In Northern Ireland, the complexities of literary fiction are embraced for their capacity to unite. Every week, I read literature with female prisoners at a Belfast prison. We read aloud and discuss short stories, novels and poetry. This evokes emotional responses, reflections on personal experiences and memories of things that are not often easily accessible. It is, for all of us, a deeply engaging reading experience. The literature we read and the resulting discussions also generate conflicts within the group, highlighting social and personal differences. The conflict and recognition of diversity that the literature brings about enables us to find new and different ways of saying and seeing. This article looks at the reading group's reactions to several texts, and how literature has played a part in enabling them to deal with conflicts in their lives.
When reading Dickens' Great Expectations, almost all the women identified with the protagonist, Pip; in particular, with his realization of the social asymmetry between himself ("a common labouring-boy") and Estella, the young girl of higher birth who lives with Miss Havisham. Estella makes this difference manifestly physical, capturing it metonymically when she points out the "coarseness" of his hands and the "thickness" of his boots. Consequently, Pip is forced to assess his physicality in a very different light:
"I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before;
but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair.
Her contempt was so strong, that it became infections, and I caught it" (p.51)
This prompted one reader, Rosemary (readers' names have been changed to protect and respect the confidentiality of the reading group), to concede that "I'll only ever be seen as a criminal. People – especially in here - only see my number". Joanne responded by advising her to "find a way to show them something else – like Pip". The conflicts in the text are read concomitantly with our own personal and social conflicts. We evaluate the former as if they were (and because they have been, in greater or lesser part) our own. In The Act of Reading, Iser argues for the 'characteristic' presence of, or potential for, conflict in narrative texts. This conflict is brought about in the first instance by the different perspectives (whether of narrator, minor characters, or all the characters together), which "do not coincide". These "various lines of orientation" generate interplay between conflict and solution, a rhythm that, Iser acknowledges, is "both constituted and performed within [the reader]". This interplay defines our collective reading experiences. In the case of Pip, reading (or re-reading) himself anew from the skewed perspective of the judgmental Estella, our group can see both the futility of adapting to someone else's idea of what's 'normal' and the empowering potential of self-assessment. The text, and the discussions that come from it, illuminate these conflicts and help the group to begin developing the means for resolving their own.
All the Beggars Riding
Lucy Caldwell's novel All the Beggars Riding charts the 1973 visit to London of the protagonist's grandmother, Mrs Moorhouse, to try to convince her pregnant daughter, Jane, to abandon her relationship with Patrick, a married man, and return home. She arrives in London with mixed emotions and a bag of compartmentalized meals in Tupperware dishes. We talk about how Jane's mother might have felt making this journey – what, if any, fears she had and what might have driven her to make this gesture. Selina suggests that "she feels awkward", pinpointing the following lines:
"she wears her Sunday-best skirt-suit and matching hat like armour.
Nobody in London, on a Tuesday morning in 1973, is wearing a full skirt-suit and stockings,
a thick silk blouse and hat and court shoes. Jane will notice the effort, of course,
and she hopes her daughter doesn't hate her for it" (p.172)
"This is hard for her", Selina reckons, while Margaret wonders if the mother's desire to encourage her daughter to come home derives from her own 'loneliness' or stasis, pointing to the following lines:
"sometimes she lets herself think it might even be something having a bantling about the place.
The prattle of it, the company, the fat little legs as it learned to toddle" (p.173)
"She's lacking something, maybe in her own life, and this might fill it." I ask her how she 'knows' this and she cites the word 'lets' – "it's like she is afraid to think of it because deep down it's what she really wants. She can't admit it to herself", is her thoughtful reply. Another group member disagrees: "No", she says, "it's like she's trying to convince herself that she wants this, but I don't think she does". Margaret fills the gaps in the narrative (because we are not explicitly informed of Mrs Moorhouse's feelings on the subject) by projecting her own experiences (of loneliness) and by empathizing with the character – "well, that's what I'd be thinking". In so doing, she reconciles the contradiction between what the mother 'feels' internally (she is lonely and she wants her daughter to be safe but also socially accepted), and what she shows externally (she is antagonistic, judgmental and disparaging about the relationship between Jane and her married lover). In other words, she makes the story cohere by using her own experiences to make sense of theirs. Much of our weekly discussion is predicated upon coherence – we need to make the texts make sense, as it were, and to offer a resolution to the conflict between fictional character and action, personal experience and our individual and collective interpretations.
The fictional character's conflict over her daughter's life choices is made more apparent in her cursory look around Jane's apartment - her observations make it impossible for her not to 'feel' Patrick's presence:
"the cabinet of records... the lurid yellow poster, the framed poem on the wall.
'With all its sham, drudgery, and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world...'
