The house in which Jane Austen reputedly died might well in time have carried another plaque, one which celebrates the birth in 8 College Street of another female novelist who died far too young. This was the writer Julia Darling, who achieved acclaim during the 1990s and 2000s as poet, playwright and novelist.
Born and brought up in Winchester, Julia fled to Newcastle when she was twenty four, desperate to escape the stifling atmosphere of her home town. The first of her two novels is partly located in Winchester and in it she vents her frustration with the place: ‘I wanted to get away from everything Southern, and move on to other worlds where roofs were domes and there were no boys in gowns.’ 1DARLING, Julia, 1998. Crocodile Soup. London: Transworld Publishers Ltd. Reproduced by permission of the Estate of Julia Darling. Copyright © Julia Darling 1998.
In 1956 the house was owned, then as now, by Winchester College and was home to the physics master John Darling. By the time the family left in 1981 there were five little Darlings, of whom Julia was the second, and students of the significance of birth order won’t be surprised that her life in Winchester was characterised by rebelliousness. As a child she went to Nethercliffe prep school and then attended Winchester High School for Girls (now the Westgate comprehensive in Cheriton Road) which she loathed for its strict regime and once ran away from it for several days. However, the 1968/69 school magazine, Vortex, did feature her first published poem, ‘The Piper of Dreams’ co-authored with J Clements when they were both in the second form (Year 8). Her subsequent education, at St Christopher School, Letchworth and then Falmouth School of Art where she studied performance, was fortunate enough to include tuition from three poets: Peter Scupham, Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove.
In 1980 she moved to the North East, where her talent for making things happen found a welcome home and, following the birth of her two daughters, Julia Darling began writing in earnest. Her first publication was a booklet, Small Beauties, a spiky collection of poems published by Newcastle City Libraries in 1988 which comically sympathised with the exhausting workload of the working mum. The nostalgic ‘Poor Relative’ includes the lines:
Through the arches, tiptoeing along
Knuckled walls, past the judges, past the mayors.
She was my staple diet, my bread and butter
The unsurprising aunt who was always there
If not always on the ball. 2DARLING, Julia, 1988. Small Beauties. Newcastle: City Libraries and Arts
Whether working as an adult education tutor, youth worker, community artist, writer-in-residence, publisher, radio dramatist or playwright, busy energetic Julia Darling was also writing and performing with the Poetry Virgins, an all-female performance group of writers and actors, the flavour of whose work is captured in two vivacious anthologies, Modern Goddess (Diamond Twig 1992) and Sauce (Bloodaxe 1994).
In 1995 she brought out a collection of her short stories, Bloodlines (Panurge) and this was followed in 1998 by her first novel, Crocodile Soup (Transworld) and the second in 2003, The Taxi Driver’s Daughter (Viking Penguin). She also published two collections of poetry: Sudden Collapses in Public Places (Arc Publications 2003) and Apology for Absence (Arc Publications 2004), both of which were Poetry Book Society recommendations.
Throughout this highly charged creative period she was writing plays (twenty three in all) several of which were broadcast on BBC Radio 4; a collection of them Eating the Elephant was published in 2005 by New Writitng North, including The Women Who Painted Ships and, indicative of her cheeky wit, Doughnuts Like Fanny’s, a drama about the first TV celebrity chef Fanny Cradock.
Her novel Crocodile Soup makes much of the incessant window-gaping which accompanied life in Winchester’s College Street. As a teenager Julia Darling used to outrage Jane-ites with posters in the windows promoting such radical causes (then) as anti-apartheid, pro-abortion, women’s lib, or enacting a melodrama involving much tomato-ketchup. As a child she and her elder brother once lowered a basket from the top floor, with a message to passers-by imploring sweets as they were held captive in the attic without food, a typical prank as none of the Darling children ever went without regular nourishing meals. In the novel, the house is altered to the home of a Victorian poet and the plaque above the front door reads ‘In this house Harriet Smiles lived and died 1821 – 1870’. The novel’s teenage narrator one day sets fire to the leather-bound set of the poet’s entire collection. (Co-incidentally, Harriet and her creator both died aged 49.)
The narrator of Crocodile Soup, Gert Hardcastle, is a barely disguised portrait of the artist. She is a thirty-something curator of Egyptian artefacts in an archaeological institute submerged beneath a municipal museum and the book opens with her developing a forlorn crush on a girl who works in the canteen. The novel vibrates between the tedium of Gert’s institutional ennui in the North East and the claustrophobia of her upbringing in the south. Remarkably, Julia Darling wrings great comic drama from both environments, with genial acerbity, wry acceptance of misfortune and zesty linguistic invention.
The novel is certainly inspired by Winchester but the city is evanescent and only glimpsed through Gert’s sometimes fond but generally pretty annoyed references (here to the well-known view from the top of St Catherine’s Hill):
I ran off. I kept on running for ages. I pulled myself up a hill which was so steep that I had to grasp handfuls of sharp grass, that came away and crumbled in my hands. Once at the top I collapsed in the centre of a ring of trees and looked down on the churchy fastidious town with its rivers and bones, its walls and its moats.
I saw the map of my childhood. The southern sun beat down on me. I craved thunder, and danger.
That’s when I decided to run away.
This was not my town, and these were not my people.
