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OUR BOOKS > AT THE WINDOW

At the window
Novella
Written by Chester Eagle
Edited by Hilary McPhee
Designed by Diana Gribble
Cover photo by David Bradley
First published 1984 by McPhee Gribble, Fitzroy
Circa 38,400 words.
3,950 copies printed.
Electronic publication 2006 by Trojan Press
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Here’s what it says on the cover:

The story of Carol, her husband, and a nihilistic busker is a variation on two ancient themes – the triangle; and the woman, encountered everywhere in fairytale and fiction, who looks down from her window, her balcony, her tower. Are they imprisoned, these women, or well-placed to know and understand the world they see?

This is a beautifully wrought novel – a moving attempt to illuminate those painful and puzzling spaces between men and women where words and meanings fail.

At the window is a line – graphic, melodic – from Carol’s first recognition of her position when her husband writes, confessing an affair, to the moment when, men’s claims and accepted definitions rejected, she walks away.


To read some extracts from the book click here:
The opening
Gough speaks!
Carol shaves her hair
A drink at the window
Paintings
Carol’s talk: Rimbaud

To read about the writing of this book click here.

The opening

Martin, waking in the night, nudged his wife. 'It's freezing,' he said. 'You really want it open?'

At the moment of closing the window, she heard singing. People were walking home from a restaurant. 'Aaaaa ... ah ah aaa aa aa,' sang a wailing voice. 'Spaniard,' said Martin. 'Hurry up, you'll be cold.'

At the window, Carol felt a double pull. 'Not yet,' she said. 'I like to hear them pass.'

'I like it too,' Martin grumbled, pretending to be more sleepy than he was. 'But I can hear them just as well from here.'

Male voices provided an answer, or support, to the interrogative lament of the woman. Carol pushed her face into the chill. 'Don't go away,' she whispered. The roofs across the Boulevarde were icy blue. Footsteps clattered an irregular rhythm against the chant. 'You say something?' Martin mumbled, but she was with the passing singers. She wanted to float with them as they floated in their music, but her husband, who would be gone in the morning, was willing her beside him. She resisted until they'd crossed the road, then returned to his warmth. As he rolled over to embrace her, she caught a snatch of the Spanish woman's singing. Kissing her neck, he whispered, 'We'll remember these nights all our lives.' It was unctuous, she said, 'I don't want to remember this, I want it available to me, always.'

'Can't be done,' he said. 'We're moving on, something new'll turn up.' He snuggled an arm beneath her, she found his readiness to leave her frightening. Wide awake, she wondered about their agreement - he'd go home to find a job while she stayed to finish her research - and before she'd had time to realize how queasy the arrangement made her feel, the chant came through the window she'd left slightly ajar:

'Aaaaaa ... ah ah aaa aa aa,' across the left bank of Paris. He felt her stiffen.

'We'll come back.' She shook her head.

'Then we'll find something better,' he said and she felt a disappointment verging on despair. 'I wish I was that woman,' she said, trying to escape into the night, yet clinging to his hands. 'I'd like it if you were a singer,' he said, misunderstanding. She turned so her back pressed against his chest, accepting yet refusing his embrace; when he entered her from behind, she made a point of being immobile. Climaxing was an act of failed assertion, he fell away from her saying, 'We'll have to resume this when we're home.' It surprised her that he thought that another place might resolve their problems when they were already somewhere that compelled her to voice her equivocations. For Martin, she saw, home meant a resumption of priorities, roles ... she strained to catch any sound of singing, but relaxed in her disappointment, leaving her husband feeling ashamed.

When he waved goodbye in the morning to Carol on her balcony he felt that his life was gaining an historical dimension; their guidebooks had told them of marches, rebellions, conversations and partings that had taken place in these streets; he was taking his life now, separately, to the hopeful nation where he intended his wife to join him. She stood on the balcony that had been theirs, in a blouse and tights despite the freezing air, having chosen not to accompany him to the metro. A burden bigger than he knew how to deal with hung about him as he waved, two cases lumped at his feet, hand limp with love and guilt. She had never been more beautiful than in Paris, yet he felt summoned to some further destiny, and demanded that she follow ...

