Maureen Duffy at 80: In Times Like These

Scrivener, prophet, and friend

Header image: the monument to Edith Cavell, adjacent to 8 St Martin's Place, London.

Maureen Duffy: Scrivener and Prophet

by Charles Lock


This essay is a revised version of a lecture given at the symposium 'In Times Like These: Maureen Duffy at 80' held at King's College London on 6 December 2013.

Learned, critically, biographically, historically, musically, her fiction backed by an extraordinarily precise sense of historical texture, philological variance and tonal reconstitution, Maureen Duffy is not an author to whom writing came naturally—or so we are given to believe. How writing arrived is the story of her first book, from 1962, That's How it Was, the title's colloquial, somewhat dismissive deictic phrase finding an obliquely resonant response half-a-century later in the metaphorical melancholy of In Times Like These (2013). The allusion to Yeats is no echo of assent but a riposte to that declaimed disclaimer:


I think it better that in times like these

A poet keep his mouth shut, for in truth

We have no gift to set a statesman right….


Duffy's latest novel is deeply political, and timely in its anticipation of the two referenda, one of which, in 2014, threatened to destroy the Union, the second of which, in 2016, succeeded in throwing into turmoil the constitution of the United Kingdom. The 2016 referendum was in 2013 only a distant prospect of nightmare, and Duffy's polemic is directed against Scottish independence and the disuniting of a kingdom; its aim is quite explicitly to set the politicians right. (Who in our public life today might be called a statesman, or a stateswoman?) It is also a meditation on, among other lineages, the influence of the Celtic missionaries in northern Britain, and a reflection on the ways in which social cohesion and private affections can make sense and order of disparate inheritances.

Duffy's defence of the realm is not founded on any notion that the United Kingdom has been particularly virtuous as a political and social entity, but on a horror of division, of any reversion to the factional and the tribal. What some of our politicians would label a 'nightmare scenario' has England as its own state—after Scotland has left the United Kingdom—subsequently voting to leave the European Union. Whatever's wrong can only be made worse by a willed littleness, as we have most calamitously witnessed since 2013. (The Aristophenean noise of 'Brexit' was unknown to our ears in 2013, though the OED records it as early as May 2012; what was familiar then, though now largely forgotten, was 'Grexit', the anticipated consequence of the abuse that had been inflicted on the Greek economy.) In Duffy's dystopia of England alone, tourists at the Tower of London would become the chief source of revenue for the diminished state. The writer who so movingly described, in That's How it Was, the tentativeness of writing, the acquiring of a hand, could speak out in 2013 with prophetic confidence. The resonance of Blake is plangently audible; the authority of Duffy's voice has only been enhanced since 2013 by the events that have followed its admonishing.

As for Blake, so for Duffy: the prophet is not to be heeded, and In Times Like These languishes neglected, for all the truths it tells and foreshadows. There is a twist involving the technology and economics of writing and of publishing, and one that is poignant at this moment in the history of literature. Like so much of Blake's work, Duffy's last book must be considered self-published. Whereas her first book was brought out by Hutchinson, in 1962, Duffy's latest is published by 'nobody': there is no publisher's name, no copyright sign, no limitation page, nothing 'outside the text' beyond the title and author's name, an ISBN, and on the last page a barcode and this maker's mark: 'Made in the USA, Charleston, SC 22 November 2013'. Look closely at the title-page and there's a subtle oddity:

Image shows the title page of 'In Times Like These' by Maureen Duffy. Beneath the author's name, the title page includes the sub-title, 'A Fable'.

Is it the story under the title In Times Like These that is the fable? Or is it Maureen Duffy whose life in times like these should now be read as a fable? There are obviously fabular qualities about an author who has provided publishers with more than thirty titles, and whose signal contribution to the life and the livelihoods of British writers has been the creation of Public Lending Right (1979). For one who has exercised a constant vigilance on behalf of writers' protection and compensation, it is deeply misfitting that this novel should have found no publisher. There are two fables in this book: the one it tells, and the one whose place and whose moral may be found in the history of writers and publishers, of injustice, of commerce and ingratitude.[1]

