Below is an extract from my book, Seed. In answer to a question Minor Lits asked me earlier this week I remembered that when I was the same age as Seed’s narrator, I was doing an art A-level, and was trying to think about ways to draw. What should I value in drawing? I felt strongly that visual representation should be in some way faithful to life, but also that it should have the power to re-order life. The Pre-Raphaelites depicted an environment I was in some ways familiar with; a countryside I recognised, but that was ideal: every leaf bright and perfect, every plant as clearly delineated as in a botanical handbook of a medieval illumination. Learning to draw, I was thinking about how information was given, and how urgent it felt to me that this information should be both correct and capable of depicting an ideal. I wanted to be both correct and ideal. As I felt myself to be neither a possible subject for representation, because (by dint of my striving to be) I knew I was not ideal, I realised that the ‘truth’ I admired in the Pre-Raphealites’ hyper-realism was perhaps not the truth (about me, at least) at all. Yet here she is, Ophelia, stubbornly, eternally dying. Millais’ model, the artist Elizabeth Siddal, caught pneumonia modelling for the painting for long hours in a bath of cold water. Ophelia in a stream; Siddal in a tin bath: which is ideal, and which is true?
There is another painting. It is on my teacher’s wall in her school office.
When we are in the stream me and Rosemary we do not swim, we pretend. It is too shallow. We lie in it the cold covering our backs and our sides sometimes letting the water snake its way around our fronts between our legs over our waists where they dip. If we push our hair out behind us it flows to show the stream’s still flowing. We are just like the painting.
She is a teacher of English Literature. On her office wall which is the office wall of the English Department is a girl lying in a stream. It is pasted onto board and varnished, bright. You can see all the small leaves as if you could focus everywhere at once. The girl looks neither happy nor unhappy. She looks incapable of her own distress. She looks up into air. Her mouth is open, catching flies.
We do not think what we look like.
But in the picture is one of the streams that is not ours. It is greener, lusher. There are willows athwart the bank. Athwart. It is in England. Or it is in English Literature. We are not in England. I mean here in the valley. Or we are not in English Literature. In England, or in Literature at least, there are punts water meadows cows meadows a-chewing a-mooing to pass the time away a sleek sinuous full-bodied animal chasing and chuckling gripping things with a gurgle and leaving them with all the birds of oxfordshire and gloucestershire I’d rather reign with Edmund there than be all England’s queen what spires what farms are those? Here in not-England the water’s dark you can’t see beyond the bank if there’s barbed wire wheat stubble a metal bridge crumbled concrete. In the painting there are plants I recognise: dog rose loosestrife that liberal shepherds call a grosser name dock unless I’m seeing them wrong but in the painting they are all discrete and not mixed as they are by the stream where we can’t see what is rooted where.
I cannot swim.
We are reading English Literature to tell us what England is. I have never lived in England.
I have lived here all my life.
Rosemary can swim.
It might be a shallow stream like ours her back—the girl’s—might be catching against the mud the gravel the long weeds otherwise how would she float like that?
But Rosemary lies on her back and floats under the bridge. And so do I.
Joanna Walsh is a multidisciplinary writer for print, digital and performance. The author of seven books, she also works as a critic, editor and teacher. She is a UK Arts Foundation fellow, Markievicz Awardee in the Republic of Ireland, and the founder of #readwomen (2014-18), described by the New York Times as ‘a rallying cry for equal treatment for women writers’. Twitter: @badaude.