How dare he? she thinks. Then she wonders if it's Jane's, and her eyes suddenly fill" (p.178)
We talk about the possible reasons why the mother dislikes a man she has not met, why she might want to bring Jane home, why much is communicated yet very little is said. Selina says suddenly, quietly, "sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind". I ask her to go on: "with your children, I mean. Sometimes, it doesn't pay to try to always look after them, make them casseroles and chicken pies like this mum has done. Maybe the best thing you can do for them is not to do anything". I sense she is mapping her own maternal experience here and I ask if she understands this mother's position. "Yes", she answers, "I did everything for my children because I didn't want them to get into trouble. I tried to get them out of it. Now they're outside and I can do nothing for them here. I know because of me trying to help them, I have ended up here. I haven't helped them at all". In this story, Selina reads her own agony of 'not knowing what to do for the best', a sentiment we later explore in Louis MacNeice's poem 'Entirely' ("there is no road that is right entirely").
A group member's own writing
The following week, we read on, touching on the cathartic decision of Lara, the narrator in All The Beggars Riding, to write her life-story, "as if a story can save you" (p.40). As we talk about this, an emotional Janet shares how being in prison means too much time to think, "to be alone, to let the thoughts come into your mind like that poem from last week" ('6 A.M. Thoughts', by Dick Davis). To make sense of it, and inspired by Lara (the narrator of All The Beggars Riding), she has started writing as a way of 'settling herself': "I had to make myself stop [letting the thoughts circulate wildly]". She cites these lines as "being me":
"I have no choice but to catch it [the story of her life]. Once unleashed,
the memories aren't going to go away; so I must write them down, pin them,
trap them into chains of words so they can't flap around my head at night and haunt me"
(All The Beggars Riding, p.40)
Our conversation turns to whatever it is that prompts these 'thoughts' – good or not so good - to be 'unleashed'. When we read of Lara's desire, for example, for the "shoeboxed scraps of memento" in the wake of her father's death, Anne, a middle-aged lady who has been with us for a few years, tells us that her treasures are often someone else's 'scraps'. Speaking of the plastic bag that holds clothes brought to her from home in a family visit, she says "that bag holds everything... I can smell home in there. Sometimes, I even stick my nose in it just to get that last sniff of home". Previously too 'embarrassed' to admit this outside the group, Anne laughs, but there are empathetic nods and mumblings of agreement. For Anne, and the rest of us, the text has made this act understandable enough (to her and to the rest of the group) for her to share it, and with it, the collective longing for all things 'home'.
Literature is often a catalyst for change, allowing us to 'try out' our reactions to events, situations and experiences from the safe distance of the fictional world of the book. It builds solidarity, connecting the group through the shared experience that lasts long after the story ends. These reading experiences don't offer an escape from reality with all its attendant conflicts, but rather offer a way of dealing with it, of resolving the conflicts, or of just knowing that we're not alone with them. Sometimes, that's enough. Whether it's acknowledging the parallels between Estella's unfair social stereotyping and what our group believe to be the unjust social stereotyping of female prisoners, or the identification with the actions and consequences of a fictional character like Mrs Moorhouse and our own actions, literature teaches us that there are may different ways of seeing, of making sense. There are also many different things to see - a few weeks ago as we read 'The Bee's Last Journey to the Rose', by Brian Patten, we talked about what this "last journey" might be. After some lengthy and sometimes colourful suggestions, one of the women re-read the following lines:
I am old in this green ocean,
Going a final time to the rose.
North Wind, until I reach it
Keep your icy breath away
That changes pollen into dust.
Let me be drunk on this scent a final time,
Then blow if you must.
She commented, "he's so determined. Whatever the last journey is, it doesn't really matter. What matters most is that he's making it count". That settled it.
The reading group's reading
The reading group has read Charles Dickens' Great Expectations, Lucy Caldwell's All the Beggars Riding and short stories by Raymond Carver, Kate Chopin, David Constantine, Charles Dickens, Neil Gaiman, Joanne Harris, W. Somerset Maugham, Patrick Waddington and Tobias Wolff.
We have also read poetry by Amily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Seamus Heaney, George Herbert, P J Kavanagh, Louis MacNeice, Sinead Morrissey, Edward Muir, Brian Patten, Fernando Pessoa, Sylvia Plath, William Shakespeare, Mark Strand and Edward Thomas.
The following texts look at the relationship between the reader and the act of reading:
Burke, Michael. 2011. Literary Reading, Cognition and Emotion: An Exploration of the Oceanic Mind. New York: Routledge.
Canning, Patricia. 2012. "Poetic Justice: A Narrative of Belfast Breakthroughs", in The Reader 48: 59-65. [An article on the effects of a 'Get into Reading' shared reading group in prison].
Pessoa, Fernando. 2001. The Book of Disquiet. London: Penguin. [A work of fiction that eloquently captures the impact of the detail in good writing on the human psyche.]
Wolf, Maryanne. 2008. Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Cambridge: Icon Books. [An interesting and persuasive account of the history of reading, its effects on the brain and emotion, reading development and Dyslexia.]
Wofgang, Iser. 1978. The Act of Reading: A Theory of Aesthetic Response. Baltimore and London: John Hopkins Press.