“Breaking out of the Library”
This is a story of escape—though a slow release from sucking mud rather than a daredevil exit down castle walls on a rope. How I released my imagination, that’s the story.
It began the day I was returning from a sabbatical to the college where I’d been teaching for ten years. As I looked round the familiar setting, the sun-filled lobby lined with mailboxes, the green upholstered chairs grouped in the common room, one powerful thought—or was it intuition? –transfixed me: I shouldn’t be here.
It was alarming. I’d given my life to education. Scholarship girl, Oxford, PhD. That meant a certain limited kind of writing. Correcting papers, marginal notes, final comments to help my students. And in the vacations—only then—writing and research of my own. Ever since the day when I was given a shiny green fountain pen for my sixth birthday, in a secret, unknowing kind of way I’d set out to be a writer.
But where had writing as a professor got me? How muffled and anxious my voice was. I can see that now. My first book, Writing by Numbers: Trollope’s Serial Fiction, was about the way the Victorian novelist, Anthony Trollope, worked. He kept count of the number of pages he wrote every day, anxious not to be lazy, not to be in the wrong, anxious to please his editors with the correct word length.
Only after it was published did I begin to wonder how much of his fears I shared. And why wasn’t I writing novels of my own? For three days I sat paralysed at my desk. I wanted to write a story but I couldn’t do it. I gave up and went back—but not entirely to my old ways. I began to question the connection between my own life and the topics I was choosing to research.
That name, ‘Trollope’? Was ‘trollop’ how I’d been taught to name a woman who knew what she wanted? How I’d been taught to think of my deepest self?
What in fact did I want?
All I knew, that day back at work after my sabbatical, was that I didn’t want this, the college. I went home that night and told my husband I needed to give up my job. He was quite startled. It meant doing without my salary and we still had kids at home. For myself I knew I was making a huge decision. I’d clawed my way up to some kind of perch in a very competitive world. I’d be letting go.
But instead of a sickening plunge, it was release that followed: my voice was freed. In fact my whole body felt free. Those first days I literally rolled on the floor in my study, bubbling with joy. More mature activity followed. But it was no coincidence that I then wrote a book, Signs of Cleopatra, about the way Europe learned to condemn a woman with a mind of her own and the power to do what seemed best to her!
My new state of liberation gave me the nerve to choose boldly. I set off on research trips, to Egypt, to Venice, to Rome. I searched out experts in art history, history of costume, Egyptology. Meeting these strangers, being treated with respect by them, my confidence grew.
I began to read the literature I used to teach with new eyes. In a move to re-educate my body as well as my mind, I took actor training: a month’s intensive with Shakespeare & Company in Western Massachusetts. They taught me to find the voice that comes from deep inside. Another book followed. I wrote about Shakespeare, how he used the old stories to get his audience to ask questions about political and religious authorities: those very authorities who had subdued me and blinkered my vision as I grew up.
Writing my next book, about children and damage, in order to build my argument, I moved from the voice of the teacher into the voice of the storyteller. Perhaps, deep down, I’d been a secret storyteller all along but it had been knocked out of me at school. My old kindergarten teacher had to remind me of the day I kept our class of five year olds spellbound, telling them the old fairy story of the Hobyahs. I’d forgotten that power had once been mine.
What now? I asked myself, one day in 2003. And I remembered Rudyard Kipling, the man I’d wanted to study for my PhD, though that had been vetoed by my supervisor. Free now to explore him, I read my way into Kipling’s life. I began to realise I’d been treading in his footsteps—India, the east coast of the US, South Africa, his home in Sussex—preparing. I seemed to be on some sort of track, ready to reconnect with myself.
Deciding to follow the course of his life was one thing: choosing to write about it in the form of fiction, rather than biography, was a massive leap. I’d never written anything but criticism before. But confidence and stamina had built up in me and I was no longer looking for permission or waiting for someone else’s timetable.
And so I came to write my novel. In the end, it was not just about Rudyard Kipling. His story led me to that of his sister, Trix, also a writer, but a woman who lost faith in her own voice. Turning my back on life in college that fateful day opened a path led home, back to what I knew for myself! It worked. Kipling & Trix won the Virginia Prize for Fiction.
MARY HAMER was born in Birmingham. Educated at the Catholic grammar school and at Lady Margaret Hall, she grew up a secret rebel. Reading Kipling’s Jungle Book, in the small branch library in Harborne offered her the first hint that there was a different, more exciting way to see the world. Mary is married, with grownup children and seven grandchildren. Kipling and Trix is her fifth book and first novel. Please check out Mary’s website: www.Mary-Hamer.com
Mary’s books: Writing by Numbers: Trollope’s Serial Fiction, Signs of Cleopatra: History, Politics, Representation, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Incest: a New Perspective, Kipling & Trix.
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Mary Hamer’s is the first one in our second series “My Gutsy Story®” Anthology #2.
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