My parents are devoutly Christian, members of one of the few Strict Baptist chapels left in Essex. It’s hard to explain how it was to be brought up in that chapel and that home: often I say, laughingly, “I grew up in 1895”, because it seems the best way of evoking the Bible readings and Beethoven, the Victorian hymns and the print of Pilgrim’s Progress, and the sunday school seaside outings when we all sang grace before our sausage and chips in three-part harmony.
Though we by no means resembled an Amish cult, there was an almost complete absence of contemporary culture in the house. God’s people were to be “In the world, but not of the world”, and the difference between those two little prepositions banished television and pop music, school discos and Smash Hits, cinema and nail polish, and so many other cultural signifiers I feel no nostalgia for the 80s and 90s: they had nothing to do with me.
Aside from the odd humiliation at school (asked which film star I fancied most, I remembered seeing Where Eagles Dare at an uncle’s house and said, “Clint Eastwood”) I don’t remember feeling deprived. Because beside the Pre-Raphaelite prints that were my celebrity posters, and the Debussy that was my Oasis, there were books – such books, and in such quantities! Largely content to read what would please my parents, I turned my back on modernity and lost myself to Hardy and Dickens, Brontë and Austen, Shakespeare, Eliot and Bunyan.
Today, she doesn’t consider herself deprived at all. In fact, she thinks she was lucky, because her childhood was filled with beautiful poetry and prose, none moreso than the King James Bible:
Sometimes I’m tempted to regret the youth that left me always a little at a loss, never quite belonging anywhere – but mostly I’m thankful it filled me with wonder at the strangeness of things, and gave me my voice.
And, if this rave review of her novel in The Guardian is anything to go by, what a magnificent voice it is. I’m not much of a fiction reader, but After Me Comes The Flood definitely goes on my list when it is published in the US.
As Micah Mattix observes on his Prufrock blog, Perry’s piece:
… goes against the accepted argument that “narrow” religious beliefs and practices always starve rather than nourish the intellect and artistic sensibilities. It’s also an encouraging reminder of the benefits of memorization and recitation.
I did not grow up in a particularly religious household, but having lived around the country in adulthood, I eventually became aware of how much a Southern childhood nurtured my own sensibilities as a writer. Why? I think it comes from observing and participating in a society that has a strong sense of itself as standing apart from the American mainstream, and holding on, however shakily, to social codes and beliefs that are somewhat archaic to the rest of the country, but that give life here such dimension, such pathos, such mystery.