Some works give pleasure not only through the way that they are written or through the ideas with which they engage. We love them also for the associations we have with them, for the memories they evoke. We love a particular edition because of its illustrations. We revere a work because we wish we had written it.
For me, the following have a particular emotional, even at times, transformative significance:
Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. I first read this book when I was eight or nine years old having followed the story in graphic form in a magazine called Girl. (Does anyone remember Girl? It was the sister comic to Eagle.) I was bought, I think for a Christmas present, a 2/6 edition and took three weeks to get through it. At the time, all I saw in it was a variant of a “Cinderella” story, so you can imagine my horror when my primary school headmaster complained to my mother that the work was “unsuitable.” Imagine my glee when my mother assured him that I would read any book that was in our house.
Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’m actually writing this on the two hundredth anniversary of the work’s publication, and I am not alone in treasuring this novel as my favourite Austen. A Christmas present from my music teacher and his wife in about 1961 and my introduction to Jane Austen, the Collins Classic edition with its tiny print and almost onion skin pages still sits on my book shelf in its original orange cover.
Poems of Today: An Anthology. An anthology published by Sidgwick & Jacobson for the English Association, this was a book my mother had from her childhood. I was particularly fond of two poems: Frances Cornford’s “To a Lady Seen from the Train” and Walter de la Mare’s “Nod,” which would sometimes be read to me as a “bedtime story.” I still try to ensure that I never “walk through the fields in gloves.” And I felt so sorry for the “fat white woman whom nobody loves” who was “missing so much and so much.” I must also admit to rather enjoying Henry Newbolt’s “Drake’s Drum,” too.
Imagine my pleasure when I found an 1918 edition of this book in a second hand book store. I bought it.
The Batsford Book of Children’s Verse edited in 1958 by Elizabeth Jennings. This book is still on my shelves though it has lost its original dust jacket. It is a collection of poems not all necessarily written for children; in fact, most of them are not. I was given this book as a result of coming home from primary school and reporting that I did not like poetry. This volume persuaded me that I could like poetry. The beautiful full page photographs interspersed among the poems also helped.
Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Wyndham Payne. My first introduction to Mole and Ratty and all the River Bankers got me through a dreadful bout of hepatitis when I was six. Then it was read to me. Since then, I have read this book about once a year. My own edition is now the one illustrated by E. H. Shepard. My mother still has the Wyndham Payne edition. Am I Rat or Mole at heart?
Anya Seton’s Katherine.What can I say? This book was recommended to me by my grammar school history teacher as being reasonably accurate. As a small r romance, it still works. Alison Weir’s Katherine Swynford: The Story of John Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess provides an excellent corrective.
Margaret Drabble’s A Summer Bird-Cage. This novel, read during, for me, a dreadful family holiday in Austria, told me that there were other ways of being, that young women could be “high-powered” (1988 Penguin 96), that one could be oneself, and that, yes, black stockings were cool. I still like black hose.
Elizabeth Goudge’s The White Witch. Just one of those historical books that one wants to read and reread, or at least I do. I’m always rather daunted at just how morally upright Goudge’s novels are. At the end of reading one, I always feel that perhaps being a really good person is actually possible.
The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám illustrated by Edmund Dulac. There’s something about this work that obviously inspires illustrators and binders. If I recall correctly, the version we had at home when I was a child was bound in soft suede but didn’t have illustrations. I found my copy of the 1952 Doubleday edition in a book store in Madison or Chicago on a visit to the mid-west some time in the early to mid-seventies. It is a beautiful book and at the time cost only $3.95. Amazing.
E. M. Forster’s A Room With a View. An almost perfect novel: insightful, kind, and perhaps the most optimistic of his novels. I reread this work often. Forster reveals himself as inspired by “the Comic Muse and . . . Truth” (Room with a View Penguin 136) laughing gently at his characters and suggesting that happiness is still possible even in a world tainted by snobbery and suburbia. My 1988 Penguin edited by Oliver Stallybrass includes as an appendix Forster’s 1958 essay “A View without a Room” in which “prophetic retrospect” (233) Forster outlines what has happened to his characters.
And then the book I wish that I could write
Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. More than an elegy for times past, the novel does indeed examine “the operation of divine grace” (Preface, 1962 Penguin 7). One thinks at first one is reading a melancholic recollection of lost loves and lost Arcadia and then discovers that the novel records the gradual acceptance of divine love.Though not wholly in agreement with Waugh’s own beliefs, I still find the work one of the most satisfying and engaging presentations of psychomachia that I have read.