... when she'd finished her research. Carol, feeling liberated in her undress, and remembering that in the room behind her were notes and the pretentious title page of her thesis - Dream, Traum and Rêve - Heightened Consciousness in the Romantic World View - became aware that her awareness of Paris, and her life, had hitherto found an object, or focus, in the person of her husband, now disappearing down the Boulevarde Saint Michel. Waving into the icy street with her bare fingers, she realized that it was, finally, her husband's gloves, black with red palms, that identified him. He was turning every few steps and waving as if his life depended on it.

She wanted, lifting her hand, to make him feel better for his cruelty, but she was already overwhelmed by the things he was shutting out - the even rows of rooftops, the briskness, sale boxes in the street, Notre Dame on her immemorial island. Ecstatic with her newfound sense of freedom, Carol waved as if her life hung on making Martin see her ...

... and Martin, seeing, believed that their love was unharmed by his decision to endow her with the last of the money they'd saved, and allow himself to go ...

... home. Carol felt herself wrenched as the red palms grew more distant. Trying to block him out, she ran suddenly into the room they'd shared and scratched at her notes, only to feel such shame at the speed of her desertion that she rushed again to the window in time to see Martin's red-palmed gloves at the entrance to the station. 'Oh my darling,' she cried, 'I don't want to be left like this!' and Martin, distant as he was, caught signs of her anguish as he lifted his bags and entered the tunnels of the metro, promising that he'd write from every airport on the way. He'd write in Athens, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and the moment he was ...

... home. Carol sensed more finality in his wave than he meant to give; crying, she stumbled inside and spread on their bed their map of Paris, and her notes and questions for the day's researches; none of it satisfied her, she felt a bodily longing for the man she'd wanted to reject the night before, and leant over until her forehead touched the quilt, which she suspected was rarely washed: dragging off her few garments, she showered till the water ran cold; then, putting on things she'd not worn before, she went down to ask for a cheaper room.

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Gough speaks!

The booming throng, crowding dusty steps under a high iron ceiling, had as their object, when they looked towards the light, a wide stage with chairs spread about two empty thrones where the former Prime Minister and his wife would take position. 'We want Gough! We want Gough!' yelled the crowd, eager as they might have been for Johnny Cash. Row after row of Labor dignitaries filed on - the Party President, the Premier of South Australia, and other more dubious lights who'd climbed on Labor's reformist bandwagon. Speech after speech was aimed at the nerves of the politicized audience. Kerr and Fraser took the brunt. The flag of Labor's idealism was draped wide across the stage. Gough's ministers, seated in the front row of the audience, took bows; most popular was the ex-treasurer, from the enemy state of Queensland, who waved delightedly at the tumultuous applause.

Speaker after speaker piled on the rhetoric. Labor could never be defeated while the faithful spread the word. The President hammered the table: the Liberal:;, whose slogan was Turn On The Lights, would never be able to turn on the lights for the five hundred boys killed in Vietnam ...

... and that sent the crowd roar crashing into the iron roof; Vietnam was a symbol of all that had been wrong with the old, obedient, military-oriented society: the generation in front of him, used to dancing, singing hammering the aisles of the ironclad hall, knew the weren't backing off. No way was the country going back to those fusty days!

Prelims over, the chairman built up the audience for Gough, who appeared, mystic, rubric-faced, hair smeared, arms wide as Christ's, as he approached the stand which became, at his touch, a lectern to receive his notes, his historic thoughts ...

... the eagerly awaited word of a glorious bird at the end of its flight. 'Men and women of Australia!' said a sublimely confident Gough, timing this first and greatest pause of his address. Martin not only roared back, he noticed how deeply he wanted to roar: beefy people around him, less self-conscious, were shouting like fascisti as Gough, timing his splendid phrases, called them to their climax in the sullen progression of Australia's history: I am the hope of your generation, he seemed to promise, and if you make your voices heard your hopes won't be murdered by the ruthless materialists who want to replace me! An audience used to adulation and unused to dialectic, despite their shallow Marxism, roared, 'We want Gough! We want Gough!' at the climaxes written into his speech. The brick red leader, cresting on their waves of feedback, produced an exultant shout: 'The fundamental decency of the Australian people will not allow what has been done to be confirmed. The people will reject what has been done!'

