Rosalie Ham teaches literature in Melbourne and is the author of the bestselling novel, The Dressmaker, which became a 2015 film starring Kate Winslet. Her 2005 novel Summer at Mount Hope, described as "Pride and Prejudice set in rural Victoria in the 1890s", has been rereleased by Duffy & Snellgrove.
Pride and Prejudice
I was about 13 when I read Pride and Prejudice. It was art imitating life in my small rural society. The setting, the tensions between characters, the fear, gossip, expectations, misunderstandings and, most emphatically, the hierarchies were vivid, so my emotional involvement with the story was fierce. I saw that specifics could illuminate the general, that surprises were essential but predictable elements of story evoked empathy. I learned how literature worked, and why it's essential.
Great Expectations was my next big revelation. In the first few pages the characters exposed me to fear, loathing, crime, tragedy, dramatic irony and great pathos (Joe). Setting was elevated from symbolic to full-blown character, and the characters … well, they were Dickens characters; unique but recognisable, grotesque but likeable. I remember Pip's sister as much as I remember Miss Havisham, and Joe and his wife saunter through my thoughts frequently.
W. G. Sebald
Sebald conveys the Kindertransport by linking buildings, photos and past images with Austerlitz's thoughts, his human experience, thus making events vivid. Rather than witness horror, we see how ideas are shaped, how memory is formed, and we learn the truth. There are no chapters, and the narrator's "ramblings" are a trope, therefore connected to other events in the story, and thus the style distracts from what happened and we aren't repelled from the story. Fiction makes events real.
The Transit of Venus
In The Transit of Venus, Shirley Hazzard writes everything, internally and externally, from a subtly objective third-person point of view. Carefully chosen images and words infuse every phrase, sentence and paragraph with atmosphere. Every event is complex and glints with subtext. Characters' impetus, motivation and physical appearance are succinct and precise, yet detailed, and I enjoy analysing her sharp, multilayered paragraphs with students. I would have loved to sit opposite Shirley Hazzard [who died aged 85 in December] in a foyer and watch her watching.