“It would one day be I that would sail on a ship as big as a world and feel the sun’s heat on my face gradually change from roasting to caressing” – Hortense from Small Island
Hortense is a well-mannered lady who moves to England in 1948 to escape some economic hardship in Jamaica. She can sometimes seem to be a bit snobbish because she has a very set idea of what her new life will be like in England. Hortense is one of many fictional characters who are richly brought to life by the prize winning author Andrea Levy in her novel “Small Island”.
The novel was published in 2004 and it was Andrea’s fourth – by then she had become an established author. Born in 1956 in North London, Andrea’s parents were originally from Jamaica and her father had sailed to England in 1948 on the Empire Windrush ship. Andrea was the fourth child of her family and grew up on a council estate in Highbury, North London. She studied textile design and weaving and started her career as a costume assistant and remarkably did not even read a book fully until she was 23 years old.
After discovering books, Andrea began to read a lot more, but noticed there was limited literature available from black writers in the United Kingdom. She began writing seriously in her mid-thirties and only enrolled in a creative writing class in 1989, when she was 33 years old. She continued with these studies for a few years and eventually wrote her first novel, which she thought might be good enough to be published for sale in shops.
Andrea’s novel was initially rejected by several publishers because they were not sure that her stories about the experiences of black Britons during this period would appeal to enough readers. They were not convinced that people would buy this book in the numbers required to make a profit. Eventually her writing was recognised for the ability to create rich detail with her words and that she was providing a glimpse into a history which was not well known in the UK at the time. Andrea wrote five novels and eventually sold over a million books. This generated millions of pounds in sales, with her best-seller being Small Island which also won literature prizes and was adapted into television by the BBC.
When Andrea finished her education, she decided to study textiles, but she changed profession to become a writer in the years that followed. Her life story demonstrates that sometimes it can take time to discover new experiences; quite often we are not sure about what we want to do in our adult life. In Andrea’s example – it took many years after leaving education before she discovered her love of writing. She was inspired to write because she could not find enough of the type of stories which interested her most.
Andrea suffered from breast cancer for the last few years of her life and sadly passed away at a relatively young age by today’s standards of 62 in 2019. She leaves a legacy of beautifully written stories which convey an important part of British history, that will continue to entertain and inform readers for years to come.