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Archive for the ‘Sheila Kaye-Smith’ Category

A Woman Reading by Ivan Olinsky

The decade is almost over and I shall end it as I started: seeking to emulate Simon.  His favourite books of the decade post made me want to look over my own from the last ten years.

In those ten years, I have read 1,613 books.  Some of those are rereads and I didn’t record the many scintillating textbooks I read over the same period for (during which I completed a dozen courses leading to two professional designations and two different licenses – it’s been a busy decade).  But most importantly, the decade is not over yet.  I have a couple of good reading weeks left and I intend to make use of them!

I always enjoy looking back at past years on the blog and was so happy when I put this list together to see what excellent judgement I exercised.  These all remain favourites that I would be happy to pick up right now and start rereading.  And the nicest thing to note is that my 2010 and 2011 favourites, which I struggled to track down at the time, are both back in print and easy to get.  A sure sign of progress over the last ten years!

2010: Mrs Tim Flies Home by D.E. Stevenson

What I wrote: “I fell in love with both Mrs Tim and D.E. Stevenson this year.  Mrs Tim of the Regiment was an excellent introduction to my new favourite heroine but a weak second half prevented it from being a favourite.  Mrs Tim Flies Home, on the other hand, suffers from no such shortcomings and so earned its top place on this list by being simply charming and heart-warming.”

2011: Summer Half by Angela Thirkell

What I wrote: “Anyone who has been following my blog this year could have probably predicted that Thirkell would take the top spot.  Since my first encounter with Thirkell last January, I have fallen completely in love with her Barsetshire novels and, of the twelve I’ve now read, I think Summer Half is the most perfectly formed.  It centers on the masters and students of Southbridge School and their interactions with some of the local families.  As with all good Thirkell novels, romance is in the air and the narrator’s sharp wit is there to comment on both the comically disastrous pairings and the ideal but bumbled ones.  Most importantly, Summer Half introduces my favourite Thirkell character, the astounding Lydia Keith.  Of all the books I read this year, not only is this the one that I am most eager to return to, it is the one I most wish I owned countless copies of so I could pass it on to everyone I meet.”

2012: The Element of Lavishness edited by Michael Steinman

What I wrote: “I read this in January and, honestly, no other book I read this year came even close to eclipsing it in my affections.  I had never read anything by either Warner or Maxwell before and knew very little about either of them but that made no difference.  Through their letters, I got to know both of them intimately and to witness the wonderful warmth and depth of their friendship as it evolved over the decades.  While both were extraordinary writers, it is Warner’s letters I remember the best now, almost a year after I read them.  She wrote beautifully about the domestic details of her life and the letters written between the death of her partner Valentine and her own death are as good a record of aging and loss as I have ever read.”

2013: Speaking of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern

What I wrote: “All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amount of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).”

2014: The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope

What I wrote: “The penultimate Barsetshire book, I fell in love with The Small House at Allington as soon as I started reading it. This is Trollope at his most masterful, deftly juggling multiple storylines and a handful of equally-compelling central characters. I am fascinated by Lily Dale, anxious for Johnny Eames, and wildly conflicted over the fate of Aldolphus Crosbie, who I liked far more than any reader is supposed to like the man who jilts the heroine.  Brilliant and perfectly executed, this was the uncontested highlight of my reading year.”

2015: Sylvia Townsend Warner’s Letters edited by William Maxwell

What I wrote: “An enchanting collection of letters spanning almost fifty years.  STW was a wonderful correspondent, filling her letters with richly-detailed annecdotesself-deprecating humour, and the most delightful flights of whimsy.  I’ve yet to read a single one of her novels but, after reading this and the wonderful collection of her letters to William Maxwell (my favourite book of 2012), I can’t help but think of her as a close, dear friend.”

2016: I Was a Stranger by John Hackett

What I wrote: “In a year when the world was doing its best to show how cruel and petty man can be, this memoir of the courage and friendship showed by a Dutch family in occupied Holland to the British officer they hid reminded me that, even in the worst of times, kindness, trust, and love can still flourish.  A real gem that I am entirely indebted to Slightly Foxed for reissuing.”

