Sophie Cunningham launches Daisy and Woolf by Michelle Cahill
Daisy and Woolf
by Michelle Cahill
Launched by SOPHIE CUNNINGHAM
I felt some trepidation when I heard that Michelle Cahill had written a novel about the Woolfs because I’ve been researching a book about Leonard Woolf, but, inevitably, about Virginia and other Bloomsbury sorts, for more than 15 years. I, like Michelle, began my novel because I’m interested in postcolonialism, in race, but over the years of writing had come to realise that unlike Michelle, the experience of, the story of, the colonised body was not mine to tell. And that her book, Daisy & Woolf, is not ‘about’ the Woolfs. It’s about Daisy Simmons, an Anglo-Indian woman, one of the ‘silly, pretty, flimsy, nimcompoops’ with whom Peter Walsh spent time with while in India, and in the case of this particular women, had fallen in love with. Her name, unless I’m mistaken, is first mentioned as an aside, in brackets. Michelle has undertaken the task of giving Daisy Simmons a voice and body. Retrieved her from erasure.
My trepidation disappeared as I read Daisy & Woolf and got to revel in the glories of its language, its confidence and control. None of us can write a story which considers all angles, which gives voice to all experience. Yet none of the stories we tell are whole if there is not a body — that word again — of work that, collectively, gives voice to the experiences of those that have, historically speaking, been written out of history. Virginia Woolf ’s racism, and, frankly, the racism of the British in general, cannot be allowed to stand unchallenged. Being brilliant with words does not excuse Woolf. In fact, it makes one even angrier — that a woman, so intelligent, so extraordinary with words, was uninterested in even attempting to release Daisy from the brackets that imprison her.
My delight — perhaps counter-intuitively — grew as I began to read Daisy & Woolf and, in its opening pages, read Mina’s description of her mother. (Mina is the contemporary narrator, of sorts, of the novel. She’s wonderful). ‘She [the mother] was like some ancient still-breathing artefact locked in a long glass cubicle in a dusty room in the British Museum – before it became corporatised, before they added the café and the souvenir shop –‘ (p14 ) Mina’s creative journey and her personal journeys dodge each other, weave together, they blur, sometimes in the same sentence, always in the same paragraph, with research, with stories of Virginia Woolf ’s writing. For Mina, for Michelle, are not just connected to Daisy through heritage but to Virginia Woolf herself. They share a writer’s heritage. Woolf can be cruel and dismissive. Mina interrogates herself for similar qualities. She talks of history waiting to fault her for writing Daisy’s story. I understand that here Michelle is describing is a specific experience — that women, that women of colour, — have to tread more warily when taking risks, when being audacious. That they are more likely to be attacked (literally, as Mina is, but also using words) but in that phrase, and indeed in Michelle’s description of the writing and creative process Daisy & Woolf is just wonderful at capturing the complicated narcissism and ruthlessness of creative process, a process that sits alongside a requirement that the writer erase the self, their selves if they are to succeed. . .
Mina pursues narrative and the cost is high (a loss of relationship with her son, the loss of her job, the guilt of not being there for her mother at the end). Daisy is attempting to make her mark on the world by pursuing love. By insisting on herself as a romantic and sexual being as well as a mother, and a wife/servant. The losses that Daisy endures in this pursuit are profound and the description of her voyage from India to England is harrowing. The loss of her daughter takes us deep into grief. Showing us the poetic power, the control that Michelle, always a poet, has over her writing in this novel. This is the quality, indeed that a poet can bring to a novel.
This can be harder to read because we know that Peter Walsh, the man she loves, doesn’t just love another (Clarissa Dalloway) but does not, in fact, register her being with much more interest than Dalloway, or Woolf do. Daisy’s attentions irritate him. He follows women randomly on the street. Walsh’s shrugging off of the relationship in Daisy & Woolf is masterful: Daisy has lost her children, her old life, to work as a governess.
I loved Daisy and in Daisy’s yearning and longing and optimism I could feel my much younger self. Of course Daisy’s future would be far more constrained than mine will ever be.
Daisy also has a self-awareness; a presence of mind, that makes her heroic. Her chaste acceptance of the attentions of men on the voyage over speak not to fecklessness but to wisdom. An understanding that she will need a protector. An intuition that Peter Walsh cannot be trusted. Daisy is no fool. Michelle, Mina, make it clear that Daisy’s story— including its trauma and tragedy — does not belong to Mina and most certainly not to Virginia Woolf . We lose sight of Daisy towards the end of the novel because she belongs to herself and will, bravely and boldly, wrestle her fate to the ground.
‘A meditation on art, race and class in a postcolonial world, Daisy and Woolf is a masterpiece of postmodern fiction to rival The Hours or Wide Sargasso Sea. Powerfully reentering those in the margins of Anglo-centric histories and fictions, its exquisite telling demands we listen.’ The comparison with Wide Sargasso Sea is not a stretch. The language in this novel is extraordinary: the art of a poet between the covers of a novel.
Another comparison that came to mind — Pachinko. What becomes of stateless brown women.
I’m so pleased that Michelle Cahill wrote Daisy & Woolf, that she generously gave me the chance to read it, and that she did me the honour of asking me to launch Daisy & Woolf. I look forward too, for the conversations we’ll have about our books. About the way they speak to the other, and the ways in which they pursue agendas. And our shared interest in, and passion for the writer’s life.
SOPHIE CUNNINGHAM’S latest novel, This Devastating Fever, is forthcoming in September 2022 with Ultimo Press. She is the author of seven books, across multiple fiction and nonfiction, children and adults and include City of Trees – Essays on life, death and the need for a forest, and Melbourne. She is also editor of the collection Fire, Flood, Plague: Australian writers respond to 2020. Sophie’s former roles include as a book publisher and editor, chair of the Literature Board of the Australia Council, editor of the literary journal Meanjin, and co-founder of The Stella Prize celebrating women’s writing. She is now an adjunct professor at RMIT University’s non/fiction Lab. In 2019, Sophie was made a Member of the Order of Australia for her contributions to literature.