A Book of Silence
Maitland starts this autobiographical study by
telling how she was born in 1950, growing up partly in London and
partly at her father's 'enormous' mansion in south-west Scotland.
The family was of a social class where 'we were inevitably sent off
to boarding schools… a damaging, brutal experience'. Silence
was a punishment, 'made worse by the fact that in my parents' world
not to enjoy your schooldays was proof that you were an inferior
human being - you were supposed to be a "good mixer" … and
enjoy the team spirit'.
She became 'an Anglo-Catholic socialist feminist' partly through
the experience of sharing a student flat in Oxford with American
radicals including Bill Clinton. Marriage, children and a literary
career were followed by relationship breakdown and the Thatcher
years. Eventually, 'As a writer I ran out of steam'. Life itself
reached a point where she feared mental breakdown.
All this is gripping stuff as she leads us on a spiritual
journey with the pursuit of silence as its means and end.
Interwoven with personal anecdotes are snippets of Merton, St
Teresa and the Desert Fathers. She has set out to 'hunt silence',
she tells us, because 'I am convinced that as a whole society we
are losing something precious in our increasingly silence-avoiding
culture and that somehow, whatever this silence might be, it needed
holding, nourishing and unpacking'.
After buying a house high on the Weardale moors, Maitland
embarks upon the reclusive life. But Weardale's silence was not
sufficiently 'dynamic', so she takes herself off to the Isle of
Skye and rents a remote cottage from which to experience forty days
of utter solitude. Skye, she tells us, with its part-Anglicised
part-Gaelic culture 'provided a strong sense of strangeness'.
Here Maitland sheds fascinating light on the phenomena of
prolonged silence - how the senses sharpen, sense of time
diminishes, rich emotions well up and there's a psychological sense
that 'the silence itself unskinned me' - all the way to 'seriously
bizarre sexual fantasies and vengeful rages of kinds that I had
never "dared" admit'.
She expertly anchors her own frankly recounted experiences in a
comparative narratorial analysis drawn from the writings of ancient
mystics, lone sailors and arctic explorers. At times she finds it
hard to distinguish reality from hallucination as she undergoes her
own variations of mountain madness, cabin fever, desert lassitude
and raptures of the deep.
Silence, she tells us, 'is the place, the focus, of the radical
encounter with [the] divine… The desire to break the silence
with constant human noise is, I believe, precisely an avoidance of
the sacred terror of that divine encounter'. This is exciting
stuff, but somehow it seems to get stuck at the level of tackling
her fears and we don't glimpse a lot of the divine.
Skye had mostly allowed her to evade 'the promised "dark side"
of silence … the Great Chthonic Terror'. The next challenge,
albeit comfortably quartered, is to confront herself with three
days of going out into the wilds of Glen Affric, replete with 'the
strangely distorted trees, the somehow sinister stillness of the
loch itself and the lichens, which might at any moment reach out
their cold crinkled fingers and touch me damply'.
She gets through the endurance test, but I had a growing sense
of something missing. Maitland had embarked on her quest partly to
escape from the dysfunctional human relationships endemic to her
subculture and social class. Scotland serves to get her spooked in
glens that, actually, are replete with historical presence and
living presences, but with which she has not established any deep
relationship. I couldn't help thinking how different it might have
been if she'd joined one of the volunteer groups that plants trees
in Glen Affric. Giving something back might have opened a welcoming
Spirit of Place to her. Instead, it reads as if that lonely glen
had become a screen onto which Maitland projected her own
unresolved issues. She even expresses a 'deep sense of relief that
there were no wolves'. To me it echoed what John Buchan wrote in
John Macnab: 'To her unquiet soul the calm seemed
unnatural, like a thick cloak covering some feverish activity'.
And who was this person, I wondered, who had the financial means
to come in and be served by local communities whilst maintaining
minimal mutuality of connection with them? At one point she
complains that many people think her pursuit of silence selfish. I
couldn't help feeling they maybe had a point. After all, money
seems to be one of her lesser concerns. When she wants to explore
desert silence, she buys herself a package holiday by camel. At one
point she and her brother consider buying a Hebridean island for a
retreat. Only a sceptical sister-in-law thwarts the dream. When she
decides to downsize from her previous home of three bedrooms, two
living rooms and a big kitchen, she builds a private hermitage out
in the wilds. 'I could go anywhere in the word,' she tells us, but
settles for Scotland partly for residual family connections but
also 'because property prices are lower'. And even family seems to
be an intrusion. Her children are virtually invisible. And in her
mother's dying days Maitland grumbles: 'She had little interest in
or respect for silence and she seriously disrupted mine'.
'You can do a surprising number of things without speaking,'
Maitland advises. 'One of the seldom mentioned advantages of
supermarkets is that you can shop without exchanging a word,
smiling at the staff's mechanical greetings and fixing your eyes on
your list in order to avoid eye contact with anyone.'
No sooner is this said than she backs off, appending, as if in
self-rebuke: 'in the end there is something bogus about that, and
rude.' But the horse has bolted, and I was left pondering whether
Maitland was writing more about a parasitic solitude than a kenotic
silence. For sure, she discusses 'the great hermit virtue of
hospitality', but whether through modesty or otherwise, she
proffers little evidence of it.
Jesus did his stuff both alone up the mountain and down in the
city with the multitudes. Maitland's attempt to find God seems, by
contrast, one-sided. For me at least, her silence felt busy in the
head but languid in the heart. That is not an easy thing to say.
But she's certainly had the courage to dig from where she stood.
She's shared with us, warts and all. And the story of her life is
not over yet. Neither is it necessarily perceived in all its
fullness by this reviewer.