Do vivid images of the first novels you read haunt you?
Relistening to classic novels recently, I am struck by the fondness I have for certain books that I have returned to over the years. Through a myriad life experiences, I have come again to Jane Eyre – the first classic I ever read- and other favourites such as Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights. And listening in the last few weeks it strikes me that the same images come straight to mind that I think I first had as a child.
I vividly remember the first time I envisioned Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. The greyed and dank room as oppressive to me as a child as it is now. Dickens writes that the…
…centre-piece of some kind was in the middle of this cloth; it was so heavily overhung with cobwebs that its form was quite indistinguishable; and, as I looked along the yellow expanse out of which I remember its seeming to grow, like a black fungus, I saw speckle-legged spiders with blotchy bodies run home to it, and running out from it…Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
No wonder I have had life long arachnophobia. The rotten core at the heart of respectability that Pip longs for fascinates us throughout the novel . Though the jilted bride hits differently now, I can’t help marvel that it still has the power to creep me out.
Jane Eyre as I have written about before remains one of my favourites so I struggle to say which scene remains most vivid. Her slap of John, the demise of poor Helen all have a life long resonance. I think probably the terror of the red room, – in my mind’s eye still not the rich red of velvet but more bloodred scarlet, – remains with me from my first reading.
Now I read this book very differently. Hardly surprising. Wild Sargasso Sea, a retelling from the perspective of Bertha, the essay The Mad Woman in the Attic, was written in the 1960 so this novel has long had a questionable commentary about race. As with Wuthering Heights I have discomfort now with some of the descriptions. Jane Eyre has a Bertha Mason described as “a clothed hyena” and she is wholly othered by the novel. In the novel the portrayal of her race and mental state seem to be connected. Heathcliff an “untamed creature” is described using epithets that describe his race ambiguously and problematically. And if course it’s depiction of domestic violence grows more uncomfortable with age, even as we celebrate our strong heroine.
But somehow, though I may analyse and wrestle with my thoughts about these novels (I am an English graduate, afterall,) I still return to them. It strikes me how important a powerful image is to hook the reader. And given my back catalogue of haunted houses, dark moors and madness, it’s hardly surprising I love gothic fiction best of all.
Certain scenes are truly like replaying a movie which I find at once both remarkable that these books impacted my life so much, and a comfort. Though it is right to interrogate this fiction, a re-read will always be a home-coming of sorts.
I would love to know what images remain from your childhood reading list? Do you think they influence you to this day?