Reflecting on my Research Trip (Part 2: Whitby & York)
Hello, Dear Readers! Welcome back to an Eddying Flight and to my reflection on my first ever PhD research trip, which took me to both Whitby and York via the perilous UK rail system.
A note on the slideshow below before I begin - I recommend that you click on the first image so that the slideshow pops out and displays in its own window. Some of the pictures won't display properly otherwise.
In organising and embarking on this trip, I was looking for concrete and authentic details of setting which I could use to bolster my memories of these two locations, locations which I had brought together to create a new setting for my PhD timeslip novel: Winterthorne. I talked a little bit about this in my last post, and will address if further below.
But, as I also touched on in last week's post about it, I this research trip was also something more than a location scouting excursion. It was a kind of personal and artistic pilgrimage, my attempt to journey into the heart of one of my characters: Xanthe, the narrator of ASL's historical timeline.
Xanthe was actually the first character from this story to appear to me. As I recall it she sparked into life unexpectedly while I was earnestly trying to write something else, forced that project to a grinding halt, and practically dictated the story's prologue to me. It's a startling scene, one of fairytale beauty and Gothic menace, and it set a fishhook in my heart. I never gave up on writing the book to which that scene, that unforgettable scene from Xanthe's PoV, belonged. And nearly a decade later, the prologue remains unchanged, almost identical to that first version.
When I officially began work on ASL I expected Xanthe to spring easily to life for
me again, but despite - or perhaps because of - heaps of historical research and the reading of dozens of novels written during the correct period (the early 1920s), I never managed to connect with her in the same way I had initially. My supervisors sensed a kind of self-consciousness about getting the tone and the details correct and suggested worrying too much about anachronism had caused me to create something rather mannered. In addition, Xanthe's timeline is written in third person; I've always felt more comfortable with first person. And it's true, as well, that finding your way back to understanding of a character who first presented herself to you when you were a decade younger would probably be a challenge for anyone.
What I've slowly come to accept, however, is that the issue may not be one of failing to understand Xanthe's character. It might be, perhaps, that I understand her a little too well. That the reason there's a filter there when I try to look at her, the reason there's resistance is that, without the filter, without that resistance, I would be forced to confront aspects of myself which, until very recently, I have not been ready to admit were there.
Like most writers, I imbue many characters with elements of my own ideology,
personality, interests or background. For example, Jude, ASL's contemporary narrator, has my working class upbringing, my history of losing a beloved parent, and a sideways version of my prickliness. There's a hundred tiny threads of me woven into the millions of tiny threads that make up the fabric of her. I'm not always consciously aware of this subtle interweaving: when writing Zhi, the main character of my book The Hand, the Eye & the Heart, I was fully aware that they were genderfluid; not until the book was finished did I realise that part of my reason for wanting to write their story was my need to work out issues with my own gender identity.
Aside from her prologue, the first scene that I wrote from Xanthe's PoV was one where she was alone in a train carriage, watching the familiar countryside fly past with mixed feelings. Sitting with one elbow on the edge of the window frame, she fidgeted repetitively: flipping through her journal, running her fingers through her hair. She scrambled up onto her knees on the seat to see the view, and talked to herself aloud. And then she felt guilty about doing these things because she was aware it wasn't 'normal' or 'grown-up' of her.
These are all things that I do. These are all things, from an incredibly long list of things, that I have tried to stop myself from doing for years and years without any success at all because - as I have finally come to realise and accept - I am autistic.
This year, I stopped protesting ('But I don't have trouble with eye contact! But I was hyper verbal as a child!') and found the courage to do as some friends of mine, women who had been diagnosed as on the spectrum in their thirties and forties, had been urging me. I talked to people online. I did research. And I took a couple of diagnostic questionnaires. Everything came back with the same answer: 'Yes, you exhibit strongly autistic traits'.
