In 1994, when I was living in Kyneton, I decided that my writerly education had come to a standstill and that I should do something about this. At that time I was mainly a poet, so I wrote to the following letter to the poets I knew:
I am trying to expand my reading and am writing to various people aksing if they'd send me a list of the ten books which have most influenced them.
I'd love to see your list if you'd care to respond.
The responses were generous, idiosyncratic and thought-provoking. Most people thanked me for initiating some soul-searching. Some women apologised for the lack of women writers on their lists. One or two men did the same. One poet asked for my list in return.
One of my poets, and I have looked for her letter but failed to find it in my filing system, said that one of the books which had influenced enormously was Jane Eyre. She made the comment that if Wuthering Heights had been on her list, her life might have been dramatically different.
I've been thinking about this ever since a student of mine did a book review in Writing for Young Adults, on the novel Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. The love interest in that book would now be considered, at best, inappropriate, and at worst, an abuse of position and power. I loved that novel. I can remember the cover with it's long-legged shadow on the wall.
There should be some kind of literary women's life and love quizz:
1. When you think of Colette do you think of
a) her first marriage to a much older man
b) the Claudine stories
d) Which Collette - Toni Collette or Collette Mann?
Over to you, gentle Reader, what ten (or so) books (or poems) influenced/influence/sing to/resonate with your attitude to relationships?
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
(as a young woman)
Diane Wakoski's King of Spain poems
Pentimento, Lillian Hellman
The Journals of Anais Nin (not necessarily a good influence!)
The Quaker View of Sex and Marriage
(as a wife and mother - note that by this stage I wanted resonated with and sing to, rather than influenced)
Breathing Lessons, Anne Tyler
Anne Sexton - 'Eighteen Days Without You' and 'Little Girl, My String Bean, My Lovely Woman'
Kate Grenville's The Idea of Perfection - for hope
(as an artist)
Barbara Hanrahan's Michael and Me and the Sun - no better exploration of the tensions between the artist and the good girl. In this case, the good girl is Hanrahan, brought up in Adelaide in a predominantly female household, tugged between art school and teacher's college.
Molly Peacock, Paradise, Piece by Piece - this is an extraodinary memoir of an American poet, initially written to explain her decision not to have children, this book continues, in some ways, Hanrahan's chronicle. Peacock, however, places this within the context of an American disfunctional family battling alcoholism and matter-of-fact poverty. The love that Hanrahan was wrapped in (and sometimes suffocated by)is not present in Peacock's memoir. Peacock had to create her own loving family - and the book is an unflinching record of her successes and her failures.
I found Peacock's descriptions of her life as a teacher of English at Friends Seminary as, if not more, moving than her childhood and young adulthood stories. I love the way Peacock sought and found structure:
On these things I could depend: Every day I went to a place where there were ten minutes of benigh nothingness that might be construed as God. Every day I learned how to live from children who were not the flesh of my flesh. Eveyr day that less harm was done, somehow more good amassed. Every night i spoke on the phone with my lover whose wife had finally reappeared with divorce papers. Saturday night and sunday morning we had sex. Every weekend I wrote a sonnet, and now I had fifty-two of them, like a deck of fortune-telling cards, and with Tilla's encouragement I was sending them out to fancier literary magazines that I had dared before.
Molly Peacock, Paradise, Piece by Piece, Riverhead Books, New York, 1998, p. 191.
Over to you!