Like many novelists, Maureen Duffy had other ambitions, higher aspirations within the literary canon, chiefly as dramatist and poet. However successful one might be in the higher forms, it is as a novelist that a writer is most likely to achieve popularity and fame, and to earn what might approximate to a living; and yet if successful that writer is doomed to a fame that will lastingly obscure her work in other genres. As recently as 2010 the author of The Orpheus Trail is described on its cover thus: 'Maureen Duffy is a notable contemporary British poet, playwright and novelist.' ([ii]) She is not the first writer to find herself thus insisting on a hierarchy of genres practised—nor even the first to have graduated from King's College London.[2]

Thomas Hardy had taken evening courses at King's in the 1860s. During the day he worked as an architect, very close to the Strand, in the offices of Sir Arthur Blomfield at 8 St Martin's Place, adjacent to the spot where in 1920 was erected George Frampton's monument to Edith Cavell. That monument's resonant and now celebrated words—hers: 'Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness for anyone'—were initially forbidden by the forces of the Establishment. It was the Labour Government of Ramsay MacDonald that in 1924 dismissed the objections of nationalists and xenophobes who insisted that no virtue could be greater than patriotism and that patriotism could be in no respect deficient. The evidence of the late addition of her words is visible in the small size of the lettering, its cramped spacing and its lowly position. There is no record of Hardy commenting on the statue of Edith Cavell when it was erected just outside what had been Blomfield's office, nor on the controversy over the inscription that lasted for four years. Yet we can be confident that the dramatist who wrote The Dynasts and the poet of 'Poems of War and Patriotism' (both terms therein held up for scrutiny) would have given his assent to Edith Cavell's last words. The dramatist and poet—though he was, and remains, best known for his novels. In August 1927, just months before his death on 11 January 1928, Hardy penned these words touching on an old hurt to a new admirer from the United States who had written to say that she was 'so interested to know that you are now writing poetry': 'Your interest in having discovered that I write verse is very gratifying. I have been writing it more than thirty years. Yours truly…'[3] More precisely, Hardy had been publishing verse for thirty years, and writing it for about seventy. Novels obscure the view, not least when they occupy it so satisfactorily that we forget even to enquire whether there is a further prospect beyond.

Maureen Duffy's Collected Poems appeared in 1985 from Hamish Hamilton; the volume is by now very far from complete. A new edition is needed if we are to understand the achievement of a novelist who is not only a novelist. (Hardy's is not the only comparable case; Sylvia Townsend Warner's poems are likewise obscured by her novels and stories, and remain absurdly underrated.) The plays to which Maureen Duffy dedicated her early years ought also to be published. One of the fables that we may read in Maureen Duffy's life as a writer in times like these is of the invasively colonizing and absorbing power of fiction.

At the very centre of That's How it Was is an episode that can be read as an allegory of that novel's writing. The protagonist Paddy has been given an 'A minus for English', and on learning that the exercise in question was a poem, her mother asks to hear it. It is a better poem than some of those contained and framed in Duffy's novels, of which Change (London: Methuen, 1987) contains two sublimely off-key instances, Alan Purbright's 'Song of the [misspelt] Millenium', and the schoolgirl's 'Arnhem, or the Charge that Failed' for which Ailsa Pearmain has been awarded a fair grade of B plus. (Change 144-45, 199-201) A poem within a novel belongs to what the literary theorist M. M. Bakhtin terms an 'incorporated genre'; that is, a poem is not there itself, as a free-standing poem, but becomes a representation, an image or likeness of a poem.

Paddy's 'Vanished' is the representation of a poem that marks the coming of words, the entering into literature of the heroine of a Bildungsroman. We need not attend too closely to what is less a poem than an image of a poem; what matters are the words that follow its reading aloud by daughter to mother:


It was always the same; when you'd written it it all seemed dull and pointless, though at the time it was wildly exciting so you hardly dared breathe or look up from the dry twigs of letters you were scratching on the page in case you lost it before you'd finished. My mother stretched out her hand.

'Let me see.' I gave her the book, taking a quick look at the expression on her face. Was she disappointed, or laughing even? But her face had only a serious concentration as her eyes moved down the page.

'It's not bad, not bad at all but your writing's terrible.'

'Oh, writing! I can't write.' Only dull people who liked maths were tidy and wrote neatly. My writing had character.[4]


We note the need, the compulsion to see a poem; hearing is not enough. And for a school subject what matters is not the quality of the poetry but the quality of the handwriting. That, at least, the mother can judge.

