Giddy heights of research translate into fiction

Naomi Booth’s book The Lost Art of Sinking developed out of her study on literary swooning

June 4, 2015
Rudolph Valentino and Agnes Ayres in The Sheik, 1921
Source: Alamy
Faint-hearted: ‘swooning is coded as feminine performance’, says Naomi Booth

A lecturer has drawn on her academic interest in the history of swooning to produce a darkly comic novella about the seductive “headrush” of passing out.

Naomi Booth’s The Lost Art of Sinking tells the story of Esther Freestone. Growing up in a lock-keeper’s cottage by a Yorkshire canal, she is mourning her beautiful ballerina mother and so seeking ways to cut out of consciousness and grief. It begins with “collective hyperventilation” in school assembly and snorting Daz washing powder. Soon she has turned it into a dangerous ritual, trying to pass out during foreplay, “hang[ing] off the edge of the bed, dangling my head upside down” in a university squat and even answering an advertisement where an “artist seeks swooning beauty”.

Dr Booth, a lecturer in literature and creative writing at York St John University, said that what became her novella was developed as part of an Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded PhD research project on literary swooning.

A central theme of her study was why “swooning is coded as a kind of feminine performance”. Given that both knights and ladies swoon in medieval literature, she wanted to discover when swooning largely began to be seen as “part of female habits and female manners”. This research has led to an as-yet unpublished monograph about the history of literary swooning, which (in contrast with fainting) Dr Booth sees as “associated with strong feelings, weird, uncanny things like the sight of blood, remembrance of death, repressed things coming back”. The book will start with the swooning medieval Virgin Mary, take in Shakespeare, Gothic fiction and Dickens and finish with Carol Morley’s 2014 film The Falling, about a fainting epidemic at a girls’ school.

Dr Booth said that her historical research had helped to propel her fiction, but another important stimulus was her reaction to the Fifty Shades of Grey phenomenon.

She said that E. L. James’ heroine Anastasia Steele “keeps literally passing out and needs to be caught by the physically strong male lead…Esther is very different. There is no man to catch her…I wanted to write about coming-of-age eroticism that didn’t revolve around a clichéd masculine hero and clichéd romantic stereotypes about men and women”.

Naomi Booth’s The Lost Art of Sinking was published by Penned in the Margins on 1 June 2015.

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