Jersey Festival of Words, Day Three

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It’s this morning when I realise how many female non-fiction writers are doing events at the festival. What a contrast to media and prize coverage which would have you believe very few women write non-fiction books. Today I’m seeing Ella Berthoud by Skype and Jane Hawking in person.

Berthoud’s session takes place in a room at Jersey Public Library. If you haven’t come across her, she wrote a book called The Novel Cure along with Susan Elderkin. The book centres on the practice of bibliotherapy, the idea that you can cure every day ailments with the power of fiction. Berthold tells us Aristotle used to practice a verbal form of it, recommending poetry and plays. In World War Two, it was used to treat shellshock. Jane Austen was prescribed for soldiers because it was very English, a reminder of home and Austen’s world is predictable and comforting. In the 1960s, books were recommended to children who were dealing with a bereavement, their parents divorcing or parents who were having a range of difficulties.

For Berthoud and Elderkin, their practice of bibliotherapy began when they lived in adjacent rooms as undergraduates at Cambridge. When one of them was dealing with an issue, the other would slip an appropriate book under the patient’s door.

Several years later, after Elderkin had published two novels and Berthoud worked as an artist, they decided they wanted to do something with their bibliotherapy skills. Around the same time, Alain de Botton was establishing The School of Life in London. They met with him and discussed setting up a one-to-one bibliotherapy service which would deal with a combination of reading habits and real life problems and issues.

Before people go to see Berthoud and Elderkin, they’re sent a questionnaire. The first half asks about reading habits. What do you read? Why do you read? Where do you read? When do you read? What are your most loved and most loathed books? Do you have any particular reading issues? The second half is about their personal life: biographical information, any issues they have at the moment, where they want to be in ten years time.

Sometimes people come with very specific requests, which Berthoud and Elderkin research but often they’re general issues: a career rut, bereavement, divorce, empty nest syndrome.

They started planning the book in 2008 because they wanted a textbook to go with their service. Planning in Elderkin’s cottage, they came up with every ailment they could think of – a total of 777! – and every great novel. Their editor told them to cut it to 300 ailments. Even so, the first version of the book had 50,000 words cut from it including a cure for cannibalism and some medical and psychological ailments where it was possible Berthoud and Elderkin’s intensions could be misconstrued. Their aim is to help and heal rather than cure.

Berthoud says the book’s really split into four different types of ailments – emotional: depression, a broken heart, agoraphobia; situational: moving house, taking a gap year; physical: a broken leg, hiccups, in which case the books are ‘to be taken alongside medicine’, and reading: too busy to read, surrounded by children, guilt, put off by hype, tendency to read instead of live and vice-versa.

If you suffer from reading related memory loss, Berthoud suggests keeping a notebook. She says to buy a beautiful, leather bound one and allocate a page a book. On that page you should write the title and author of the book, the place where you read it and a few lines about the book including how you feel about it, what you liked and didn’t like, the narrator and key plot points. It should be enjoyable, short and should only take five minutes. If you loved the book, this will get you through the mourning period!

At this point, before Berthoud begins to recommend cures to the audience, I have to leave to powerwalk over to the Opera House to see the first of three Owen Sheers’ events. Obviously he doesn’t qualify for this blog but, along with Irma Kurtz on Friday night, his is one of the best events I’ve seen anywhere.

After Sheers, there’s a screening of Travelling to Infinity, the film based on Jane Hawking’s book about her marriage to Stephen Hawking. I don’t attend as I haven’t read the book and I have rules about these things! I do, however, attend Jane Hawking’s talk afterwards.

‘I wonder how you would respond if someone came to your door wanting to make a film of your family?’ She said no on an annual basis to the filmmaker who wanted to tell her story. She preferred to share her intimate details with a single reader, she says.

There were three reasons for writing the book: one, it took a very long time before she reconciled herself to writing about her marriage to Stephen Hawking but his prognosis was for two years and he’s outlived that by 52 and his fame drew their life into the public arena. Two, she had a huge burden of memories, the weight of which were preventing her from pursuing her own independent life. Three, she wanted to publicise the horrors of Motor Neurone Disease/ALS to help carers, sufferers and their families.

She wrote a book called Music to Move the Stars but was accused by critics of writing ‘a kiss and tell’. Eventually the book was bought by Alma Books and with the help of an editor there it became Travelling to Infinity.