Her English teacher does not worry about the neatness of the script, and invites Paddy to her home for an intimate evening. While a storm rages around, the teacher suggests that should it continue Paddy ought to stay the night.


I showed her the poems I'd brought with me.

'They're in chronological order starting with the last so you needn't plough all the way through.' Some she'd set herself as homework exercises, mostly the earlier stuff, but the most recent I'd written to her rather than for her. They were copied as neatly as I could, I was never a tidy writer, into an exercise book with stiff maroon covers. [Note the delightful and cryptic phonetic pattern wherein 'maroon' chimes with Maureen and 'cover' with Duffy.] While she read I watched. The light fell straight down on to her face, reflecting from the soft down on her cheeks, the full lips and almost cleft chin.

'She isn't even beautiful,' I told myself but my hand longed to go out and trace the curve of cheek and lip.[5]


What these two episodes share is an awareness of how poetry when reduced to silence is traduced; the voice goes inward, while the eye looks for indications in the face of the silent reader for her 'view' of the poem. This is not how poetry ought to be appreciated. Yet it is how a poem is necessarily to be admired in a novel, as an image of a poem, an area of print that looks unmistakably like a poem.

The larger problem is the silence of the novel, the silent reading that novels have conditioned us to regard as the normal practice for all reading, whatever the genre. This may not have destroyed entirely the taste for poetry, but it has made scarce the proper conditions for its vocal realizing. Not just in practical terms, but in terms bodily and psychosomatic: the relation of eye to tongue, to ear, to limb. The rhythm that ought to engage the entire body in its motions is stifled by the silence and stillness in which we are accustomed to read—and often, socially, thus obliged. Being seated allows for little movement apart from that, barely detectable, of the eyes. And yet, conversely, a poem is not only to be heard, nor only to be spoken, for the hand has character and the verse turns to make shapely forms. The hand need not be tidy; as well as tracing letters, or characters, the hand also knows desire. This hand longs to go out and trace the curve of cheek and lip. Gesture is part of voicing, and writing is made by gesture; poetry involves the body, exercises its own in articulating its desire for another's.

All Duffy's novels have a traced and sculpted feel, a reach for the sensing of the hand—and a sense of the hand reaching out, as Keats foretells the posthumous power of his own:


This living hand, now warm and capable

Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold

And in the icy silence of the tomb

So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights….

… See here it is—

I hold it towards you.[6]


Often taken as a poem of love and eros, the one addressed presumed to be Fanny Brawne, this may be understood no less feelingly as the poet's hand held in printed perpetuity towards his readers. The metonymic force of 'hand', reaching from what makes the marks, to the marks themselves, and inward to the mind that guides, was often deployed by Keats:


Whether the dream now purposed to rehearse

Be poet's or fanatic's will be known

When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.[7]


The scene of reading is a scene of negotiation, of respect or desire; the act of writing almost invariably holds erotic aspects. Character may be destiny: thus Novalis is cited in Chapter Six of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss (1860), and by Thomas Hardy in Chapter XVII of The Mayor of Casterbridge (1884). Yet character conceived as handwriting (not what Novalis 'meant', nor we may suppose, George Eliot or Hardy) might make for eros, especially when eros is the instrument of fate, as handwritten letters so often are in the novels of those two writers who cite Novalis.

Let character be fate, and handwriting an expression of eros. Letters as both epistles and characters are emphatically present in almost all of Duffy's novels, many of which involve scholars whose work is to copy and transcribe ancient manuscripts: the work of hands transcends the ages, often with erotic force. Apart from her fiction and the diverse fronts of her activist engagements, Maureen Duffy is also well known for her disclosing of the erotic in the supernatural, The Erotic World of Faery (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1972), and for her studies of Aphra Behn (1977) and Henry Purcell (1994), figures not coincidentally of the late seventeenth century and the aesthetic epoch known as the Baroque.

