I consider it a lucky thing that when I was growing up, there were no iPads or tablets for parents to give children to whittle away the time. Watching TV was considered an occasional treat, so I spent my time at a distance from screens, pouring my soul into the accessible world of books instead. It sounds fanciful, but if you skim the pages of my childhood books, you will probably find pieces of me fluttering within. I was never without a book, even at night when sleep was supposed to be my companion. Instead, I would be with my book at the window, using whatever light source that lay beyond as a way to keep me reading. My current crippling myopia makes total sense given my insane reading habits.
My initial reading choices were of the typical variety. Authors like Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl were staples, but it was characters like Anne Shirley and Jo March who captivated me. My imagination was a thriving force in my life, much like Anne’s was in hers. It comforted me to know I was not the only weird one escaping into the dreamy, sparkled worlds of my own creation. Jo fascinated me in a different way, where I wanted her life, as strange as that sounds, for her family struggled at times to keep afloat. I never considered their poverty and struggles, my focus was more on their togetherness and sisterhood – my desire for shared camaraderie and throw-back-your-head type of laughter.
Me relating to these female characters also had an impact on my relationships with men. I wished for a best friend like Teddy, I wanted to fall in love with my good friend the way Anne did with Gilbert, so friendship was always a pursued state with all these men who found their way into my life. I flourished so much in my state as a friend that I never moved on from that role. I was their best mate, the most cherished friend they spilled all their secrets to, the keeper of their deepest fears and wildest fantasies – never the fantasy itself. Perhaps it was because I didn’t have fiery red flames for hair, or Jo’s beautiful dark tresses and wit. I couldn’t measure up the same way these women could, maybe that’s why it was so difficult to fall in love with me.
It was in my mom’s bookshelves that I discovered Jane Austen, who confounded me. On one hand, she crafted such memorable romantic relationships. On the other, she never sought to have one of her own. As I devoured Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, the rationale began to blossom for me. She didn’t need reality to create what she herself had already done. As a writer, it made sense to me that her fictional world would be enough. Well, if it was enough for Austen, it would be enough for me. So I threw myself into the study of English Literature, consuming text after text, churning out essay after essay, convincing myself that all I really needed for survival was a good book and a strong pen.
Then I met the Brontes. Three sisters, all gifted with imaginative gusto, crafting such different and unique world despite their similar shared spaces. I was most blown away by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. There was an intensity to her prose that scared me yet drew me in, like a moth to a flame. I allowed myself to drown in the fire of her prose, swallowed in the torments of Heathcliff and Cathy’s passion. Was love really like this? It sounded so agonisingly tantalising. Charlotte Bronte was also guilty of painting a similar picture with Jane and Rochester, but with even greater depth. Jane and Rochester were such equals in wit and conversation that of course love would follow. Thus, upon meeting a friend of a mutual friend at a bus stop, the electric conversation that followed left me in a swirling state of hope and agony. Surely he felt the pull of our shared banter, or the sustained eye contact we kept drawing from each other. But all I got was a friend request on Facebook and a few messages that quickly dwindled into nothing.
As I crawled my way into my final year in university, I chose to do my thesis on Jane Eyre, wanting to purge the message it had imprinted on me. In writing about Jane, it was inevitable that I started to pay more attention to Bertha Mason, or as I prefer to know her – Antoinette. In submerging myself in Jane’s narrative, I had forgotten about the madwoman in the attic. She had been the obstacle to Jane and Rochester’s happiness. I never considered her voice, or who she was before she was reduced to this snarling creature who creeps around destroying wedding veils. Jean Rhys gave her a presence, an identity; a sense of agency is returned to her as her narrative unfolds.
She was a beautiful, vibrant woman, struggling to deal with her dual ethnic identities. In her struggle she lost herself, and became a victim to a man’s warped recreation of who he thinks she should be. That’s when I realised I was allowing my love for books to do the same to me. The narratives I had experienced in these texts were constructing the way I lived my life. They were the blueprints on how to fall in love, how to write and who I had to be. Sylvia Plath’s ennui and emotional angst had become my own, and much like Charlotte Perkins’ protagonist, I began to peel away at the yellow wallpaper in my head, fully expecting to see a shrivelled version of myself beneath.
But Antoinette saved me. In Rhys’ narrative, she resists Rochester’s desire to limit who she should be, and how she should love. Her act of burning his home was not the act of a mad woman that we all perceived in Jane Eyre, it was a way for her to save herself from his patriarchal boundaries. In doing so, she saves Jane as well. She gives her a man who is now able to love her on more equal terms. As for me, she gave me a cloak to wrap myself in as I dived into texts, so I was in the world but insulated from it. Fantasy may come from reality, but we cannot believe in its reality to the point where we lose sight of our own.
So when I did fall in love, I did so on my own terms, in my own way, with a man who was not Rochester or Darcy, because he is more than a glimpse on a page. He is a steady rock in a volatile and chaotic world, the person I return to at the end of a long day and the first I think about at the beginning of one. I may not be able to walk Austen’s path and completely devote myself to the pages that flow from my pen (keyboard to be exact), but then again, I am no Jane Austen. She is a force all her own, and maybe one day my imaginings will find themselves concretized on a freshly printed page. All I can do is dream and try.