As a child, I was never what was (derogatorily) termed a “girly girl”, in other words, dressed in pink frills, with an army of Barbies marching absurd-legged across my bedroom floor. Partly by accident: mine was a childhood of inherited clothes and toys, many from the children over the road – male and female. And partly by design: my mother, having gone through the same childhood of hand-me-downs, did not believe in gender-specific toys, or the colour pink (although she then faced a quandary when my brother begged to dress as Cinderella on a daily basis).
And I have often had boy best friends, from the brilliant Aidan, with whom I giggled through four years of adventures at nursery and primary school, before he was whisked away to private school (and less “malign” influences), to my once cross-dressing brother James, who shares my sense of humour, my political convictions, and my Neanderthal hairline.
And yet girls have been a constant, if not always in real life, at least in my head. They have been friends I have carried with me throughout my childhood and adulthood. Friends who, at times (in the olden days before mobile phones and computers, when friendships survived by letter alone), have been as real to me as Henny, Boo, Jude, Frosties, Rachel, Karen, Catherine and the rest. These creatures are not figments of my imagination, but the imagination of other women: The impetuous, passionate Cathy in Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; the shy debutante Penny and her dazzling best friend Charlotte in The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice; Daphne du Maurier’s unnamed narrator in Rebecca, living in the shadow of another woman, and the courageous Dona in Frenchman’s Creek, in love with another man; and, most of all, the “consciously naïve” would-be writer Cassandra Mortmain in Dodie Smith’s wonderful I Capture the Castle.
These women, and their creators, like my true friends, are my companions, and my heroines. Women I turn to for their wisdom and comfort and escape, maybe not constantly, but every few years, as I reread their stories, and who I will continue to reread long into the future, as they continue to inspire.