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The Narrative Thread

Story and tapestry

Illustration by Fran Pulido of two books that look like open books next to a microphone.

When I was a child, we used to take trips into Aberdeen: short, chilly days spent buffeting between the Bon Accord shopping centre, the big chemists on Union Street and, on special days, somewhere for a treat. This might have been the Winter Gardens or the swimming pool, but sometimes it was the Art Gallery — and if so, once we arrived, I’d always make my way to my favourite painting.

Penelope and the Suitors is a sumptuous 1912 John William Waterhouse depicting Odysseus’s wife at work on the loom. She is surrounded – hemmed in, almost – by the open arms of her would-be beaux: each proffering a hopeful posy or necklace of pearls, or simply gazing in lovelorn wistfulness at the woman who sits with her pink-robed back to them, absorbed in her work. I was told the story of how she’d pledged to marry one of them just as soon as she’d finished weaving; how each night, in secret, she’d unpick the work of the day, stretching out her task into apparent endlessness. In fact, it’s one of those spurned suitors who tells us what she’s been playing at (here in Emily Wilson’s translation):

So every day she wove the mighty cloth,
and then at night by torchlight, she unwove it.
For three long years her trick beguiled the Greeks.
But when the fourth year’s seasons rolled around,
a woman slave who knew the truth told us.
We caught her there, unraveling the cloth,
and made her finish it.

I – not a Penelope, but a Penny – was fascinated by the picture and by the story behind it. To a certain extent, it was my painting: just as my schoolbag, with its nametape sewn securely on, was mine; as were my exercise books, my pencil case. I’d been named Penny partly to avoid another J in the family – there was already a John, a Jane, a Jonathan – and partly by accident. A misprint in a book of baby names, my mother told me, gave its meaning as ‘one who waves’ (which appealed to my cheery mum), where it should have read ‘one who weaves’, after Homer’s Penelope.

I might more accurately have been named ‘one who wavers’. I was never much of a one for sticking at craft projects: my supply of physical patience is limited, my skill lacking, the results often charmlessly inept. As a child I could just about manage cross-stitch; this appealed to me because of its circular, roundabout technique. I stitched forward, then back on myself, rethinking over and over the same old ground, approaching from different angles — all the while filling the fabric with kisses. It might have been how I started to write poetry, or at least to think in terms of poems — little moments of attention building thread by thread until you can sit back, and a picture has somehow materialised.

So, textile was, in a strange way, part of my writing story: and later, working at the Ashmolean Museum on a (seemingly neverending) task of cataloguing medieval linen fragments, I became versed in the craft’s particular terms of ‘warp’ and ‘weft’, ‘tabby’ and ‘twill’. Some days it twisted my vocabulary, too: trying to type ‘woman’, my fingers reached most often for ‘woven’.

I found myself following this thread of work to London, where I spent a year inventorying the tapestries in the Royal Collection. These royal tapestries were unlike anything I’d worked on before: the scale of textile expanded from tiny and reticent to huge and narrative. There was the magnificent set of ten hangings depicting the ‘Story of Abraham’, rumoured to have cost as much to produce as a warship, and valued in the seventeenth century at an astonishing £8260; there were sumptuous French silks and cloths of gold. And most of all, there were stories. Here was power interwoven with luxury, glamour with age-old tragedies and heroics. Tapestries were designed to roll up and transport to the next residence; they were tales made to carry with you.

And behind them there were implied, though still largely mysterious, narratives. Tapestries are woven from the back, while the weaver refers to the full-scale schema (the ‘cartoon’) placed behind the loom. Images are glimpsed through warp-threads, and you can’t be exactly sure if it’s turning out all right until it’s done, and you’re regarding it from the other side. The craftsmen who made the tapestries – the names of most of whom history does not record – move shadow-like behind these delicate threads. So much about the creation of tapestries is shadow and gossamer. But as I researched more deeply, I found one unusually well-documented hanging: ‘The first suite of Tapistrye of the Storye of Vulcan and Venus containing 9 pieces was begun the 16 of September 1620 and ended the 5 of June 1622. The whole tyme of the making thereof being one yeare and 266 dayes. […] The Nakeds made by Peter de Craight […]. The Faceworke […] made by Louis Vermoulen[…]’. Men who specialised in nudity and in faces, who worked on a single set of tapestries for the better part of two years: here were stories, indeed! Who were these craftsmen? Did any of these skills come in handy in their wider lives?

In so many cases, it is impossible for us to know. But let’s look more closely at Waterhouse’s Penelope, who might allow us to glance through the threads to the story behind them. She’s using her skill to two ends: to put off those distracting suitors, yes — but also to create something, a particular textile with a specific purpose. It is a shroud, intended for her father-in-law’s eventual grave. She’s weaving death into life, and by unravelling that shroud every night she’s also, in a way, rejecting the possibility of death. Behind all this is a hope, however thread-thin: she will not entertain the idea of her husband having died, despite the evidence-in-negative of his ten-year absence. Indeed, this ambiguity is enmeshed in some etymologies of the name Penelope, giving its meaning as ‘unravelled thread/web’, rather than merely ‘weaver’; the un-working is intrinsic to the process of creating. She is a craftswoman who deletes as she progresses, building gaps and silences and absence into the very structure of the material.

I had reason to think of this when working on my first novel for children, which was – by far – the longest piece of writing I’d ever drafted. I’d shifted from micro (twelve lines) to macro (55,000 words), and with this enlarged scale came a new, alarming nuance to my understanding of what it means to edit. Redrafting wasn’t simply a matter of tweaking a word here, an image there, reordering a stanza if you were really unlucky. It meant unpicking the whole damn thing and starting again, retaining just little patches of fabric that you could weave back in with a different material entirely. I’ve rewritten my first novel for children from scratch five times to date, and I expect that’s only half the rewriting story. This extent of undoing, reworking, restitching was quite unthinkable to me in my poetry-only days, and I can’t help but think, on account of those painstaking drafts, that I’ve not written one novel, but many, in shimmery palimpsest. Into the finished story will also be meshed the layers of drafts that didn’t make it, of characters formed and lost for the sake of roundness or brevity — ghost-writing, as it were. Stories spin off at every splitting of the thread, and each strand is double-ply, one idea twisted around another. Threads – weaving – craft – unravelling – making again: I’ve come to see the process as very much more layered than I first thought.

And these are the strands that are woven into that novel: a dusty museum, an ancient poem, reimaginings of the past, the importance of names; a girl who wants to know the meaning behind an artwork. If I follow those threads back to their beginning, I might find myself once more in front of Penelope and the Suitors: the daunting, seemingly endless task before her; the many alternative futures she’s turning her back towards; the thread she’s snapping in her teeth, ready to set to work.

Penny Boxall’s collections are Ship of the Line (which won the Edwin Morgan Poetry Award), Who Goes There? and, with Naoko Matsubara, In Praise of Hands. She’s writing a children’s novel for which she received support from Arts Council England.

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