November 9, 2015, by Sunita Tailor
The Power of First Love
This blog post was written by PhD English student, Nicole Jones from the School of English.
Exploring new and wonderful texts is one of the best things about being an English student. But sometimes (especially if you’ve caught one of the recent bugs going around) it’s tempting just to climb into a bed with a cup of tea and an old favourite. Some of my ‘comfort’ books are texts I encountered as an undergraduate, like The PowerBook, and I have found infinite pleasure in re-reading it long after the essay was due. Some are childhood favourites – when I’m stressed, it really isn’t beyond me to crack out my Malory Towers collection.
But there are some old favourites that have a lot more significance. It’s one of my favourite questions to ask people – what book has shaped your life? Diagnosed recently with tonsillitis, I picked up my childhood favourite again – and as I’ve just embarked on a PhD, it really made me smile to think how much this has genuinely altered the trajectory of my academic life. I was eleven years old when I first read Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber (1944); I’d finished my holiday reading and was keen for more, so my Mum handed over the book she’d just finished. At 972 pages of fairly small print, I hardly imagined my eleven-year-old self would want to swallow this tome in one hungry sitting. But as is generally the case, in life and literature: you’re never expecting it when you fall in love.
Because that’s the only way I can describe it – falling in love, completely, with a textual world and everything in it. The story begins with the Restoration of King Charles II to the throne of England in 1660, and features many accurately described historical figures and events, in the manner of Wolf Hall. But history is never the sole focus. Amber is the story of the beautiful, tenacious adventurer Amber St. Clare. On one level, it’s a romance novel – the story of a woman who uses every asset she possesses to achieve the glory and love she craves. It’s definitely a historical bodice-ripper; though relatively tame by modern standards, the novel was banned in fourteen American states and condemned by the Catholic Church for its references to sex and nudity.
But to me, it was so much more than just a risqué read. Winsor’s rich historical detail sparked a lifelong interest in the Restoration and the early eighteen century. The novel covers international politics, war, the plague, the Great Fire of London, Restoration fashion, culture… and plenty about the world of the playhouse, the introduction of women to the stage, and the public/private life of Charles II and his mistresses. It was this focus on female characters that particularly took my breath away; I was fascinated by these women, poor and rich, in the theatre, in the bedroom, in the corridors of the Palace of Whitehall. To this day, I’m endlessly fascinated by the cultural and literary context of women’s lives and writings in the period 1660-1750.
Despite its length, I’ve re-read Forever Amber twice a year without fail since first opening its pages. When I’m ill, it’s the book I want to snuggle up in bed with. Though I’m now researching actual literature from the period, not historical fiction, Amber is completely responsible for the research I’m currently doing. I wrote my undergraduate dissertation on John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester – one of the courtiers who features as a character in the novel. Doing that dissertation set me on the path I’m now on – I’ve just started my PhD on ‘Fame and the Woman Writer’, focusing on Elizabeth Thomas, who was born during Charles II’s reign.
So there you have it – a book that isn’t technically to do with my academic studies, but nonetheless takes the proud position of being my first great literary love! I imagine that many of us have one – a book that we use to pinpoint a moment in time that set us on the journey to becoming literature students. Or even a book that we love to read, when we know that we really need to be doing something else! What would yours be? What books can you re-read time and time again? And what is it about that book that makes it so special for you?
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