Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Josephine Hart, novelist

I was taught everything in Gaelic
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The Independent Online

Josephine Hart is the author of Damage, which was filmed with Jeremy Irons and Juliette Binoche. The film of her novel The Reconstructionist opened the recent Rome Film Festival. Catching Life by the Throat: how to read poetry and why, with a CD of poems read by actors such as Ralph Fiennes, is being distributed to all secondary schools. The next Josephine Hart Poetry Hour at the British Library, London NW1, will be at 6.30pm on 20 February.

I'm a fully paid-up atheist, but a certain moral approach from the Presentation Convent in Mullingar, County Westmeath, Ireland certainly stays with me. All my books are moral tales. The nuns who taught us, and seemed to us to be de-sexualised, were women who gave their lives to the ideal of teaching the next generation. I always loved school, even though we had to learn Irish - Gaelic - a very difficult language, which I loathed.

At 11, I got a scholarship to St Louis in Carrickmacross, run by a French order of nuns, and was a boarder for nearly six years. We got up at half-past six, went to Latin Mass and then breakfast. We would work until half-past four with only two short breaks. Then tea. Then we did homework.

Discipline was not an issue. The worst that you could do would be to chat in class; I did get quite a lot of "stand outside the room for 10 minutes," or "say more prayers."

Religion was one's life. I was in a convent; everybody believed the same thing. When I was 18 I became more questioning but at least there was a philosophy to reject. Catholicism is a rather exciting religion; life is made to seem full of unbelievable temptations.

We didn't speak Irish around school but we had to be taught in Gaelic to maintain its status as a "Class A" top academy. I was taught French in Gaelic, maths in Gaelic, Latin in Gaelic; all my subjects, apart from English. I don't even have an ear for language. I have never found academic work difficult, but I shall do nothing more difficult intellectually until the day I die. I did well in the Intermediate Certificate [GCSE].

In my last year my brother and sister both died, within six months of each other. I went home and then back to school to take the Leaving Certificate in Latin, French, English, history and maths. Then I stayed at home for four years and read six books a week.

I had some lessons in drama from a teacher affiliated to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, who said there was the possibility of a scholarship to go there full-time. But I thought: "I just want a life that's not emotional."

I realised that art can be very dangerous to life. Great roles are very dangerous. You must have the training to keep the essential distance from them and you must have the strength to climb that psychological mountain every night. "Intense" is not difficult - I can do intense with my eyes closed! - but I knew that it would be very dangerous for me. (Of course, I might have been a total disaster on stage anyway.) That's my angle on Sylvia Plath, too; I've just organised a reading of her poetry.

It's a cliché of writers, but it is true of me too that I used to have all my essays read out in class. I was encouraged by teachers; in Ireland they are always on the lookout for a writer. We were brought up with such a pride in literary abilities. That's what you do. It was nothing to do with your ego; anything you were able to do was a gift from God.

It didn't make you feel pompous; it made you feel you had a responsibility. If you'd got that spark, the nuns encouraged you hugely - for them, and for the country, it was like mining for gold. But, as it happens, I am an Irish writer who has never written about Ireland.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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