After all my struggle and resistance, I can’t explain the sense of relief this brought. The feeling of finally being permitted to drop a huge, unexamined weight from my back: the idea of 'normal' that I had been forcing myself to project, not only to the outside world, but to myself, since I was a little girl.
I've begun the process of accepting that many behaviours which I have castigated myself for, things which have made me 'weird' and 'odd' and ‘out-of-place’, are not bugs to be eliminated, but features of who I am. That they're OK, and I'm OK.
But here's the thing: hard as it has been to be a woman growing up in a time
when girls are chronically under-diagnosed with developmental neuro-divergencies like mine... how hard would it be to be a young woman growing up in a time when the term Autistic didn't even exist yet?
Not only will Xanthe have been exposed to and forced to internalise ableist ideology and language all her life - but she will never, ever experience the validation of talking openly with friends about her Autistic traits. She can’t lay claim to that label which makes it, somehow, OK to be the way she is. She'll always have to live with herself in a strange love-hate relationship with all her own 'eccentricities' - the way I've had to until this year.
From the moment I wrote that train scene and found myself recoiling from the familiarity of Xanthe’s ‘eccentricities’, I suspect my unconscious went to work trying to distance and shield me from them. And, in turn, I leaned heavily on crafting speech and behaviour for Xanthe which sounded ripped directly from the pages of a Dorothy L. Sayers novel because those things would keep everyone, even me, at a distance. Keep Xanthe safe. Shield her from scrutiny and judgement within the story by her family and social circle but, most of all, from people reading the book.
All this has been sloshing vaguely around in my head for a while. The research trip was my chance to confront it.
It worked. Not miraculously, but enough - just enough that I was able to experience that sense of a bright, vivid inner monologue running under my own thoughts when I was on the delayed train journey to Whitby. And enough that when I arrived at Whitby itself, an interesting thing occurred.
I loved Whitby. I loved the ruin of the Abbey, St Mary's Churchyard overlooking the sea, the 199 steps, the twisty steep streets, the two massive encircling arms of the harbour walls, and the various beaches. I had a lovely time there. But it was absolutely not Winterthorne, despite being the place that gave birth to Winterthorne in my imagination. And in every absence... there was Xanthe.
"Where are the woods? Where are all the trees? Everything's so bare!"
"What's that wreck on the hill? It's very picturesque but it's not the castle, is it? And - did someone build a church up there, too? Whatever for? Don't all the old dears get blown off into the sea after Sunday services?"
"This harbour is entirely the wrong shape. What in the world happened to the cliffs?"
Whenever something was right - the smells, the sound of seabirds, the narrow
roads and little shops, the shape of the headland and one of the beaches that I walked on - I could feel Jude's thrumming excitement over her new home.
Everywhere that there was a liminal space, a space where I had made a gap or invented something new or rearranged things so that Winterthorne could grow into being, Xanthe spoke up. At length (another trait she shares with me).
It was the same when I returned to York and finally, on a miserable rainy wet day, managed my visit to Clifford's Tower. While I wandered around communing with the walls, taking pictures, and thinking thoughts about the deep weight of history, Jude happily pointed out all the bits of the view that she was coming to know and love as a newcomer, and Xanthe patiently listed all the things that were definitely, clearly, wrong wrong wrong and wanted setting right straight in the book. Each of them made me take note of and perceive things in their own unique way, and by the time I finally boarded the train home on Friday, I felt... settled.
This is what I've always wanted and strived for, even while a part of me was resisting it: to have Xanthe and Jude’s stories work together. To have their voices weave almost into one within the narrative.
Taking on the task of representing Xanthe as an Autistic character, especially one residing in a historical period where she herself would never be able to claim or understand that label, will certainly continue to be a challenge going forward. I'm sure she and I have more battles to fight before the book is finished. However, following this trip I have hope that in the future we will be on the same side in those battles. The side which has the bravery to allow Xanthe to be real - even if also vulnerable - within the pages of ASL.
Now if only I can arrange that trip to Robin Hood's Bay one day...