2017: Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively

What I wrote: “I finally read Lively’s Booker prize winner and it is a masterpiece.  Technically dazzling, Lively plays with her favourite themes of love, history, and, above all, memory as septuagenarian Claudia lies on her deathbed and looks back on her life.  If I could write, this would be how I’d want to do it.  As I can’t, this is exactly what I want to read – again and again and again.”

2018: The Unwomanly Face of War by Svetlana Alexievich

What I wrote: “Without question, Alexievich’s ground-breaking oral history of Soviet women’s experiences of the Second World War was my book of the year.  More than one million Soviet women served in the military during the war (half of them in active combat roles) and Alexievich captures the full and fascinating range of their experiences in their own words.  It is a powerful and upsetting book and one I will not soon forget.”

2019: To be determined!  Check back on December 31st. (edit: check out my Top Ten Books of 2019 to see my final favourite of the decade)

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Worst match-maker ever

Worst match-maker ever

I picked up More Talk of Jane Austen by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern last night, inspired (momentarily) to finally review the essays I’d enjoyed reading so much last year.  A thorough review might one day get written but this is not it as I got sidetracked rereading my favourite essays and delighting in both Kaye-Smith’s and Stern’s arguments.

Kaye-Smith and Stern’s first book on Jane Austen, Speaking of Jane Austen, was easily the most delightful thing I read in 2013.  The follow-up volume is not quite as faultless but that is only natural: how can you follow up a book that is both perfect and comprehensive?  The essays here are always entertaining but perhaps lack the marvellous focus and energy contained in the first book.

Last night, it was G.B. Stern who set me pondering, with her discussion of Austen’s use of the Cinderella legend:

Emma and Harriet are the only two of Jane Austen’s heroines who pair off with their equals: Emma with Mr. Knightley, Harriet with Mr. Martin.  Pondering on this, I began to suspect a preoccupation with the Cinderella legend.  All the rest of these young women (not merely heroines in its traditional meaning) illustrate and restate the theme, though without sentimentality: they marry above their station, and achieve it on beauty and virtue in equal parts.

I, as I think I have touched on before, enjoy the escapism of the Cinderella story – who doesn’t? – but am troubled by its practical implications, especially in Austen.  For all her romantic moments, Austen was a writer very much concerned with practical details and with the creations of, to use G.B. Stern’s phrase, “life-size” characters who have, two hundred years later, remained remarkably familiar and relatable:

She’s neither bitter nor boisterous about her people; instead, she has irony, tenderness, clear vision, and most of all a gorgeous sense of their absurdity which is never really exaggerated into more than life-size.  You’re absurd, I’m absurd, and so in some way or other are most of the people we meet.  She does not have to distort or magnify what they’re like; she just recognises them, delights in them herself, and then re-created them for our benefit without illusion or grandiloquence…

So how can such life-like people survive the too perfect fairy-tale endings their author imposes on them?  Any marriage has its stresses but unequal marriages, the kind Austen specialised in arranging, face even more burdens.  Perhaps that is part of why Emma has always been my favourite: there is a worrying, unequal marriage made but not by our heroine (poor Jane Fairfax deserves so much better).

The young Tilneys I am not overly worried about since, though young at her marriage, I have every faith that Catherine, having grown up in a happy home with sensible parents, will be able to create the same sort of environment with the intelligent and good-humoured Henry.  But everyone else I worry about.

And there is much to worry about, I think.  How often do Anne and Captain Wentworth speak before they become re-engaged?  What do they really know of each other?  How can Elizabeth’s winsome impudence serve her as the chatelaine of Pemberley?  Has she any idea of the responsibilities and conformity her new life will require?  Will passionate Marianne grow old before her time?  It is not too difficult to imagine her ten years hence having her head turned by a dashing new arrival in the neighbourhood while her husband sits by the fire wearing one of his flannel vests.  And why must Fanny Price’s life be spent adoring the undeserving Edmund?  It is such a waste of a fascinating young woman, though we must admit that it is the culmination of her life’s ambition.

The match between Elinor and Edward is more equal than many of Austen’s marriages, but it is one of the least satisfying.  Who, aside from Simon T., really likes Edward?  And, more importantly, who doesn’t like Elinor and want the best for her?