This might provide a clue to the sensual in Duffy's work, for the Baroque is, aesthetically, stylistically, the very antithesis of the Horatian ideal that art should conceal itself and all the devices that go into its making: ars coelare artem. In the Baroque, the act of reading demands a full rehearsal of the process of writing. Nothing is concealed, nothing hidden, for on close examination all is disclosed, not least the craft and the mechanism by which the appearance of concealment had been achieved. Walter Benjamin describes the Baroque's representation of ancient myth and the pagan gods as 'the ultimate stage of externalization'.[8] Though its scale is often vast, Baroque architecture yields little to the distant view or the general impression. Rather, it absorbs the viewer into the minuteness of its making; it insists that what matters is not the impression it makes but the unmasking of its making. It is often claimed that Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688) is among the very first novels, and it should be reckoned so, though it is from Defoe onwards that novelists follow the way of maximal concealment (or 'realism').

For Walter Benjamin, the Baroque Trauerspiel is about writing as silently apprehended, not the better (as Bakhtin would have silence constituted) to hear the diverse competing voices in novelistic discourse, but for the display of words in all the complexity of their written constitution: 'Its writing does not achieve transcendence by being voiced; rather does the world of written language remain self-sufficient and intent on the display of its own substance. Written language and sound confront each other in tense polarity.'[9] In the late seventeenth century print was elaborating the surface of the page to embody and give presence to the utmost exteriority of the Baroque; the novel would thereafter develop antithetically, to contain within itself all those voices that make the printed page merely contingent, without any pictorial or iconic significance.

One seldom finds Maureen Duffy speaking well of any novelist, nor, despite her prolific practice, does she express much enthusiasm for the novel as a genre. Her interest in literature is most intensely engaged by the Restoration, when the novel had not yet imposed its rule of realism and asserted the conventions whereby writing itself would aspire to invisibility. Robinson Crusoe appeared in 1719; in the shadow of In Times Like These we should note that the age preceding the dominance of realism in the novel is also the period of the uniting of this Kingdom, sealed by the Union of 1707.

The English Baroque is where Duffy is as a scholar at home, most committed to critical and aesthetic advocacy and recuperation:


Ever since Dr. Johnson did his demolition job on the greatest of the English baroque writers, Dryden, and accused him of want of feeling, particularly in his elegy for Charles II, we have found it almost impossible to understand and appreciate this mode in English literature while admitting it in St. Paul's Cathedral and, just, in Purcell's Dido and Aeneas. Aphra Behn's coronation pindaric is nearly a thousand lines long in the same unfashionable idiom. It is unashamedly baroque….[10]


Dryden's poetry may be well described as, on the page, sculpted: in Dryden, as in Cowley and Crashaw, we can witness through both ear and eye what Walter Benjamin called, in the Baroque, the 'tense polarity' between the seeing and the voicing of words. Though it is Oroonoko that most engages Duffy's interest, we might think of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678) as no less exemplifying the lay-out, the typographical design and intention of the English baroque. The incipience of the novel before 1719 (the year of Robinson Crusoe) is thus to be understood as a resistance to realism undertaken in the name of 'visible writing', of the word stubbornly written, or printed, in a shape and style and character that could only be traduced by the sort of voicing that renders the look of the text a mere contingency. Duffy celebrates Purcell's world as itself a theatre encompassing all aspects of living: 'that extraordinary theatrical composition that's the world of the post-Restoration seventeenth century, at times a painted baroque stage set…'.[11]

Though Duffy's novels do not engage in the sort of material artifice—staging the page—of some of her near-contemporaries such as B. S. Johnson or Alasdair Gray, nor put words into play in the manner of Christine Brooke-Rose, they do insist on the act of writing, on laying bare the facts of scribal making. Her first novel is, as first novels often are, a Bildungsroman, yet its moment is the coming into being of the writer not as visionary or intellectual, but as scribe: not inspiration but manipulation, of character, by and with the hand. It may not be to put it too punningly to suggest that this is characteristic of Duffy's scholarship. Assessing the evidence for certain dealings in the early life of Aphra Behn, Duffy writes:


The three scripts make an interesting comparison of seventeenth century hands. Scot's is very neat. He still uses the older form of the letter 'e' whereas Aphra Behn uses a modern 'e'.[12]


To say that writing did not come easily to Maureen Duffy is not to discount the evidence of the prodigious number of her publications. But whereas those of privileged background and classical education take writing as a matter of course, almost a natural talent, even a birthright, Duffy makes clear in her first novel that the inaugurating moment of Paddy's life, its initiating revelation, is a literal revelation, in the letters by which words take their shapes. Her novels have been fascinated by that sort of writing—copying or transcribing—and are remarkably indifferent to the 'invisible writing' through which most novels set about their business.

