Daughters of Empire: A Memoir of a Year in Britain and Beyond
The poet and essayist Jane Satterfield writes a hauntingly discontinuous prose-poem about a sort of exile. To those of us with dual citizenship—or, perhaps, to those for whom home is two places, neither tidily reconcilable with the other—Daughters of Empire speaks poignantly to the longing for connection between past and present, mother and daughter, literary inspiration, and career frustration.
The author here teases us with the possibility of a conventional narrative of exile: what will happen when a woman who spent most of her formative years in the United States becomes pregnant and has a child while being cast aside by a prospective employer and emotionally abandoned by a narcissistic and controlling husband? Will she find in this land of her birth and ancestry an escape from the soul-deadening labor of fixed-term teaching in American institutions, and instead find joy in teaching Larkin and Plath and Heaney and Hughes to students who understand and appreciate the value of being taught by a working poet? Will she find in the geography of her own imagination the spiritual bond to the Brontë sisters that she seeks?
Our relationship to place is similarly discontinuous, and home, whatever that means, is an ongoing negotiation. Satterfield’s narrator is unstuck in time, just as she is unstuck geographically, so we get poetically rich spots of memory: “I stand on Charlotte Brontë’s front steps, thinking I’m going to be sick,” she tells us on the first page—either a vertiginous reaction to this confrontation with her nineteenth-century literary forbearer, or perhaps a bit of first-trimester nausea. And then suddenly it’s several years earlier, and she’s a different sort of exile, not quite fitting in to this group of students or that literary community brought together in American college towns. And then she’s a punk, a Johnny Rotten, but with much more ambivalent feelings towards Queen and country.
And then she’s in Corby, a “piss hole in the dead heart of England” where she was born, traveling with her mother through a reconstruction of her own ancestry and her mother’s shared dual sense of place. But then, heartbreakingly, she’s starving emotionally and perhaps physically as a mother estranged from her husband, whose Fulbright Exchange, in the mid-1990s, was in part responsible for this year in England which serves as a potent but unstable center of this narrative.
Because of the evocative power of her memory and the clarity of her language, she draws the reader willingly into this vortex. And yet, she resists closure. Does she find career fulfillment? Can she bridge the imaginative/historical gaps and construct a satisfactory home? Can she free herself from this dreadful relationship? The memoir asks instead that we participate in her desires, in her lyrical remembrance, in her evocative moments that shuttle back and forth through time, woven together by her search for identity, for her discovery of home.