Mariana by Monica Dickens
In the description of the book on the Persephone Books website, Mariana is called “a ‘hot-water bottle’ novel, one to curl up with on the sofa on a wet Sunday afternoon”. It is indeed that; it has a quality to it that reminds me of Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. It’s essentially a coming of age story mixed with the kind of attention to detail that makes it stand out from similar tales. But it’s not just its quality of comfort that I find alluring and appealing, it’s also the deeper subtleties that underlie the story. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about the plot, in the same way that I Capture the Castle has a rather typical storyline of first love, first disappointment, growing up, etc. It’s how the plot of Mariana is cushioned by descriptions emerging like a time capsule of a specific time and place; but at the same time, reaching across time from that specific period to tell you truths like this one: “When you were born, you were given a trust of individuality that you were bound to preserve. The things that happened in your life, however closely connected with other people, developed and strengthened that individuality. You become a person.” Considering all the things in our own modern world that conspire to make us forget about becoming a person and the “trust of individuality”, I can’t help but treasure sentences such as these ones when I encounter them in books.
Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
I know, I know, I’ve written and spoken about this book way too much. I’ve dedicated many years to studying it and writing my own book about it. I’ve read it far too many times and I almost feel protective of it. And still, with all this familiarity, I feel that same magical pull whenever I pick up the book that compels me to read it again. I can’t logically explain why this book has such a hold on me. It’s part of my childhood, I can mark significant life moments through its pages, it’s become part of my own life story. But it’s more than that – it’s simply the story itself, the time in which it was written and the stark nature of its language and world. It’s not a love story and never will be for me. It’s a story about all the things that bind us together and tear us apart. It’s a story about being, and wanting, and fighting and needing. This is not a “hot-water bottle” novel, but it is a necessary one.
Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
I still remember how I first heard about Frankenstein: I was reading a passage where Mary Shelley described how the idea for the book came to her. It had all the elements you’d expect from a Gothic tale’s birth: a stormy night, a group of writer friends in a house, a challenge, a dream. And then the story emerges as if created by the atmosphere of creative energy mixing with night, storm and nightmare. It all sounds so romantic, but of course, so many Romantic authors have similar claims of books and poems coming to them in dreams. Perhaps some of them really did. But we now know some of these claims acted as a defence of the work – a way to anticipate and curtail criticism of things that may have been deemed ‘inappropriate’ at the time by suggesting that the muses had implanted an idea, unwittingly, in the writer’s brain. Writing is, more often than not, a considered and laboured process – a thinking, exhausting and intensive act.
Still, the cover of a dream often worked (and still works till this day), particularly for women writers who needed to protect themselves from accusations of being ‘unfeminine’ when writing about certain topics such as science, sex, death and violence. The act of writing was itself considered a masculine one during Shelley’s time, but to write a philosophical Gothic tale that examines the nature of humanity in relation to scientific developments? Well, that would have made you an easy target for criticism as a woman writer.
I can understand the romantic mythology that surrounds the birth of Frankenstein, but it often eclipses the book itself. It’s a book that I think could only have been written in the Romantic period, but it’s endured because of the basic philosophic question that underpins it: what makes us human? While Frankenstein is often a B-grade horror movie stereotype to us now, the book is less about blood and guts horror and more about philosophical terror – terror in the sense of asking, probing and highlighting our own mortality and humanity. I think we all need to be scared like that sometimes.