No, it is much more restful for me to think about the Knightleys and the Martins, contented with the familiar and sure of happy, easy lives with partners who share the same backgrounds and values, than to ponder the fates of Austen’s other pairings.

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What a strange year it has been, full of changes, new adventures and, as far as this blog is concerned, very abnormal reading habits.  But, however altered my reading schedule may have been, the quality of books remained excellent and it was not at all difficult to pick my ten favourite books from 2013:

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10. The Talisman Ring (1936) – Georgette Heyer
Having discovered Heyer a decade ago, I thought I’d read all her best works.  But no, other bloggers assured me, I still needed to read The Talisman Ring.  Nonsense, I thought, but it was Heyer so I was determined to read it anyways.  Of course, I discovered that everyone was right and that this hilarious tale of a fanciful young woman, a dashing smuggler, and their put-upon elders is indeed one of the greatest things Heyer wrote.

9. Alif the Unseen (2012) – G. Willow Wilson
I struggled to review all the books I wished to this year and that included some of my favourites, like Alif the Unseen.  An extraordinary combination of fantasy, religion, and 21st technology, this story of an Indo-Arab hacker who finds himself on the run from the corrupt state authorities is powerful, timely, and above all, engaging.  It was one of only two books this year that kept me reading until late into the night (the other is #6 on this list).

8. The English Air (1940) – D.E. Stevenson
Stevenson is an author whose quality varies dramatically from book to book.  I love her but most of her novels are merely good rather than excellent.  The English Air is one of those excellent exceptions, sensitively following the struggles of a young German man who finds himself torn between England and Germany at the beginning of the Second World War.  Stevenson paints as alluring a portrait of the domestic charms of middle-class pre-war England as anyone but it is her intelligent handling of Franz’s divided loyalties that makes this rise above most of her other works. 2013Books2

7. The Rosie Project (2013) – Graeme Simsion
This quirky and touching romantic comedy about a socially inept Australian scientist’s search for love was an absolute delight.  I loved it so much in fact that I read it not once but twice this year and am now busy pressing everyone I know to read it too.

6. Under Heaven (2010) – Guy Gavriel Kay
Kay, the master of historical fantasy, has now published two books inspired by Chinese history: Under Heaven and River of Stars.  I read both this year and both are extraordinarily good but Under Heaven was, to me, the most absorbing.  Kay is astonishingly good at balancing character development, political intrigue, and action, making for a book that left my pulse racing and my mind whirling.

5. London War Notes (1971) – Mollie Panter-Downes
The fact that I was even able to get my hands on a copy of this all-too-rare book was a miracle; as anyone who has had the privilege of reading this will agree, it is a travesty that it has not yet been reprinted.  During the Second World War, Mollie Panter-Downes’ “Letter from London” was published every second week in the New Yorker magazine, giving her American readers a glimpse of the wartime experience in London.  In typical Panter-Downes fashion, she is observant and articulate, intelligent and unsentimental.  These letters capture Londoners at their best and worst and are an extraordinary historical record as well as examples of first-rate journalism.

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4. Framley Parsonage (1861) – Anthony Trollope
I had some reservations but, for the most part, I adored the fourth book in Trollope’s Barsetshire series.  Trollope’s handling of the virtues and failings of his young men reminded me once more of the truthfulness of his writing (and the consistency of human beings, regards of the century) while his female characters, young and old, were delightfully strong, funny, and sympathetic.

3. The Harold Nicolson Diaries (2004) – edited by Nigel Nicolson
An absorbing and revealing collection of wonderfully-written diaries and letters, I loved getting to glimpse all the different facets of Nicolson’s character, from youth to old age.

2. A Time of Gifts (1977) – Patrick Leigh Fermor
In another year, this might have grabbed the top spot.  Fermor’s account of the first leg of the charmed journey he took across Europe as a teenager is beautifully written and had me longing to set out on adventures of my own. Speaking of Jane Austen

1. Speaking of Jane Austen (1943) – Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern
All the other titles on this list were wonderful but not nearly as wonderful as this collection of delightfully eccentric Austen-focused essays.  And, of course, it is the only book I have ever come across that spends a sufficient amont of time lavishing praise on the deserving Emma (if you are looking for the fastest way to my heart, look no further).

