Novel Studio Tutor, Emma Claire Sweeney, speaks at the NAWE Conference
Authors, especially women, still face criticism by the literary elite if their novels take place mainly within the home rather than engaging with politics. So, when I was asked to speak about fictional settings at the 2014 National Association of Writers in Education Conference, I knew immediately that I would focus on domestic spaces.
When I first came across Mrs Dalloway as a teenager, it wasn’t Woolf’s famous rendering of the metropolis that mapped itself onto the landscape of my mind so much as the heroine’s attic bedroom, which Woolf uses to lift the literary silence around menopause.
Only in the latter stages of redrafting my own novel-in-progress, The Waifs and Strays of Sea View Lodge, did it dawn on me that I had stolen my own heroine’s attic bedroom from Woolf. My literary theft is nothing new: Woolf herself took the setting from Charlotte Brontë. Perhaps, as a teenager who aspired to write, I had subconsciously identified with this longstanding trope of the madwoman in the attic: female self-expression has, after all, been historically subjected to mythologies of madness.
Far from shutting themselves off from political matters, therefore, female writers have long celebrated the power of those secrets confined to the attic. The parlour, it turns out, can contain conversations more taboo than those aired in parliament.