Growing up as a Reader: Some Literary Likes
I cannot imagine life without the magic of novels. At age four, I entered the world of Peter Rabbit. I loved the first line of The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, with its initial caution that “the effect of eating too much lettuce is soporific.” “Soporific” sounded so compelling, so strongly suggestive of a state of affairs not to be taken lightly. And the word was fun to say, to repeat for the sheer pleasure of the sounds. I found myself drawn into tales of adventurous but naughty rabbits and I was motivated to learn to read these tales for myself. The Peter Rabbit stories, with their charming illustrations, remain among the most loved books of my childhood.
As a teenager I discovered Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I immediately bonded with Lizzy Bennet, the witty, intelligent and empathetic heroine, who in the course of the novel achieves a nice balance of self awareness and insight into human behaviour. She had the courage to admit when her own opinions were ill judged which I realized was an important lesson for me to take on board. I followed her love life with fascination and rejoiced when she and Mr. Darcy are promised a happy future together. From the prospective of a teenage reader, I had discovered a compelling romance with an absorbing plot, and attractive and amusing characters. This was a book to reread and savour and it was for some time my favourite Austen novel.
My allegiance to Jane Austen remains but Persuasion has replaced Pride and Prejudice as my favourite. Persuasion bears the marks of her mature genius and introduces a sensitive, introspective yet engaging heroine, Anne Elliot, who greatly regrets breaking off her engagement to the enterprising, self assured naval captain, Frederick Wentworth, eight years earlier. I became fascinated with the subtle intricacies of Anne’s self examination of her own disappointment and her efforts to be open to the needs of others, even in the face of her own unhappiness. I was caught up in the suspense of the plot, as Austen describes Anne’s initially fragile but increasingly strengthening hope that she may yet find happiness with Captain Wentworth. I admired and continue to admire Austen’s remarkable ability to capture her characters personalities through their distinctive idiolects, their ways of speaking. This is also a book with a special place in my life: in times of trouble, of worry or uncertainty, it absorbs, it distracts and comforts me.
Along with my fascination with Austen, I have enjoyed the rich narratives of Dickens, marvelled at the raw power of the Bröntes, and admired the clever plots and convincing characters of Penelope Lively and Maggie O’Farrell. Among other writers, Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), author of Booker prize winner, Offshore (1979) and nine other novels, stands out for me. I first read Fitzgerald in the early nineteen eighties and immediately became a fan. The pleasure in reading her novels derives from her captivating and mesmerizing style of writing, highly original plots and characters, vivid and compelling settings, endings which are sometimes surprising and unexpected.
Like Austen, Fitzgerald is scrupulous about the accuracy and appropriateness of small contextual details that illuminate her narrative. One such detail surprised and delighted me. In Offshore, the Canadian heroine, Nenna, is caught off guard by an unexpected telephone call from her sister Louise. She tries to defuse the uncomfortable tone of their exchange by a seemingly innocent question about the availability of lobster sandwiches at Harris’s, a restaurant apparently well known to them both. According to Hermione Lee’s biography, Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life (2013), Fitzgerald, on her one visit to Nova Scotia must have passed through Yarmouth on her way to Halifax from where she sailed back to England. I surmise that Fitzgerald visited the real Harris’s restaurant and chowed down their signature sandwich. She tucked away her memory of it, only to use it effectively twenty-five years later in the sisterly dialogue in Offshore. As I know both Harris’s and their justly famous sandwich from personal experience, I appreciate Fitzgerald’s genius in enhancing the authenticity of her character with the inclusion of this tiny but telling contextual detail. I like to think I have had a brief glimpse into Fitzgerald’s creative process and thus made a connection with the author herself.
In my own experiences as a writer, there has been a circle back to Austen and Persuasion. Persuasion is a novel with naval theme and characters, both of which are handled with authenticity by Austen. It has been said that Jane Austen got the naval details correct in her novels because of her close connections with her two officer brothers, Captains Francis and Charles. But there is more to the story. Some years ago I became interested in the North American phase of Charles Austen’s naval career (1805-1811), when I discovered he had spent considerable time in my home city, the port town of Halifax, Nova Scotia. Finding out about Charles eventually led me to intriguing details about his Bermuda-born young wife, Fanny Palmer Austen. Here was a story waiting to be told, a narrative about a spirited and resilient young woman who made a home for Charles and their daughters aboard a working naval vessel and developed a supportive relationship with Jane Austen. I have been excited by the discovery of this connection to explore the extent to which Fanny was a source of information and inspiration for the novelist when she created the female naval characters in Persuasion. Little did I expect, when I first came to love Persuasion that I would much later return to it with a different interest and perspective, that was in the course of writing my own book Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister: The Life and Letters of Fanny Palmer Austen.
Sheila Johnson Kindred taught in the Department of Philosophy at Saint Mary’s University. She writes about Jane Austen’s fiction and family, and lives in Halifax. Her book, Jane Austen’s Transatlantic Sister, is published by McGill-Queen’s University Press (2017.)