In Londoners (1983) Al enters into communion with the French poet François Villon, and this is how two writers four centuries apart think about what, in writing, they share:


When you sucked the nib to make it write smoother, holding its coldness like a pebble in the warm moist mouth with that faint fear that it might go down the wrong way and choke you, the little bronze scoop tasted of battery acid like the ink. Everything was rankly metallic to the tongue and the nose….

Our learning to read and write and sum wasn't very different from your schooling though yours was early done in Latin, dead language that was a prize we were given for passing the scholarship. But the cheap pen and ink and heavy bench desk were conditions you would have understood and the cloister sound of a hand bell rung in the hall by a monitor on Monday morning to call assembly….[13]


Learning to write, to shape letters: to sculpt in words by nib and bronze scoop. Duffy's most extended treatment of writing as craft may be found in two novels, Illuminations of 1992 and Alchemy of 2004. As is 'characteristic' of many of Duffy's novels, the plot of each is doubled by a fusing of characters from divergent periods—or of the 'hands' that trace them. In Illuminations a contemporary academic historian finds that she has a Doppelgänger in an eighth-century nun; in Alchemy a lawyer of the present pursues or is pursued by a seventeenth-century copyist, Amyntas Boston, the daughter of a doctor whose remedies she can copy, though the authority of the copies depends on the copyist being assumed to be a man. Her father has injured his hand; only a male hand is worthy of copying a man's hand, and so Amyntas must assume a masculine role.

This is the art of the scrivener, and it sets up here, and throughout Duffy's work, a larger enquiry into women and writing. Not at the level of the literary canon, of the great writers, or particular genres, but at the level of scribes and scriveners. Why is it that secretaries and clerks in medieval and early modern times were exclusively men? Why was the massive expansion of bureaucracy in the middle of the nineteenth century, the creation of a textual culture, effected almost exclusively through the male hand? There may have been many women novelists by then but, while they could manifestly write fiction, women were not trusted as 'clerks' with the keeping of books. This is the world of Dickens: the writers employed as clerks who with their earnings paid to read his novels—as well as novels by women. It is a world epitomized by Melville's Bartleby, the scrivener, and by Bob Cratchit. And yet when later in the nineteenth century writing became mechanical, women were, quite suddenly, trusted to operate the machines. In their tens of thousands they were recruited as type-writers, whose machines would soon assume the name of those who operated them. Two of the greatest novels in English—The Wings of a Dove and The Ambassadors—were written or 'given shape' by Theodora Bosanquet, the 'type-writer' employed at Lamb House, Rye; in no practical sense or respect could it be said that Henry James wrote them, for he no longer held a pen, unless in reading proof.

The hand that writes has been a prerogative of the male, even we might say a characteristic. So we would infer from Amyntas, promising to make a copy of her father's remedies, after her father's hand has been disabled:


I will begin to copy it myself and not wait for my father's hand to be fully healed... That my father can feed himself and begin to perform other tasks is such a joy for him that makes him kinder to all the world beside... [Asked if she is 'trained in the scrivener's skill', Amyntas responds:] No one must know how much I help my father or they might wish to pay less for a maid's work. Yet if they cannot tell between my hand and his where is the harm? ... John Davies of Hereford himself once praised my father's calligraphy and mine is the child of his.[14]


Until printing was firmly established, at about the time of the Baroque, most writing was copying. We think now of writing as the creation of an original, from which all copying is done by print. Yet the economy of writing was such that, before modernity, to write was almost always to copy. And the hand was as precious to the scribe as any limb to dancer or athlete. The injured hand of Amyntas' father is matched in Aphra Behn's life; her coachman in the very cold spring of 1684 had an accident in which Behn 'wasn't badly hurt but bruised and her writing wrist was sprained.'[15] Her biographer is attentive to the material circumstances of writing, the physiological no less than the financial. Maureen Duffy's novels are full of copyists and acts of copying, from Paddy copying her verses into the maroon-covered notebook, to those contemporaries who transcribe strange lore from ancient manuscripts. The act of 'original composition' or 'creative writing' is refreshingly relegated, to make way for everyday writing, the forming of letters, the endless task of copying that constituted the chief occupation of learned men, scribes and clerks, for thousands of years.

