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A Chair Of One’s Own

Why writers need comfortable seats


Are you sitting comfortably? For most writers, finding the right chair is a pre-condition for writing. There one sits, level-shouldered and level-headed, waiting for the brain, up on high, to transmit those magical impulses halfway down to the fingers. Thereafter, it’s all a question of balance, or ballast: the arse, legs and feet are just there for support, to prevent the writer ending up in a heap on the floor. Writers might like to stimulate the mind with fruitful walks, but when it comes to getting those ideas out on paper or on-screen, most of us prefer to be seated. But does it have to be that way? Will it always?

You probably know the famous quotation: ‘The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.’ That mildly wry comment is the keystone of the no-nonsense school of writing: that having assumed the correct posture, the rewards will follow. I had always assumed it was said by P. G. Wodehouse, but I stand (or perhaps sit) corrected.  It was the under-appreciated American journalist, novelist, labour activist and critic Mary Heaton Vorse (1874–1966 ).

Vorse was careful to distinguish between ‘seat’ and ‘chair’. (I would offer the distinction that the ‘seat’ represents the physical space occupied by the ‘chair’.) And it helps, of course, to have a good idea too. But, passionate though she was about promoting writing, at no stage – so far as I can see – does MHV go into any detail about the chair itself.

Some writers have paid tribute to their favourite writing tool. In the case of Vladimir Nabokov with his Eberhard Faber Blackwing pencil , or Simone de Beauvoir and her Sheaffer Snorkel Triumph fountain pen, both were as valuable to the writer’s self-image as James Bond’s Walther PPK. But few will admit  that they could not have written their prize-winning works without a decent chair. These days, some contemporary writers might talk lovingly about their computer. But the frame that houses their limbs is hardly ever discussed.

As a consequence, there are more relics of Christ’s body in the world than Great Writers’ Chairs. All the more reason to be grateful, therefore, that Jane Austen’s writing conditions have been preserved so meticulously in her house at Chawton. The chair itself looks far from sturdy: above the seat with its intricate cane pattern, two curved cross-rails offer fractionally more support than a couple of papier-mâché twigs. The twelve-sided table opposite is so tiny that one could hardly conceive of resting on it to compose a shopping list, let alone Pride and Prejudice. And yet, in the absence of an alternative, the tiny chair served her well.

Virginia Woolf, it seemed, was more interested in the space around the chair. In the pair  of addresses later published, in 1929, under the title A Room of One’s Own, she damned the men-only Study as representing the essence of female disenfranchisement. In that famous call to arms, delivered over two days  in 1928 to the lady students of Girton and Newnham Colleges in Cambridge,  she argued that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’

She said a lot more than that, from dusting off the names of the ‘Four Marys’ who were ladies-in-waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots, to the invention of Shakespeare’s sister Judith, denied her place in literature  by a cruel and domineering father, who was representative of society at its most heedless. (Woolf also popularised the term ‘Oxbridge’ in the same oration.) Of the female authors whose works she catalogues, from Aphra Behn to George Eliot via Austen, the Brontë sisters and Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, I can report that none is noted for their attachment to a particular chair. Indeed, the nearest that a popular internet search engine gets is ‘George Eliot Hospital appoints new chairman’, which would seem to fail almost every test set by Woolf and her sympathisers. There is a Brontë Chair near Haworth, but that is a natural rock feature in which the girls were said to have sat as youngsters, while telling stories, so that shouldn’t really count — though some might argue it still does.

These days, chairs have become as much a part of the health industry as diet and clothes, so one would expect most top writers to have their own swivel chair. By pressing a lever, you can either draw your manuscript nearer or get some much-needed distance from it. Good posture is, of course, essential, and chairs are expected to promote it.

