Tuesday, 27 April 2010

Dear Austen (Bawden)

As regular visitors to my Virago Venture blog will know, I greatly enjoy Nina Bawden's fiction, particularly for their insight into family relationships and circumstances. Particular favourites thus far have included George beneath a paper moon and Anna Apparent.

You may have spotted her autobiography, In my own time, in my pile of library loot the other week. I didn't get around to writing about it, but it was a fascinating book and I could see how many of the events in her life had had an obvious influence on her writing -she was evacuated as a child which I am sure must have driven her to write Carrie's War, and her son Niki was schizophrenic, and this was reminiscent of the son in The birds on the trees.

But it would be impossible not to write about Dear Austen which I sought out after reading her autobiography. In May 2002, Nina Bawden and her husband Austen were on their way to an 80th birthday party in Cambridge, by train. They were involved in the Potter's bar train crash, and Austen was one of the eight casualties. In this book, Nina tries to come to terms with her bereavement by writing to her husband, telling him about the events, and becoming spokesperson for the survivors of the crash, and using the writing to try to make sense of the accident that left her injured and a widow.

It is incredibly poignant and it would be difficult not to be touched by this book. Bawen is such an accomplished writer that she really manages to convey her feelings, and many ring true for anyone who has been bereaved. Here are some passages:

"We had made such plans for that summer, do you remember? Among them was a cruise to the Arctic in August; a sentimental jounrey in memory of my father....we had already booked our tickets.."

"I miss you. All the time - not only when I cannot reach something off a high shelf, or need to fix the video-recorder, although of course there are many different occasions when I need your help for a specific reason that has nothing to do with our respective heights"

"The grey depression that had been lurking all week closed in on me. It is obviously worse when I am alone; especially at night, in bed...but it can descend suddenly, unexpectedly, an time, any place - like the men's clothing department on the ground floor of John Lewis...I have never, to my recollection, bought or been with you when you bought, any garment from that particular store, and yet whenever I go there I am assailed by such a choking sense of desolation...I wonder if I should by you something, a pair of socks, a tie....other places that you would expect to be more evocative do not have this effect. There seems to be no specialised location for grief".

"Obtaining compensation for injury rather than death is an obstacle race...it is not enough to have been rendered unconscious and raving with legs, arms and ribs broken; evidence of continuing damage has to be proved by expensive medical specialists...No one seems interested in what yourabsence means for me practically, which seems to me pertinent - what you could be doing for me, what we could do for each other..."


  1. Oh Verity, my eyes are stinging with tears.

  2. I couldn't read this, Verity, it's too sad! I knew she had lost her husband in that crash and I just can't imagine how awful it must have been for her. I'd be sobbing my way through the pages I think...

  3. Oh I don't think that I would be able to read this, I think the fact its non-fiction would make this all the harder. I would like to read some Bawden though as I have not as yet.

  4. Darlene - it was very very painful to read.

    Rachel - it was hugely sad, but I could see that perhaps writing it had been carthatic.

    Simon - Bawden is definitely worth reading at some point though she is a bit of an acquired taste.

  5. I just came upon this post from a couple of weeks ago and am so glad I did - I'd really love to read this. I am a huge fan of Nina Bawden - one of my Persephone Week purchases was almost entirely on the basis of the fact that it came with a glowing recommendation from her. I want to read this so much...even though it does sound terribly sad, I do still want to know what her experiences were.

  6. jane - it's nice to meet another Nina Bawden fan - have you seen my Virago blog which has a lot of reviews of her books on it? She has also written an autobiography which I found fascinating.


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