The sky was red and all my life was in it.

Dear Jean, In your novel Wide Sargasso Sea (1966), you seem to be holding up a distorting mirror to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847): if we look at this mirror for too long, illusion and reality will gradually lose their once sharp outlines; madness will be less a departure than a never-ending journey back home,…

Jean Rhys

Jean Rhys (born Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams, 24 August 1890 – 14 May 1979) was a British-Dominican writer. She was born and grew up in Dominica, and moved to England when she was 16. Her father was Welsh and her mother was Dominican (with Scots ancestry). Jean Rhys studied at the Perse School for Girls in…

She has done for me at last, Rachel my torment

Dear Daphne, In My Cousin Rachel (1951), you build up tension, chapter after chapter, by unravelling the personality of the eponymous character in all its complexity and ambiguity: as if it were a game of hide-and-seek, where we follow a clue, only to have it undermined a few steps ahead; much like a dog, running…

To show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business

Dear Sylvia, Lolly Willowes (1926) is a satirical comedy of manners centred on an unmarried woman who suddenly decides to escape the claustrophobic domestic role her family tries to force on her. Funnily enough, the means she will use to fight against her family are no less morally equivocal than the life they were trying to…

Sylvia Townsend Warner

Sylvia Townsend Warner (6 December 1893 – 1 May 1978) was an English writer. She was home-schooled by her father. At the outbreak of World War I, she moved to London and worked in a munitions factory. During the rise of fascism, Warner campaigned on behalf of the Communist Party. She published novels, poetry, and short-stories. She was also a musicologist, and…

Virtue can sometimes be a little depressing

Dear Barbara, Excellent Women (1952) is a comedy of manners about a spinster surrounded by people who cannot see why she shouldn’t suffer for being single. She is perfectly fine, though – if anything, the married people in the book are the ones really struggling, or in pain. The narrator, Mildred Lathbury, is an unmarried…

Barbara Pym

Barbara Mary Crampton Pym (2 June 1913 – 11 January 1980) was an English writer. She studied at Queen’s Park School, in Oswestry, and attended Huyton College, near Liverpool. She then studied English at St Hilda’s College, Oxford. During World War II, Pym served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service. After the war, she worked at the International African Institute in London,…

Fire burn, and caldron bubble

Dear Ronald, “The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present” is an ambitious and detailed research on a wide variety of beliefs about witches, as well as on the many ways those beliefs may have shaped and given rise to the Western witch trials. The book starts with an outline of…

Ronald Hutton

Ronald Hutton (1953) is an English historian. He studied at Pembroke College, Cambridge, and at Oxford University. He is professor of British folklore, pre-Christian religion and contemporary Paganism at the University of Bristol. Books The Royalist War Effort 1642–1646 (1982) The Restoration: A Political and Religious History of England and Wales 1658–1660 (1985) Charles the Second, King of England, Scotland and Ireland (1989) The British…

I always lacked common sense when taken by surprise

Dear Anne, Agnes Grey (1847) had for me the strange quality of a double-pointed sword: we must read it carefully, or else it may kill precisely what it had promised to protect. Agnes, the eponymous protagonist and narrator of the story, is the youngest daughter of Richard Grey, a clergyman of modest means. Her mother…

Anne Brontë

Anne Brontë (17 January 1820 – 28 May 1849) was an English writer. She was educated at home, and later attended a boarding school in Mirfield, between 1836 and 1837. Anne worked as a governess between 1839 and 1845. Her poems and novels were first published under the pen name of Acton Bell. She died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the…