'A face turns sharply out of shadow': voices, silences and history in Stevie Davies and Firenza Guidi


Sources may be mendacious or bias-riven. But a well-worn fragment may act as a sample, and some of the samples are so vivid that a living eye glistens through the rubble of time and stares straight into ours; a face turns sharply out of shadow.

(Stevie Davies, Unbridled Spirits, p.9)

Failing as it does to look back in time, western society seems increasingly stranded — a present which makes little sense without the resonance of the past to give it depth, without those elements found buried here, in the multiple hidden recesses of the culture itself. But the narratives of history are sites of continuing debate and any rewriting of the present must involve revisiting the past. Such self-reflection and self-awareness provide the starting point for an ethical aesthetic, one of generosity, respect and inclusion, reaching out to the silenced voices of both past and present worlds. In this article I discuss the work of two women who, by striving to disinter and embody those voices lost in the shadowy past, promote this aesthetic in their work. Davies seeks to haunt and change her readers with the voices of the dead, Guidi responds to Davies by producing her own haunting fragments. Despite the huge differences in their approaches — Davies is a historian and a novelist committed to realism, Guidi, an experimental writer and director who rejects the invisible fourth wall of realist drama — they are linked by a profound ethical concern for the dispossessed.

Neither Davies nor Guidi seeks to grasp the past in any entirety but each, in her own way, gestures towards it, leading reader and spectator to read the moment, to create her own story. History unsettles because of this indeterminacy. Its attention being divided between its many protagonists, it cannot satisfy the reader's anxious desire for individual shape, for meaning, and completion. In Davies's stunning description of historical 'samples', we glimpse Walter Benjamin's angel of history turning towards us out of the gathering darkness, momentarily arrested in hallucinatory brightness, yearning to speak but muffled by the weight of the victors' stories. This transcendent figure cannot speak clearly: there are always gaps in the documentary evidence, and most of all in the silenced histories of the powerless.

The titles of both Davies's 1998 Unbridled Spirits and In My Mouth, Guidi's dramatic response to Davies (Cambridge, 5/2/2000; 10/3/2000), refer to the scold's bridle or brank, an instrument of torture specifically designed to silence women. The brank was a heavy iron cage, enclosing the head, from which protruded a metal bar reaching almost down the woman's throat, sometimes with spikes on all sides to pierce and tear the inner mouth and tongue. Often brightly coloured to accord with the carnival gaiety associated with the occasion, the weight of the brank smashed the wearer's teeth, could break the jaw and cause continuous vomiting.

For Davies it is a fearsome emblem both of patriarchal power and of the extraordinary courage of those women who knowingly risked — and wore — it, refusing to be silent. For Guidi, it provides a monstrous visual testimony, demonstrating the dehumanising impact of an insistence on submission and silence. The brank serves as the cornerstone of Davies's history and the culminating image of Guidi's three-part performance, In My Mouth. I missed the first phase, performed outside in the fierce cold of early December, in which women of the past had appeared mistily, seen only at a distance, expressing themselves through the body. Located first inside a house and then shifting focus to a church, the second and third phases explored the slow emergence and silencing of the speaking female subject over differentiated space and time — past and present.

Phase 2 —'The House'

Within the beautiful sterility of Cambridge's Kettle's Yard House, at the heart of that traditional bastion of gender, class and national privilege, Guidi's first vivid tableaux re-enacted the female struggle for expression, tableaux that held for a moment and then dissolved back into darkness before the spectators' eyes. The spectators were escorted through the house by narrow torch light, the single beams lighting up sections and throwing others into darkness in a dramatic illustration of the act of perception, winding through the house, shaping and discovering spaces. The individual figures were rooted within the fixed space of the house while we, the spectators, moved slowly around them: up to the attic, then down and out into the churchyard, and finally on into the church.