Martin went home disappointed, despite the waves of singing and stamping that had launched Gough from the hall in an exultant rhythm to face the judgement of the Australian people, those putatively decent folk who were supposedly unable to ignore his message. Martin, longing to believe Gough's every word, wondered if the blandly regulated air of Melbourne's streets could support the passion generated in the hall. His hopes, and his complementary fears, made him feel so vulnerable, that he hardly dared commit himself to the night. The warehouses of West Melbourne, as he made his way back to his car, seemed as negative as anything in the nation's history. Sullenly he considered - if the rhetoric of a Whitlam couldn't fire the city, what could he hope to do?

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Carol shaves her hair

It was easier said than done. She went back to the balcony where she'd waved farewell to Martin; suddenly it seemed small, and the railing low. She wondered if anyone had ever thrown themselves over. She had a feeling that the step on to the balcony was one she'd not take again, and with the realization came a sickening outflow of confidence, as if a plug had been pulled, or a dynamo had failed in an unreachable basement of her being. I've been everyone else's person, she thought, and now I'm a shell, I'm only an awareness of my own emptiness. Slow as a sleepwalker, yet certain that what she was about to do was right, she picked up her bag and went to the mirror.

Farewell, nubble-nose, she said, and banished the obedience in her eyes, but they stared back, curious to see what she would do. The ovality of her face and the symmetry created by her evenly parted hair were obliterated by the scissors. In a series of brutal slashes, she revealed her face as unevenly contoured and red at the temple. A pimple stood forward of her ear. A heaviness hung about her collar. In a second series of slashes she bared her neck. Carol, she said to the mirror, tell us more about yourself!

Hardened, she trimmed her crown to a week-old crewcut. She darkened her lips with curves of oxblood, rubbed an emerald shadow into her shortened eyebrows and touched the surrounds of her eyes with kohl. Hello Carol, she said to the mirror. Hateful, aren't you? She carried scissors, make-up and tissues to the window, and threw them in the street. She had the satisfaction of hearing someone cry out before banging the window shut and picking up her husband's letter from the floor:

I don't even like her. I despise her. I must therefore despise that part of me that wants her, and if I idolize you, isn't that because you're unreal to me, and I don't want to see you for what you are?

Dead on, she thought. There was a knock at the door.

Silently as a panther, she whipped across the room, flung open the door, and took from Madame's hands a pair of scissors and a make-up bag. 'Je n'en ai plus besoin!' she snapped. 'Shall we just get rid of them?' But an angry Madame was saying something about her taking the attic room, or leaving the hotel. 'Oui! Bien! Je partirai tout de suite!' shouted Carol. 'Cinq minutes! And while we're about it, let's get rid of the offence!' She moved to the balcony windows for the last time, and threw the scissors and make-up out again, clumsily this time, because when Madame looked for protest in the street, she saw Carol's things on the awning above the news stand. In a flurry of anger she ordered Carol to make amends to the stallholders, friends who sent her customers, and Carol responded by packing her bag with icy calm, leaving what she thought was her bill on the bedside table, and throwing her keys after the articles of toilet.

And so Martin's second and third letters of repentance went into Madame's furnace, and Carol began her last weeks in France.

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A drink at the window

Technology ruled the world and Gary's despair put a gloom on everything. So much for men. She found herself looking at the water, wondering if another wetsuit would surface. Nothing happened. A yearning filled her. She felt like a pilgrim, worn out by travel, awaiting grace. On the bridge, two trains crossed each other: in silhouette, they merged, lengthened, pulled apart; as the gap between them widened, Carol felt some relief break free inside her. The trucks and buses speeding along the carriageway were like ducks in a shooting gallery, she felt she could pick them off with a thought. She tried to find a meaning in the scene; were the city towers, the fun park, the opera house, the disused railways, assertions of power? Creations of need? Embodiments of faith? It was lonely being a spectator, watching the scene subversively, but what else? One could live in the past, like Proust, or wait for the future, the dream, to come into being - Martin's position in politics, she saw. The alternative was to have another knowledge, seeing what others saw, but through other eyes. She saw heat and a waiting water, boats darting nervously as if a storm might rush in and catch them.

