Life Stories

Today I wanted to write about my favourite autobiographies. These five books are all written by women who are novelists or academics, and I think if they have something else in common, it’s in the authors’ stories of how they came to recognise and develop their own creativity, whether it was in academic research and criticism or in writing fiction.

My descriptions probably make them sound like they are all about very difficult experiences but I don’t think they are depressing – I am definitely not a fan of typical ‘misery memoirs’ and usually avoid them at all costs. These are all very well-written and imaginative books that have so much interest in them apart from the difficulties the authors experience. I’d recommend them if you are interested in the importance of reading and writing in someone’s life, and in how a person can discover their creative side and become a writer.

An Angel At My Table by Janet Frame
Janet Frame was an acclaimed writer from New Zealand, who wrote novels, short stories and poetry. An Angel At My Table is the second volume of her autobiography and is about her hospitalisation for mental illness, as well as about the beginnings of her literary career. It is an interesting story, because although she was diagnosed with schizophrenia, it later became clear that this was a mistake and that she was really suffering from depression caused by unhappiness in her childhood. When she left home to train as a teacher, her shyness and loneliness caused her to have a breakdown and, through her efforts to attract attention, to be diagnosed with an illness she didn’t really have.

What saved her from spending the rest of her life in psychiatric hospitals was her talent and the recognition given her by publication and by the prizes her work received. Part of the book describes the support given her by a fellow writer, Frank Sargeson, with whom she lived after she left hospital. He gave her a place to work and helped her recover from the stress she had been under. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to read about a fascinating and unusual life.

Once in a House on Fire by Andrea Ashworth
Once in a House on Fire is a memoir about a young girl’s difficult childhood among domestic violence. Her intelligence and love of books eventually led to her leaving her hometown of Manchester, going to Oxford University and then becoming an academic. This is a very intense book and, although it tells a story that is at times sad, it’s interesting and absorbing. I haven’t read it since I was eighteen and was about to leave for university myself, but I remember it made an impact on me then because of the author’s love of reading and the way she had achieved so much despite her background.

Giving Up The Ghost by Hilary Mantel
A memoir by the author of Beyond Black and Wolf Hall, this is one of Hilary Mantel’s less famous books but I would highly recommend it. Giving Up The Ghost is the story of Mantel’s early life and in particular her struggles with an illness (endometriosis) that was undiagnosed for many years. It describes the problems caused by doctors who do not listen to the voice of a young woman, resulting in permanent damage to her health. It is not a very happy book for the most part, but I would recommend it to people who have chronic health problems or who have ever felt dismissed by doctors or those in authority. I also think this would be a great book for anyone thinking of going into the medical profession, as it emphasises the importance of listening and creates sympathy for someone suffering from an unidentifiable illness, with symptoms that don’t seem to fit a particular diagnosis. This is something I feel strongly about and I don’t think it can receive enough attention. This memoir is also hopeful, however, because it goes on to explain how Mantel began to write her novels and did not allow her spirit to be crushed by those who undermined her, and it is therefore quite inspirational in spite of the frustrations she describes.

Bad Blood by Lorna Sage
I really liked this memoir of the literary critic Lorna Sage’s unconventional childhood in Wales with her parents and grandparents because it is written with such passion and humour. The story tells how, through her academic ambitions and determination, Sage manages to transcend the ‘bad blood’ that has cursed the family, although her escape from her miserable circumstances seems at one point to be threatened, when she becomes pregnant at 15.  She analyses her dysfunctional family perfectly, and the characters, especially her grandfather, are very gothic and fascinating. You can read the first chapter here.

Instead of a Letter by Diana Athill
Among many other things, Instead of a Letter vividly describes the end of a relationship and the sense of loss that can drain away all pleasure from life for a long time afterwards. Diana Athill was editor to many famous writers, including one of my favourites, Jean Rhys, and is also the author of several other memoirs (I also like Stet, her memoir about her publishing career, particularly the section describing how she worked with Jean Rhys and helped her to finish and publish Wide Sargasso Sea). Instead of a Letter, though, is about her happy childhood and the sad ending of her engagement, and how she eventually found meaning in her life.

What I find interesting about this book is that Athill very honestly and self-critically looks at herself, concluding ‘I have not been beautiful, or intelligent, or good, or brave, or energetic, and for many years I was not happy’. When she asks herself what the meaning of her life is, her attention is captured by a quotation from John Ruskin, ‘The greatest thing a human soul does in this world is to see’. Athill has a gift for observation and she says that ‘seeing things remained, through the dreariest stretches of my life, a reason for living’. I think this is a lovely thought, whether related to creating any form of art or to life in general.

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4 comments
  1. Nymeth said:

    I haven’t read any of these, so I’ve been enthusiastically adding to my wishlist while reading your post! All but Bad Blood, which I already own and really need to read sometime soon.

    • Sarah said:

      Glad I’ve added to your wishlist and I hope you like them! Bad Blood is great. It’s been a while so I’d quite like to read it again.

  2. Caroline said:

    I’ve got the first three and really want to read them but I’m very grateful you brought the latter two to my attention. they sound very interesting. Jean Rhys is one of my favourite authors. I discovered her when I was 20 and read everything she wrote within a feew weeks.
    Janet Frame’s story has been on my mind a lot and how much damage a misdiagnosis can bring (not much different from Mantel). I saw Jane Campion’s movie years ago and liked it very much.

    • Sarah said:

      I hope you enjoy them all. It’s nice to meet someone else who likes Jean Rhys too. I did a dissertation on her at university and loved all her books.
      I haven’t seen Jane Campion’s film but I’ll have to try and find it.

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