Hayley Atwell on the books that have shaped her

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Emma Ledger
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Actor and lifelong bibliophile Hayley Atwell tells Stylist about the books that have helped make her who she is

Hayley Atwell is sitting on the floor of her London home surrounded by hundreds of books. “They’re all in different piles – classics, childhood books, biographies, philosophy, poetry,” she tells Stylist. “I’m having shelves made, and they’re going to be arranged by genre. My book collection is my most treasured thing, I can’t tell you how happy it makes me.”

When it comes to effusive passion for books, Atwell, 36, is hard to beat. It’s a part of life she treats very seriously, perhaps unsurprising given that her job has often seen her bringing works of literature to life on screen. She’s just finished starring in a thought-provoking adaptation of Shakespeare’s Measure For Measure at the Donmar Warehouse. Last year, Atwell played Margaret Schlege in the BBC’s miniseries of EM Forster’s classic Howards End.

It was a role she considers one of her best, and one she was offered without having to audition for, telling Stylist she has rarely had to since appearing in Marvel’s global juggernaut Captain America: The First Avenger in 2011. Later this month, Atwell will star in an adaptation of Andrea Levy’s 2010 Man Booker Prize-shortlisted The Long Song

Set on a 19th-century Jamaican slave plantation (more of which later), Atwell admits it’s a part of history she wasn’t very familiar with. “I knew more about slavery in America, not in British colonies. But it is all of our responsibility, collectively, to bring out these under-told and unacknowledged stories.”

However, Atwell’s love for books runs much deeper than reading for her day job. She was brought up by her mum in west London while her dad lived in California, and through literature she and her father cemented a special bond.

“Because we’ve always lived in different countries, books have been a way for me to understand him much more than a phone call,” says Atwell. “Every Christmas, my dad asks what I want, and I say, ‘You know what the answer is.’ It’s always a book that has meant something to him, and for him to write why in the front. I get to know much more about who he is through the books he loves. So far I’ve received at least five Aldous Huxley novels.”

Of her own library, Atwell says there are books she’s read countless times, some of which she studied during her acting degree at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, as well as ones she’s yet to read. One book you definitely won’t find is Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls

“A friend lent me it because it’s her favourite. I got about a quarter of the way through before I thought ‘I f*cking hate this’. I get angry if it’s meant to be great but I can’t find a way in. I’ll have an argument with myself about how I could’ve written something better.”

In fact, writing is something Atwell is now considering doing more. She grew up in social housing near Grenfell – her mum knew one of the victims – and the tragedy has made Atwell reflect more on the unique community that informed her early life. “I’m sure there are stories I could write about from my past,” she says. “The advice I keep hearing is to write what you know. “Growing up, we always had people coming through the door, it was very multicultural and varied. I have no doubt that it contributed to the fact I became an actor because I wanted to learn about other people.”

While we’re speaking, Atwell sitting among those piles of books is also waiting for her Christmas tree to be delivered. I ask if she’s feeling festive?

“I don’t have Christmas music playing because I once worked at Gap over the holidays and listening to the CD of Christmas songs over and over was like torture,” she laughs. “But last night I got out all of my decorations and my partner was like, ‘You’re five years old right now’. Over the past 12 years I’ve collected ones from every country I’ve been to – Austria, Mexico and Namibia – an eclectic mix.” 

The ornaments tell a story of Atwell’s life, just as her book collection does. “Whenever I go to someone’s house, I head straight to the bookshelves. It’s a way of working someone out,” she says, reluctantly admitting that she couldn’t love someone who didn’t share her passion.

“I wish I could be open-minded but I’ve just not been in love with someone who doesn’t love books too. They’re such a huge part of my life. My understanding of the world comes from the books that I’ve read.”

Here, Hayley shares the writing that has made a big impact on her life so far – making a perfect shortlist for your 2019 book club.

To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee (1960)

We had a copy of this at home and it was my favourite book when I was a kid, and then I studied it for GCSE. It was one of the first books to open up my mind to ideas of justice, equality, racism and American history. It was about me starting to actively question ideas that came out of reading, and looking at issues that were not apparent to me growing up in my own little community in west London.

