These are the women writers who I discovered in the tricky years between my mid-teens and early twenties – tricky because that’s when you begin to figure out for real what kind of woman you are going to be, and also because, if you aspire to be a writer, you are simultaneously trying to work that one out too.
If you are headed for wifedom, will you be a capricious, dangerous Rebecca, or a good, quiet, jealous Mrs de Winter? Will you end up as an occasionally desired and ultimately abandoned Jean Rhys woman, whose prose is all discipline, lucidity and sensuous clarity while her life is a muddle of drink, lovers and poverty?
Or will you be a social butterfly spinster who chats brightly at parties and returns home resolutely alone, as one imagines the narrator of this Stevie Smith poem might do: ‘The nearly right/And yet not quite/In love is wholly evil…’? (The poem ends, ‘Take my advice/ Shun compromise/ Forget him and forget her.’) And if none of these options appeal… what then?
I liked the idea of a piratical Cornish lover who would take you about on his boat, and teach you to catch fish and cook them on an open fire.
Daphne du Maurier. When I was fourteen or so and at my traditional all-girls’ school, which had turned out not to be as much like Malory Towers as I had hoped, we had to pick a book to tell the rest of the class about. I chose Rebecca. I knew it was impregnable; whatever my classmates might think of me, there was no way they could find fault with the book. It was just too compelling. Nowadays I think I might read it differently, with rather more sympathy for Rebecca, and a lot more impatience with Max.
Jamaica Inn also made a big impression, though I was unnerved by it too, and found it sinister – there’s a real sense of lurking menace and threat. Frenchman’s Creek was gentler and sunnier. I liked the idea of a piratical Cornish lover who would take you about on his boat, and teach you to catch fish and cook them on an open fire.
Susan Howatch. Aged 16 or so, I loved Penmarric, Cashelmara and the rest – sagas of rich landed families and their love affairs and bitter rivalries, usually modelled on tracts of British royal history, told in a series of first person narratives so you got a taste of everybody’s point of view – both the men and the women.
So I tried writing my own family saga, which featured a country estate and, er, a series of first person narratives. It began with the point of view of the slightly hopeless Casanova heir of the estate-owning dynasty, who falls in love with rogue redhead Clara but fails to marry her. The opening line was this: ‘I made the same mistakes with Clara that I have made with every other woman in my life: first I fell in love with her and then I fell in love with somebody else.’ The novel petered out and I never finished it, but hey – it was a start.
‘I made the same mistakes with Clara that I have made with every other woman in my life: first I fell in love with her and then I fell in love with somebody else.’
Then my English teacher gave me a reading list with things like the Mitfords on it. I stopped writing and started concentrating on trying to get into Oxford to study English, and didn’t really start trying to learn how to write again till ten years later.
Stevie Smith. She’s better known as a poet – ‘Not Waving But Drowning’ – but I loved Novel on Yellow Paper, with its chatty, discursive, distinctive first-person voice (‘I am a forward-looking girl and don’t stay where I am. ‘Left right, Be bright,’ … my own philosophical outlook that keeps us all kissable.’) Over the Frontier, which was written in the late 30s and is partly set in Germany, is much darker and more ominous: you can feel the storm coming.
I read Novel on Yellow Paper at about the same time I read The Catcher in the Rye, and for the same reason; I’d taken to hanging out in the school library at lunchtime. One of the books I found there was a collection of Stevie Smith’s letters, which were terrific (there was one berating George Orwell for constantly telling small, irritating fibs that would make an angel weep – I paraphrase, but you get the gist.) That led me to seek out NYP for myself. Another school library find was The Catcher in the Rye: it was the perfect time and place to read it.
Jean Rhys writes anti-heroines, and that’s why I love her. Her women turn passivity into an art; they are sensitive to everything, they register everything, and yet they are incapable of taking charge of their own fates. Their only power is the ability to bear witness and give in. They are not good girls, or good women. They don’t know how to play the game, and don’t want to. They’d laugh at The Rules and go off and get crazy drunk and do something wild and helpless and stupid.
I was introduced to Jean Rhys by my mum, who bought me Wide Sargasso Sea because I loved Jane Eyre so much. In my early 20s I sought out the four earlier novels: Quartet, After Leaving Mr Mackenzie, Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight.
Oh, but they are good. They are so pared back. I admire Jean Rhys absolutely. I’m a little scared of her darkness and sadness, though. Could anybody else have written the gigolo scene at the end of Good Morning, Midnight? I think not.
Here’s how Jean Rhys saved my bacon: we were all advised to write an optional long essay, a kind of mini-dissertation, which would knock out our worst mark in our Finals papers. I did mine on Jean Rhys. I ended up staying up all night in the computer room to finish it, my view of the PC screen glazed with tears because I’d just had a big row with my boyfriend. But anyway, it turned out OK, and replaced my Shakespeare mark, which was truly awful. So – Jean Rhys, my champion!
E. Annie Proulx. The Shipping News was given to me by a friend who was also setting off for journalism school in the mid-90s, and it was a very apt present, because one of the things Quoyle, the hero, has to learn to do is how to write a good auto wreck story for the local paper.
I still have the page turned over at the part where someone tells Quoyle (who is a hapless gentle giant hero) that there are four kinds of women in every man’s heart: the Maid in the Meadow, the Demon Lover, the Stouthearted Woman and the Tall and Quiet Woman. Seems like as good a summary of female character archetypes as any. I just found the page turned over for this paragraph, too:
Was love then like a bag of assorted sweets passed around from which one might choose more than once? Some might sting the tongue, some invoke night perfume. Some had centers as bitter as gall, some blended honey and poison, some were quickly swallowed. And among the common bull’s-eyes and peppermints a few rare ones; one or two with deadly needles at the heart, another that brought calm and gentle pleasure. Were his fingers closing on that one?
I guess that sums up the dilemma that Anna Jones is trying to resolve in After I Left You… and what all of us are trying to find, in the end, when we look for love.
Rebecca and The Shipping News are two of my favourite books. Rebecca is definitely worth revisiting. I first read it when I was 21 and again at 25 and even after those few short years it read like a completely different book. I love the dynamic of a non-present title character and an unnamed narrator, one young woman trying to establish her identity against the overwhelming idea of another.
When I was working on After I Left You my editor suggested I look at the scene after the boat turns up to see how it’s handled – there is a point in AILY where Anna is very shocked just after a catastrophe and it was to help with writing that. It was interesting to go back to it from a writer’s perspective. I agree with you absolutely, it’s a terrific book. I’ve really enjoyed the pics on your blog btw! New Zealand is so beautiful – I went to North Island around 2002 and would love to go back one day. x