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Today, for the very first time, I heard the word “disambiguated”. I was impressed. It was uttered with absolutely no tentativeness by a professor of English literature, so I did not have to doubt its provenance. It was crystal clear that it was a word, a verb with a subject and an object. It was an action that had been performed by a man against the interests of a woman. How dare he!
It was after a funeral and I was seated opposite a dresser on which many white porcelain jelly moulds were arranged in descending sizes. There were ancient stoves and Victorian chopping blocks and a large hearth left over from when the room had been the old servant’s kitchen of a grand house. I thought how much I would like to be the cook in a stately home, impressing the dashing friends of the family upstairs. I saw myself creating wonders out of aspic and producing those chastening roasts in which a quail is cooked inside a pheasant inside a duck inside a capon inside a goose inside a swan. More and more I feel event management is my calling – it is what I think of as my Mrs Bridges side – but I digress.
Around my table there were eight professors of English literature. Most of them had taught me and my sister and my sister-in-law. Somewhat disappointingly, over the little sandwiches and iced cakes, all the talk was of football. I am not football’s biggest fan, although I do like Arsenal Ladies. (A family of four can go for £10 so it’s a very good outing for your sporty misses.) However, after a time, to my delight, the conversation turned to poetry.
We were talking about Emily Dickinson, about how some of her poems that are very good don’t strike you as such on first reading. One of the professors spoke up. “Of course, many of Dickinson’s poems don’t go in very deep at first and almost seem like greetings cards and need to be read many times before you can really appreciate them, see how strong they are, and I think it’s largely because some of her editors were also her lovers and they inserted punctuation where punctuation didn’t belong.”
“The beasts!” I said and then, “What a strange form of courtesy. Was it a way of exerting control over her, do you think? Was it part of the courtship? ‘May I punctuate you?’ type of thing?”
“They disambiguated her,” he said. The word hushed the table. A few bars of a ripe old music hall song came into my mind: “I vaccinated Gertie and you ought to see the scar.” To disambiguate seemed for a moment the very opposite of love. It was hardly, I suspect, what Keats meant when he referred to “huge cloudy symbols of high romance”.
“Do you think they thought that by disambiguating her they were improving her?” I asked.
There was a little discussion about whether this had been done to fit the poetic conventions of the time, or to counteract the prevailing view then that women needed guidance and boundaries to protect them from their wilder impulses, from their femininity, from the folly and hysteria that went hand in hand, as it was thought, with being female. In any case, it seemed clear that these editors had done her wrong.
For a second I imagined the ghost of Emily Dickinson crying out on stage with a single spotlight trained on her eyes: “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away my mystery,” and then thinking, “Oh, they have.”
Are literary editors always troubled by ambiguity, however deliberate? Does it stimulate their craft? Is this why they frequently speak of signposts and clues, why they sometimes ask you to indicate what the reader is meant to think and feel at certain junctures with a friendly guiding arm, when you wanted the reader to flounder?
We are all familiar with situations where people try to make us smaller than we are, and yet we do this to ourselves routinely, because it seems polite, tactful, more likely to lead to an easier or happier life. We play things down, we employ self-deprecation, we stifle our anger with shortbread or brush over successes so as not to be called bossy or grasping or shrill or mad or pleased with ourselves.
More and more, it seems that keeping people guessing is vital. Arguments, I realised long ago, have no more to do with ascertaining who is right or wrong than boxing matches do. They simply prove who has the better set of combat skills. One of the best ways to win an argument, or at least bring it to its knees is to say, “You know, I could say things,” and then not say them. (If anyone asks I didn’t tell you that.)
Let us not be disambiguated. I think …