She speaks at length about the film. She was pleased it was made by Working Title rather than a Hollywood production company but she says there are still a number of inaccuracies. She tells an anecdote about meeting someone who tells her she met Stephen when she was a Cambridge undergraduate – she was never a Cambridge undergraduate!

However, she was ‘bowled over’ at the private screening. Despite the omissions of the hardships of day-to-day life and their extensive travels, she says it’s emotionally true.

She goes on to talk about some of the things that were omitted from the films. She says the wives of physicists were unhappy, disaffected, intelligent women trailed by kids. Mrs Einstein cited physics as the reason for her divorce, Hawking tells us. Stephen was having coughing fits that were dangerous and frightening. Jane was living in London during the week, trying to complete her undergrad and at weekends, painting their Cambridge college and championing the disabled access cause.

When the children came along, Stephen would sit thinking whilst the children played around him. This made Jane anxious – were the children too loud? Had she upset him? Was he ill? What he was doing was thinking in eleven dimensions and solving problems. She says wives and mothers were nothing in Cambridge society so she started a PhD.

She blames the collapse of their marriage on fame, fortune, illness and sycophancy. There was a disparity between public celebrity and private stresses.

She tells an anecdote about meeting the Queen. As Stephen bowled into the room where the Queen was in his usual haste, the royal pile got caught up in the wheels of his chair. Jane was behind him in heels and a tight skirt. She couldn’t see what had happened and couldn’t get round the chair to release him. At the moment when it looked as though the Queen was about to step in, two of her equerry’s vaulted Stephen’s wheelchair and resolved the situation. Despite the unusual setting, the event illustrated the reality of Jane and Stephen’s day-to-day life. ‘It’s been a very interesting life,’ she ends.

12 thoughts on “Jersey Festival of Words, Day Three

  1. I’m a great fan of The Novel Cure, a brilliant book to dip into. Might have to look up what to read to cope with the prospect of winter looming on the horizon! It sound like you’re having a great time on Jersey, Naomi

    • I was given a copy a couple of weeks ago, flicked through and wasn’t sure about it but Berthoud made me want to go back to it so that’s good to hear. I’m home now but a day behind with the updates! It was fantastic though. Have you been?

  2. I’m a great fan of The Novel Cure, a brilliant book to dip into. Might have to look up what to read to cope with the prospect of winter looming on the horizon! It sound like you’re having a great time on Jersey, Naomi

    • I was given a copy a couple of weeks ago, flicked through and wasn’t sure about it but Berthoud made me want to go back to it so that’s good to hear. I’m home now but a day behind with the updates! It was fantastic though. Have you been?

  3. I love The Novel Cure! I’ve been reading it bit by bit throughout the year and hope to finish it before the end of 2015. My favourite bits are where they do a pastiche of the book in question — I think there’s a definite tongue-in-cheek aspect to the book that some reviewers have missed. I’ve found out about so many novels I’d never heard of and been convinced of the worth of others I didn’t appreciate enough at the time. Bibliotherapy in general fascinates me; if only there was a market for it I’d try to get professionally involved! I’ve always loved giving people tailored book recommendations.

    By the way, I would highly recommend the Hawking film (The Theory of Everything).

    • Oh that’s really nice to hear. I was given it a couple of weeks ago and flicked through it but wasn’t all that fussed but the event and yours and Susan’s comments have made me determined to sit down with it and see what I find.
      So many people said the film was wonderful. She really made me want to read her memoir, although I think it will frustrate me from a feminist point-of-view, and once I’ve done that I’ll definitely watch it.

  4. I love The Novel Cure! I’ve been reading it bit by bit throughout the year and hope to finish it before the end of 2015. My favourite bits are where they do a pastiche of the book in question — I think there’s a definite tongue-in-cheek aspect to the book that some reviewers have missed. I’ve found out about so many novels I’d never heard of and been convinced of the worth of others I didn’t appreciate enough at the time. Bibliotherapy in general fascinates me; if only there was a market for it I’d try to get professionally involved! I’ve always loved giving people tailored book recommendations.

    By the way, I would highly recommend the Hawking film (The Theory of Everything).

    • Oh that’s really nice to hear. I was given it a couple of weeks ago and flicked through it but wasn’t all that fussed but the event and yours and Susan’s comments have made me determined to sit down with it and see what I find.
      So many people said the film was wonderful. She really made me want to read her memoir, although I think it will frustrate me from a feminist point-of-view, and once I’ve done that I’ll definitely watch it.

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