Jane, Emily and Me: Finding your spirit through the practice of reading

Words by Emily Fuller

My affinity for reading presented itself from a very early age. I was always entranced by the literary gateways that would open up before me, offering passage into another world of the fiction and the fantastic. I would run, jump and swim through words to escape a reality of my own, finding astonishment in the extraordinary and yet always hoping to find a little shred of myself in these books. I would read Harry Potter cover to cover until the spine fell apart. I would obsess over Hermione’s character – that girl with the unabashed cleverness and resourcefulness, who knew she was distinctly the most capable witch of her cohort. For years in my childhood I scrutinised and searched to draw connections and similarities between the two of us as I longed to be that particular kind of astute brightness. Through my childhood I continued to read adventures and fantasies and mysteries that embodied similar hero-quests. I made friends with Pippi Longstockings, the Gumnut Babies and Anne of Green Gables – feeling somewhat a part of this sisterhood of literary triumph and tribulation. I was often awestruck at these women in fiction, who despite finding difficulties and challenges in their narrative were still considered perfect heroes who used their unwavering strengths to overcome their comparable versions of hardship. I admired them sure, though I struggled to feel like I could wholly embody these girls. There was always this sense of distancing, this longing between myself and them with the magic they created in their adventures.

As I grew older I began to find my groove with discovering authors that gave me a sense as if their work was written intimately for me. I found that whilst the whimsy and woes of the tales from my childhood provided me with imagination and creativity and dreams, they did not exactly embed themselves into my being or create a mould for my soul to seep and set into. It wasn’t until I discovered the works of Jane Austen that things truly came alive internally. I poured over the mildewed pages of my well-loved copy of Pride and Prejudice and I felt a mirror being held up right in front of me as I was introduced to Lizzie Bennet – middle child of the Bennet sisters. Her wayward and capricious nature gave me a source of comfort in knowing that there will always be a place for wild women with their own convictions, ambitions and vulnerabilities. I felt a pang of resonance for her desires of independence that were gently contested with the longing for authentic love. I learnt that these things are not mutually exclusive, that I did not have to surrender my hopes for human connection in order to cultivate myself as a fiercely determined and self-sufficient woman.

After exerting all my options with Austen, one of my English teachers urged me to explore the colourful array of poetry by Emily Dickinson. Reading her work enlightened something in my consciousness. As a teenager, I carried around all of these anxieties for death and meaning and time in which I struggled to articulate to myself and to others. I would often wonder if those around me freaked out in an internal flurry at the thought of our impermanence or loneliness or fearfulness – it wasn’t until I read her poems that I felt those worries soothed into acceptance and understanding. Her wildly imaginative world and tendency for figurative language provided me with the comforting reminder that these anxieties are not this alien burden carried by me alone, but rather have possessed and tormented thinkers and feelers throughout time itself. Her prose gives me a gentle nudge in the direction of gratitude for the mundane in the everyday. She once wrote: “We never know how high we are / Till we are called to rise; / And then, if we are true to plan, / Our statures touch the skies”. In times of a chaotic schedule when I feel as if I am floating through the motions of my days and weeks, I resort to considering her careful attention to one’s inner and outer worlds in hope that I can reflect such awareness. Her poetry forces me to a standstill, to pay attention to those quiet and intricate details of life that are infused with so much beauty yet we often choose not to see it for what it is.

Toni Morrison once described the practice of reading in which I cannot help but resonate with profoundly:

The Alice-in-Wonderland combination of willing acceptance couple with intense inquiry is still the way I read literature: slowly, digging for the hidden question or relishing the choices made, eager to envision what is there, noticing what is not. In listening and in reading, it is when I surrender to the language, enter it, that I see clearly. Yet only if I remain attentive to its choices can I understand deeply. Sometimes the experience is profound, harrowing, beautiful; other rimes enraging, contemptible, unrewarding. Whatever the consequence, the practice itself is riveting.

The practice of reading is indeed riveting, as it is transformative, educational, meditative, therapeutic and entertaining. I attribute much of my character and morale to the words I have absorbed, they have woven themselves like threads into the make-up of my spirituality and wellbeing. Just like other forms of art, literature makes you live through all kinds of perspectives and life experiences beyond the confines of your own existence. It has the potential to enhance your wisdom, sensitivity and empathy like nothing else, and I am so glad to have found my spirit within these inky pages.

Art by Chloe Faye Withers – @chloefayewithers

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