The production summoned up the difficulty of knowing anyone or anything properly, as characteristic actions were illumined then fell into shadow, and new ritualled actions appeared. A woman was caught in the beam, opening and closing a drawer in an old dresser, shaking dust from a nightgown then folding it away again, free-form jazz playing in the background. Her trance-like movements continued after the prying spectators had continued onwards into the house, sliding past living statues to encircle an open space in which several women, with little connection with each other, were scattered. Neat thin twins sat neatly on a huge white sofa, a powerful woman in an unfastened wedding dress slumped silently over a grand piano, a dark woman with a handbag peered down from the darkened upper level, a beautiful blond woman in an evening dress sat to the side. The framing and control of this domestic space produced a dreamlike sense of unreality: exploring the house at snail's pace, we were forced to stop and look as it opened and closed around us, images slipping in and out of shadow like the fragments of history itself.

Everywhere the torch beams went revealed women trying to find a place to move within the spatial constraints of what is, after all, a museum. Squeezed into a tiny space at the top of the stairs, one woman shuffled painfully forward; serving food quietly behind three men, the twins engaged in brief and secret dance movements; the men looked impassively forward until one of them took out a child's karaoke machine and sang in a rich counter tenor, then all three suddenly ate a boiled egg each. He stopped and silence returned. The music was profoundly unsettling. These individual moments were so carefully orchestrated that such triviality seemed to heighten, not relax, their solemnity. Taking the place of the woman who had peered downwards while we were below, we watched the woman in the wedding dress that didn't fit and wasn't fastened, struggling in the one clear, fully lit place to veil herself, jerking in dervish movements. One wondered if this was the only space accorded to the bride. Almost as a response to the unspoken question, an old woman, as dignified as a figure in a old Flemish painting, painfully twisted on a wooden bench, measuring her coffin.

I have not accorded these women the names given to them in the programme because it seemed to me at the time that they only made sense after the event. While it was happening all one saw was youth, age, rebellion, intense solitude or intense intimacy (the twins), struggle and, everywhere, female silence. In one memorable tableau, Murray (as George Fox) sat to one side of the room and sang a folk song while the old woman lay opposite, prostrate on the floor and another lay parallel with her on a wooden bench. A third, the woman whom we met first shaking out the dusty nightgown, slowly closed the door of a further room and the figures slid back into darkness. These meticulously lit spaces and these controlled images summoned up the sparse interiors of Vermeer.

Guidi said that she did not want to feel limited to reproducing direct links with individual figures and, released from personality, her individual figures attained a luminous abstraction. The still interiors provided the necessary contrast to the wilderness outside the house. We followed the woman in the evening dress out under the moon and the leafless trees of the churchyard, finally arriving in the church where a woman entered wearing the brank. By now the eye was so attuned to simple beauty that this monstrous thing resembled a great sucking spider feeding on her face, leeching out her very human identity. This image enacted not only the silencing of the woman but the pathological projections of twisted men such as the historically real Thomas Edwards, a man whose obsession with a moral 'gangrene' he associated with women and the lower classes revealed a diseased element within him. In this performance, the control did not falter and the image was left within the building. When we emerged from the church, the performers stood scattered and still among the trees as if they were the real, and we only the transitory, figures in this half-lit landscape.

It is hard to describe the effect of this performance. My daughter was profoundly affected by its eerie beauty, detecting a sense of dread that made the closing appearance of the brank horribly inevitable. Although the allusion to Unbridled Spirits (which I had not read at that point) was plain if you had read it, there was no need to do so. Guidi herself did not want to be dominated by the story so she chose not to read Davies's novel, Impassioned Clay, until after the first two phases of In My Mouth. The performance stood alone in its strangeness like the half-connected fragments of history itself.

History and fiction: past and present, spirit and flesh

'Dust and ashes', so you creak it, and
I lack the heart to scold.
Dear dead woman, with such hair too

— what's become of all the gold

Used to hang and brush their bosoms?

I feel chilly and grown old.

(Browning, 'A Toccata of Galuppi's')

Davies's Impassioned Clay (reviewed by Barbara Prys-Williams in NWR No. 47) is itself a response to Unbridled Spirits. Unable to let go of the women's voices she had uncovered in her research, Davies describes the haunting novel she produced in the following year, as the 'daughter' of that history, a single narrative providing the wholeness lacking in the bleak stretches of the past. By stressing the spirit and the flesh respectively Davies's titles neatly indicate the differing foci of the two books, one recovering the past through disembodied words that survived the savagery of the brank, the other presenting the physical irruption of the past into the present in the form of a mutilated skeleton.

