Today’s Monday Inspirations post is by Anne Goodwin, as part of the official blog tour for her new book, Sugar and Snails. Make sure to check out other stops on the tour. Later this month, I’ll be doing a Q&A post with Anne about her book.
If you’d like to read other Monday Inspirations posts, click here.
In my debut novel, Sugar and Snails, the trajectory of my main character’s life is radically altered by a decision taken at the age of fifteen. So it seems right and proper that, in considering the novels that have shaped my own life, I should start with what I was reading myself at that age. Much, of course, is forgotten, but I have a distinct memory of sitting in the back garden in the dog days of summer devouring a stained copy of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, part of a collection of classics bequeathed from my father’s uncle that had sat for many years on the family bookshelf and now resides on mine.
While generally considered a love story, it was Jane’s independence of spirit that had the greatest impact on me. Although friendless, plain and penniless, Jane knows she is Rochester’s equal. Despite willing her to flaunt convention and run away with her married lover, I couldn’t help admiring her refusal to settle for second best. Similarly, she’d rather stay single than accept a loveless marriage with the missionary, St John Rivers. More than a century after her creation, Jane Eyre was an inspiration to a teenager who had few role models of women taking charge of their own destiny and being determined, if necessary, to forge their futures alone. Yet, brought up in a Catholic family and being told, rather than allowed to discover, what I believed, it wasn’t yet possible at fifteen to claim a mind of my own.
In my early twenties I was introduced to a novel that presents the story of Jane Eyre from a very different point of view. Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea gives a voice and a history to Mr Rochester’s first wife, Bertha, the mad woman in the attic, likened to a wild animal in Charlotte Brontë’s novel. With my rigid upbringing, it was something of a revelation to discover the possibility of an alternate perspective on such an authoritative text. Of course, Wide Sargasso Sea couldn’t have been my first introduction to the concept of opposing viewpoints, but the richness of the narrative in stark opposition to something so readily accepted almost as gospel in Jane Eyre meant it couldn’t be ignored.
Shortly after reading this novel, I began training as a clinical psychologist, a profession that was to consume much of my intellectual and emotional energy for the next twenty-five years. I specialised in work with people with severe and enduring mental health problems, some of whom were as disturbed and disturbing as Rochester’s first wife. Just as Jean Rhys is able to account for Bertha/Antoinette’s strange behaviour in terms of psychological and social vulnerability interacting with overwhelming stress, I tried to make sense of my clients’ difficulties within a psychological and psychosocial formulation. An “explanation” based on a genetic disposition, as proposed in Jane Eyre, never seemed to do justice to the complexity of my clients’ lives. Yet, throughout my working life, the medical framing of human problems determined how services were provided.
Although I enjoyed my work, it left me with little time or energy to devote to caring for myself. Or perhaps I’d chosen a demanding job, in order to avoid thinking about what I might really want for myself. Certainly I’d managed to forget that I’d ever wanted to be a writer. It took another novel, read at a time when I was already emotionally raw after the untimely death of a relative, to enable me to recognise that.
Ann Patchett’s novel, Bel Canto is about a botched kidnapping that turns into a siege. As time goes on, and the boundaries between hostages and terrorists break down, imprisonment begins to resemble paradise, and the reader can’t help hoping that all will be well in the end. But, of course, these things usually end in tragedy, just as a body riddled with cancer usually dies and a woman who’s buried herself in her work to avoid owning her own ambitions usually burns out.
With a nudge from my therapist and supportive friends, Bel Canto forced me to take seriously what I wanted from my brief time on earth. I began singing lessons which eventually gave me the confidence to join a marvellous mixed-voice choir. I reduced my work commitments from five to four days a week to make time for writing fiction. Twelve years on, I’ve achieved an ambition I didn’t dare admit I had, even to myself, and published a novel. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that I’ve written about a woman learning to see another side to her own story and, through this, the reader might discover a deeper understanding of another kind of stereotype.
Thank you, Charlotte Brontë, Jean Rhys and Ann Patchett, for signposting me along the way. I wonder whether readers will detect your influence in my own novel.
Anne Goodwin writes fiction, short and long, and blogs about reading and writing, with a peppering of psychology. Her debut novel, Sugar and Snails, was published last month by Inspired Quill. Catch up on her website: annethology or on Twitter @Annecdotist.