Patricia Craig

Patricia Craig whose books include The Lady Investigates: Women Detectives and Spies in Fiction, written with Mary Cadogan, is working on a study of Northern Irish poetry and fiction.


Patricia Craig, 3 December 1992

Jenefer Shute’s Life-Size comes garnished with a quote from Fay Weldon, in which enthusiasm has got the better of taste: ‘Terrific! I devoured it at a sitting.’ ‘Devour’ is not a word one would choose to apply to a novel about the suppression of appetites, however jocularly. This book is full of rage and disgust. ‘They say I’m sick, but what about them, all of them, who think nothing of chewing on a carcass, sinking their teeth into muscle and gristle and blood?’ Thus muses the first-person narrator of Life-Size, five foot two inches, weighing less than seventy pounds; Josie, a graduate student in economics, is far advanced along the line of self-starvation. Anorexia nervosa has her in its grip. She has gone far beyond temperance – the observation quoted above needn’t seem all that askew if you take it as a prescription for vegetarianism, not near-abstinence – into some ferocious realm of self-denial. Finally her flatmate has contacted her parents and Josie is now installed in hospital, where she battles to maintain the lowest possible weight, to this end subjecting her breakfast, lunch and dinner trays to uncompromising scrutiny. All right, faced with a plateful of corpses, embryos and fluid from mammary glands, who wouldn’t baulk? But there’s more to this recoil of Josie’s than just calling things by their proper names.’

Pious Girls and Swearing Fathers

Patricia Craig, 1 June 1989

‘An Adventure of Master Tommy Trusty; and his delivering Miss Biddy Johnson, from the Thieves who were going to murder her’: this is the charming title of a story in the first-ever children’s periodical, the Lilliputian Magazine, brought out by John Newbery in 1751, and with its theme of character-moulding (a silly little girl is cured of vanity through suffering a fright) it set the tone for a good deal of juvenile magazine fiction for some time. Right up until the 1930s and Forties, characters in the children’s papers were still being moulded, sometimes with equal suddenness, as defects such as snobbishness or spite were ironed out of them. But it was during the last century that the reformist impulse in children’s authors was at its strongest. Such papers as there were, were full of fearful warnings about the likely outcome of frivolity or disobedience. Give in to naughtiness, the message was, and you will pay dearly for it: after the misdoing (being boisterous on a Sunday, or coveting a pear), as likely as not, comes the deathbed scene – however, Kirsten Drotner tells us, pictures of dying children were sometimes juxtaposed with elephants and giraffes, presumably to keep readers’ spirits from subsiding altogether. Not that all fictional children were seen as wilful – on the contrary, the misbehavers had their counterparts in the horde of priggish young who set about eroding the turpitude of wicked adults, as in the magazine story of 1827 called ‘The Pious Girl and her Swearing Father’: judging by her clinging attitude (she is illustrated with both arms clasped around his neck), he had plenty to swear about.’


Patricia Craig, 2 March 1989

There’s a moment near the start of Ulysses when a symbol for the whole of Irish art presents itself to Joyce’s exasperated alter ego: ‘the cracked looking-glass of a servant’. As a gloss on this we have, among other commentaries, the remarks of G.J. Watson in his study of 1979, Irish Identity and the Literary Revival. Joyce, as Watson reminds us, was with this image repudiating not only the fatuities of Victorian stage-Irishness as a literary mode, but also their glorified replacement, once Yeats, Lady Gregory and the rest of them got going on the campaign to add dignity to Ireland. ‘The looking-glass, cracked, does not tell the truth’ – and the resulting distortions are, in a sense, John Wilson Foster’s subject in his impressive new scrutiny of the revival era (roughly the period between 1890 and the early 1930s). The word ‘fictions’ in Foster’s title denotes both fictional themes and concomitant misbeliefs: for example, about the incorruptibility of Irish peasant life.’

Those for whom India proves too strong

Patricia Craig, 31 March 1988

A lot of ground is covered by Three Continents. We begin in America with a pair of zealous twins, Harriet and Michael Wishwell (pronounced Witchell), 19 years old, both owning and expecting a lot of inherited assets, money and property, and both avid to serve some striking cause. ‘Michael, my twin brother, and I always wanted something other – better – than we had,’ declares Harriet, the narrator, at the start of this long novel. An Indian movement to promote world unity appears to fit the bill. At the centre of this movement are the Rawul, amiable prince of an insignificant Indian kingdom, his opulent consort the Rani, and dishy Crishi, the couple’s – so it is believed – adopted son. Michael, who has met these exciting people on his travels abroad, invites them and their followers to make themselves at home at his flighty mother’s house Propinquity, in upstate New York, which they do with such thoroughness that they end by taking over the house and all in it. Harriet, who, in spite of her brother’s enthusiasm, at first holds aloof from the Rawul’s Transcendental Internationalism and from the movement’s founders, is eventually bowled over by wily Crishi; he takes off his pyjama trousers (Indian) on a beach at midnight, and things proceed to a natural conclusion. This is heiress Harriet’s first taste of ecstatic sex, and it goes to her head. She proceeds to marry him.’

Separate Development

Patricia Craig, 10 December 1987

The fuss about gender continues. Feminist criticism has gone off in several odd directions lately, resorting more and more to jargon of the gynocentric, phallogocentric variety, and positing a peculiarly feminine way of looking at things, a mode consistently belittled in the patriarchal conditions that have always prevailed. What started as a legitimate scrutiny of past mistreatment of women, in life and in books, seems to have turned into an assertion of some intangible feminine principle. True, a similar principle was being evoked in the early Thirties by John Cowper Powys, when he commended Dorothy Richardson for having dredged up her novels ‘out of the abyss of feminine consciousness’; and there’s Virginia Woolf’s famous comment on the same set of novels, when she noted their author’s mastery over what she termed ‘the psychological sentence of the feminine gender’. However, we should bear in mind another remark of Virginia Woolf’s: that ‘a woman’s writing is always feminine … the only difficulty lies in defining what we mean by feminine.’ What we don’t mean, surely, is a special way with words. ‘If anatomy is not destiny,’ says Mary Jacobus in her rigorous, scholarly collection of essays, Reading Woman, ‘still less can it be language.’

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