Discovering the personal story of Hannah the protagonist, Olivia gradually recognises herself in the recreated body of the early Quaker, recovering her words just as the medical artist, Alex, reconstructs Hannah's lost face. This division between past and present, between flesh and spirit, highlights the problems of an age characterised by, as Davies puts it in Impassioned Clay, 'the death of the sacred' (p.87). Where the voices of the past were silenced through physical violence, in the present they are lost by a system which leeches them of meaning, turning all to the cash nexus. It is thus significant that at the end of the novel Olivia should choose to return her disinterred ancestor to the earth, claiming that 'meaning was within and private. It must be whispered between friends or lovers like seditious secrets which, if overheard, would be exposed as delusion' (p.87).

Words in the present need to be spoken in intimacy to have meaning — Olivia has left the Friends and discovered the beauty of a woman called Faith. The passionate ethics of religious truth are replaced by those of the body, transferred to the complex and various world of sexual identity. The physical recovery of the past in a secular world risks its transformation to mere meat, flesh without spirit as the personal is subjected to an assessing acquisitive gaze. This is what Olivia rejects: 'I did not want to tell a soul about Hannah. If Hannah were to be published, she would be lost to me' (p.87). What would be 'published' would, of course, be the simple intimacies of Hannah's words. Lacking in formal education, such voices did not filter out the personal from their testaments which makes them both more valuable and more vulnerable to appropriation. History becomes a fixed heritage, removed from the present, a television pageant in which the spectators are cut off from a fluid, dangerous and various past.

Phase Three: 'Ecstasy'

This seems to have been one of the motives behind the staging of the third phase of In My Mouth, 'Ecstasy' (11/3/2000), which concluded the inward movement of the questing eye, moving from the exclusions of the outside, to the constraints of the domestic interior and finally to the ecstatic invasion of the centre of power in the church (St Columba's Church, Cambridge) itself. Here the performance exposed the distribution of power built into the spatial organisation of the church interior by moving into the forbidden spaces of pulpit and altar, and — refusing the sober model of decorum required by the authorities — by dancing over the aisles and clambering over the sacred places. Throughout the shadow play on the ceiling abstracted the individuals from their rushing, flowing movement. Everywhere there were fainting, shifting figures, the white dresses of the twins almost luminous in the half light. Nothing could be more unlike the deadly pageant of heritage.

As the audience, we were immediately complicit in this subversion for, rather than coming in through the main door, we entered through the vestry, and, rather than looking towards the altar from a lowly position in the pews door, we stood by the altar and looked to the back of the church. Out of darkness came glimmers of light: to one side, the tenebrous shape of a man in dark clothing carrying and manipulating the white-clothed body of a woman could be made out through a stained glass window. No detail could be seen. Then the glorious purity of David Sheppard's voice floated up through the nave and soft lights revealed women straining through the fretwork at the back of the church, each in a separate carved space, each different in dress and motion. Their voices broke through the arches, peeling out, competing with each other.

Guidi based her real and imagined characters on those from Davies's Impassioned Clay, and turned to her description of the raving ecstasies of early Quakers for her inspiration, stressing their vigour and passion:

The methods of both sexes were aggressive and provocative. Church service interruption, buzzing and screeching at the minister and subsequent mayhem, with lynchings, mob-violence and arrest ... Quaking, foaming at the mouth, stripping off, standing with a clay pot or dust and ashes on the head ... Plain-dress Quaker women, hair falling down loose or cropped like a man, hurled stools and bawled down ministers. (Unbridled Spirits, p. 229)

The confusion was given order in two ways: firstly through patterned sound, whether music (cello, violin, saxophone, organ) or human voice (shouting, preaching, silence, and singing, speaking, whispering) and secondly by the fleeting appearance and disappearance of individuals in different parts of the church.