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)

This is one of my dad’s favourites. It’s short, incredibly dense, dystopian and quite terrifying. Huxley writes with such clarity about what the future may contain. Charlie Brooker is also a fan, so I think I naturally gravitated towards Black Mirror [Atwell starred in episode Be Right Back] because the seeds had been sown by reading this when I was younger.

The Long Song, Andrea Levy (2010)

I read this book after being offered the role of plantation owner Caroline Mortimer in the upcoming BBC adaptation. It was terrifying. She’s not like any character I’ve ever played; so vastly different to me and my values. The book is narrated by a slave girl, called July, and there’s a shocking paradox between what she describes and her tone. I knew it would be very difficult to play Caroline right, as she is like a caricature of a villain. But I wanted to play her as someone who is cowardly and fearful.

A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf (1932)

It’s a short manifesto about financial freedom for women, and, despite being written in Edwardian England, it resonates with the life I’ve built for myself and has helped me define what it means tobe a woman. I grew up in social housing, went to state school and have entirely supported myself since I left home.

I re-read this book a year ago and it’s a reminder of what I’ve achieved; the independence, freedom, and responsibility for my own life. I’ve created financial stability through relentless hard work and determination that’s not down to luck, having a pretty face or someone else giving me an opportunity.

Meditations on First Philosophy, René Descartes (1641)

What I love is how strategic Descartes was in arriving at an argument about something that was supposedly an unanswerable question: do we exist? I first read this when I was 16, so it was quite a formative book and began my love of philosophy. For me, it’s about using our creative imagination but then using the rational mind to try and test out those thoughts. 

The History of Love, Nicole Krauss (2005)

This is the book I’ve given to people most [it is about an old man searching for his son and a girl seeking a cure for her widowed mother’s loneliness]. I used to give it as a gift [to co-stars] on press nights of theatre shows. I was 19 when I first read it, and without being too sentimental, I find it very deep, profound, and just very cool. Krauss writes with the acknowledgement of something incredibly painful, and it’s sensitive in how straightforward it is but not trite. It’s the book I wish I’d written.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Elizabeth Smart (1945)

Every time I’ve been heartbroken I go back to this book. It’s a fictional account of a love affair and you sense it’s doomed from the start. Heartbreak can be such an all-consuming thing. When I first experienced it at 18 I couldn’t believe I could physically hurt so much yet no one could see it. There were parts of London I couldn’t bear to go to because there was too much of an association. 

When it comes to something so personal I can only really go to poetry, I can’t read someone else’s narrative. The words on the page have the power to make me physically feel something different.

Howard’s End, E.M. Forster (1910)

Margaret Schlegel is my greatest book heroine of all time. Forster’s sensitivities and the clarity of the narrative about three different families in the class system is sublime. The writing takes me out of myself, and I’m fascinated by that. When I’m doing an adaptation I want to get lost in that world, rather than pull the work into myself and reduce it to who I am.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion (1968)

Didion is one of my favourite writers, and the line that stays with me from this is: “I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be”. I believe that we grow and change and shift, so that we almost become unrecognisable to ourselves. I’ve always kept a diary, and if I read them now I’m like, ‘Oh God.’ The early entries are very much of their time, in the Nineties in London. But writing is a great way of making sense of life, and keeping a diary has helped shape the way I think about things.

Oh, The Places You’ll Go!, Dr Seuss (1990)

Even though it’s not festive, I always read this at Christmas. It was Dr Seuss’s last book. My dad gave me this years ago because he always thought I would have an adventurous life. He inscribed it with, “Dear Hayley, this book is for children and adults too, so I hope it will be useful for a long time. We all have a journey and many roads before us; love makes it easier. Love of yourself and love of others.”

The Long Song starts on BBC One on Tuesday 18 December at 9pm.

Images: Elliot Wilcox / BBC


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Emma Ledger