Last year, Tate St. Ives curated an exhibition based on the writings of Virginia Woolf. The art, ranging from 1850 to the present day, was inspired by her work, and explored “feminist perspectives on landscape, domesticity and identity in modern and contemporary art” (tate.org.uk). At the exhibition, I saw Vanessa Bell’s Interior with a table (1921) and Frances Hodgkins’ Wings over Water (1930) (among others). Both paintings are of interior scenes near windows, with the landscape painted in detail beyond. The exhibition explained that women, confined as they were to domestic settings and arrangements, could not simply venture outdoors to paint landscapes, so these women artists painted the scenes outside their windows, from the confines of their homes. It was an act of defiance, a way of painting the landscape that they were not allowed to access freely.
Likewise, the sea has long been a place for men. As Charlotte Runcie notes in her new book, Salt on Your Tongue, “The further back into history you look, the more you encounter stories of men rowing and sailing towards the horizon in search of adventure and greater prosperity. Women of the sea were instead, women of the shore…” (p.78). Salt on Your Tongue is both a personal memoir of mothers, grandmothers, and babies, and a fascinating account of our relationship with the sea, told through folktales, poems, literature and song. Runcie focuses on the tales, legends, and stories of women – the way there are constructed by society – in relation to the sea.
The book is divided into seven chapters, named after the Pleiades (Seven Sisters) constellation. As Runcie explains, the Pleiades are sailing stars, because they point you towards the Northern Star, and therefore north. “Sailors have used the positions of the stars to navigate for as long as there have been boats. The best way to determine where in the world you are, and how to get to the place you want to be, is by feeling around you “(p.6). She describes her first finding of a starfish on the beach on Skye, the stars of the sea. The book is an exploration of how this first finding leads to a fascination with the sea, sea shells, and the mystical power and draw of the water.
This is a book about the sea, but it is not about swimming. Rather, Runcie takes us on a journey over waters filled with kelpies, mythical sea-women, mermaids, sirens, witches and saints. It is nature writing filled with history, place, culture, people. Runcie writes from Scotland – her home – and so the book is peppered with Scottish tales, and her travels from Edinburgh in search of the sea. We accompany her on her quest to find St Ninian’s cave on the northern Scottish coast; to Oban in midwinter; to the East Neuk fishing villages; and to Portobello beach just outside Edinburgh. There are also tales from England and Wales – her trip across to Holy Island in Northumberland, or stories of cockle women in Perclawdd.
Women’s stories are woven throughout this book. “It’s easy to assume, in imagining women’s history, that women’s work has always been domestic,” Runcie writes. “That it has been about cooking, and cleaning, and looking after children […] When you look to the seas and the fields, you see there is more to it than that” (p.207). Women, and more importantly woman’s stories and the legends of their power, form the core of this book. Even though historically women were kept from the sea, from journeys across it, due to superstition and legend, Runcie shows how women’s live are intimately tied to the sea and the sea shore.
Everywhere the sea is full of stories. And everywhere women are made visible through Runcie’s prose. Threaded through these tales is the personal one of Runcie coming to terms with the death of her grandmother, a woman whose shell collection could rival no other, and her pregnancy, the imminent arrival of another being. It is this juxtaposition of life and death throughout the book that makes the writing so compelling, so lyrical. It draws you in and envelopes you. Runcie’s narrative, exploring her fears and grief, coming to terms with the ending of one life and the beginning of another, interspersed with the legends of women and the sea, is moving.
She writes, “sea glass is proof that humans put themselves into the sea and were shaped by it. To pick up a piece of sea glass or sea crockery is to know the sea is a place of death and endings, stories and imaginations” (p.97). Runcie’s book is a reminder of the way we are shaped by the sea, through history and legend, work and play. It is a beautiful example of women’s encounters with the natural world.