When I was young, I had two teachers whom I found very inspiring — Pearl Biddle tutored me in French, and Lucy Shepherd taught me English. They were passionate pedagogues who taught me more than their subjects. Pearl was a great believer in learning for learning’s sake, and Lucy was a great role model for a teenage girl — dry, assertive, and understanding.
When we were growing up, I told my sister, Di, hundreds of stories; she didn’t complain too much. We are very close; like many children, we had a dual life, a separate, secret existence apart from my parents. It is now as though we are the only remaining members of an otherwise extinct tribe. The main female character in the Harry Potter books, Hermione, is drawn largely from my experience of being a young girl. I was very frightened of failure. I’ve got used to it since, and it doesn’t hurt nearly as much as I used to imagine.
I never told my family that I wanted to be a writer. They would have told me I didn’t have a hope. People in my family did not become writers. There was a great emphasis on mortgages, pensions, and career paths. I felt I would be taken about as seriously as I had said I wanted to be a pop star, and sternly dissuaded (not that it would have worked).
I can’t think of an occasion when I felt it was useful to be female. I can, however, remember passionately wishing I were a boy on a couple of occasions, but that was because I was dreaming of knocking out a particularly vicious male bully. The one event that, for me, triggered a deep experience of feminine power is giving birth. There is nothing more magnificent in the whole of nature. Watching my older daughter grow has been very interesting. Some of what she is going through is very familiar — the eternal difficulties of childhood. She is very different from me — an aspiring engineer and a real tomboy which I love. I am grateful that she is growing up at a time when she can pursue the career of her choice. She recently read a book about the suffragettes, and we have been having many dinnertime discussions about how their various sacrifices led, in the end, to Jessica’s freedom to study technology.
There are many things I liked, then and now, about being a girl. The friendships you make with other women are very different from the friendships men make, and I certainly wouldn’t want to swap. I like women’s perceptiveness and ability to empathize. I like their ability to juggle nineteen jobs before breakfast, and I prefer women’s shoes.
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