The stories that have written me

This is in response to Suzy Darke’s beautifully written post on her life in books on her blog; Under the Green Fig Tree. I so enjoyed reading the books that have shaped her life to this point and it brought back memories for me from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and of course Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. If you haven’t read it, I entreat you to read her post first here.

It got me thinking about what books have had an impact on my life, which stories have walked with me through childhood, teen years and now adulthood. I have made an attempt to jot them down here, though much like Suzy, this is just a snippet of the books I have cherished and I’m sure will grow ever longer.

The Secret Gardenby Frances Hodgson Burnett

This is one of the first stories that touched my heart, though I should start off by saying that I listened to The Secret Gardenbefore I read it. When I had trouble falling asleep, my Mum used to play this on an old cassette tape to help me drift off. Though I am not sure this ever worked as I have memories of jumping out of bed when each side of the tape finished to flip it over or put the next one in, does anyone else remember doing that?

Like many others, the thought that there could be a secret space that held the magic of beautiful blooms just took me away. Even now I love this idea and as a newly seasoned gardener myself, I am this year striving for a space to rival that secret garden. I also look out for doors that could potentially lead to a secret garden in every National Trust I go to, I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am alone in this one!

Faraway Tree Storiesby Enid Blyton

For me, it wasn’t The Famous Five that garnered in me a sense of adventure, it was instead the enchanted wood where the Faraway Tree stood and its inhabitants; Saucepan Man, Moon-Face and Silky the elf. I so wanted to be one of the children who got to climb the tree and visit one of the lands faraway. 

These tales taught me of exploration and what might be found in distant lands. I latched onto the idea of magic and enchantments and through Blyton found the beauty of escapism. I also felt the need to pack up jam sandwiches and disappear into the garden to see if I could find an enchanted tree of my own. I believe this is when, for me, much apple tree climbing took place. I have brothers so I think this was also linked to proving that girls could climb trees just as well as boys could.

Jane Eyreby Charlotte Bronte  

‘I have for the first time found what I can truly love – I have found you.’

A brooding narrative of Jane’s transition into adulthood and claiming her place in the world. This was the first story that taught me about the agonies of love, strife and the determination of a leading female protagonist. Love to me at this time in my tweens seemed distant and romantic, a far-off notion born from books rather than real life. But more than that, Bronte taught me how, despite all that life threw at her, Jane was able to persevere and still find her love in the end. 

Wild Magicby Tamora Pierce 

Maybe a lesser known book though one that was held close to my heart through my teenage years. This was the first in a four-part series called The Immortalsand followed Daine as she finds her wild magic and harnesses it. A bit of a guilty fantasy-fiction read but I can’t tell you how many times I read this book, the pages are worn and the length of the spine is creased to a point where I fear the book may break in two. A wonderful distraction when trying to traverse teenage years.

The Color Purpleby Alice Walker

This was a turning-point book as it was the catalyst for me to study English for my degree. The harrowing symbolism, the turn of phrase, the characters, the poignancy of Walker’s subject matter. This book drew a window into the life of an African-American woman in the deep south in the 1930s. A sad tale but one that needed to be written and needs to be read. 

Frankensteinby Mary Shelley

One of my most beloved reading memories, I turned the pages of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as I sailed through the Norwegian fjords in the depths of winter. Shelley’s mood matched my surroundings as we carved our way through the waters with cavernous looming drops either side. As the beginning and the end of the book are set on a treacherous voyage to the North Pole, I felt a parallel with the story through my surroundings.

Though a novel with themes of loneliness, betrayal and the dangerous powers of science, I very much connected with Shelley’s narrative. I feel that this should be required reading in schools, thus removing it from the space only reserved for Halloween horrors and bringing it forward as a piece that has many a lesson to be gleaned from it.   

The Edible Womanby Margaret Atwood

Atwood has recently had a resurgence in popularity and rightfully so with the dramatization of her novel; The Handmaid’s Tale. However, for me it was Atwood’s book; The Edible Woman that struck a chord. Entering into my early twenties I could appreciate the metaphors for female identity and nods to gender stereotyping. A delightfully comic read about a woman who gains consciousness of the world around her and can now see how the men in her life have a hankering to devour her in more ways than one. This is a rich and delicious read that women universally can identify with on many levels.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier

Finally, Tracey Chevalier, whose poignant historical novels are richly satisfying with fantastic female leads. Remarkable Creaturesfollows the true-life story of Mary Anning; the greatest hunter of ‘curies’ or fossil curiosities and Elizabeth; an educated woman who is deemed past the age of marriage so has been relocated to Lyme Regis. The pair spark up a friendship on the foundations of their shared fascination with fossils and their story unravels as 19thcentury society struggle to come to terms with the religious repercussions of Anning’s findings.

Once again, strong female leads take front and centre. In my mid-twenties this was a much appreciated read. I think I remember it mostly as I had a reading hiatus following my degree. Perhaps reading three books a week for roughly three years does that to you. I had lost the joy and reading and Chevalier’s voice re-taught me how to take pleasure in the story and believe in the power of strong female protagonist once more.

So that’s me, or part of me in the stories I have chosen to share with you, much as Suzy notes in her piece; My Life in Books: stories about stories. Tales of women rising up against the struggles impressed upon them from the daydreams of secret gardens in childhood to the harsh realities of true-life battles that women have faced at times in history. 

Like many, I find books to be an education and hope to continue to educate myself so if you have any recommendations I would love to hear them.

Author: Johanna Charlton

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  • I haven’t read most of these, but your beautiful words on those novels have me so curious now to check them out! I definitely second Jane Eyre.. such a life-changing and haunting book.

    • Thank you for reading my post Dee 🙂 Definitely do go and check them out. I especially recommend Remarkable Creatures by Chevalier x

  • I was deeply influenced by The Secret Garden and The Faraway Tree series too. These books taught me to be the kind of child (and later the kind of adult) who was perfectly fine exploring outside, looking for magic, with nothing but my imagination. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • I’m so pleased you enjoyed it 😊 even as an adult you imagine glimpses into these magical worlds I find. Every time you step into a woods or a beautiful garden it brings you back to these stories. Thank you so much for your lovely comment 😊