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The Story In The Attic

Why writers and artists feel at home in garrets

Loft window

It is in the cellar of the mind that we might imagine the subconscious to exist, since Freud described those parts of ourselves we cannot know as buried deep within us, and the work of psychoanalysis as excavating to find them. He used the archaeological metaphor often, writing, ‘Just as the archaeologist builds up the walls […] from the foundations that have remained standing, determines the number and position of the columns from depressions in the floor and reconstructs the mural decorations and paintings from the remains found in the debris, so does the analyst proceed when he draws his inferences from the fragments of memories, from the associations and from the behaviour of the subject of analysis.’ But there is an argument to be made for the attic being the place where the rubble of discarded clutter, old letters and diaries, and the memories and associations that make up a story are to be found.

When the poet Emily Dickinson in around 1863 wrote ‘The Brain has Corridors — surpassing / Material Place’ perhaps she was imagining herself climbing up the stairs of the well-appointed family home in Amherst, Massachusetts to those rooms only usually inhabited by servants and junk. There she might find, under a thin sheet of dust, unrecognisable at first in the filtered light, half-forgotten material that she could use in her poems. In Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women (1868–9), Jo March, the daughter who wants to be a novelist, takes herself to the family’s attic to hide away and write.

For some women novelists, though, the attic became the repository of that other, darker, self, the mad woman boiling with untrammelled desire and rage who would wreak havoc if she were let loose. The most famous literary attic inhabitant of all appears in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847). Bertha Mason, Edward Rochester’s first wife, is not hidden away in a dungeon, but concealed high above the heads of those living at Thornfield. Jane Eyre has to climb the stairs to find her, and when she does the whole hidden story of Rochester’s incarceration of Bertha and attempt to inveigle Jane into bigamy is revealed. Of course Charlotte Brontë allows Jane to forgive him in the end, although she does blind and maim Rochester before he and Jane are allowed to marry. In Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper, written forty-five years later, a woman being treated for nervous depression is treated with a rest cure, spending much of her time in a room ‘at the top of the house’ with barred windows, where she goes slowly mad.. The short story is written in the form of journal entries; Gilman gave the mad woman in the attic a voice.

In the twentieth century, the attic story had its most admired and tragic author in the young Jewish girl Anne Frank. Her diary (first published in 1947) written in a ‘secret annexe,’ in the top floors of a tall house on Amsterdam’s Prinsengracht where her family and others were in hiding from the Nazis, was crammed into an autograph book, two exercise books and across loose sheets of paper. All she could see from the attic room at the top, the only place where the window was not curtained or blacked out, was a slice of sky and a chestnut tree. Even so, what riches she found there! It was as if the room at the top of the stairs that were hidden behind the fake set of bookshelves contained worlds. Visiting today, you are struck by an eerie sense of being suspended high above and apart from the chaos of life below, although it is impossible to grasp the terror and claustrophobia of the Franks’ secret existence.

In more recent years, the gothic potential of concealment beneath the eaves was resuscitated with spectacular success in Virginia Andrews’ blockbuster series of novels which began with Flowers in the Attic (1979). This was the Victorian gothic novel revived: four children, products of an incestuous relationship, are hidden away in the attic of their ancestral home, Foxworth Hall, and come to the realisation that someone wishes them dead. As in all good tales of this sort, there is an old country house, and what is kept under the eaves cannot be hidden forever. Three of the four children escape to tell their story.

And what of modern times? The gothic demands a grand and romantic setting, and if there are attics in modern Britain being lived in they are likely to have been converted into bedrooms or studio flats. There is not much space left to hide in. Brontë’s Bertha Mason would not have been concealed for long in a three-bed semi with a trapdoor and a clanking pull-down metal ladder. There would be no room for her and her attendant Grace Poole, squeezed in between the water-tank and the empty suitcases.

Yet still the attic keeps its romance. For me, as a twenty-first century writer, there have been two attics that have changed the course of my writing. One led directly to the other, and both were places where I found things that had been shoved away in storage, overlooked — not hidden exactly, but not brought out into the light and air very often.

I was working as a postgraduate in art history on an artist who had made famous paintings of an attic. This was Gwen John, who lived on the top floor of a series of those grand Parisian apartment blocks where the well-off inhabited the first floor with the high ceilings and elegant long windows, while the slant-roofed attics where you boiled in summer and froze in winter were let out to servants, students, and penniless artists and writers. In John’s paintings her rooms are furnished with a wicker chair (light enough to be carried to the top of the house) and the deep-set window that marks them out as under the eaves.

When, in the course of the research, I found myself in Paris at the Musée Rodin, where John had spent time as the great sculptor’s lover and model, and was led up to the highest floor of the building, I was aware of the synchronicity. There, in the attic, was a cardboard box stuffed with letters from her to him, labelled by the archivist ‘dull letters, not interesting’. They were love letters, passionate, sometimes incoherent: this was not a new story, her affair with him had been written about before. But among this entirely un-treasured correspondence, stored in a room hidden away at the top of the august museum, were letters that spoke of her love of Parisian shops, and of getting dressed up in her finds from Le Bon Marché to go out into the streets and cafés. This shook my perception of her as shy, unworldly, a recluse, and I looked at her paintings with different eyes from that day on.

From there I made my way to the Bon Marché, the grandest of the grands magasins, the setting for Émile Zola’s great novel of 1883, Au Bonheur des Dames, where Gwen John had examined parasols and hats and fabrics and debated with herself what would make her look most ‘artistique.’ I asked if they had an archive. The director of the shop was bemused: they had not been asked such a thing before. And it could not really be called an archive, merely a haphazard collection of old shop fittings and documents which they kept under the roof in one of the rooms where, he told me, the vendeuses used to sleep. I was welcome to spend the afternoon rummaging up there.
I have never forgotten that attic room and the pleasure of those hours. Watching over me as I worked were a group of bob-haired 1920s mannequins made of painted plaster, or some kind of early plastic. There were catalogues from the 1900s of ladies with picture hats and wasp waists, and other papers – advertisements, photographs – which helped me to a new understanding of how and why Gwen John painted her female sitters in the way she did. That research became a book, which led to another book, which led to my first novel. The attic had become a path to somewhere else entirely, the source of new stories, the starting point for a writing life.

Alicia Foster is a novelist and art historian. Her novel Warpaint was published in 2013. She wrote the first full survey of all women artists in Tate collections. Radical Women: Jessica Dismorr and her Contemporaries will be published in November, to accompany an exhibition at Pallant House Gallery


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