Back in the late 1970s , posturally forward-looking (and leaning) chairs, imported from a (then) still-surprising Scandinavia, thrust the writer forwards and took the weight off their spine, as if the very act of sitting had to be offset against some more athletic pose, but I have yet to see a writer thank their ‘kneeling chair’ for any improvements in their prose. Perhaps they prefer to let their readers imagine them posing on a Tolkienesque throne or the Woolsack.

But would I write better if I could sit upon a Humanscale Diffrient (sic) Smart chair (Price: Expect to part with about a grand ). It boasts ‘Form-Sensing Mesh Technology’ , along with with its ‘simple weight-sensitive recline’. Reconfigure your plot-lines while losing yourself in the Diffrient’s ‘revolutionary tri-panel, non-stretch mesh backrest’. Dedicate a poem to its ‘intuitive armrests’. Would Marcel Proust have written differently if he had been able to spin across the floor of 102 Boulevard Haussmann in such a contraption, instead of lying in bed for the best part of the day?  Perhaps the contribution of chairs to literature has gone under-recorded (Anton Chairkov’s reputation notwithstanding?), leaving writers to bury their debt to chairs in familiar lines. (Anyone immune to long-established Radio 4 panel games, look away now.) ‘Is this a chair I see before me?’ ‘Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chairs!’ ‘It was the best of chairs, it was the worst of chairs.’ And so on.

As we compose our great lines, readers might like to imagine us thrashing around for inspiration in the most traditional of chairs. Had you ever peeked inside Roald Dahl’s garden shed in Great Missenden, you would have seen a structure that matched its owner for eccentricity. His chair is high-backed and distinctly saggy, like an elderly teddy bear. The very idea that one might be able to ‘adapt’ its height or angle seems ludicrous. And yet, Dahl being Dahl, it seems to match his writing style perfectly, right down to the patch that he cut in the back of it to relieve the pressure on his damaged spine.

Before she became famous, J.K. Rowling was once given a set of four 1930s dining chairs, at one of which she sat to dream up the first two Harry Potter stories. The set went for a record-breaking £278,000 in 2016 to a fan, or at any rate a very shrewd investor. But commerce and creativity rarely join up, so why should a chair that’s designed to accommodate the backside of a corporate lawyer or hedge funder also appeal to a biographer, translator, academic, novelist or poet? Perhaps, when it comes to the business of sitting, we’re not all so different after all.

Some adopt a different stance. The list of writers who wrote standing up is a respectable one, beginning most often with Ernest (‘Writing and travel broaden your ass if not your mind ’) Hemingway. Saul Bellow was a stand-up, as was Friedrich Nietzsche. ‘I am writing this at my standing-desk ,’ he wrote in a letter. Not enough? Step forward, while remaining upright, Philip Roth, Lewis Carroll, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Benjamin Franklin, Søren Kierkegaard and Virginia Woolf herself.  According to her nephew and biographer Quentin Bell, she made her base ‘…a desk standing about three feet six inches high with a sloping top; it was so high that she had to stand to her work.’  Maybe that’s why Woolf was so obsessed with the room itself.

I have a niece in America called Bea: a talented furniture designer, still at college in Rhode Island. When I asked her for her theories, from hard experience – she has just constructed her first chair – she said this: ‘Much of the ergonomics craze is based around western white male proportions. So it is often not applicable to the diverse workforce of 2018.’ She adds: ‘Context determines functionality. No chair will fit everybody.’

This is surely true. Most of us will look at someone else’s chair and think: ‘How can they write in that?’ The answer, I suppose, is that chairs are as individual as the types who occupy them. My search for the perfect chair goes on, and I’m still not convinced that castors suit me better than four plain chair-legs. The answer, is, I suppose, as Goldilocks learnt, to keep trying different models. Chair-hopping might never become as popular as bed-hopping, but it’s surely worth a try now and then.

Alex Games is an author and teacher. He has written two biographies, a novel called Rydon Hall and a bestselling book based on the BBC TV series about the English language, Balderdash & Piffle. He teaches Latin and Greek.

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