She watched. Nothing happened. Boats darted nervously across a sullen water as if expecting to be capsized. On the bridge, two trains devoured each other - two lengths, devolving into one length, became two lengths before they split. Carol tipped her ice blocks out the window. A libation? She sat at her desk, despite the heat, and wrote the conclusion of the lecture she had determined to give: 'Artists,' she wrote, 'who do not lead, must follow. Once artists no longer expressed the wishes of those who ruled society, they were forced back on themselves. Making the individual sensibility into a totem, an object of mystique, of worship, they were forced into the position of making seers of themselves, consciences, crystal balls: in short, they were forced into the feminine position, which role, by and large, they attempted to satisfy in masculine ways.' She stared at the harbour. Commuters streamed homewards, by ferry, hydrofoil, and the rest. Two trains, et cetera. 'Playing with rejection,' she wrote, 'they did not, for the most part, expect to be rejected. How could they be rejected, they asked, when the future - a territory of the romantic artist - belonged to them? But rejection,' she wrote, 'was always on the cards, once they'd given the lie to the world they knew, the world that listened to them. They were relegated to the position of dreamers, poseurs, visionaries, flâneurs . . . they were moved into the position of those who'd had unaccountable experiences, whose stories, dreams, pictures, songs and memories would be trampled into the ground, in one generation, like the economies of the third world, so that they could be regenerated, like the agricultures of the third world, once the advertising forefront of today's consumer society had need of them.' Resisting the temptation to add a flurry of exclamation marks, she stared upon her paper and the reflecting water. I would give my life, she thought, my thesis, for a happy moment. I would even like to see my husband.

'I don't believe,' she told herself, 'a word of what I've written.'

She added a few notes of thanks, respectful obituaries to the woman she'd been. She touched her scalp. This will be my last hypocrisy, she thought. She filled her glass with tonic, added gin. She drank it, staring at the water. She slept, dreamless, except, as the sun sent his first messengers into the sky, for a momentary skirmish between sleep and illumination, in which she saw herself selling tickets on a tram with passengers paying in currencies she'd never seen.

She slept. When Gary tapped at her door in the small hours, she heard nothing. When Didgie whined at the top of the stairs, she heard nothing. When Mrs McLintock tottered upstairs with the Gysberts' card, she was sleeping still. The sun rose. Trucks and buses rattled across the enormous, booming carriageway of the bridge, and she slept. Trains, rushing towards each other, overlapped, lengthened, and broke apart. Yacht owners who'd held parties, fighting their way through relationships, came down at dawn to take their boats on the water. Hydrofoils churned waves to foam. Ferries churned. Tankers hooted. Tugs tugged. Towers gleamed. A sky of gelid blue, wide as the problems of philosophy, filled itself with the light of a distant sun. And Carol slept.

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Paintings

She felt immensely richer than Gary. Taking his hand, and sitting him on the grass before a war memorial, she said, speaking without the Gallic intensity:

Un vaste et tendre apaisement

Semble descendre du firmament

Que l'astre irise . . .

C'est l'heure exquise.

But he would not have it. She saw that he had lost control, and all his faith. Reduced to an awareness of other men's madness, he had nothing to give except his problem, and a memory of what might have been. She put an arm around him and led him, like blind Lear, in a direction which, despite her ignorance of the city, she sensed to be important. In Darlinghurst, rubbing against stoned teenagers and shrunken men clutching flagons, they reached the nadir of their trip. He refused to go on. She was destroying him. They compromised by entering a gallery where they found themselves appraised by a benign Chinese who held the door, and a second man, seated at a desk and turning over papers suspiciously. The seated man, who looked like a Nixon aide, pointed to the catalogue on a low table without taking his eyes off them. Carol felt uncomfortable until she found a painting she could examine with equal intensity. It depicted a bowl and ginger jar on a luminous field, the objects blurred as if they had been reduced from corporeality to their numenous presence. A powerful spotlight on the ceiling heightened the painter's backlighting. The two painted objects showed a silent awareness of each other. It was a hard communion to break into, but when Carol forgot the gallery owner staring at her, and Gary wandering disconsolately among ovoid wooden sculptures of vaguely female forms, she was able to turn the duality of contemplation into a trio; then, having caught, with her psychic car, the dialogue of the objects, she was able to relate to the painting as a unity. The trinity returned to a duo. She felt the gallery owner admiring her. The Chinese waited until she stepped back a pace before saying, 'Unusual isn't it? Not many of our painters are interested in inner harmony.' He seemed pleased with himself. She wondered how much he thought she was worth. When she had a job, she told him, she would come back, hoping to find it still unsold. Noticeably, the Chinese didn't reach for his red stickers, nor did the Nixon aide rise from his seat. Piqued, she took their catalogue, marked the painting that had affected her, and put it back on the low table. Gary showed his contempt. Walking east, when they had left the gallery, he showed that he thought he had the upper hand again. He gave his views on high culture, consumer art, and the bourgeois need to decorate. Denying nothing, she told him that the painting had touched her, and that she would like to have it near her: at times when she might feel unsteady, or vulnerable, it would stand as an embodiment of a moment of extraordinary unity, all the more gratifying because it had been, despite the inspection of the gallery men, a moment of pure autonomy.

