Winner of the 2022 Laurel Prize
The Knucklebone Floor is partly a verse biography of Susan Davidson (1796–1877), who spent thirty years landscaping and developing the grounds of Allen Banks in Northumberland, including woodland, paths, rustic bridges and a summer house with a knucklebone floor. It is also a book about boundaries and wilderness, fragility and resilience, flora and fauna, people and places, then and now, women and men, the human world and the natural world. Richly and formally inventive, it offers a collective perspective of history, identity and ecology at a time of global fragmentation and ecological crisis.
Cover image: Matilda Bevan, Study of a Stream, Allen Banks (2018)
‘Our knowledge is not like the learning of men, to be reproduced in some literary composition nor ever in any learned profession, but is to come out in conduct.’ Hannah More 1. We are given the names of flowers, delicate, aromatic – Violet, Lily, Rose. 2. Our family names honour sons, their land and professions. No names for our labour, no territory to call our own. 3. Birches and backboards break us in. 4. We seek to improve ourselves. 5. We sit by a window, drawing down what light we can. 6. We are laced tight. 7. There is blackbird, there is robin, hearts full of singing. 8. We tend forests, glades – ferns and aspidistras in pots, ranged round our rooms on pedestals – trophies, talking points. 9. We need to be small – small as daisies, small as kittens, small as little girls. 10. Come, let’s play hide and seek, solitaire, charades. 11. According to Clippity-Clop-Schopenhauer, we are childish, frivolous, short-sighted, by our very nature meant to obey. 12. We stand on the brink of light, brink of dark, dizzy with atmospheres colliding. 13. Taught to be good, we wake up with someone else’s voice in our ears. 14. We are brittle with longing and fury. 15. We want to dance in the garden with badly-chosen strangers. 16. In the mirror of Perseus’s shield, we wear our hair in coils upon our heads. 17. The creases of our skin are raw and weeping. 18. We read stories about people who aren’t us, trace their empty footsteps. 19. Peruse our collection of birds’ nests, all the eggs unhatched. 20. We may as well be ghosts. 21. As befits ladies, we do not attend funerals. 22. We sip broth from the sides of silver spoons, flavourless, penitential. 23. Our fathers’ daughters, brothers’ sisters, husbands’ wives, sons’ mothers, we are adjunct, footnote, object. 24. Watercolours portray us as daffodils, dahlias, pretty maids all in a row. 25. We do not accept every dish that is offered. 26. In cast-iron beds like leaky boats, damp creeps in to our sleep. 27. We dream of moving earth and channelling water. 28. We are hardly mistresses of our own pantries. 29. Our cheeks are peaches, unless they’re stones. 30. We hold out our hands to women falling, children bundled against the cold air of their descent. 31. We are spider and cobweb and fly. 32. Silence is unacceptable, the wrong sort of conversation objectionable. 33. What colour should we paint patience? 34. Our language is the Queen’s English, written or spoken, never vulgar. 35. We find ourselves sending many letters – thanks, congratulation, condolence. 36. We are alone and given to countless fictions. 37. We use good black ink; pale ink inexcusable; blue ink dangerous, a fathomless ocean when wet. 38. We are invisible. 39. We drag our bodies around in cages. 40. Our gardens are planted with lurid displays of Hysteria, Dyspepsia, Neuralgia. 41. Our words do not echo our thoughts. We tumble to our deaths in the canyons between them. 42. Not acknowledged until presented at Court, no, when we will be dressed all in white. 43. We are always falling, always autumn. 44. We are not sweet, pretty or modest as the earth we’re made of is ditto etc etc. 45. Bonfires crackle inside us. 46. We have a terror of abandonment. 47. We eat bread and butter, rolled up, occasionally cake, with our tea. 48. We do not smoke. 49. We keep lists of visitors in books, like accountants. Calls are made between the hours of four and seven. Our dogs are never welcome – our ever-faithful, forgiving dogs. 50. We are trained to be firm but fair with our servants, though they plague us. 51. Some days our faces show what’s on the inside and everyone is exasperated. 