The first to emerge was Steinunn Knutsdottir as Isabel Clarke, Hannah's lover and the labourer in Impassioned Clay. She stumbled over the pews, calling out a confused message about angels, climbed the pulpit, conducted counter-tenor and cello with a quill and laughed delightedly at her writing. Two men, Shepherd and Jonathan Heawood as early Quaker leaders, James Naylor and George Fox respectively, wrestled in the aisles with Fox denying the physical delight espoused by Naylor. From the pulpit, a woman read the Bible, ecstatically aware of speaking the words of God. The church and the audience was traversed with a quiet, delighted reader of the Bible, while a woman strained voluptuously at the church entrance, crucified in ecstasy. As Naylor sang of the coming of Heaven on Earth, Alex Alderton as his lover, Martha Simmonds, sang of deliverance from temptation, slowly approaching him, until finally they came together in a passionate embrace. Meanwhile Isabel was speaking, falteringly, desperately, delightedly in the pulpit, turning away nervously, shyly, returning to speak and finally her hesitating confusion about the angels became clear: as the second angel emptied the bowl of anger, the sixth sounded the trumpet of joy and the connections between these two divine acts meant that, for her, there could be no way of dissociating them.

Then David Murray as Davies's twisted priest Lyngard (based on Thomas Edwards) strode purposefully forward over the pews and the repression began. As woman sang of the breaking of chains and Fox stood proclaiming that there was no difference between man or woman bathing in the light of the Lord, the ugly metal of the brank was forced into the women's mouths one after the other and, silenced, they were forced into the pews. The church became still, the audience moved from altar to the conventional entrance and, looking back to the empty altar we saw Fox, standing alone amongst the pews, speaking of Christ the Alpha and Omega before the women turned, their faces distorted with the bridles, and darkness and silence returned.


In transcribing her women's voices Davies demonstrates her deep familiarity with the turns and cadences of the period, introducing the particular melodies of their speech as well as their meanings. Similarly Guidi seeks to incorporate the variousness of the past. Both Guidi's and Davies's favourite character is Isabel, the labourer, the 'clod of clay with a face' who, by learning to read and write, discovers her voice and awakens to love in the process. In 'Ecstasy' her role is that of the awakening spirit, she who was excluded in the past. By lovingly recreating her Cheshire voice within the text, Davies makes a further point about exclusion, allowing not only class and gender but regionality to be recognised as silenced elements in the reductive history of a nation-state whose favoured subjects compose a tiny elite — male, English, educated, propertied — drawn exclusively from the centre of power that is also the traditional place of Cambridge. In this context it is entirely appropriate that Davies should have envisaged her powerful voice of resistance, Hannah Jones, not only as an ecstatic and assertive female, but as escaping the restrictions of home, as bisexual — and Welsh.

The Welsh links go further. Davies is a deeply respected novelist and historian who describes herself as 'Welsh to the marrow'. Guidi set up ELAN (European Live Arts Network) ten years ago and — save when she is travelling or being the Judith E. Wilson Fellow in Cambridge — has worked in Wales ever since. ELAN collaborated closely with Pembrokeshire ironmongers, Peterson Studios, who made the branks — which were based on one in the National Museum of Wales.

The Welsh connections between these two brilliant women might thus be rooted in their connections to the geographical space of the country, but I would like to make a stronger claim: that the attention to the marginal which characterises their work has (or should have) special resonance for the Welsh with their legacy of fiery, conflicted Nonconformity. Davies and Guidi's complex conversation, about history, fiction, drama and music, also provides a timely warning to those who attempt to construct too simple a narrative of Welsh identity, of writing, or of drama, one which, by seeking to define a single ideal form, risks silencing variety in a flattened mimicry of the centre.

Both art and history raise questions of perception and interpretation, encouraging us to choose difficulty over ease if we wish to remain human. Disinterring the past throws uncanny shadows into the present, ones that, hidden in the margins, colour and shape our lives. In the end does it matter if the creation is a realist map of a life or a mural of juxtaposed fragments? After all the arch realist, George Eliot, loved Flemish painting more than that of her own day. Words beget images that tell us of the past; the eye rakes the embers to make it flare to life. Mapping the fractured 'difficult world' of modern America, another attentive student of the marginal, Adrienne Rich — a lesbian, Jewish, communist American with Welsh ancestry — puts this same point:

I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural 
then yes let it be    these are small distinctions 
where do we see it from is the question.

(Adrienne Rich, An Atlas of the Difficult World, II)

Thanks to Stevie Davies and Firenza Guidi for conversations that fed into this article.

Photograph by Graham Murrell ©

J. W. New Welsh Review No. 48 Vol XII/IV (Spring '00)