Virginia Frances Sterrett, 1900-1931


“It all started because I was thinking about Antigone, the girl from Sophocles Theban plays … what I think I remember is her saying something like: being alive is nothing, it’s trivial, compared to all the not-being-alive we did before we were born and the not-being-alive we’ll do after we’re dead.”
(Ali Smith, Artful)

I had a bad dream about the earth being filled up with all the bodies of everyone that had ever lived and died. You know how, in a dream, you sometimes feel like you crack a code or solve some earthly mystery? (once, I was sure I’d sorted time travel.) In my dream, I had come face to face with the idea of everyone-ever, and it felt huge, new. Of course, they took up too much room: more room than there was in the whole world.

And then I woke up.
Dreams can be bad for you.

I think I had the dream partly because I’m reading Albert Cohen’s Belle du Seigneur, and he (and/or his protagonist) fixates with the inevitability of death, satirising humans as “walking corpses” with our arrogance and self-importance despite our doomed fate.

When I came across some Virginia Frances Sterrett illustrations, I thought of the dream again. She had lived and died (young, at the age of 31, in 1931, of tuberculosis): she was one of the many dead, but here is her work, pulsing with life and real magic, full of the energy of the dying: got to finish got to got to finish before …

I couldn’t work out why the pictures tugged so much at something inside me. Then I read that Sterrett had illustrated a book called Tanglewood Tales, a familiar name to me, and I remembered that my granny had given us a book that she had when she was little of the same name. I think it had a date in the front of it of 1914, or thereabouts. It was as big as a telephone directory but delicate like a museum piece, with thick parchment paper tissue paper and sewn in to protect the pictures. It was a book of magic. The pictures are outside of time and yet tied to it. They are dream-like, more wondrous than life.

So too are the captions. Rosalie saw before her eyes a tree of marvelous beauty. Henry sprang upon the wolf’s back. Blondine sees the castle of Bonne-Biche and Beau-Minon.
Around the time of this dream, I was very tired and had some kind of faux (waking) epiphany about how I could somehow connect disparate phenomena to write a particular story.

One of those oh-my-god-everything-is-connected-together moments (I don’t know that it is). I sort of enjoyed these strange attempts at linkage, set off by fatigue. In a way, lots of story writing is about drawing together different phenomena to represent each other or connect in some way to another. It is also not that far away from madness, but then, aren’t we all.

Tanglewood Tales is a book of Greek mythology for children, something I’d been wanting to know more about. I wonder if the book was right on the edge of memory.

The woman in the illustration at the top is also very like something I drew last year and put on my noticeboard (I cannot draw, but this view of a woman with her hair down her back sort of worked). I do not believe in fate, so I am not suggesting that any of these things were ‘meant’ to happen. But I like the neatness of it. I like the idea that our aesthetic senses form continuous chains over time, that Tanglewood Tales was there waiting for me, even that it cannot – else it would truly be the stuff of myth – possibly be true.

There are no coincidences, only resonances, wired into us profoundly, drawn in our minds like magical pictures.


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