Fiction and aspiration

9780141331119 (2) 9780192720016

Social mobility (or rather the lack of it) has been in the news a lot recently. Former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, attacked the “truly shocking” privilege of the privately educated elite in Britain and David Cameron responded by suggesting that this was partly due to the low aspirations of those from poorer backgrounds. If he really thinks this is a significant factor, perhaps he should re-consider his government’s attitude to public library funding.

In my family, my generation was the first to go to university and so when we were very young we didn’t know many people with a higher education or a professional job. But when I was about ten, I was given two books that opened up an exciting new world for me. One was Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs (1912) and the other was Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women (1868). In Daddy Long Legs, orphan Judy is adopted by a mysterious man who sends her to a liberal arts college in New England where she receives a wonderful education and becomes a writer and in Little Women, Jo March leaves home to pursue a writing career in New York. Although both books end in romantic marriages, the lasting impressions they make are of engaging, strong, intelligent women who make their own decisions and follow their own ambitions.

Jocelyn Bailey has written an interesting article about women’s aspirations, in which she looks at Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking as an inspiring role model for women. Pippi’s power comes from the very fact that she is fictional:

Fiction can be (is) incredibly powerful in suggesting possible lives. Fiction draws the reader in, invites their imagination to pick up where the words on the page end.

Judy and Jo affected me so strongly (and still do) because they were in books that I became immersed in. It didn’t matter that I didn’t live in New England in 1912 or that my father wasn’t away at war or that I didn’t want to be a writer – I could still try to be like them. Characters in film or television don’t seem to have the same effect – perhaps because too little is left to our own imaginations.

Without public libraries a lot of children (and adults) wouldn’t have access to the wonderful novels that can change our lives by raising our aspirations.

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