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Carol’s talk: Rimbaud

Martin brewed coffee while she made corrections, and brought it to her in the burgeoning light of morning. Feeling her release her grip on him, he could love her close-cropped head, so exciting, so honest, and could accept the way she was going to go.

They ferried to the university. She gave her talk, substituting for her rhetoric-filled finale some lines of Rimbaud - 'When the eternal servitude of women shall have ended ... woman will discover the unknown ... she will discover strange, unfathomable things ...' A group gathered around her afterwards. She introduced them to Martin, who was intensely proud of her, and contrite, at last, in his freedom from shame, For, as she said on their last mutual journey, their ferry trip to the Gysberts' flat, where they expected either screaming or a deathly absence of conflict, he had, in his guilt-ridden support of her, and his abandonment of her, made possible the first steps of the release she'd shown publicly that day. He, wrongly, felt it was her first softening towards him; overcome, he looked over the side. The boat shuddered through the water where drug gangs threw their victims. They walked through the streets of frangipani, magnolia and bougainvillea, past graffitied walls and the repair shop of the desperate technologist whose wife and son were too much for him, to the flat above Mrs McLintock, in a building constructed for the dour Scots who'd masterminded the Bridge. The Pacific breathed through the open window. The Gysberts, ensnared in sexuality and mutual forgiveness, lay locked in sleep. Martin, examining his plane ticket, said he had two hours left. Carol busied herself with scallops. Martin didn't know whether to leave her alone while he stared at the resplendent view, or to hop from foot to foot in the breakfast room, there being no room in the kitchen. He opted for the water. It would be gleaming after he'd gone back to the muddy, conscience-stricken city of the south where he'd be sleeping that night with Margo, if he rang her on his return. She wanted to unload her sickening woes, and he, purified by Carol's rejection, didn't want to hear them, but didn't know what else there was for him to exploit. He went back to the breakfast room and had lunch, one last time, with his wife.

Saying goodbye, she felt her life opening out as much as closing. Courtesy slowed her wish to dismiss him, yet she could hardly wait for the moment when, her chair commanding the retreating ferry growing smaller on the harbour, she saw him disappear. Martin's presence still affected her but Martin the meaning she was more than ready to banish.

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The writing of this book:

In discussing my earlier book Four faces, wobbly mirror, I referred to the heady mix of new attitudes swirling through society in the period leading up to the election of the Whitlam government in 1972. One of these was feminism. It boiled through society at roughly the same time as the counter-culture, though it was by no means the same thing. It was clear to me very early on that if women were recasting themselves then men too would have to be different, the definition of one interacting with the definition of the other. I’d had six years at an all-boys school and I had felt very ambivalent about the way it had shaped us; this ambivalence gave me a basis for the changes that would be required of any male who took seriously what feminists were saying. In the end, as I think At the window shows, I was ready to wave goodbye to the old style of masculinity. Carol, the book’s central figure, does just that in the last pages. She’s ready for something new.

The book was a step forward for me in another respect, that of reaching unselfconsciously into anything that happened to be close for writing’s ingredients. The book is to some extent written by snatching things close to hand. For instance, it opens with Carol and Martin in Paris, challenged by the voices of people singing in the street. It was not so very long since I’d made my first visit to Paris, hadn’t liked it at first, but had woken in an overheated room on the first night to hear voices in the street beneath. At once I thought of the young men in Berlioz’s Romeo and Juliet, going home after the ball, and I recognised the source of the composer’s inspiration. I was aware of, and affected by, that same source. Paris looked magical to me the following morning. I sensed that Hector Berlioz, Claude Debussy, Eric Satie and any number of others had walked those same streets, by day and by night, heads full of ideas from which they would make their music, their books and paintings. I felt fortunate to be alive.

