A dead ordinary woman
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Muriel Murdoch died in 1961 yet she asked – bullied me more like – into telling her story. ‘Write it all down – all of it,’ she insisted from her an unmarked Essex grave that Mum never let me visit. She was furious to be dead at thirty-five, and wanted me to be her voice. I was reluctant. And curious. The veil between us lifted as Muriel shared her childhood losses, and her adult struggles with 1940s Essex as the backdrop. Muriel’s tales mirror, dovetail, and blend with mine. My doubts morph into enthusiasm; irritations settle and across time and space, a loving, playful connection forges between us. The story needed to be told because Muriel said it did. She was a dead ordinary woman with a life cut short, yet she represented women labelled in 1940s Britain not just as difficult: but as ‘good-time girls’ and ‘home wreckers.’ She was hot-headed, loving, resilient, and principled: she thought that war was stupid; and was unafraid to call out the misogyny of some opinionated men in the chip shop queue: ‘Got herself pregnant? Never heard of that before. You’d better ring the papers.’ I was influenced by Kate Atkinson’s Behind the Scenes at the Museum, whose protagonist starts her narrative from inside her mother’s womb, providing a poignant, witty story of her unfolding life using the omnipresent point of view. Alice Sebold’s Lovely Bones helped me to think about writing about the impact of loss from beyond the grave, and Doireann Ni Ghroifa’s A Ghost in the Throat gave me a taste of a piece where the author included herself in her journey of researching and writing about a long-dead poet, doubting herself at times. This story was also about a woman who had been forgotten and overlooked. The story needed to be told for the adventure of the telling. In its writing, I trusted myself, the process, and the connection with my ancestor. Each day I sat at my desk with the loosest of plans listening to Muriel and putting her words to the page. The more I committed the more the stories came. Why her? Why this? Why now? I agree with Gurprakash, the Dutch, guitar-strumming yogi when he says, ‘The meaning is the experience.’ Lastly, it needed to be told for my own growth. Writing as Muriel with her flaws and foibles has helped me to accept, love, and even revere, my ordinary self. To accept oneself fully, as Matt Haig writes in The Midnight Library ‘like the way you accept nature, a glacier or a puffin or the breach of a whale. And in so doing you find freedom.’ Above all, I wrote this because I wanted people to feel for Muriel, to feel for me, and for themselves. To feel with compassion. And, as Matt Haig says: ‘Just to say your own truth out loud, is enough to find others like you.’
The University of Waikato
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