English novelist Thomas Hardy was an unlikely role model for a book-obsessed young girl growing up in India, but I credit Hardy, and the Romantic poets, with my initiation into writing. Something about Hardy’s grimness appealed enormously. I named the hero in my own novel after Hardy’s Gabriel, that laconic and patient farmer who knows, as soon as he sees Bathsheba checking her reflection in a mirror, that ‘woman’s prescriptive infirmity had stalked into the sunlight.’ Farmer Gabriel Oak was my first love and it seemed fitting to name my novel’s hero after Hardy’s. In all of Hardy’s novels, Gabriel Oak is the only one who gets the girl, unlike Jude the Obscure or the Mayor of Casterbridge or the unfortunate Angel from Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Hardy did not believe in happy endings and neither did I, when I was despairing and youthful, having become rather more optimistic as I’ve aged.
But loving Hardy did not mean that I loved all grim English novelists. I loathed Dickens and Kipling with a fervour that astonished my early teachers. The purity of Hardy’s prose transformed me; Dickens and Kipling weighed me down with their depictions of orphans and jungle children. I remember crying bitterly when forced to read both Oliver Twist and Kim in the same school year, not because I was moved; because I was bored. Over the years I attempted to read Dickens and Kipling, and found I preferred to read about them, and I wasn’t alone in my dislike of their style and content. As Mini Chandran wrote in The Indian Express:
‘Salman Rushdie seems to have summed up all of India’s attitude to Rudyard Kipling when he said, “I have never been able to read Kipling calmly.” As Rushdie admits, it is only with a mixture of anger and delight that we Indians can read Kipling. Anger at his obvious racism and delight at the felicity of his story-telling.’
I accept my literary aberrations and absolve myself of associated guilt by admitting that I have never actually noticed any “felicity” of story-telling in either of these writers.
I absorbed Hardy’s tragic picaresque novels and avoided Dickensian realism and Kiplingesque identity dramas. Austen’s irony meant less to me than the Bronte sisters and their tales of madness, especially after I discovered the ghost of Branwell lurking beneath the tragic lives of the sisters. And is there a more deranged fictional hero than Heathcliff? I loved Shakespeare but laughed at Juliet’s sacrifice while drawing in my breath when all the perfumes of Arabia could not sweeten Lady Macbeth’s little hand. The difference I think, was Romeo’s unsuitability as a passionate lover, but a paranoid Scot’s murderous wife was entirely believable.
In my own work, I explore secrets, madness, vulnerability and redemption, a result of my gothic fascination for Hardy, perhaps. Writers were my first teachers. They showed me that while life displays all its infirmity, tragedy and fallibility, it also provides humour, love and kindness. Even though I resisted, what I learned from those I pushed against, was that it is possible for contradictions to exist in a sentence as much as in a life, for distinctions between passion and insanity to blur, for long-dead writers to influence my current literary preoccupations, and to be grateful for these dichotomies every time I tell a story of my own.
Rashida Murphy is the author of The Historian’s Daughter. Her short stories and poetry have been widely published. Her latest story is forthcoming in a new anthology published by Margaret River Press and Ethos Books.