Duffy's ear for the history of English is remarkable; there is a quality of authentic overhearing or 'true copying' which, whether medieval or baroque or of any period at all, is quite different from both the mocking pastiche of many historical novels and the exuberant caricaturing of 'style' in Ulysses. There is nothing antiquarian or fustian about it, nor does it condescend in pointing out mannerisms. This is a rare gift that leads us neither to laughter (as with James Joyce) nor to impatience (as with Harrison Ainsworth). It is a 'copy' of how people spoke, and an invention of how contemporary writing might best represent their speech. Precisely in this respect Duffy's novels pay tribute to the baroque, to the tension between lay-out and voice.

Matching this temporal and linguistic doubling, the protagonists of Duffy's novels tend to ambiguity of gender, most teasingly and disturbingly in Love Child (1991).  Two are forever becoming one as one dissolves: doublings, of times and persons and places and discourses, are particularly striking in the imagination of London and Londoners. Hers truly incite the portmanteau word palincestuous, applicable to what is both materially overlaid and genetically devious.[16] When people are doubled and ambiguous their narrative function is suspended or confused. The mystery of Duffy's novels, their concession to suspense, is in the uncertainty of the chase: who is the hunter and who the hunted, or the haunted? This is elegantly worked through in the thriller Scarborough Fear (London: Macdonald, 1982), published under the name D.M. Cayer. Such uncertainty of identity of hunter and prey is surely familiar, if only in passing, to any of us who have engaged in research or spent days in an archive. The Orpheus Trail (London: Arcadia, 2009) is structured like Borges' story 'Death and the Compass'. Murders seem to be prescribed; only by reading can we figure out when and where the next murder will occur: as elsewhere in Duffy's work, the theme is copying, here the way life copies writing. And the reversal of roles and identities comes to press upon the reader: are we reading this book, or is the book reading us?[17]

What can we write (not only read) apart from that which has already been written? And how but by the hand can we know what has been written? How but by the hand can we trace that writing, and realize the desires that a hand enfolds and discloses? Traced and sculpted: it is the writing hand that gives the erotic edge to everything that Duffy writes. An eros of desire, but also an eros close to panic, provoked by a wild range of uncertainties: whose hand is holding the hand that writes? Manuscript, manipulation; thus the ambivalence of the hand that traces characters and sculpts words, that enacts desire even as it excites it. Mere originality would be full of its own answers, but the copy lives in enigma and teasing. The art of the scrivener aligns the copy with desire: who is its agent?  By whose hand? To revert to the odd placing of 'A Fable' on the title-page of In Times Like These, we might proffer this gloss: a writer's hand can pose as many questions as the writer's mind can answer, for the mind would want to tell of good characters and bad, though for the scrivener's hand the 'characters' are dry twigs, dumb marks, shaped for our (hands') delight.

This essay began by celebrating the prophetic powers of Maureen Duffy and her determination to warn us against a future that 'the will of the people' is now bringing upon the land. The prophetic and the poetic are not easily separated. A wise prophet knows better than to speak out, for words shouted however loudly from whatever rooftop can be ignored, and forgotten, leaving no evidence of ever having been voiced. But words written, even though printed without the benefit of a publisher, and even if read at the time of printing by hardly any, these words remain to testify, as words once left unheeded that in perpetuity will foreshadow worlds yet unrealized. Two graduates of King's are poets—often of prophetic cast—whose most important work has been overshadowed by their (no less prophetic) novels. That this essay has been largely concerned with the novels of Maureen Duffy may be attributed in part to the pleasure I take in reading them, yet my concern is with the act they both articulate and represent: the act of writing, of copying, of leaving traces, of creating an archive of what might have been—had these words been heard and read. Both novels and poems display a loyalty to hand and character extending over fifty years, and extended to us as readers for far longer.

This essay may be fittingly closed with a poem to be found in Maureen Duffy's sixth collection of poems (of seven, so far), Environmental Studies (2013). Its title insists, as does In Times Like These, on the present, the moment (with its unfoldings to come), while the parenthetical initials furtively nod, one King's graduate to another, as 'Nowadays' heeds Hardy's 'Afterwards':


Nowadays (T. H.)