52. We listen to water to be close to our mothers. 53. We do not appear to advantage if we try to imitate the opposite sex. It elicits an awkward attention. 54. We must accord our husbands a freedom it is not their duty to offer us. 55. Our fathers, brothers, guardians give us away. 56. Moulding ourselves to the circumstances and characters of our beloved husbands, their happiness and fidelity remain our responsibility. 57. Our bouquets are pure white – camellias, azaleas, stephanotis, sprays of orange blossom. 58. It is our task to submerge our individual preferences and endeavour to promote the greatest good for the greatest number of souls. 59. We embroider it on our samplers – We must not look at goblin men. We must not buy their fruit. 60. Our dressing tables are altars, fit for our transformation into saints, into angels. 61. We cleave to our children who die in our arms, in their beds, in rivers, in baskets, on doorsteps. 62. Ashes of roses and sage green: carpets, upholstery and curtains muffle any noises no one would wish to hear. 63. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rest on thee. 64. We are magpies, hoarding Chinoiserie, cloisonne, manufactured ceramic, lacquer. 65. In our opulent nests, we are starved. 66. For unmentionable reasons, we no longer bleed. We also bleed. 67. We are sequestered in the wings of houses, cloistered at the end of corridors, immured in attics. 68. Our rooms so packed, we lose ourselves among the brica-brac. 69. We are kept busy doing nothing, forever and ever. Amen. 70. We rarely immerse ourselves in water, hot or cold. 71. Leaf by leaf, we count the acanthus embossed on the wallpaper. 72. We cry. We try not to cry. There is silence. 73. We have our favourite chairs, those that show our best sides. 74. Our hearths inadequate, we are chilled to the bone. 75. We are the Daughters of Innocence, the Sisters of Shame. 76. We stay on guard against Satan. 77. Our passions, our disobedience, our idleness are errors, to be swiftly corrected. 78. Our nightmares slip in beside us so our dreams stay a long way off. 79. We are spinsters, who never patched a child from our yarn. 80. We struggle to keep our countenance. 81. We must never grow old. 82. Nor need we be ‘New’, asking for what we want, stating our case. 83. Never breathe a word of politics. 84. Too much reading induces the deplorable growth of our noses, the withering of our breasts. 85. We draw portraits of each other that look like ourselves. 86. We might have more to say to an apple tree than to a teatime visitor. 87. Indoors or out, whatever the weather, our skirts are hemmed with dirt. 88. Our right hands are our whip hands; our left, our bridle hands. Ladies ride on the left to steel ourselves against inexpressible pleasure. 89. Self-sacrifice is the truest womanly virtue. 90. Our brains have been weighed and measured, naturally selected, which accounts for where we find ourselves, at the bottom of the tree. 91. Our greatest function is to praise. 92. We stink of peonies rotting between our legs. 93. Though we dabble, we can’t tell where ‘now’ lives, in any language – maintenant, adesso, jetzt. 94. We are all context, accident, fate and don’t even know it. 95. We are not ourselves. 96. We have been in mourning long enough. 97. Though we are meek, we will not inherit the earth, not a single grain. 98. What we’ll leave behind is what keeps us alive. 99. Our names taken from us, taken in vain. 100. If we could, we’d say Stop. Listen. Begin again.
‘Always surprising, differently angled, richly imagined, and weaving together its different fragments and historical forms, this beautiful collection asks how we can seed new connections and ways of seeing. It will be impossible, after reading it, not to think, see – and dream – differently.’
‘This is Linda France at the height of her powers. The Knucklebone Floor blends lyric and dramatization to enthralling effect, guided by an acute ear and a breathtaking economy of means.’
‘Her alertness to the histories to be read in the landscape is exemplary.’
‘a white-knuckle response to climate change.’
‘bristles with intelligent and riddling artifice, a complex meditation on nature, patriarchy, time and memory.’