On May's bookshelf

Technology | Brighten Youth Education Centre 14 May 2019

Mason currey's Daily Rituals: Women at Work (2019) exists, in his own words, as a corrective.

His initial effort, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work (2013) explored how accomplished professionals made time for work and got things done.

However, one of the book's initial shortcomings was that 80 percent of those included were men, and he begins by lamenting that he did not work harder to gather more stories about women. These achievements "were frequently mitigated by devoted wives, paid servants, sizable inheritances, and, oh yes, centuries of accrued privilege."

Nevertheless, the struggle was real.

In a 1912 letter to his lover Felice Bauer, Franz Kafka complained: "time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle manoeuvers."

Honore de Balzac engaged in "orgies of work" fuelled by as many as 50 cups of coffee a day (and was, perhaps understandably, dead at 51). Anthony Trollop demanded 3,000 words of himself each morning before heading off to his job at the post office. Gustave Flaubert wrote through the night, finally finding peace once his family had retired and pouring seven years of his life into magnum opus, Madame Bovary.

Currey's new work focuses on 143 women and "opens dramatic new vistas of frustration and compromise." While some of those included enjoyed wealth and independence; "most grew up in societies that ignored or rejected women's creative work, and many had parents or spouses who vigorously opposed their attempts to prioritize self-expression over the traditional roles of wife, mother, homemaker."

Penelope Fitzgerald did not publish anything until she was 58, and recognition came only in her 70s. Her husband drank while she supported their three children by working as a teacher. For a time, the family lived on a dilapidated houseboat on the Thames despite Fitzgerald having graduated with a First from Somerville College, Oxford.

Others, including Shirley Jackson and Toni Morrison, found ways of working in their head while also assuming the domestic burden.

Perhaps this is why many of the women included here have embraced more moderate habits than the creatives described in the first volume: who has time for "orgies of work" when there are beds to be made?

Currey hopes to achieve more than just "highbrow trivia," instead aiming to produce a work of use to anyone struggling to make time or get into the right state of mind for their own projects.

These biographical vignettes deserve to be savored for their humor, revelatory power and resilience - from Isak Dinesen's diet consisting only of champagne, oysters and amphetamines, to Isabel Allende's insistence that she begin each new book on January 8.

If you have any questions about our column, or the issues raised within it, please e-mail them to us: enquiry@englishlearning.edu.hk

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