31 March 2023
Author Meg Clothier, whose new novel is The Book of Eve, outlines the blessings of bibliomania
Back in autumn 2019, I was sitting in a bar in the middle of London, alone, eating polenta chips and working my way down a carafe of wine. For once, I wasn’t reading. Instead, I was staring at the bizarre letters of the Voynich manuscript on my phone, hoping that if I stared hard enough, an idea for a novel would leap out at me.
The real manuscript is in a library at Yale University, safe from novelists’ greasy fingers, rest-ing up after a long and curious life. The parchment of its 250-or-so pages dates, unarguably, to the fifteenth century, and other pointers suggest it was produced in Italy, but who wrote it and why, that remains a delicious mystery.
And mysteries, as you know, are bait for greedy novelists.
Greater and more mathematical minds than mine have run intricate linguistic and statistical investigations to discover whether the Voynich script (the strange letters are found nowhere else in the world) relates to a natural language, or conceals a fiendish code, or perhaps some mixture of the two. Theories there are many – perhaps it’s even a hoax? – answers there are none.
Back in the bar, I turned from the script to the pictures, many of them plants, liking how they bend and reach, how they dance and undulate, roots and branches waving like …
Like arms and legs! Like people! Like women! Like plants that have turned into women! Like in classical myth! Like in Ovid!
Yes, a novel had leapt out at me. I knew then I would write a story about how a Voynich-ish manuscript helped women – women facing sexual, physical or psychological threat – helped them change. Of course, there were still 1,001 things to figure out: which women, when where why who how, but all that would, I trusted, come in time. One thing I knew for sure, though: my story would hymn the mighty and magical role books can play in our lives.
Beatrice, who became my heroine, is a convent librarian in a city very like Florence, at a time very like 1500, and she develops an intense, almost passionate, relationship with one particular book, mirroring my own intense and passionate relationship with all the books in my life.
When I pitched up, aged seven, at a very religious boarding school (in Burnham-on-Sea, alas, not Florence), I begged to be allowed to read by myself in the library after school, rather than having to laugh and swap stickers and watch Top of the Pops. (Thanks for the good times, Willard Price). Later, I coaxed room-mates into silence with mammoth-gutting and hot cave-sex (Jean Auel, may your name live forever). Later still, in the coldest Moscow winter for a generation (when a mammoth skin would have come in handy), I fled Russian macroeconomic policy aboard a succession of ships of the line. (I owe you, Patrick O’Brian.) And then, eight months pregnant, my ante-natal teacher told me to write a list of everything I planned to take to hospital to give birth. Dutifully, I wrote nappies babygros maternity pads, blah blah blah, before adding: BOOK. Frowningly, she read. Knowingly, she chuckled. Oh dear oh dear oh dear, you won’t have time for reading. Twelve hours post-partum, with my newborn dozing on my chest, I was eating a Pret Posh Pickle baguette and reading Rivals, allowing the puns and snobisme to wash away the trauma of the day before.
In fact, when I went into labour the second time around, when it was time to conjure the ani-mal-safe-in-lair, oxytocin vibes, I eschewed music, essential oils and *shudders* back rubs, and opted instead for solitude and a good book. Through the night I laboured, alternately reading The Glass Room and prowling round my bedroom growling. When each contraction hit, I knew I could bear it, because when each one passed, I knew there would be another page to read, and another, and another, and so dawn broke, shortly followed by my waters, and I dropped the book in my hospital bag, and went off and had a baby.
And so while I was drafting and re-drafting The Book of Eve, which celebrates this nutty and necessary bibliomania, I never had to ask why am I writing this, why does it matter, what am I trying to say, because from the get-go I knew.
I wanted to celebrate how a book can be a coveted commodity or a precious possession; a prop crutch or stay; an inspiration or a guide; a mentor or a friend. I wanted to capture the crack in my mother’s voice when I called her up to tell her that, for the first time, my daughter was lost in a book (hail, mighty Warrior Cats) and she replied, ‘I’m so happy. That means she’ll never be alone.’
We smudge our books, we bend their pages and crack their spines, but they leave their marks all over us in return. Some of us, frankly, are made as much of book, as we are of blood and bone.
The Book of Eve by Meg Clothier is published by Wildfire Books, £16.99
Every great writer is a reader first – read author what author Joanne Harris has to say on the subject. And check out the new Building Blocks column in WM May for more in-depth insights into the vital relationship between reading and the writer.