Texts That Made Me: Val Derbyshire

Texts That Made Val

Pictured are a selection of the books which have shaped my life. They are only a selection, because there are many, many more I could have included, but the number of books in the photo was getting out of control. I had to be ruthless. Monica Dickens’s Talking of Horses was the only book I ever won as a school prize. Strangely, it wasn’t for English, despite this being my strongest subject. It was in R.E. The only other prize I ever won at school was the “full attendance” certificate. It’s not much to boast about when the only prize you receive is the one for turning up. I didn’t read my prize until much later. I was too busy reading the du Mauriers, anything and everything by Douglas Adams (although I particularly like the one pictured for the episode featuring Coleridge) and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (I always envy people who have never read this book as they still have the pleasure of reading it for the first time before them). However, when I did read the Dickens, it was a text which resonated, and has stayed with me. I spent part of the 1990s owning and show-jumping a small grey pony with lightning reactions. She was an incredibly tough character and remains to this day the most sincere and staunchest friend I ever had. Dickens clearly knew several equine characters just like her.

Continuing the horsey theme, I read Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet as a third year undergraduate at Sheffield with the late, great Professor Ian MacKillop – a tutor who really knew how to bring a text to life. Ditto The Poems of Charlotte Smith, edited by Stuart Curran. Ever since taking LIT 349, “Revolution and Emotion: Charlotte Smith and William Wordsworth” as an undergraduate, with Professor Jacqueline Labbe as my tutor, this book has pretty much been my constant companion ever since. When my sons were babies I would read sonnets to them when they wouldn’t sleep (they still refused to sleep but the sonnets cheered me up). I even managed to get the book signed by Professor Curran at the most recent ‘Placing Charlotte Smith’ conference.

Judi Hendrick’s Bread Alone is a great read and one which encapsulates perfectly the strangeness of working night shifts – something I did when my sons were young to fit work around childcare. Sleeping in the day and working all night becomes like living in an altered reality, although working night shifts gives you plenty of time to read all those books (Northanger Abbey was just one which cheered up a long shift).

You couldn’t expect a “texts that made me” entry from me without the inclusion of some Mills & Boons. The ones featured are Penny Jordan’s Escape from Desire (the first one I ever read), Exorcism (a favourite – there can’t be many romantic novels where the heroine is almost eaten by a giant octopus) and Madeline Ker’s The Wilder Shores of Love. “Madeline Ker” was one of the few men writing for Mills & Boon, his real name being Marius Gabriel Cipola. Which leads me onto my favourite Margaret Atwood novel – and possibly favourite book of all time – Lady Oracle, in which the heroine’s lover writes trashy romances under the pen-name “Mavis Quilp”. Inspired by the heroine’s gothic historical romances, I wrote my own, The Ravens of Radistock and sent it off to Mills & Boons. They read the novel in its entirety before sending me the best rejection letter I’ve ever received.

–Val Derbyshire

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