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Speaking of Jane AustenThere is no doubt in my mind that Speaking of Jane Austen (or Talking of Jane Austen) by Sheila Kaye-Smith and G.B. Stern will find its way onto my “Top Ten Books of 2013” list at the end of the year; the only question is what position it will occupy.  Were I to make that list today there would be no doubt: it is far and away the best thing I have read in 2013.

I always enjoy reading other people’s thoughts on Jane Austen and, goodness knows, there are more than enough books and blogs out there to make even the most rabid Janeite happy.  My preference has always been for personal, informal lit crit: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Margaret Kennedy both wrote wonderfully intelligent and personal books that highlight both Austen’s technical genius and the kind of intense relationships her readers form with her characters.  Speaking of Jane Austen falls in this same category but is quite honestly so much more detailed and joyful than anything else I have ever read on Austen that it deserves to be in a class all its own.

There is no pleasure so complete as reading a book about a topic you love by authors whose tastes match yours in every particular.  I had expected, after reading her memoir, to enjoy Sheila Kaye-Smith’s (SKS) chapters the most and was surprised – but delighted – to enjoy G.B. Stern’s (GBS) just as much.  Both women felt similarly towards the six books but even in their agreement they retain their own unique personalities.  They are warm and funny and their joy at getting to explore any and every Austen-related topic that catches their fancy is immense, as was my joy in reading.

The authors trade off, chapter by chapter, touching on every imaginable topic: the influence of current events on Austen’s writing; the “chumps” in her novels and which ones are most loveable (answer: Mr Woodhouse and Mrs Dashwood); SKS’s desire to know what the heroines were wearing and eating; life in the country; women’s education and accomplishments; Austen’s portrayal of decidedly unspiritual clergymen; the importance of letter writing; and then, most enjoyably, discussions of characters Austen failed to bring to life (GBS picks include Colonel Brandon, Eleanor Tilney and Lady Catherine de Bourgh; SKS is disappointed by Mary Bennet, Mr Palmer, and Lady Russell) and characters who are mentioned but never emerge from the background (Mary King, Colonel Forster, Isabella Thorpe’s friend Miss Andrews, etc).  There is a shamefully difficult quiz (which can be found in its entirety here), with questions like: What kind of apricot did Dr Grant discuss with Mrs Norris and what was the price of it? And What do we know about – (a) Miss Grantley, (b) Mrs Speed, (c) Miss Pope, (d) Charlotte Davies, (e) Miss King, (f) Biddy Henshawe, (g) Lady Stonoway, (h) the Lady Frasers, (i) the Tupmans, (j) Lady Mary Grierson?  Who???  Immediately following these stumpers there is a section of odds and ends, brief musings from both authors on topics that did not fit elsewhere in the book.  After “The Mansfield Park Quartette”, which despite its title is really a chapter discussing all of the romantic pairings in all of the six books, this miscellany was my favourite section, offering perfect observations like:

However often I may re-read Jane Austen, I am for ever discovering some new small proof of genius in a sentence.  I have just found a gem of irony: it occurs after the scene in Persuasion where Frederick and Louisa go nutting down the hedgerow and (his subconscious still sore over the loss of Anne) he extols in an exaggerated style her firmness, decision and strength of mind.  Then, a little later, in family conclave: “Louisa now being armed with the idea of merit in maintaining her own way…”

No small part of my delight came from the discovery that both GBS and SKS counted Emma as their favourite of Austen’s works.  It is no secret that it is mine, too.  After years of searching, I have finally found a book that spends enough time dissecting and heaps enough praise on Emma to satisfy even me.  I loved reading about their worship of Mr Woodhouse, their fantasies of what it must be like to attend a dinner party at Hartfield, their reasons why Mr Knightley is the Austen hero they would most like to marry (Henry Tilney coming in second, as well he should), and, most of all, why they adore dear, flawed, adorable Emma.  I was particularly touched by SKS’s comments about how her relationship to Emma has changed over time:

