There was always a wind blowing

Dear Monica, Do you know this feeling of slowly being enveloped by coldness? Like at the end of a sunny day: with the faint memory of the sun on our skin, we are caught unawares by the first wind. That’s more or less how your novel The Winds of Heaven (1955) feels like: as an…

Flesh is a function of enchantment

Dear Angela, While reading your novel The Passion of New Eve (1977), I could not stop thinking to myself: this must be how it feels to go through a reverse out-of-body experience. My mind is there with you, catching the references, the twisted sense of humour, the symbolic spins, the sharp satire, and all that;…

That indefinitely extended requirement that one human being makes upon another

Dear Iris, “I think it’s terrible to be in danger of writing a philosophical novel”, you said in an interview. And I know you have systematically refused to be called a philosophical novelist. However, may I politely disagree? Anatole Broyard attributes to you the idea that good art is philosophy swimming, or philosophy drowning. I could not trace…

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,…

She was still her own indomitable self,

Dear Willa, A Lost Lady (1923) is a story drenched in melancholy. A short-lived world is coming of age and, caught in its remaking, its inhabitants seem to be constantly circumscribing a void and falling through to the other side. They are not so much losing themselves in its changing, as they are disclosing to…

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…

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…

Hope is a wound

Dear Marianne, The Weight of Things (2015), translated by Adrian Nathan West (Die Schwerkraft der Verhältnisse, 1978) is this odd thing: something in-between a horror story, a domestic satire and an allegory of the insanity of war – a tale where the only character who does not lack in accountability and personal responsability is the…

I’d forgotten it was summer outside

Dear Barbara, In your novel The Vet’s Daughter (1959), I felt I was being lured into a strange place, tender and cruel. I was being lured by a voice, tenuous but powerful, pushing me through the door into a confined domestic horror. It was lonely, dangerous and grotesque, but it was a voice I very…

Trespassing on one’s own ground

Dear Monica, The atmosphere in your novel Mariana (1940) feels like a bright surface tinted by an added layer of nostalgia, and a pervading sense of loss. Like a moss-covered surface, damp to the touch, but, for that very reason, very much alive. When the book opens, Mary Shannon is spending a weekend alone with…