Why are you reading this? No, that’s not a ‘How dare you read this? Why don’t you mind your own business?’ comment; indeed, I am delighted that you are reading this. Please continue. What I mean is: what led you to read this? OK, you clicked on a link somewhere and it brought you here. But that’s not the real reason. Let me explain.
I attribute most things in my adult life to the fact that, around twenty years ago, a seventeen-year-old girl showed spectacular ignorance when it came to English literature. Clearly, I could go back further, but for me, that day was a defining point in my life. It was the Day That Changed Everything (DTCE). It was the day I fell in love.
I was working at a boarding school somewhere in the middle of England. I taught Spanish back then, but was also assistant housemistress, so lived on-site. On the DTCE, I had flu. The evening before I’d been so horribly ill — aching, shivering, sweating — that I just wanted to die and have done with my suffering; however, by the following afternoon, I was slightly recovered. I was still unable to get out of bed — the floor seemed to sway in an alarming and unpredictable manner if I tried to walk on it — but Death had become a less welcome bedside visitor and I wanted something to read. Alas, the majority of my books were still in boxes in my parents’ loft and those few I had with me at the school, I’d already read. By good fortune, however, not long had passed before Ann-Marie, one of the girls who lived in the same boarding house, called in to see if I was still alive and, assuming that to be the case, whether she could get me anything. I asked her to go to the school library.
‘Get me something light and easy,’ I said. ‘Something fun. I need cheering up and cannot face anything too demanding.’
‘Will do,’ cried Ann-Marie before bouncing off to do my bidding (the healthful always appear to the sick to bounce everywhere). Some twenty minutes passed before she returned (equally buoyantly), clutching to her bosom a rather thick looking volume.
‘I got you this, miss,’ she said. ‘I think it’s by Joan Collins’s sister, so should be all sex’n’drugs’n’rock’n’roll. Gotta dash, or I’ll be late for supper.’ And with that she gambolled off.
I reached out a weary hand and picked up the book Ann-Marie had left on the nightstand beside me. It didn’t look like your typical holiday bestseller, but appearances can be deceptive; and, besides, the school librarian had a fondness for changing the covers on books, ostensibly because they got shabby, but — I always suspected — more probably because the more graphic and colourful ones might make reading seem more interesting and appealing to young minds. I opened the heavy tome…
Joan Collins’s sister, eh? That’d be Jackie Collins then, wouldn’t it? Not (unless there was a third sibling who’d somehow managed to be born over a hundred years before the rest of the brood) Wilkie Collins? Ah ha. I wanted light-weight holiday pap, and poor, well-meaning Ann-Marie had brought me worthy Victorian stodge. Disappointed, I replaced the volume on the nightstand and tried to sleep. But you know how it is with flu — one’s body is so achy and exhausted that it’s impossible to get comfortable — and a few hours later, I was still wide awake. Reluctantly, I picked up The Woman in White, for that was the book in question, and began reading. Twenty minutes later, I was hooked. I found myself hoping I didn’t recover until I’d discovered the eventual fates of Laura, Marion, Walter, Fosco, and Mr Fairlie. (I didn’t — I also managed to read The Moonstone before I was well enough to return to work.) It was an epiphany! It was the start of the longest love-affair of my life. It was the Day That Changed Everything.
Because Ann-Marie confused Wilkie with Jackie, I fell in love with Victorian literature; because I fell in love with Victorian literature, I eventually went back to university to do my MA; because I went back to university and did my MA, I discovered I also loved studying and learning things (I’d got my BA and my PGCE on a combination of luck and natural ability, but certainly not on hard work); because I discovered the joys of studying and learning things, I then did my PhD; because I did my PhD… well, you get the picture.
Ann-Marie innocently and unknowingly started a chain of causality whose links I can trace, one by one, to this very moment. If she hadn’t made the mistake she did, I wouldn’t be writing this now, and you wouldn’t be reading it. So I ask you, because I’d really like to know, why are you reading this, from your point of view? Is it because you played a video game twenty years ago? Is it because you dyed your hair bright pink when you were fifteen and the headmaster sent you home from school? Is it because your former neighbour’s dog kept you awake every night for six months? Did a snatch of a song you heard on the radio or a chance conversation with a stranger on a bus change your world? Or was it something on a grander scale — surviving a car crash or the death of a loved one, perhaps? Everyone has a DTCE. What’s yours?