This is Gert on the house she grew up in, i.e. at 8 College Street, famous for its Jane Austen connection:
You see, I was born in the wrong place. I should have emerged on the west coast of Scotland, or in some wild borderland, or near a crashing ocean, but instead I was dragged by my head into a room in a market town in a southern English valley, surrounded by sharp flint walls. It sounds safe but it wasn’t. Rooks circled hungrily above its spires, and a river named the Cut, filled with fine green hairy weeds, razored through it. Odd gargoyles peered down from the edges of church roofs with swelling eyes and leering tongues. Old ladies carried rat poison in their shopping bags. Disintegrating drunks urinated in the public fountain, rolling their plastered eyes at church men and choir boys.
I found myself in a lopsided Georgian house with beady windows and faulty guttering. The house was elegant but nervous. It sat tremulously at the bottom of a winding hill, wrapped in a shawl of ivy, fearing subsidence from above. … The house was complicated and difficult to clean. It was full of unnecessary space; box rooms and ante-rooms and sheds, sculleries and parlours. It was designed by Georgian midgets.
* * * * *
The theatrical nature of our lives was enhanced by a mysterious line of people that drifted past the front door, looking vaguely confused, watching our house as if it was under glass. I thought they had heard about my beautiful mother, and come to see for themselves, but one day George took me outside and lifted me high on his bony shoulders and showed me the plaque that was fixed above our front door. …
‘She wrote poetry books,’ he said, turning to nod at a group of Japanese scholars, who stared back at us through photographic lenses.
Our lives were acted out in front of this perpetual audience who peered through the windows holding heavy cameras and binoculars, pressing their faces to the glass with their hands cupping out the light.
Like monkeys in a zoo we became accustomed to being stared at, but their stares did not really see us. We were just shadows flitting behind the thick glass windows. My shadow inhabits photograph albums all over the world. I still worry about that; that bits of me are caught behind cellophane in other people’s living rooms.3DARLING, Julia, 1998. Crocodile Soup. London: Transworld Publishers Ltd. Reproduced by permission of the estate of Julia darling. Copyright © Julia Darling 1998.
For Gert, the house is continually overpowering, the shade of Harriet Smiles a perpetual haunting menace; for the reader, the house is an oddly threatening character in the novel. Gert is constantly in trouble, her adolescence barely made tolerable by swimming escapades, soaking up Captain Beefheart, hanging out with the Artist in the ‘graveyard’ (probably one or other of the cathedral’s two Closes), leaving podgy Eileen tied to a tree in the water meadows, or an acid-fed hallucinatory experience in the cathedral in which she tells a spectral Harriet Smiles to fuck off and take her boring poetry with her.
What to see (and hear)
The house in which Julia Darling was born and grew up is at 8 College Street, Winchester, and can be seen at any time, frequently with Jane Austen pilgrims still staring. It is a private house and not open to visitors, whichever author they might be seeking. However, by taking a tour of Winchester College the Darling children’s great playground comes into focus. The College’s buildings and lands provided endless opportunities for mischief, rather like having their own private Gormenghast to explore, a perk which the feral youngsters made the most of as children of a College master.
Swimming was one of Julia’s passions and when not sluicing through the pipes that carry the Lockburn stream into the water meadows, she could be found larking about in Gunner’s Hole, the College’s private bathing area to the south of College Walk, or at the Bull Drove river pool at Garnier Road (both now defunct).
Affectionate, loving, Julia had a great capacity for friendship. The poet and novelist Jackie Kay published a poem following her friend Julia’s death, titled ‘Darling’ which concludes
And what I didn’t know or couldn’t say then
was that she hadn’t really gone.
The dead don’t go till you do, loved ones.
The dead are still here holding our hands. 4KAY, Jackie, 2007. Darling: new & selected poems. Highgreen: Bloodaxe Books Ltd
Another close friend was the Winchester College schoolboy Robyn Hitchcock, three years older and decidedly more groovy and alternative than the luckless fictional playmate Eileen. Hitchcock (son of the novelist Raymond Hitchcock) is a musician, a successfully cultish singer/songwriter whose melancholic melodies occasionally disguise some fierce lyrics. One such is a song called ‘Winchester’ and another, ‘Underground Sun’, is about Julia Darling, written after her death and to be found on the 2006 Ole! Tarantula album. It includes the lines ‘Stand in the water / with your red’n’white bikini dots /Telling your daughter / This is where we are and what we’ve got.’ The third verse challenges her resting place in the north east:
You lie so lonely
Listening to the silence of the graves
You don’t belong there
You belong down south among the waves. 5HITCHCOCK, Robyn and the Venus 3, 2006. Ole! Tarantula. Yep Roc Records
Also in her memory is a bench, perched outside the family’s favourite holiday spot, the tide mill at Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight. The small plaque reads: ‘We remember Julia Darling 1956-2005, writer who loved this place “All my history is simplified to this: Water, stone, flight”’
Sources & links
A comprehensive, informative and warm-hearted home to many aspects of the writer’s life is at Julia Darling.
New Writing North is the writers’ development agency for the north of England. A tireless supporter and advocate of Julia Darling’s work, it continues to provide creative nourishment to the north’s writers and readers.
Notes and references
|DARLING, Julia, 1998. Crocodile Soup. London: Transworld Publishers Ltd. Reproduced by permission of the Estate of Julia Darling. Copyright © Julia Darling 1998.
|DARLING, Julia, 1988. Small Beauties. Newcastle: City Libraries and Arts
|DARLING, Julia, 1998. Crocodile Soup. London: Transworld Publishers Ltd. Reproduced by permission of the estate of Julia darling. Copyright © Julia Darling 1998.
|KAY, Jackie, 2007. Darling: new & selected poems. Highgreen: Bloodaxe Books Ltd
|HITCHCOCK, Robyn and the Venus 3, 2006. Ole! Tarantula. Yep Roc Records