At the start, Emma was my contemporary; now she might be my granddaughter, but I still have that warm, urgent sense of a personal relationship.  It is curiously charming, this experience of growing up with and round and past a character, entering into ever-changing and new relationships with it as one passes from girlhood’s interest and envy into motherly affection and grandmotherly pride.  Dear Emma!  Dear snobbish, cocksure, deluded Emma! – “faultless in spite of all her faults.”  She is and will doubtless always be my favourite among the Jane Austen heroines…

But that is not to say that they do not heap praise on the other books and the other heroines.  Catherine Morland and Anne Elliot are held in particular esteem (as GBS says, “There is no end to what I can find to praise in Anne Elliot; she deserves all the felicity which her creator bestowed upon her.”), Elizabeth is admired, Fanny is admitted to have virtues than both women feel would have been better served by a marriage to Henry Crawford, Elinor is esteemed and Marianne…frankly, I was surprised by how tenderly Marianne was treated, how sympathetic and admiring both SKS and GBS were to the young girl’s tragedy.  We are reminded how ill-behaved Marianne is compared to other girls of her age (can you imagine Catherine Morland, also seventeen, forgetting herself in public the way Marianne does?) but that does not override their love for her.  The discussions about Marianne and her emotions were some of the best in the entire book, with SKS in particular admiring the “power and sympathy” with which Austen presented “the flaming spirit of youth”, with all its attendant flaws.  The way GBS contrasts Marianne’s suffering with the turmoil experienced by the other heroines was also intriguing:

…the young girl’s tragedy is so vividly translated, and she lies on her bed at Mrs Jenning’s house in Conduit Street, with Willoughby’s letters in her hand and ‘almost screams with agony’, unbearable revelation of what someone we love can do to us if their love is not so great as our own, that it does not seem possible ever to dislike Marianne again.  Poor child; poor wounded child.  Even Anne is not so tormented, for she must always have had a mind to sustain her, even at seventeen; whereas Marianne has evolved no such protection against the storm.  Marianne can only rush out in the thin shoes into a damp shrubbery on a rainy night, and thus fashion some sort of fool’s consolation out of rashness.  Emma, too, like Anne, has a mind with which to meet grief; she is heavy-hearted, but she is not sunk when she believes she has lost Knightley to Harriet; she can still determine that her father shall feel no effects from her own grief.  Yes, Emma, as well as Anne, commands our respect.  Jane Bennet and Elinor Dashwood can also meet perfidy and disillusion with fortitude and put on a serene disguise.  Elizabeth is given very little suffering to try her; she has but hardly discovered that she could love Darcy after rejecting him than here is Darcy back again; ready to stoop his pride and put his fortune to the test for the second time.

I loved all of the questions this book brought up, both serious and whimsical.  While it is little short of ecstasy for obsessive Janeites to spend hours considering which of the heroines you would most like to meet, which hero would make the best husband or which scene you wish you could step into, I was brought up short by SKS’s confidence that all Janeites would roughly agree on how to order the six novels according to their merits:

There is one subject which true Janeites never weary of discussing, though as far as my own experience goes no discussion has ever been brought to a satisfactory conclusion.  By this I do not mean that it has never been settled; on the contrary, it is always settled much too easily.  There is very little difference of opinion among Jane-lovers as to the relative merits of the six novels.  You are not likely to find any one of them maintaining that Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey are flawless and none of the rest is worth reading, or that Sense and Sensibility is a finer book that Persuasion.  As a body we are agreed that the standard is very even and very high; none of the novels is disappointing, but if a list were to be drawn up either Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility would be at the bottom and either Emma or Persuasion at the top. SKS

As usual, I was in complete agreement with SKS and GBS (for the record, I would rank them as follows: Emma, Persuasion, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility, and, finally, Pride and Prejudice) but I know from past discussions that many of my readers will disagree!  I can vaguely understand how people can shuffle the bottom four around but to rank Emma and Persuasion as anything other than one and two (or vice-versa) is inconceivable.

This is the Austen book I have spent years searching for.  It is intelligent and energetic, quick witted and affectionate.  It is, quite simply, perfect.

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All the Books of my LifeWhen I finished reading All the Books of My Life by Sheila Kaye-Smith, I was almost giddy with delight.  A memoir focused on Kaye-Smith’s reading throughout her life, I was enchanted by it to the point that when I finished I told Simon (who read it last year and adored it) that “if I wrote the review right now it would be so gushingly, adoringly positive that only people who have read and loved the book already will be able to make sense of my ramblings.”  So, for your benefit dear readers, I have waited.  Let us see if I am any more coherent now.

