It being World Book Day, it seems like a good moment to celebrate my Writing Heroes (and answer my daughter’s question as she asked me this the other day).
So here, in no particular order, are SOME of them.
Virginia Woolf – I find it comforting to share my name with such a literary genius. She wrote stream of consciousness like no-one else can, and made it accessible too. I love the inherent sadness of the passing o f time in To the Lighthouse, the rollercoaster exuberance of Orlando but my all time favourite is Mrs Dalloway. A masterclass in stream of consciousness, she makes it look so simple, as she hops between the minds of her characters, panning out to take in huge scenes and then back to tiny, intimate memories. And it goes without saying that her seminal lecture – A Room of One’s Own will always be my inspiration.
Charles Dickens – Victorian fiction is sometimes seen as a little old fashioned these days. But I ADORE old fashioned. Good, straight narrative with passion and heart. Dickens is fantastic at creating memorable characters, from the “ever so humble” Uriah Heap, in David Copperfield, the cold, but conscience stricken Ralph Nickleby in Nicholas Nickleby, the uptight, violent school teacher Bradley Headstone in Our Mutual Friend, hard-hearted mercenary Estella in Great Expectations, and her slightly kinder sister, Bella Wilfer in Our Mutual Friend, Lady Deadlock and Mr Tulkinghorn in Bleak House. I could go on, and on. He’s also brilliant at creating atmospheric landscapes, the marshes in Great Expectations, the river in Our Mutual Friend, the mean streets in Oliver Twist. He’s funny and ironic, and his writing burns with a passionate rage at the social injustices of his day. What’s not to love?
Charlotte and Emily Bronte – As I said, I’m a sucker for Victorian fiction. I like most of Charlotte Bronte’s books, but obviously, Jane Eyre is the favourite.The opening scene where sensitive Jane is locked in the Red Room by her cruel aunt packs a powerful punch. The hypocrisy of Mr Brocklehurst at Lowood Orphanage, the burgeoning relationship with Mr Rochester (bordering on the sadistic from his point of view), the chance of happiness ruined by the secret he harbours. And Jane’s finest hour when she refuses to be Mr Rochester’s mistress, and then later St John’s wife, in order to be true to herself. Wonderful stuff. Equally wonderful is Emily’s Wuthering Heights (I refuse to rate one above the other). I love the way she describes the landscape and how storms rage outside and within the character’s lives. And though it’s often painted as a love story, in fact the central Heathcliff/Cathy romance is more a tale of terrible obsession and how it destroys everything around it. Emily is ahead of her time in showing how the cycle of abuse is created from generation to generation, but can be broken in the end by true love, as the burgeoning relationship of young Cathy and Hareton demonstrates. Love them both.
Graham Greene – I blogged at length last year about Graham Greene’s skill. So I’ll just say here, he’s a great storyteller, with fine novels on good/evil/hope/despair/faith/politics, and creates fantastic landscapes and characters with the sparest details. Particular favourites are Brighton Rock, Stamboul Train, The Power and the Glory, The Heart of Matter, The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana, The Third Man.
EM Forster – At his best EM Forster is peerless, quietly and humorously debunks the mores of his time. In A Room with A View he attacks English lack of feeling and hypocrisy, in praise of experiencing real emotion and living life truly. A Passage to India challenges the very notion of the British Empire, not only giving the Indians a voice, but allowing them to laugh at the British too. He’s also a fine story writer, with my favourite “When the Machine Stopped” envisaging a world where people stayin their rooms underground speaking to each other on video machines. But his best work has to be “Howard’s End” a brilliantly crafted novel highlighting the clash of the personal and political, the emotional and practical, the spiritual and logical selves, and how we have to unite them, if we are to live as full human beings.
Margaret Atwood – Atwood’s first novel, The Edible Woman, ends with the main character eating a cake of herself in a wedding dress, after she realises she is selling herself short with the man she was going to marry. Her early novels follow on the theme with her heroines breaking out from stultifying lives in a hygienically clean Toronto. I particularly like the writer in Lady Oracle who keeps running away from her life, changing hair colour and faking her own death at one point. But the wonder of Atwood is she keeps trying new things. There’s The Handmaid’s Tale a terrible dystopia where a woman’s lot is decidedly unhappy, The Blind Assassin (a writer remembers the real story of her youth), The Robber Bride (three friends unite to defeat the woman who stole their men), Alias Grace (the mind of a possible murderess) and more recent forays into science fiction, Oryx and Crake and After the Flood. Atwood is in England tonight, reading to 10,000 people in Trafalgar Square. Lucky them!
And that’s just the start…Looks like this will have to be a regular feature.
Happy World Book Day!