When Nina Findlay finds herself caught in a love triangle between two brothers, she knows she needs to get out of town in order to clear her head. But enlightenment comes in many forms, and after escaping to a tiny Greek island, Nina learns about herself from an unlikely source: a doctor whom she meets after she is in an accident. The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay by Andrea Gillies tells the story of this very personal journey to finding inner peace and strength. Here, author Gillies shares with us some of the books that have enlightened her over the years.
Published in 1847 under a male pseudonym, this novel charts the inner journey of an unwanted child as she suffers travails and heartbreak, becomes a governess, and finally wins the heart of the master of the house. It is, in short, one of the greatest romantic novels ever written, while at the same time managing to be a literary work of genius. Pulling off that combination is incredibly difficult, and Charlotte Brontë makes it look absolutely effortless and natural. One thing I love especially about it is that—like much of Jane Austen’s work—it’s a wish-fulfilment book, in which a plain, imaginative, loving, intelligent woman is the one the hero chooses, above all the pretty, flirty, more highly-born girls.
I bought this book while I was living on a small Scottish island, living the experience which would become my memoir of being a dementia-carer (Keeper). I was having trouble writing the manuscript which would become my first novel (The White Lie), and then I read this. It was a revelation to me. The lightness of touch, the simplicity of the story, were made rich and satisfying by the presence of the mind of the writer in the narrative, the guiding voice. It was an interesting mind that wasn’t afraid to use metaphor and make unusual connections between things. It’s the first novel I ever read that made me get a notebook and write excerpts in it, under the heading YOU COULD DO IT LIKE THIS.
Up until about the age of 10 I’d been raised on Enid Blyton, fairy tales, ballet, and pony books. I think I was given Alice for my 10th birthday. It changed my life. It was as if I’d only ever seen pretty watercolours, and walked into a Picasso museum. I was blown sideways. Books could be mad and subversive, dangerous and whimsical, and the imagination could be allowed to run free. Writing could be like this! I read it about seven times in a row, sometimes under the covers at night with a torch, until I could just about recite it. It’s the book that made me determined to be a writer. Wind in the Willows, The House at Pooh Corner and Tom’s Midnight Garden were the other books that have stayed with me from that time.
This was the first novel that made a movie in my head as I was reading. I was about 12 when I first read it—my late father, God bless him, kept me topped up with a steady stream of books. I’d never read a novel like it. Charles Dickens was a deeply visual writer, and he conjures up one scene after another with extraordinary vividness, so I felt as if I’d seen the film of Great Expectations long before I saw a screen version. I re-read it recently and the same thing happened: It played out as one of the most satisfying movies I’ve ever seen, privately in my head. Great Expectations was the book that made me a writer of place: My books always have a strong sense of spirit of place, and the backdrop is always another character in the story.
As part of my degree in English Literature and Language at the university of St Andrews, here in Scotland, I had to learn Old English and translate Beowulf from the original. “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon, hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon.” That’s the first line. The translating was not fun, though I think I’d enjoy the challenge more now (Seamus Heaney’s version, particularly in audiobook, is wonderful, by the way). The story is an epic, about a struggle: Beowulf, a great warrior and man of integrity, fights the monster Grendel, and shows himself to be a hero. The longest poem in English, it was written in about the year 1000, from stories possibly 250 years older or more, and was devised as an entertainment, to be spoken aloud to an audience. I revisit it sometimes, in modern English, to remind myself that books should grip us with their stories; that good novels are tales you can tell aloud by the fire; that story is everything.
This is a novel that I’ve read three times, and each time it has had a different significance. The first time, when a literature student, I was supposed to be focussing on the very English class conflict storyline (it was first published in 1928), but was somewhat distracted by the sex. The second time, while a young mother, I had no patience at all for its scenario, in which the gamekeeper, Mellors represents a lost life-force in upper class society, one that he’s able to reawaken in the miserable Lady Chatterley. It occurred to me for the first time that he treated her pretty badly, as well. The third time I read it, a few years ago, my only real conclusion was this: When women write books about love, sexless marriages, adultery, choices, and heartbreak, that feature aristocrats and gamekeepers having sex in a shed, that’s Chick Lit. When men write them, they’re metaphorical and great literature.
Looking in the Distance: A Human Search for Meaning
My final selection is a book that was enlightening in a more traditional sense. I read this at a time in which my odd paradoxical position about God, with one foot in and one foot out of faith, seemed too odd to explain and share, and I felt alone in my paradox. Richard Holloway, a former Bishop of Edinburgh, addresses this very issue. He stepped down from his position in the church because he had become an agnostic, and his series of beautifully written, powerfully communicative books put across the value of being someone who sees, at the least, the metaphorical power of religious stories in the world and in our minds.
Andrea Gillies lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. Her debut book was the memoir Keeper: One House, Three Generations and a Journey Into Alzheimer’s (Broadway, 2010), which won the Wellcome Trust Book Prize and the Orwell Book Prize. Her first novel, The White Lie (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner), was published to critical acclaim in 2012. The Enlightenment of Nina Findlay is her second novel.