Kaye-Smith uses the books in her life as markers, guiding the reader through her childhood (full of Victorian children’s novels where the heroes and heroines all seemed to die), her teen years (when she was warned off reading the classics – a topic that prompted a very interesting discussion here), her early adulthood (when she finally felt mature enough to handle all the novels she had forbidden herself when younger) and so on and so on, tracking her evolution as a member of the literary community and, eventually, her conversion to Roman Catholicism (I must admit, she lost me briefly at this point, her theological readings being far too dense for my understanding).  All those stages and, most importantly, all those books contributed to the woman she became, the one who wrote this book:

I do not want to exaggerate the effects of reading on character, but the influence of a book is probably as strong as any to be gained from most human contacts.  After all, a book is the voice of a fellow creature, calling through the print, perhaps from somewhere close at hand among our own interests and occupations, perhaps from across the world, perhaps from across the ages.  It is one of the many forms taken by experience, and through reading it we may find ourselves transported into an entirely new field of perception.  Even if we do not choose to remain there we probably shall not leave it as if we had never entered it.

Kaye-Smith had already published a conventional memoir by the time she sat down to write this and, because of that, seems to have felt little need to go into specifics about her personal relationships with non-writers or even much detail about her career as a writer (only a few of her books are mentioned by name).  Instead, by tracking the evolution of her tastes, her different motivations and influences over the years, you get a wonderful sense of her personality.  I particularly enjoyed hearing about her priggishness as a teenager, when “…like the schoolmistress my conscience would cry ‘Stop!’ when anything suggested deviation from strict propriety occurred or seemed likely to occur in a book.”  Her parents had little patience for such affectation and did their best to discourage it.  I was also interested to see her frustrated reminder to readers about the career ambitions of Edwardian girls, something that the 1950s cult of domesticity (the book was published in 1956) was doing its best to ignore:

It is generally supposed that in the early years of this century girls left school only to lead a vapid social life at home until somebody came along and married them; but nearly all my contemporaries left to take up some sort of profession – to be nurses, teachers, missionaries, and even doctors.  I left to become a writer, to the disappointment of my father, who would have liked me to go to Cambridge…

Not every page of the book is about Kaye-Smith’s reading but the real fun does come from hearing her thoughts on authors and books that are still read today.  Simon, for instance, adored her musings on Ivy Compton-Burnett.  I loved everything she had to say about Jane Austen (though not as much as I loved Speaking of Jane Austen, a book of essays by her and G.B. Stern that I finished on Saturday and cannot wait to discuss with you all) but probably had even more fun reading her thoughts on the books she didn’t like.  As delicious as it is to hear her enumerate all the reasons why Emma is a perfect book, it is much more fun to hear her complain about Little Women:

My failure ever to read Little Women must be put down to more humbling causes.  I found the March family much too good for me.  I liked children to be naughty – to ‘get into scrapes’ as we called it then – so that I need not inevitably feel inferior to those I read about.  The unselfishness of the Marches in giving their breakfast to feed the poor, and sacrificing their Christmas presents to help the Union Army was more than I could bear.  They had performed actions of which I was incapable and I hated them for it.  I never got beyond Jo’s sacrifice of her hair.

For all the recognizable titles she mentions, there are just as many obscure ones by authors long forgotten.  There is an entire chapter, “Sad Pageant of Forgotten Writers”, devoted to them but the second-rate reading material of her youth belongs there too.  Kaye-Smith is very sensible about it all, being not particularly sentimental about childhood favourites and recognizing that the bulk of the reading material from her Victorian and Edwardian childhood was poorly written and not worth preserving.

I am not sure I’ll ever want to read Kaye-Smith’s novels – like Simon, I am afraid they are just the kind of rural novels that Stella Gibbons had such fun skewering in Cold Comfort Farm, though I do already have Joanna Godden sitting on my bookshelf – but I loved reading this.  It is such a fun, appealing format for a memoir and Kaye-Smith carries it off beautifully; the balance between her life and her reading is just perfect and the writing is beautiful and humourous.  I thought it would be a difficult book to top…but then I read Speaking of Jane Austen (aka Talking of Jane Austen) and that was even better.  Thanks to Sheila Kaye-Smith, my reading for the year is off to a very good start!

