Recently, I read Pride and Prejudice again to celebrate the beginning of summer. And because I love the book so much it started me thinking about Mr. Darcy and about writing, and the connection between the two.
Writers often ask the question, “How do you justify writing when there is so much suffering going on?” This always seemed to me a valid question, until it didn’t.
For a time I struggled so much with all that was going on around me, war and poverty and all kinds of social injustice, that I could barely write without the heavy footfall of politics hanging over my work. I wiped out all traces of humor, and action, and romance diligently, thinking them too light!
But recently, those very misfortunes in the world that made me feel guilty about writing, fantasizing, and especially dreaming about having a book out seem to me the reason to write, fantasize, and dream about book covers. Because there is so much suffering and wrong in this world, and I acknowledge it, and I feel, and I want to be engaged, but I also feel powerless, but I also want to live, and be happy, and be light and warm, and I want to make something of my moment in the world, I create fiction. Those things don’t seem at odds with each other anymore.
I understand now why readers read romances, or mysteries, or horror, and why on earth they read to laugh. Because as I get older, so do I. I read to be diverted. And I write to fantasize, to escape to a place I make for myself, just for a moment. All the things that seemed self-indulgent and superfluous at one time – humor and romance, and fantasy – are things that I now desperately depend on to survive. And it doesn’t seem light anymore – it seems serious business.
I was going to fit Candide by Voltaire in all of this – how Voltaire both critiques the literature/theater of the times as being escapist and also has his noble disillusioned Venetian character Pococurante show how excessive critique of the arts can also lead one astray – but the intellectual effort proved too much. So I leave it there and return to lightness…
My favorite author Diana Wynne Jones writes about a garden as a place of fantasy, and why this place is desperately important. She writes about her childhood during the war and because Diana does it so well I will let her go on for a while (click here for the actual article), “For all this, the perpetual riot and mayhem in which we lived then was always like a brick wall cutting me off from anything truly imaginative. Life was too restless and pragmatic to give one a chance to think. I got glimpses of what was cut off from books. There was a volume of Arthur Mee’s encyclopedia among my few books with a picture in it of a girl learning to play the piano. The piano was up against a brick wall, beyond which was a wonderful garden to which the girl had access only through strenuous endeavour. I actually cried when I first saw it, not because my mother had forbidden music lessons on the grounds that I was not musical, but because it seemed exactly to describe my situation – and I could see no way to penetrate that wall.
The queer thing was that the conference centre did in fact possess just such a garden. It was known as the Other Garden. The garden that everyone saw was pleasant enough, though somewhat boringly laid out around a large square of grass. The Other Garden was quite different. It was like that garden in folktales where the king has counted all the apples. It was across a road, walled away from everyone, a blaze of manicured lawn leading to a tunnel of roses ending in an inlaid wood summer house, where espalier apple trees of types that are no longer grown surrounded like hedges plots of fruit, flowers and vegetables. The bees had a plot of their own because they did not get on with the visionary gardener. Something about this garden caused the visionary gardener to build little shrine-like places in the wall niches and ornament them with posies and old Venetian glass. My father would not let anyone go there. He kept the large old key to it in his pocket and it often took several days of pleading to get him to release it to me, grudgingly, for an hour or so. When I got there I simply wandered, in utter bliss. I talked to the bees, who never once stung me, although they pursued the visionary gardener once a week, in clouds, and occasionally turned on my father too; I ate apples; I watched things grow; and I never once connected it with the garden in the piano-playing picture, though that was more or less what it was. I remember I did try to connect it with The Secret Garden. I dragged a copy of that past the censor, with my mother saying, ‘Oh very well then, read it if you must, but remember it’s nothing but sentimental nonsense!’ and tried, in a puzzled way, to lay it alongside the Other Garden. But the Other Garden had nothing to do with sentimental nonsense. I couldn’t make it out.
I see now that the two gardens of the conference centre came to represent to me the activities of the two sides of the human brain, the first concerned with day-to-day living and the second with all creative needs. But I put it to myself more in terms of enchantment as opposed to the mundane.”
This brings me back to Pride and Prejudice and Mr. Darcy. I think how many of us have read this book and loved this book and waited all our lives for a love like Mr. Darcy. And then I realize that not only do we read fiction and write fiction to escape the tyrannies of living, but also that we create fictions about our lives. In my head, in my heart, I created this image of love a long time ago, and I recreated it a hundred times more, to make my life fit in with a romantic vision I had of it. And this vision, this place in my mind, is all important, as it gives me a way to shape my life, to have wishes for it, and to take it there (to create our lives as a place of enchantment, as Diana writes, as opposed to the mundane). Living itself, therefore, seems to me like writing fiction, of willfully ignoring all the muck about us and charting a clear, bright way through it all, according to our imaginations – a bright garden filled with sunshine.