Earliest Reading Memories

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.

Found here, a depiction of the red room that chimes with the red in my mind’s eye

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?

The Simplest Things

Despite the creative block, sometimes it is small hacks in life that make me get back to the page. If you have been struggling to sit down to work, what are the small things you do to get your creativity flowing again?

What made a difference this week?

Cold extremities. The office is cold, the house is cold; storm Ciara has left us mercifully unscathed, where I live, but still Winter’s last blast is here.

The Spring flowers I photographed just last week are a distant memory as the sharp wind beats my cheeks in the playground. But despite the chill that permeates the house, it has made me nostalgic for the times I hunkered down to write. If I don’t want to go anywhere else, I may as well absorb myself by creating something. Whether I like it or not, the time I spent as a student was both my least efficient and my most productive . It must be a sense-memory, but as my hand flies furiously across the page, I associate a desperate need to complete work with this peculiar sense that the air is cold around my nostrils. And like the muscle memory of athletes, my inner student is making me work harder, and suddenly I have more new words than I have had in a while.

Cosy socks. I find slobbing out in comfy clothes not just necessary in this weather, but an inspiration to enjoy the hygge sensations of blankets and pillows by dressing in the warmest fabrics. And in this cosiness, I imagine myself other places. Like my characters, inside looking out on bleak surroundings. Or imagine trying to take off the socks and insist on being barefoot in the woods. The sensory appeal of soft clothing, firing up these thoughts about how my characters are feeling.

A Good Book. I have started a thriller and was so absorbed on my way to work, I almost forget to get off at my stop. A page-turner can be inspiring whether or not it is in the genre you are writing. Whether it inspires you to try your own hand at writing, or it just sparks ideas for a work-in-progress, I have been glad of time to read on my commute this week.

Old Photos. I found an old photo of myself as a child. Looking a little extra, trying on my Grandmother’s pearls, I was inspired not just by the girl I once was – much more spirited than I am now. I was also inspired to delve deeper back into the past of my characters. Though the work I have written may not make the final cut, the depth to which I know my characters now is clear as it flows easily.

Also I think a lot about my childhood ambitions, as I have said before, I do believe in dreams. They have changed a little, but one of the exercises I have been using writing letters to my encouragers in my journal, I wrote to my Grandparents this week, inspired by the photo and by the joy my visits there always brought me.

A Blank Page. The final thing that has really helped me this week has been a blank page. Rather than fill in gaps in my work-in-progress, I have allowed myself time with a notebook or a blank Word Doc. This is an indulgence as I know that having been making progress by fleshing out the first part of my novel. But if it get me working again, it will be worth the type-up time.

I’d love to know what you have done to get back to writing this week?