In the summer of 1986, I finished secondary school, and that autumn I enrolled in a secretarial course in Cork City. It was a course of a kind that I suspect no longer exists, with bookkeeping exercises involving sheets of carbon paper, classes in shorthand, typing learned on manual typewriters. I have a hazy recollection of being instructed in how to walk properly, and of someone who ran a modeling agency coming to talk to us. The talk was of little interest to me, perhaps because my modeling prospects were precisely zero. My secretarial prospects, unfortunately, were not much better, something that didn’t go unnoticed by the tiny, fierce woman tasked with teaching us. Still, I remember fondly the sweeps and curves and wriggles of Gregg shorthand as we practiced giving shape to language. Words like get or racket with their piglet-style tails, or yell and yam and Yale with their resemblance to mutant tadpoles. We took words apart and mined them for sound, converted that sound into something close to art.
By night, I attended classes at University College Cork where, as part of an English-literature module, I first read Jean Rhys’s beautiful and subversive Wide Sargasso Sea. Here were words engaged in a different sort of taking apart. “Rhys took one of the works of genius of the 19th century and turned it inside-out to create one of the works of genius of the 20th century,” Michele Roberts has said of Wide Sargasso Sea. The novel didn’t just take inspiration from Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, it illuminated and confronted it, challenged the narrative. The shorthand I practiced by day was a sort of code, comprehensible only to those initiated in its strange and lovely marks. Speed was imperative, measured in words per minute, and the movement from sound to symbol was not to be slowed by any pondering of meaning. In the world for which we were being trained, our usefulness lay not in any thoughts we might construct ourselves, but in the speed and accuracy with which we recorded the thoughts of others. And here was Rhys, in exquisite, deadly prose, constructing for Antoinette—or Mrs. Rochester—not just thoughts, but a novel in which to voice them.
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