep pleasure Emma regarded the V she had branded in love and scorn.
The injunction overturned, her love was with her everywhere she went. She was V-ictorious!
The undoubted highlight of Will’s day had been when the Mistress brought him his letter. Will rarely received letters; but he was both happy and surprised to hear from his friend Jim, back in the Lake District. However, on reading the letter, Will was troubled. It struck him that, although Jim was married, he appeared isolated and lonely – perhaps craving lost romance. He had asked Will whether he was married yet and had ended his letter with a reference to having a ‘bed to myself’. Will wanted to ponder on what Jim had said to him before deciding on an appropriately sensitive response; he had therefore, before he had retired for the night, put the letter in a safe place – a place that only he knew; no one would find it there. As he laid down his head, his last thoughts were of home and his friend.
The back story…
The House has been successful in securing funding from the Arts Council England for a collaborative programme of arts activities, inspired by the exhibition Household Commotion: Elizabeth Gaskell and the awful treasure of her servants which is on display until June 2019. The programme includes monthly creative writing workshops led by published poet Rachel Sills. Over five months, writers at the workshops will explore different styles of writing. Using the exhibition as a springboard, they are creating pieces reflecting their responses to the stories of the servants as told through the exhibition.
At their first meeting in January, the writers worked with flash fiction. And what is flash fiction? One of the most famous examples of these brief and contained stories is ‘For sale: baby shoes, never worn.’ Whether written by Ernest Hemingway, Arthur C Clark or the Spokane Press, this story creates – in just six words – a whole world of pain and loss. According to publishers, reedsy, flash fiction ‘isn’t just a pared down short story. Its focus isn’t necessarily on plot or characters… Instead the emphasis is placed on movement: each sentence must peel back a new layer that wasn’t visible at first.’
Many thanks to the four writers from the first workshop who agreed to the publication of their work. I hope you are as impressed by their talent as I am! And do look out for more pieces from future workshops here on our blog.
Lesley – House Volunteer
This project has been funded using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England, The Granada Foundation and The Duchy of Lancaster.