'I thought how unpleasant it is to be locked out; and I thought how it is worse, perhaps, to be locked in.'
Under the hashtag #ThisBook, the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction, launched in 1996, asks readers to name the inspirational work that has made the most impact on them. This is a tall order and a very particular one. The temptation to name novels we consider great literature does need to be resisted in favour of any that have been a strong catalyst in the way we approach our lives.
Age must come into this equation. Maturer readers, while they may relish new discoveries in a variety of genres, are perhaps not so amenable to having their preconceptions overturned, or being startled by the breaching of what was once off-limits. Their choices are likely to be retrospective and at least partially influenced by stories with a universal and timeless appeal, as is largely evidenced by titles submitted by well-known personalities.
If I had to choose one book from the whole canon of my reading to date which has impinged the deepest and provided a platform for mining the treasures of subtext and the dynamic irrelevancies of stream-of-consciousness, it has to be Virginia Woolf's The Waves. 'I wish you could live in my brain for a week. It's washed with the most violent waves of emotion.'
We are submerged in a Darwinian sea with its hypnotic rhythms. We yield to its undertow and the silent, darting interplay of light and shadow. The boundaries between the characters are not flesh and blood and space. They share a seamless unconscious that roams free through Time and Creation. Only momentary impressions distinguish them from each other. They are modified, qualified, enlarged, enhanced, overcast, by their fleeting proximity to each other and the way a random universe has assorted them, forcing them through the hoops of daily role-playing required to function in a mortal sphere.
These characters are turned inside out, yet miraculously distinct, as they unreel their surface monologues and unveil their uniqueness.
Like a pioneering cartographer, this book offers a map of the human psyche when the mist has been wiped from the lens. Such revelation means you can never look at the world in the same way again.
To have understood this, to be so the thing itself, is surely genius.
There are other women writers who have exerted no less an influence, though the reasons, by comparison, are fairly mundane. What period novelist could discount the energetic prose of Jane Austen, witty and worldly, wicked, wise and wonderful, capturing in vivid relief the social customs and atmosphere of the late Georgian era?
Georgette Heyer, a great entertainer, had the knack of mimicking Austen's verve against a background of meticulous research and a facility with language she did not have to hide. She claimed that if she were cast away on a desert island, she would sooner have Austen's work than any other. I loved Heyer when I set out on my writing career. That tempo, those idioms, plus all the colourful detail of the times, supplied the courage to turn up the vacant page in the typewriter.
Having said this, the writer whose method, vitality and insights, have become almost ingrained and have helped to inform the Berkeley Series, is Helen Ashton, a respected novelist, who appeared not to achieve the recognition she deserved. In her day, there was less emphasis on fame and more on the virtues of steady industry as representing success. She possessed a gift, largely lost nowadays, which is the ability to engage dialogue within the spellbinding narrative of legendary storytelling. She has written with dashing elegance of William and Dorothy (Wordsworth), of Parson Austen's Daughter, The Swan of Usk (Henry Vaughan) and of life in the household of the Prince Regent at Brighton Pavilion from the perspective of a footman.
Finally, to jump forward a few decades, I can't omit Susan Hill whose earlier stories touched many raw nerves. Her sentences are often composed of idiosyncratic, intersecting clauses that are natural as running water and soak into the skin. With effortless fluency and an inadvertent eye, she unpacks the menace beneath the apparently innocent, not the Machiavellian, nor the malevolent, but the sinister in everyday exchanges loaded with unprocessed grief and emotion. How did she know about the instructions written in carpenter's pencil, on torn-off scraps of greaseproof paper, with which an embittered mother sends her son to buy fish, stressing what she will and won't pay for, and to go to the beach for it, not the fishmonger? It's like reading a leaf from your past.
In this general vicinity, I might sneak in Margaret Drabble, Rose Tremain, Kate Atkinson, Salley Vickers, Irene Nemirovsky, all for different reasons. I wish the list was more contemporary and less seemingly xenophobic when I've enjoyed the writings of other cultures and landscapes. (The brief here is gender specific, too.) And I wish there were expanses of leisure time to explore!
Would I have discovered these authors without a literary fanfare? Was it easier for the cream to rise in the days when publishing had integrity and writers had a clearer sight of their goals? I don't know. The old maxim that youth is a gift of nature and age a work of art may have just a little to do with it. Who knows what may emerge when the present writing generations come into their own?
But what all the authors mentioned have in spades is Voice. Cadence. Style. Empathy. Instinctive gifts they have developed through practice. Because of it, their images lodge in the shadows of the mind, unforgettable as ancient poetry.