“I believe we’re drawn to things that have something to teach us,” says writer, therapist and baker Pauline Beaumont.
Beaumont, who grew up in the northeast, works as a student counsellor at Newcastle University. She’s the mother of six and is herself the youngest of six. She remembers her childhood home as “a happy household full of music”. All the same she occasionally craved the solitude and peace to be found in reading. It was as a bookish adolescent that she first came across the novel she believes had something to teach her. It’s The Sea, the Sea by Dublin-born writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch.
The Sea, the Sea is a curious tale. “Fantastical,” as Beaumont describes it. It recounts a summer in the life of Charles Arrowby, a self-important playwright and director, who has left the London theatre scene and moved to Shruff End, a secluded house on the North Sea coast, in order to write his memoirs. He describes his intention to “become a hermit: put myself in a situation where I can honestly say that I have nothing else to do but to learn to be good.”
In the seaside town, Arrowby happens upon Mary Hartley Fitch, his first love. Though the pair have not seen each other since Hartley ended their young love affair and, at first, Arrowby barely recognises the old woman his “Hartley” has become, their encounter reignites Arrowby’s passion. He becomes determined, despite Hartley’s protestations, to spring her from what he perceives as a loveless marriage and make her his own again. All he needs is a plan. Naturally, mayhem and tragedy ensue. All the while, the sea plays in the background like a character in itself.
The Sea, the Sea was Iris Murdoch’s 19th novel and her fourth to make the Booker shortlist. It was her first and only Booker winner. Though it united the judges in 1978, for the critics it was a “marmite” book. Charles Arrowby can be hard to like. A master at seduction, he’s vain and manipulative. Pauline Beaumont admits that these days, one would probably call the way Arrowby behaves towards his childhood sweetheart “stalking”. But Beaumont also defends Murdoch’s choice of such a difficult central character.
“In Murdoch’s writing, every character is important, no matter how flawed and in The Sea, the Sea she has created the most flawed character of all in Arrowby … and this helped the penny drop for me. Murdoch writes about good and evil and the possibility of redemption. We’re all flawed. We all kick ourselves for saying or doing something we regret. But it doesn’t mean that we’re doomed. The Sea, the Sea showed me that we don’t have to be perfect.”
The curse of perfectionism, in which we seek external validation to compensate for a lack of self-belief, is a subject close to Beaumont’s heart. “When I was growing up,” she explains, “the done thing in parenting was not to ‘spoil’ children. As a result, that meant we were subject to a lot of criticism, which later became self-doubt.”
Beaumont describes the ensuing chain reaction: “…low-self-esteem, leading to perfectionism, leading to anxiety, leading to low mood and then, back round to further low self-esteem…” Until fear of getting things wrong and being judged, keeps us from doing anything at all.
Having put her own career plans on hold when she became pregnant with her first daughter at the age of nineteen, Beaumont went to university a decade later than she’d planned. Beaumont studied philosophy and had the pleasure of meeting and being occasionally taught by Mary Midgley. Midgely herself had studied at Oxford alongside Iris Murdoch in the 1940s. Like Murdoch, Midgely became a role model for Beaumont, by showing that it’s never too late to do what you might have done. Midgely published her first book in her late fifties.
Beaumont has just published a first book of her own in middle age. On writing she says, “It’s said that everyone has a book in them. I don’t think that’s true. I had an idea that when the urge became strong enough I would write a book but it actually happened when I really had something I wanted to say.” What she wanted to say is an extension of Murdoch’s philosophy.
Beaumont’s book, Bread Therapy (here), is described as “a self-help book with recipes, and a love letter to the art of making real bread”. It is part memoir, part well-being manual, part cookery book. It recognises that the sudden craze for homemade sourdough during lockdown was less about feeding the family and more about feeding the soul.
“In Bread Therapy, I want to encourage people to make their own bread but the benefit comes on many levels. It’s an opportunity to exercise good self care.”
The simple act of kneading dough can transport and transform us. Beaumont writes, “Murdoch … talked about a process she called ‘unselfing’, a stepping outside the self with a humble and non-judgmental attitude. At the simplest level it means losing ourselves in nature or art – being taken out of ourselves. It has much in common with mindfulness.”
Which brings us back to perfectionism. Beaumont suggests that in baking bread, and in particular in getting it wrong, “we can learn to accept it in our lives too. The acceptance of imperfection allows us to develop compassion for ourselves, to be kinder to ourselves and to worry less.”
A burnt loaf is just a burnt loaf.
Returning to The Sea, the Sea, Beaumont says, “Murdoch understood that perfection is impossible but we can continue to try to be a good person. It is like climbing a mountain you will never get to the top of. It’s still worth trying.”
We can find it in our hearts to extend compassion to someone like Murdoch’s Arrowby, whose honesty is, by the end of the book, his most striking quality.
In The Sea, the Sea, Arrowby often talks about the food he is eating. The meals he plans don’t always sound very appetising but Arrowby is at least convinced of the pleasures of eating. “How fortunate we are to be food-consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.”
One piece of Arrowby wisdom seems particularly pertinent as we head into winter with the prospect of further restrictions. “One of the secrets of a happy life is continuous small treats, and if some of these can be inexpensive and quickly procured, so much the better.”
Treats like a freshly-baked loaf of bread.
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