When I was a child I discovered three authors who have voyaged with me through life. What a debt of gratitude I owe these women who have strengthened, enriched, educated, supported and amused me for so long. I have since found other authors, some considered ‘worthier’, and deeply enjoyed them, but in difficult times I return to my old friends of childhood and reread them with undiminished delight. I don’t believe that the secret of the power is merely nostalgia. It’s something much simpler: they work. I take them like medicine. In fact I prefer them to any medicine I have ever experienced.
Where to begin? At an impressionable age I discovered Georgette Heyer and fell in love with her wit, her style, the historic settings, the sheer romanticism of her novels. Which was maybe a bit unfortunate as it took a little time to learn that the men I were reading about weren’t likely to walk into my life. What a sad day it was when I realised that. It required extensive rereading to cheer myself up, by which time the old familiar spell was working upon me all over again, albeit somewhat more realistically. But Heyer’s humour never failed to give me a lift when the going became heavy. While my reasons for returning to her kept changing, the effect remained consistent. I felt better for the reading.
Not only did I feel better but I could escape into other centuries, wear beautiful clothes, attend soirees and picnics, go driving in perch phaetons and drive them to a whisker, bow to acquaintances, have men kiss my hand, dance to my heart’s content and find a man to solve my problems for me – all without leaving my bedroom. In times of weakness this was very attractive. Once a level of strength returned I wanted to rescue myself, be my own hero.
When I became seriously ill, illness eroded not only my outer landscape, it also eroded my inner world. Where once I had spacious mental planes to roam, now I found fences of pain, weakness, exhaustion and the mental fog and confusion of extreme depletion. It was very frightening. As was the discovery that no medical test could show what was wrong or how to cure it. Indeed, many in the medical profession thought there was nothing physically wrong with me. They believed I had hypochondria or something similar. My diagnosis, when it came, was Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME), also known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), and sometimes by names like ‘Yuppie Flu’ or ‘Tapanui Flu’.
That was when I returned to Agatha Christie, to her world of steady mores and themes, where the clues all led to resolution and the killer was always revealed. There was little violence or gore and life – on the surface at least – was always genteel. What went on beneath the surface was another story. The appeal of these detective novels lay in their set boundaries. I knew where I was, I felt safe. I felt held. Mystery and intrigue co-existed with an overriding sense of security. Plus, reading them didn’t make too many demands on my strung-tight, overloaded system. Even if the lifestyle and lives depicted were as foreign to me as the life and dance of the honey bee, they held my interest and attention. I was being reassured, even as my world was falling apart. I could distract and lose myself in these books. Daily and future unpleasantness disappeared and – wonderful boon – my need for pain relief reduced.
My third author came into my life when my family was going through tremendous turmoil and anguish. In Elizabeth Goudge, old fashioned as she is now, I found a depth of understanding and wisdom I could not find anywhere else. I think she saved my life at that point. She certainly gave me an explanation that made sense of things that had happened, and were continuing to happen. I was twelve. None of my friends could have given me what she did. Nor could any of the adults.
Had I not found Goudge’s books, I might have become one of the teenage suicide statistics that are sadly so prevalent today. She brought in a spiritual element that was to become a blueprint for how to endure the unendurable. In her books I found I was not alone in feeling the way I did. While those around me ‘kept strong and carried on’, she allowed me to feel what was inside, to have compassion for what I perceived as my weakness: my struggle with enduring pain.
I had to live with the unbearable and permanent pain of family members. My pain was the powerlessness of the observer, the one who longed to heal, to help, to put an end to the suffering of those I loved. I was bewildered and helpless, and it was neither nice nor comfortable. I felt the loneliness of the watcher who finds their own pain too hard to manage but cannot escape. I felt the shame and self-loathing of knowing that others were enduring worse suffering than me. Trapped in the horror, I was also a child with the growing realisation of how this illness would affect my own future. No longer was my life ahead secure and straightforward, the landscape was changing before my eyes. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Elizabeth Goudge put into words what I was feeling, and identified those feelings for me. In my family, feelings about what was happening were not openly discussed – but I ‘listened in’ on Elizabeth Goudge talking about feelings through the medium of fiction. Storytelling can have a profound healing effect. Change came incrementally for me, but she opened the door to the possibility of hope. Hope for healing through personal growth. She was a true friend in a time of need. I read her books over and over. They fed and sustained my spirit. Even now, her words continue to shine, although my need to reread her has lessened.
I continue to surround myself with books. Sometimes my choices have been limited by finances or difficulty getting to the library. Sometimes, pain dictates light reading only, complex books having to wait for better days. I am sure other readers have favourite authors to whom they return when life needs a laugh, a hug or a lift. I should not neglect to add that reading books for their sheer beauty or the skill of the writer is a joy for me, similar to drinking a good wine. Now that drinking alcohol is proscribed by a low potassium diet and medication, I am even more grateful for books. Frequently I give thanks that I live in a society where books are not forbidden.
It was not until I started to write about these authors that I realised just how important books have been to me as medicine. If you don’t do so already, I hope that reading this encourages you to write new book prescriptions for yourself, to experiment to your heart’s ease and joy. There is nothing like a good laugh, a good mystery, or a book that takes you into another world while it wrings your heart – all the time clarifying what life’s about.
Grace Carlyle lives in Dunedin, New Zealand. Read more by Grace on Corpus: