Isobel Callaghan’s childhood is portrayed as frightening, claustrophobic, and violent. The terror of the abuse she suffers is compounded by the fact that her mother’s frightful rages seem to make no sense—they only occasionally follow a pattern, and Isobel and her sister, Margaret, never quite know what will set their volatile mother off. It follows naturally, then, that Isobel becomes obsessed with stories and fiction: with tales that have rules, plots, themes, and reasons for the events that occur within them. In creating a character who is such a ravenous reader, hungry for stories about the world around her and desperate to escape inside of them, Witting argues that a lack of sense or reason in one’s childhood can inspire a desperate search for narrative, meaning, and coherence in one’s adult life.
When Isobel picks up a copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes on the day before her ninth birthday—yet another birthday on which her mother has denied her a present—she is absorbed in the story, and feels that “birthdays, injustices, parents all vanish” next to the world of Holmes and Watson. She has found a “new place in time” between the pages of the book, and she is able to escape the “injustices” of her fractured home life and the verbal abuse of her controlling mother, if only for a little while—her mother has a strict rule about no reading in bed at night. Isobel knows that reading itself is a kind of defiance, and as almost anything can set her mother off, she is afraid of engaging in a behavior that could aggravate her mother and land her in trouble. She fears that books and stories are “all lies,” but even so, she refuses to give up her newfound love—“there [is] no living” without the joy they bring her. The escape books offer her is not total, since the fear her mother instills in her is so strong. Rather than functioning simply as an escape from reality, books become a tool Isobel uses to reassure herself that meaning, narrative, and structure have a place in the world—and that despite the confusion and desperation of her current situation, there are rules that govern the larger world, and thus there is hope that one day Isobel will no longer be subject to her mother’s tyrannical whims.
Importantly, Isobel eventually becomes a writer herself. A trip back to her hometown reveals the depths of her mother’s deception and cruelty—again, for no discernable reason, seemingly for sport or out of some esoteric need to see her own rage and pain reflected in her children. After grappling with this rehashed pain, Isobel reminds herself that she is meant to be a writer as a balm against resurfacing childhood traumas. Isobel goes straight to a shop to buy herself a notebook so she can begin to write down the stories that reside in the “word factory” in her head. Choosing an identity as a writer allows Isobel the chance to wrangle her experiences into narratives that have meaning and make sense on the page, or at least get her experiences and memories out of her head, where they threaten her sense of self, her newfound independence, and her emotional well-being. She becomes a writer not out of the desire to escape her past, but out of the need to reshape it into terms she can understand and live with. As a child, Isobel used stories to escape the trauma of her reality, but as an adult, she uses them to face that trauma and find a sense of agency within it.
As a result of the abuse and resulting trauma she experienced in her childhood, the young Isobel retreated into the world of books—both as a way to escape her fraught surroundings, and as a way of finding solace in stories that had purpose, meaning, and narrative. Isobel finds the power to reclaim her own destiny and make sense of the horrible things that have happened to her through the world of books, and in doing so is able to make a more hopeful future for herself.
Storytelling, Fiction, Narrative, and Escape ThemeTracker
Storytelling, Fiction, Narrative, and Escape Quotes in I for Isobel
Birthdays, injustices, parents all vanished. [Isobel] sat on the floor reading till the noise of cups and saucers in the kitchen warned her that the grown-ups would be coming in for afternoon tea, then she went to the little room where she and Margaret slept, next to their parents’ bedroom. It was too hot there, but if she went outside to the cool shade of the fig tree, Caroline and Joanne Mansell would come asking her to play with them, or Margaret would want her to go for a swim. Besides, it wasn’t hot in Baker Street. What a lucky thing that she had found this new place in time to spend the birthday there. Presents didn’t matter so much, if life had these enchanting surprises that were free to everyone.
Isobel was living in two worlds. Miss Halwood’s, where she belonged and things were solid and predictable, and the other one, where she was exulting at making her mother uncomfortable. That was a great pleasure but it was like gobbling sweets—she expected some sickness from it. Meanwhile there was the world of Sherlock Holmes, which was better than both of them. She said, “May I be excused, please?” and hurried back to her chair. She fished out the book from under the seat and went back to Baker Street.
Isobel took the box from under the pillow, took out the brooch and looked at it while she rubbed her stinging legs. Why hadn’t her mother taken the brooch? It would have been so easy. Isobel could even supply the words she had dreaded to hear: “Give me that, you don’t deserve to have it. Come on, give it to me.” Why hadn’t she said them? Could it be that there were things her mother couldn’t do?
That idea was too large to be coped with. She put it away from her, but she took the brooch and pinned it care- fully to the neck of her dress. It was hers now, all right. She went and looked at it in the glass and stood admiring it. In one way or another, she would be wearing it all her life.
It was a commonplace little room but she was prepared to love everything in it: bed (slightly sagging), chair (straight), faded floral curtains at the window (her own window), combination wardrobe and dressing-table (lucky she didn't have many clothes), a grate in the corner, with a vase of paper flowers delivering the message that it was no longer used for fires, above it a shelf for her books. She unpacked them first: Keats, Shelley, Byron, Shakespeare, The Last Chronicle of Barset, from the library. She looked with regret at that. She had been reading the novels of Trollope and whenever she wasn't reading, no matter what was happening in the outside world, she was conscious of being in exile from Barsetshire. She resisted temptation and went on with her unpacking, having a modest ambition to meet life, to be adequate. She had an idea of a life of her own, like the room of her own, where she chose the furniture-no rages' no black passions, no buffeting from the world. […] Putting her clothes away in a drawer she saw her face in the glass, so happy and hopeful that the likeness to her mother, which seemed to her usually to be a curse from birth, seemed unimportant.
“Do you ever think about being a writer?”
“What made you think of that?”
“Well. No need to bite my head off! You nearly made me drop a week's wages.” He brushed the packing away from a molded iridescent fruit bowl and set it on the table. […]
“I'm sorry I snapped.” She could offer no explanation either for the panic reaction.
“Well. You have this way of putting things. I thought of it when you said that about your little number fours. Summed it up in six words and made me mad, what's more. Made Olive madder, I'm thinking. Everyone can't do that.”
“I wish you'd drop it, Frank.”
“OK. But, to come back to it, what do you want out of life? What do you want to be? If you say Mr. Walter's secretary, I'll award myself a big horse laugh.”
'I want to be one of the crowd.'”
''Went very funny after the baby was born. Not the first one either, the third. Joe that would have been, got grown-up sons himself now. She was very bad for a while. She came out of it all right in the end.”
“I'm glad to hear that.” Mrs. Bowers' tone admitted that Mrs. Prendergast was not often the bringer of good news.
“It can take you in funny ways. There was the woman lived opposite us in Mudgee. Six weeks old the baby was and they were getting ready to go out. Her husband called out from the door, ‘Are you coming, Dorrie?’ ‘I won't be a minute, dear, I'm just popping the baby in the oven.’ He came running in and there was the baby greased all over and trussed up in the baking dish and the oven hot. He just got to it in time.”
Mrs. Bowers shrieked, 'Oh, my God!'
The idea of losing a job was so alarming to Isobel that she could not leave the subject. “But what are you going to do? You have to have a job. You have to eat!”
Diana considered that idea carefully, then shrugged. “I've got some money saved.”
“And when that's gone?”
She sounded quite belligerent. Interesting. Here was someone feeble enough to bring out the bully in Isobel.
“What do I care? I don't care about anything. I'm finished. I'm as good as dead.”
Isobel reflected. “You know, I think that's right. I mean, if you take life as change and development—and I think it must be, life must be always changing... if you had a life without change, it might be as good as death, I suppose... well, when you can't change, I suppose you are as good as dead.”
She was so interested in this idea that she forgot Diana and spoke with detachment, then was startled at the fury in Diana's eyes. True to form, she made a note: masochists prefer to devise their own sufferings.
You could change your name, have your face altered, change your country and your language, but in the end you would resurrect your self.
Nevertheless, she felt cheerful as she packed her belongings. She was glad to be escaping from a grief not her own, she looked forward to the foolish pleasure of buying a saucepan and a frying pan, a cup and saucer and a plate, a knife, a fork and a spoon and two tea towels. Into the suitcase she put Shakespeare, Keats, Byron (now known as facile), Shelley, Auden. Though she knew the passage of Auden well, she found the place and read it with a grin.
“It's no use turning nasty
It's no use turning good.
You're what you are and nothing you do
will get you out of the wood.”
She shut the book and put it in the suitcase. One is never quite alone.
The tears were coming slowly. How could tears come from so deep, as if she was a tree with tears welling up from its roots? Then they came in a roaring flood that drowned thought; she put her cheek against the rock, which was as rough as a cat's tongue and unyielding, but she was too far gone to feel any perverse pleasure in that. Her sobs were so loud that even in this wasteland she had to put her hands over her mouth to muffle them; when her mind sobered up her body went on snuffling and heaving along ten years of roadway.
I am a writer. I am a writer.
Too late. It must be too late. The poor little bugger in the baking dish; nobody came in time.
Suppose I tried? Suppose I went through the motions? The writer might come back.
You've tried that with love. It doesn't work.
But that was other people, too. This is me.
The crying had slackened. There was such a feeling of limbs stretching, of hands unbound, she knew she could choose to be a writer. A pen and an exercise book, that was all it took, to be a rotten writer, anyhow. Good or rotten' that came later.
It meant giving in to the word factory. That frightened her, because the word factory was such a menace. Now she understood why the idea of being press-ganged was so alarming.
Oh, well. If you can't lick 'em join 'em.
Maybe that was what the word factory was all about, the poor little bugger trying to get out of the baking dish.