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Woman Recling by Sigismund Ivanowski

Woman Reclining by Sigismund Ivanowski

Reading Sheila Kaye-Smith’s All the Books of My Life this week, a wonderful memoir of her life in books, this passage caught my eye:

When at the age of fifteen I started my period of conscientious reading, I received one piece of very good advice.  A friend of my mother’s advised me not to read Thackeray until I was grown up.  ‘You wouldn’t understand him now.  You’d miss a lot.’

This was perfectly true and I only wish her advice had been applied more widely, for I spoilt a number of books and authors for myself by reading them too early…If I were ever asked to guide a young person in a similar situation I should put Dickens and Jane Austen with Thackeray on the waiting list, also the whole of George Eliot except Adam Bede and the whole of the Brontës except Jane Eyre.

I think most dedicated readers, those of us who always have a book on the go and four (or forty) waiting in the wings, have at some point in our lives a list of great authors whose works we want to read.  My list began when I was around twelve and just starting to discover the classics.  I was ready to move on from Agatha Christie’s mysteries and Daphne du Maurier’s suspenseful romances to ‘important’ books, the ones I felt that I, as a clearly brilliant person destined for future greatness, should read.  My ambition at that age was exceeded only by my ego.

I put all the great books I knew about and many I didn’t on to that list.  It looked like every “Greatest Novels of All Time” list you have ever seen and I thought it was the most beautiful thing in the world.  And then, being a person who likes to follow through on her plans, I started reading, little knowing how irresponsible my ambition was in the eyes of Kaye-Smith and others like her.  Innocently, I thought that if I was interested in a book I should read it.  I had no older friends or family members intent on guiding my reading during those years, no one to warn me not to attempt books beyond my reach,  but did I spoil any books for myself by reading them when I was in my teens?  I suspect not.

I know there are books I did not understand fully when I read them but does an imperfect understanding ruin anything?  Did reading Northanger Abbey or Sense and Sensibility when I was in my early teens dull me for life to the brilliance of Austen?  Obviously not.  But did I understand Austen’s brilliance at the time?  Certainly not.  I was reading for plot.  I fell in love with the stories.  Later I came to appreciate Austen’s skill and the artistry that went into the creation of each book and that appreciation continues to grow with every rereading.

I read Jane Eyre, one of Kaye-Smith’s ‘approved’ books for youths, when I was fourteen in school and hated it.  Was this the fault of a too early introduction?  Or perhaps a too late one?  Would I at twelve, when for one brief summer I understood (thanks to du Maurier) the allure of gothic novels, have been more receptive to the absurdities of the plot and the odiousness of Mr Rochester that irritated me so much a few years later?

The age at which we read a book is of vital importance to the way we experience it but that does not mean that each book comes with a correct age at which to read it.  You are not only going to appreciate Vanity Fair if you wait to read it until you are forty-five but you will perhaps appreciate it differently than you did at fifteen and twenty-five and thirty-five.  You will understand more and miss fewer allusions but that does not mean you will enjoy it more.

My booklist was abandoned many years ago.  The sense of obligation I had when I began it, the feeling that I needed to read and enjoy certain books in order to be a better educated person, disappeared as I grew older and wiser.  But the list served its purpose well.

For me, what was most important about this fumbling and indiscriminate assault on great literature was that it exposed me to great literature, to books that if I had waited until I was older I might have realised I was supposed to find intimidating.  I may not have finished them all but I started to develop my taste.  I learned that I loved Austen and Thackeray but hated Fitzgerald and Hemingway; that I was fascinated by modernist’s techniques without ever managing to enjoy one of their novels; and that Romantics (especially poets) could send me screaming into the night.  I learned that language can be played with, that humour comes in many forms, and that there is nothing more attractive than an author with a distinctive voice.  I did not necessarily absorb these lessons consciously but they have informed my writing and my reading ever since.  Apologies to Sheila Kaye-Smith but, in the face of such an education, I cannot feel that anything was spoiled.

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