Our books

I bought another book this morning. Nothing remarkable about that, especially not for me, but for some reason I started to think about how the contrast between the many books i have surrounded myself with as an adult and the few – the much cherished few – we had at home when i was a child.

We didn’t buy books but that’s not to say we didn’t have any at all. My dad had a few books on farming, a book about the minerals of the earth and a set of art encyclopaedias he must have bought in instalments, though I never saw him read them. I read them surreptitiously – we children weren’t supposed to touch them, discovering in their pages the wonders of prehistoric art and the women of Titian, both of which I still love. I also read the book about minerals but the farming textbooks were too much and so I never did learn how to raise cows for milk.

For her part, my mum had a beautiful leatherbound anthology of stories (“Alice in Wonderland”,”The Water Babies”, tales from the Mabinogion, etc) and poetry (mostly Tennyson, Kipling, Walter de la Mare & co). This book had a poignant history: it had originally been a present to one of my mother’s uncles from the German family who sheltered him after he was shot down during the Second World War. It was intended for his daughter Katherine who, having survived polio, was now bed-ridden with TB.

Sadly, she died and the book passed to my mum who was another quiet, sickly, careful child: when she passed it on to us, it was still in pristine condition. Not for long. The leather covers came off one by one and ink ‘annotations’ soon ‘decorated’ the pages. I didn’t mind. I read it from missing cover to missing cover over and over again. I’ve loved the smell of old paper ever since, as i have the weight of a book in my hands – two reasons why e-books have never tempted me.

The Victorian stories inside the anthology were as different as could be to the bland tales the teachers regaled us with at school: slightly macabre and supernaturally inventive. The language was richer but more formal. The sentences were longer and exotically punctuated: there and then i fell in love with the semi-colon. Then there were the pictures: Tenniel’s illustrations for Alice in Wonderland in particular. I was less keen on the poetry apart from the nonsense rhymes of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.

It was in this book that i first had my heart broken by a story. It was the Mabinogion tale about a knight who leaves his dog guarding his young son. A wolf comes in and attacks the baby. Although the dog is unable to save the child he does succeed in killing the wolf. But when the knight returns and sees the the dead infant he believes it is the dog who has killed him: he slays his faithful hound only to  discover, a little while later, the corpse of the true killer lying bloodied behind a curtain. I cried when i read that story and even now the injustice of the dog’s death fills me with sorrow. By contrast, i can scarcely recall what the books we read at school were about.

Finally, we had one other book in our house and it was the book from which we were taught to read: the Bible. Well, a children’s Bible. This contained all the best stories from the Bible with magnificent coloured drawings on each page (Cain, i recall, was clad in a strange tasselled coat of the kind a Country Music singer might wear). The language was simplified from the original but retained the tongue-twisting polysyllables that passed for names. How i struggled with those Babylonian kings! My dad used to record us reading: on the one fragment that still survives i can be heard stumbling repeatedly over “Nebuchadnezzar”  while he corrects me – quietly in the background – and gets me to try again.

The Bible was an even greater rollercoaster of a read than the “Great Anthology”. It was supposed to explain what was good and what was bad and indeed it did contain stories of beautiful wisdom: Solomon judging the women fighting over a baby, Jesus challenging the would-be executioners of an adulteress. Yet it also contained examples of terrifying carnage such as the destruction of Jericho.  Eve seemed to me to be more victim than transgressor while the Philistines were like the “Red Indians” in American cowboy movies: condemned merely because history had come to belong to their enemies. I began to think and haven’t stopped since.

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The unloved children of Pride & Prejudice

One of the many things I’ve done this month to ward off the winter blues is re-read Pride & Prejudice for the umpteenth time. I first read it when I was about 12. At that age the book was all about the ElizabethDarcy love story and the comedy of the ridiculous, as exemplified by the wonderful Mr Collins. Five years later, when the book was a set text for English A-Level, it was the formal beauty of Jane Austen‘s writing which arrested me: those graceful chains of semi-colons, the delicate narrative thread. And so it’s gone on: each time i notice something new or find myself rethinking my earlier impressions.

Reading the book this Christmas, what struck me was the terrible sadness of two characters, Mr Collins and Mary. Take away the comedy of Mr Collins and what you see is a man who has fundamentally been broken, destroyed as a person before that person ever really had a chance to form, by a lonely childhood under an oppressive father. I find it interesting that his childhood has parallels with that of Darcy: the latter attributes his lack of social skills and inability to connect with strangers outside his circle to being an only son, for many years an only child. Both men appear to have lost their mothers very early on in life and to have grown up dominated by their fathers. Both seem older than their years – probably because these dominating fathers were also old men? But where Darcy is more fortunate is that however much his father disciplined him he also built up his sense of worth. Mr Collins by contrast was clearly brought up to feel that he was nothing. All his pomposity, all his desire for and yet fear of status, all his servility is linked to this inner emptiness.

Then there’s Mary, the middle and deeply unwanted child of the Bennets. Jane was the first child and beautiful too; Elizabeth was her father’s darling and pretty in a less orthodox way; but by the time Mary was born impatience for the much-needed son was setting in and on top of that Mary was plain and serious. Kitty and Lydia who followed her, if not great beauties, were pretty enough and more importantly frivolous enough to win their mother’s affections at least. Not that would make much difference to Mary. She, i always feel, is a daddy’s girl. She craves the kind of relationship with her father that Elizabeth has, but he completely rejects and despises her. Like Mr Collins her personality is crippled by the lack of love she receives. This is to me the great irony: that the pedant that Mr Bennet holds in such contempt is in great part his own creation.

Imagine what Mary might have been like if someone had showed an interest in her as a young child. If her father had actually listened to her she might have learnt how to talk to people – rather than at them. If she had not grown up feeling the failure of her plainness so keenly she might have had a chance to develop a personality that would have made her lack of looks less important – as, for example, did Elizabeth, who while not plain as such is clearly not a beauty in the way that Jane is. Likewise with Mr Collins – to be sure he might never have been as handsome or charismatic as Darcy, but what about Darcy’s cousin Colonel Fitzwilliam? In another world, with a different upbringing might not Mr Collins have been more like him?

There again, would i really want Mr Collins to be other than he is? Fiction is cruel!