In the fairy tales I love the most, there is a point when the central character steps into the deep, dark woods. According to Jungian psychology, the woods occupy that part of our collective unconscious associated with our greatest fears, our shadow selves, the Wolf that lurks on the path. Losing ourselves in the woods – and then finding our way through the darkness – is a rite of passage, an initiation. To use Joseph Campbell’s terminology, stepping into the woods involves stepping across a threshold, heeding a call, confronting an obstacle or challenge as part of our ‘hero’s journey.’
But the idea of the ‘hero’ raises a thorny issue for me. I’m a woman writing about women’s lives. The word ‘heroine’ doesn’t sound quite the same as hero, does it? ‘Shero’ sounds like an add-on, an afterthought. (And don’t even get me started on that term ‘women’s fiction’ and what it may or may not mean.)
When I set out to write my first novel, The Dress, I found myself writing about a mother-daughter relationship. It’s something that fascinates me and, it seems to me, it’s a relationship that gets overlooked in fiction; relegated to sub-plot in the face of the boy-meets-girl narrative. All too often, the mothers that we encounter in fiction are wicked stepmothers or jealous and manipulative caricatures, railing against their waning beauty. Where are the elders, passing on their hard-won wisdom? Where are the matriarchs, guiding the next generations – gently and fiercely – into the future?
In The Dress, Fabia and Ella Moreno are a mother and daughter who arrive in York as outsiders. Fabia opens her vintage dress shop and gradually begins to transform the lives of the women in the town with her own particular form of ‘everyday magic.’ Ella struggles to discover who she is in a new place, among new people. Gradually, Fabia and Ella carve out their own journeys – independently and together – slap bang at the centre of their own stories. I loved every minute of writing these women. And to my great pleasure, readers seemed to respond to them too. They wanted more.
In my second book, Miss Mary’s Book of Dreams, Ella and Fabia lead me through the next chapters of their lives. And this is where, perhaps inevitably, the woods find their way into the story.
I grew up in West Yorkshire on the edge of the moors. Now I live at the foot of a different kind of wild landscape, the Yorkshire Dales. The woods and the wild places have formed a part of my internal landscape from an early age so it’s the most natural thing in the world that they should appear in my writing.
In the traditional world of fairy tales, women have often been the innocent victims of the woods and the wild places. The forest that springs up around Sleeping Beauty holds her fast in a passive sleep state until she is finally awoken by the handsome prince. Little Red Riding Hood and her Grandmother fall prey to the cunning Wolf and are only rescued by the woodcutter (except, of course, in Roald Dahl’s wonderfully subversive version).
And yet, long before these stories were in circulation, women had a different relationship with the woods. As healers, priests and wild women, they drew strength, creativity and magic from what they gathered and encountered in the moss and roots and mud.
For writers too, I think, the woods have a particular symbolism. We have to step into the darkness – into the unknown – in order to connect with our creativity. It’s in the midst of that sense of disorientation – of not knowing where the story will go next – that we discover what needs to unfold and where this chapter or character is taking us.
I went into the woods and I met my witch.
Miss Mary is a wise woman, a seventeenth century ‘cure wife’ who lived up in a lonely cottage on the Moors and was eventually imprisoned in York for witchcraft. Her story becomes entwined with the stories of Fabia and Ella, with the ‘everyday magic’ that Fabia weaves around herself and her customers and with Ella’s own struggles to step into fuller possession of her creativity.
At its heart, Miss Mary’s Book of Dreams is about generations of women trying to make and remake their place in the world – as mothers and grandmothers, as daughters and friends, as writers and healers and secret-keepers.
I didn’t really know any of this, of course, when I started writing the book. I just held my breath and stepped off the path, trusting that the story would reveal itself to me.
Because as Fabia herself often says, the story is always trying to find us:
‘All you have to do is stop for a moment, taste the words on the roof of your mouth, hold them on your tongue. They will tell you where to go next.’
(c) Sophie Nicholls
About Miss Mary’s Book of Dreams:
Dreams, books and vintage fashion, perfect for fans of Lucy Diamond and Milly Johnson. From the bestselling author of The Dress.
Ella runs Happily Ever After, a bookshop nestled in the cobbled streets of York.
She’s a wife, a mother and a successful novelist. But something is missing . . .
One day a strange girl comes into Ella’s shop. Bryony is shy and unsure, and Ella feels a strange connection to her.
With the help of one very special book – and a little touch of magic – can these women help each other find the fairy tale endings they’ve been searching for?
‘A delightful, uplifting novel that, while unashamedly romantic and feel-good, nevertheless ponders some deeper questions.’ Yorkshire Post on The Dress.
Order your copy online here.
Sophie Nicholls is an Amazon bestselling author. Her novel, THE DRESS, hit the Kindle Top 5 in 2012 and has sold over 160,000 copies to date. A new edition of The Dress launched in paperback and e-book with Twenty7 Books 2016 – along with The Dream and The Glass, two further books in The Dress trilogy.
Sophie lives in North Yorkshire in the North of England with her husband and young daughter. She leads the MA in Creative Writing by Online/ Distance Learning at Teesside University.
She likes swimming outdoors and eating dark chocolate.