You would have compassion for the bewildered

white bear staring out adrift on a crumbling floe

or the mother nudging her flailing cub

through freezing straits towards the nearest icefall

as you once watched that furtive hedgehog

negotiate your lawn at dusk knowing

you couldn't protect it but leaving your will

in words; all that we scribblers can do.[18]


So measured a claim might seem fitting for a mere scribe or scrivener or draftsman, such as it has been given at times to both Thomas Hardy and Maureen Duffy to estimate themselves.[19] Neither, of course, was ever merely scrivener or draftsman; both learnt their lines on the Strand, at King's College. This poem, of eight lines and fifty-nine words, is arranged in a single sentence quite without punctuation through seven of the lines and fifty of its words: a syntactic accomplishment far beyond a scrivener's grasp, and one that draws from the reader, in respiration as in admiration, a gasp, a sensed breath. Let me close this tribute by copying out, if only with a finger on a keyboard, the last eleven words so as to frame the semi-colon that yields the point while holding the prophetic against the litotic—


leaving your will

in words; all that we scribblers can do.




[1] At the head of the TLS review of In Times Like These (3 January 2014, by Maggie Gee) the publisher is given as Jonathan Clewes; those in the know will pick up the clue that Duffy's agent is Jonathan Clowes, though neither 'Clewes' nor 'Clowes' appears in or on the book. The diversity of Duffy's publishers over almost sixty years could itself shape an allegory of the trade.

[2] For an account of the commercial pressures shaping Duffy's life as a writer, and compared with those in Aphra Behn's time, see Maureen Duffy, 'My Life with Aphra Behn', Women's Writing 19:2 (2012), 238-47.

[3] The Collected Letters of Thomas Hardy, Volume Eight: Further Letters 1861-1927, edited by Michael Millgate and Keith Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2012), 276.

[4] That's How it Was [London: Hutchinson, 1962] (London: Virago, 1983),132. The phrase 'the dry twigs of letters' bears a similarity to the explanation offered in 1958 by Patrick White ('Paddy' to his friends) for his return to fiction: 'a struggle to create completely fresh forms out of the rocks and sticks of words.' See 'The Prodigal Son', reprinted in Patrick White Speaks (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990), 16.

[5] That's How it Was, 187.

[6] John Keats, 'This Living Hand'.

[7] John Keats, 'The Fall of Hyperion' Book I, lines 16-18.

[8] Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, translated by John Osborne (London: Verso, 1977), 187.

[9] Benjamin, Origin, 201.

[10] The Passionate Shepherdess: Aphra Behn 1640-89 [London: Jonathan Cape, 1977] (London: Methuen, 1989), 245.

[11] Henry Purcell (London: Fourth Estate, 1994), 2 (Prologue); see also 'Purcell's almost infinite variations in this quintessentially English baroque form', 52.

[12] Passionate Shepherdess, 90; the shifting shape of the letter 'e' is also traced paleographically in Henry Purcell.

[13] Londoners: an Elegy (London: Methuen, 1983), 18-19.

[14] Alchemy (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), 315.

[15] Passionate Shepherdess, 240.

[16] The word was devised by Anthony Burgess in writing of James Joyce; see Ben Masters, Novel Style: Ethics and Excess in English Fiction since the 1960s (Oxford University Press, 2017), 46.

[17] This formulation echoes 'A real book is not one that we read, but one that reads us', usually attributed to W.H. Auden. An essay celebrating copies and copyists should not abandon its responsibility to identify and, where appropriate, to acknowledge an original.

[18] Maureen Duffy, Environmental Studies (London: Enitharmon, 2013), 37.

[19] See Charles Lock, 'Hardy's Poetry: Punctuating Voice and Space', Thomas Hardy, Poet: New Perspectives, edited by A. Grafe and L. Estanove (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), 193-206.

Browse articles, 'Scrivener, Prophet, Friend'


Maureen Duffy: Scrivener and Prophet

by Charles Lock


Maureen Duffy photographed by Euan Duff circa 1964.

On Tour with Maureen Duffy (1982)

by Marina Warner


How to cite pages in this special feature

Author name, 'Page title', Strandlines Maureen Duffy Special Feature, edited by Fran Allfrey and Katie Webb, November 2020 <URL>.

You will find the author name at the beginning and end of each text in this collection. For pieces without an author name, please cite Katie Webb.

We recommend using the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to generate a stable link for the page(s) you need