Most writers can reel off a handful of titles of books they’d call formative, typically read for the first time during their teens. One of mine is Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Brontë, a classic of incomparable passion despite no explicit sexual content. Another is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). The most engrossing novel prescribed during my four years at high school, it marked gen Xers Donna Tartt and Alex Garland, to judge by their debut novels, The Secret History (1992) and The Beach (1996), respectively: the former transplanting the action – secluded group turning savage – to classics students in the academy; the latter to a South-East Asian island backpacker mecca.
Author Rachel Kushner says the books you read when young ‘sink in deep and are a part of your encoding’. Indeed. But the impact of books read before puberty is harder to gauge, their contents hazier. I know I read Beatrix Potter, The Wind in the Willows and Pookie and the Swallows, or they were read to me, but I can’t recall my response, beyond liking the pictures of anthropomorphised animals enough to want to illustrate books when I grew up. Not until I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, at nineteen, did the transformative power of literature hit me.
Kushner says she read The Catcher in the Rye at thirteen. Deterred by the cryptic title, I gave it a miss at school: defying authority like the protagonist. My English teacher, Mr M, remonstrated with me in vain; I spent too much time alone reading already. The shocking news, years later, that Mr M had shot himself fatally, saddened me (he’d treated us, at 14, like young adults) and I regretted not having been more receptive. Now I wonder how much he’d related to the troubled narrator of JD Salinger’s teen angst classic. When I finally read it to humour a wannabe YA writer, I found it tame compared to The Bell Jar (1963), a female slant on related themes. Though The Catcher in the Rye preceded it (1951), Plath didn’t stop at suicidal ideation, topping herself a month after The Bell Jar was published. (Salinger died of natural causes at 91.)
Before that came scores of horsy books, most of which ended happily – unlike ‘The Little Mermaid’ by Hans Christian Andersen, more disturbing, with its Christian morality, than Paul Gallico’s The Poseidon Adventure (1969) or Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1974). While those exploit fear of the deep, Andersen conjured worse fears: oblivion or limbo awaits the mermaid when the prince weds someone else.
Last year I sold the family home, but kept a few books found in the process. I wanted to revisit stories I recalled as formative, which might have played a part in shaping my expectations of life or, at least, the fiction I’d written. So I began at random with a novel that looked familiar: Rebecca (1938) by Daphne du Maurier. Yet no recognition dawned as I read. It seems I’d only read about it, which may be for the best. Neither the passive narrator nor the manipulative titular character would have set a good example. Apparently Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847) had marked du Maurier: poor young narrator falls for rich older man haunted by his psycho ex-wife until his manor house burns down.
As I reached for the next book, a historical romance, I promised myself I’d stop if it didn’t impress me. Apart from Rebecca, the closest I’d come to reading romance in at least two decades was AS Byatt’s Booker-winning, genre-juggling Possession; so I had doubts about rereading Jenny (1957), a bodice ripper by Ada Lewis. (Who?) Embarrassingly, I found it unputdownable. Who’d have thought? Uncommonly immune to my analytical powers, it seemed as familiar as if I’d once learned every line by heart; as if key scenes hadn’t just imprinted my mind but become part of it. How could its trite conventions exert such a potent spell? Was I compelled onwards by the uncanny impression that Jenny’s voice already lived in my head?
No doubt the first line intrigued teenage me, hinting at sex and sin: ‘Today, as I came out of Mr. Currie’s glove shop, I saw a harlot being whipped through the street at the tail of a wagon.’ And on the next page the narrator says: ‘It’s not that I am afraid. But once you have seen the face of disaster, you are marked. Afterwards you do not see things as other people do.’ Though I didn’t know it, these lines foreshadowed my future.
The jacket on my copy shows a sepia portrait of a pretty redhead with a low neckline, her visible arm cropped above the elbow, a gendered lack her other charms supposedly offset. Pert-nosed, quick-witted, born illegitimately, Jenny Archer is the quintessential romantic heroine. Most men she meets desire her and several are hopelessly smitten, including the dark and handsome hero, her fair and impossibly handsome first lover, her violently jealous half-brother and her bull-necked country cousin. My youthful naivety made Jenny educational (a pregnant woman’s nipples change colour?); the narrator at nineteen seemed old to me in my early (or mid? I was sheltered) teens. A shy magnet for misfits, I envied her.
Now, I recognise echoes of the gothic romances of the Brontës, Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. Then, I hadn’t yet heard of them. Jenny appeared on the sunroom shelf as a singular invention, standing out from the far less seductive books around it. And after Lewis’s deftly crafted page-turner, the requisite happy ending of which, like a slap in the face, restored critical distance, I revisited another anomaly from my parents’ shelves: the notorious bestseller Peyton Place (1956) by Grace Metalious. It reminded the adult me of Middlemarch (1871–2) with all its small-town characters, if not the depth, scope and intelligence of George Eliot’s classic (nor could it even rival Jenny for style, pace, wit and suspense). But I grew up reading for hours each day to escape. An anomaly myself amid kids of suburban white-collar workers, I longed for relatable role models. Drama and tragedy gripped me partly because I craved accounts of individuals pushing the boundaries, giving free rein to wild desires and redefining the terms of acceptable self-expression.
Both coming-of-age novels despite their different genres, Jenny and Peyton Place end well for their heroines, who encounter poverty, sexual scandal, domestic violence, abortion, murder, madness and suicide, yet emerge stronger and wiser. I never expected these themes to dominate my writing. Nor did I aspire to write at all (unlike Allison, the character in Peyton Place based on Metalious). Yet, other novels from my teens, like Stephen King’s Carrie and JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, weren’t so memorable (is that why horror and fantasy rarely tempt me?). What could a girl whose emotions wreak havoc without her even needing to speak or dwarfish Middle-earthers with hairy feet possibly teach me about my own latent talents or sexuality?