Today I had the delight of not actually going to France. I only sort of attended ‘The Figure of the Author in the Short Story’ conference at the University of Angers, and read a paper to an empty room here in St Andrews.
Yes, I was on Skype at the time, so they heard me in France.
There were a lot of things I enjoyed about the experience, Skype probably not among them, and some thoughtful questions afterward that gave me some more issues to think about. You, dear readers, will probably see some of those thoughts here. And it’s the first time one of the questioners ever asked me to re-read my conclusion. Not sure if that meant they couldn’t here, or if they wanted an encore? (I could live with the encore theory…)
But the best bit was getting to present a paper on Claire Massey’s story, ‘Feather Girls.’ You can read the story here. And pre-order the anthology with it in here—out in two weeks, which is splendid. You’ll notice that the title of the anthology is The Best British Fiction of 2011. Aside from ‘Feather Girls’ being published in 2010, and while I can’t speak for any of the other stories in the volume, I have to say ‘Best British Fiction’ is a wonderful description of the story.
Let me tell you a few things about the story that didn’t make it into my paper.
‘Feather Girls’ retells the ‘Swan Maiden’ tale type, imagining a village in North England where it is simply common practise to steal the feather coats of girls from the lake, and take them to wife. Bill doesn’t. Bill has fallen in love with a feather girl, but has been courting her gently, steadily, for decades. She refuses to marry him until he steals her coat. But he still refuses to steal her coat. He reject the cycle of victimisation, and shows true devotion to his feathered lady.
They meet regularly in a pub, for pints and crisps. And the ostensible antagonist of the story is Mary. Mary is the bartender. I imagine her has just getting into middle-life, still fussed up about trying to look twenty, not quite a chain-smoker but with the rasp in the voice. A brash, blunt, ungentle working-class lady. She disparages Bills courtship of the feather girl, repeating the local proverb: ‘You know, you should have caught her coat when she was young.’
Mary clatters around the pub, constantly trying to overhear the conversation, gather any gossip she can from this strange couple. Claire tells us that Mary is ‘stingy with the coal,’ and she claims it’s ‘still too early in the year for a fire whatever the chill in the air said.’ This, of course, allies Mary with that other coal-hoarding, frost-defying grouch, Ebenezer Scrooge. Mary, like Scrooge, scorns wonder and fairy tale. Catching a girl’s cloak is, in Mary’s thinking, just the right way to get her between the sheets. There’s no wonder in this story for her at all. Bill and his feather girl are other, odd, just plain peculiar. Mary is, in many ways, the ugly stepsister, the malevolent crone, casting a grumpy shadow over an otherworldly love story.
And yet I find myself drawn toward Mary. At first I hated her. I was annoyed by her, wanted her to go away and leave the lovers to talk in peace. But the more I read the story, the harder it became for me to see her as an enemy. The more I read, the less Mary seemed un-beautiful.
It began with the name, I think. ‘Do not call me Blessed, call me Sorrow.’ Call me Mara. Call me Mary.
What would it be like to be a woman in a town where all the men are chasing after swan maidens? Where the desirable girls have feather coats? And you’re the normal one, just Mary from the pub. What’s it like not to have feathers where feathers are what make a woman beautiful?
Claire describes the interior of the pub like this:
Collections of one kind or another littered the pub, whisky boxes, empty wine bottles, framed pictures of 1930s film stars who would never have visited a place like this. There were three dart boards on one wall, but nobody remembered where the darts were. On the mantel piece there were stacks of glass ash trays, scorched and lined with grit. A monument to times past, or testament to the fact Mary could never throw anything away.
I think I’ve been in that pub, actually, or one like it. It’s a jumble of scraps and oddments, bits and bob, old antiques and useless relics. Mary can never throw anything away. Mary keeps outcasts and rejects, decorating her pub with an imaginary past. Mary is gathering scraps.
Which, as you may know, is how Claire describes the work of a storyteller—a literary magpie, gathering and hoarding scraps and detritus to make tales of. And Mary, sad, ordinary, featherless Mary, is keeping bits and bobs about. Knowingly or not, she’s working to build a tale for herself.
That may be why she’s always trying to overhear the conversation between Bill and the Feather Girl. Mary wants to believe in fairy tales, even though tale she’s in has hurt her. She scorns, she grumps, she hoards coal and makes herself a nuisance. But she listens—listen as the tale un-tells itself by the cold fireplace.
Mary, in her constant eavesdropping, seems trying to understand what it would be like to be part of a tale where women aren’t valued for their feathers and stolen robes, but a simply valued and loved for themselves. A world where a man will refuse to steal a woman’s feather coat when she’s young, in the unending hope of winning her heart when she’s old. Mary, like Bill and the feather girl, is trying to retell her own tale, to un-write the tale she’s a part of and make a better one.
Ultimately, ‘Feather Girls’ is a story about retelling fairy tales. And rude, sad, featherless Mary is part of that, always listening, trying the find the courage—or just the hope—to retell a tale and to speak a word or a song.
A song, perhaps, in which she’s not the outcast and the stranger, but in which she can find the rest of her name, and be counted Blessed.