On the second page we learn that Carol is doing a thesis on ‘Dream, Traum and Rêve – Heightened Consciousness in the Romantic World View’. I thought I was being satirical when I wrote that. But twenty odd years later, I find I’m still asking myself about ‘heightened consciousness’, especially the spirituality in music by Beethoven and Bruckner. The Benedictus of Beethoven’s Solemn Mass, the adagio of Bruckner’s 8th … nothing more uplifting has ever come to my attention, and I want to go further, if that’s possible …

I think I am putting the argument for a writer reaching out for things only half-understood because in so doing those truths, or understandings, which are hovering about the mind’s horizons have a chance to move in and shape the book. I see on page 30 of the book Carol is considering Martin, her husband, on the day of her return to Australia. ‘Martin,’ she said. ‘Men dominate because they fear, don’t they? It’s a mutual problem. Or are you too scared to see?’

He is. She leaves him and goes to Sydney, where there’s a vacant flat. It has a wonderful view of the famous harbour, and here again I was opportunistic, persuading Diana Gribble to put on the cover a picture taken from the window of just such a flat, with an almost-private ferry landing at the bottom of the slope. Carol comes to new and different terms with the world as she looks from the window my friend Maggie Gilchrist had at Lavender Bay, on the northern side of the harbour. From Maggie’s window I had heard the cables clicking on the masts of yachts anchored below, and noticed the way in which trains passing each other on the Harbour Bridge seemed to become one train, growing shorter, then longer, then separating. The trains and the yachts found their way into the book. So did my friend Kevin Lincoln’s paintings (on pages 112 – 113) which I had seen on show in Sydney. On studying again what I wrote in 1982 I am surprised at the way that all sorts of observations of Sydney, and elsewhere, have been coöpted for the book; I have Mrs Psalti and her subnormal boy at a café called La Gioconda and I realise that I can no longer remember where I got them from. I quote songs and verses which were hovering, fluttering, in my mind at the time, but not any more. There is a scene with Carol and Gary, heaping sand on each other, which I drew from an incident with a friend. All these details, and many more, have been made subservient to an argument, for that is what At the window is, about the liberation of women. I have Carol, when she finally gives her thesis-based talk at the university, quoting Rimbaud: ‘When the eternal servitude of women shall be ended … woman shall discover the unknown … she will discover strange, unfathomable things …’ I loved that thought when I put it in the book, and I love it now. Marcel Proust is also quoted, and I think his role is to heighten the contrast between living in the way of the past and looking toward the future, which is what Carol is doing, especially at the end. The end, the end! The whole book has been writing itself towards the end, when Carol waves goodbye to Martin, her husband. There is a sentence which begins ‘Notes poured from her …’ and it is the longest sentence in the book for the very good reason that the book has reached its moment of greatest complexity, indeed of illumination. Carol fills with tenderness for the Martin she is sending on his way, and the moment he is gone she lets herself out of the apartment, ready for the new life which is to begin.

It’s not defined. It has no objective reality as yet. It’s like the dream, traum or rêve of her thesis. It has to be made to happen, and that lies outside the boundaries of the book’s argument, which is about why it needs to happen, and what people have to give up, or leave behind them, in order to have it come about.

When I wrote the book I showed it to Hilary McPhee, not expecting her to publish it, but wanting her to see that I had taken seriously the ideas about feminism that she had put firmly in front of me a couple of years before. She said that McPhee Gribble would do the book, and she went through it with her pencil, underlining things all over the place where she felt that I wasn’t writing simply enough. I was furious with these suggestions, but when I calmed down I accepted many of them; how many, I could only say by checking the original manuscript against the published book. I do think, though, with hindsight, that I had not then reached the point where I could trust my style to be the perfect medium for the ideas needing to be put down. I think my personality was still wanting to intrude, obtrude, between reader and subject matter. That was a lesson still not entirely learned at that stage, even though, at the time of writing At the window, I had been through a long period of stylistic change (see remarks on The garden gate).

I think At the window is very much a book of its time, the time will never come again, and I’m sorry that not many people were listening to what I was trying to say back then.

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