Today's "book about books" is Lucy Mangan's Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading (2018). Having made the mistake of picking it up directly after The Child That Books Built (discussed here), I confess that I had an initial resistance to Mangan's breezier style of writing, but her delightful book soon won me over. Like Spufford's volume, Bookworm blends an account of the author's childhood with bibliographic text full of information on classic books, authors, and publishing history. Her tone is witty and she wears her scholarship lightly, but her depth of knowledge about children's fiction is sound; I learned some new things about favourite books, and discovered plenty of new ones here too.
Mangan's strength is her ability to convey the urgent, vibrant intensity of the relationship children can have with their books. For some kids, of course, books are optional; they get their daily dose of stories through television, games, and other forms of transmission. Mangan acknowledges these alien souls, but it's her fellow bookworms she addresses here: those of us for whom books were (and are) as necessary as water and food. Books, to a bookworm, aren't just ink on the page; they are living presences who share the ups and downs of our lives. They befriend us, console us, startle and change us, tickle us, frighten and devastate us. They feed hungers we didn't know we had and heal wounds we didn't know needed healing.
For a taste of Bookworm, here's a passage describing young Lucy's introduction to Tom's Midnight Garden, during Story Time at her school -- doled out bit by bit as her teacher reads it aloud at the end of each school day:
"Not until the day's work was complete would [Mrs. Pugh] begin. So I spent every day for months in and agony -- or was it an ecstasy? -- of waiting and most of 1984 wishing a short but painful death on my fellow nine- and ten-year-olds who kept delaying us by mucking about and cutting into the twenty-five minutes...on which my day's happiness had come to depend.
"Because the story of Tom Long, who is sent away to stay with relatives while his brother is ill, is exquisite. Lonely and bored, Tom discovers that when the grandfather clock in the communal hallway -- on whose casing is carved the words from Revelation: 'Time no longer' -- strikes thirteen, the magnificent garden that once belonged to the house before it was divided up into flats is restored to it -- along with the equally lonely Hatty who used to play there as a child and who becomes Tom's midnight companion. Tom gradually realises that he is returning to the 19th century, but it takes a visit from his convalescing brother, who accompanies him on one of his nocturnal adventures, to make him realise that time in the garden is moving on and Hatty is growing up. One night, he at last becomes as invisible to her as he has been to everyone else in her world. Soon after that, the garden disappears too and it is almost time for Tom to go home.
"There is one last twist, which I'm not going to spoil for you, partly because I cannot bring myself to rob you of its power and pleasure by badly summarising it, and partly because if I had to learn, through Mrs. Pugh's meagre apportionments, the painful lesson of deferred gratification, I am most certainly going to force the experience on to others too, whenever I can.
"At the time, however, I was so locked in a battle of wills with my teacher that I restrained myself from asking my father to buy the book for me so that I could read on ahead. But as soon as Mrs. Pugh had turned the final page, I dragged him down to Dillons so that I could read the whole thing for myself -- in one sitting, free from the desire to stab Darren Jones in the heart with his ever-clattering pencil -- a process that yielded a better sense of the finely honed shape of the book and its careful, masterly pacing and let me linger over the beauty of the prose and the wealth of possibilities offered by its suggestion that the past and the present could merge into each other if only you knew where to look. And there were no nasty surprises as the shop -- not only was the book still in print, it was still Mrs. Pugh's edition that was on sale, with its properly glossy green cover, Susan Einzig's beautiful illustrations inside and out.
"I see now and delight in the fact that those tortured days of waiting meshed beautifully with the mood of the book. My own hungry anticipation mirrored Tom's impatient wait for his nightly doses of magic perfectly.
"More profoundly, I responded to the sense of longing -- for companionship, for adventure, for people and places long vanished -- that permeates the whole of Tom's Midnight Garden. My distance from it -- again, being read to is far, far better than nothing but it does not compare to reading to yourself -- gave me a heightened sense of how impossible it is to absorb the books we love as fully as we want to. I bet even the Maurice Sendak fan who ate the card the writer sent him felt a sense of anticlimax afterwards.
"We can read, and read, and read them but we can never truly live there. It is an approximation so close that it borders on the miraculous, for sure, and -- unless perhaps you are an actor, and a good actor at that -- there is nothing else that even comes near it, which is what keeps the bookworm going. But still -- you are not in Narnia. You are not actually beneath the floorboards with the Clocks. You are not roaming the prairies with Laura, Mary, Ma and Pa. And yet...and yet...Tom's Midnight Garden is suffused with the pain and the pleasure of yearning. Even as he's playing contentedly in the garden with Hatty before his brother arrives, its nightly appearance and morning disappearance already points to its evanescence. There is always a suggestion that everything is in flux, that nothing can last. The best we can hope for it to live there for a while. And accept that if yew hedges and towering trees cannot endure, happiness too is best understood as fleeting.
"C.S. Lewis once discussed the concept of Sehnsucht -- German for what we would call 'yearning'* - and reckoned this 'unconsolable longing' in the human heart 'for what we know not' was an intimation of the divine. 'If I discover within myself a desire which no experience in this world will satisfy,' he says in Mere Christianity, 'the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.'
"But perhaps we're more often just made for reading. Each book was to me another world, and none more so than Tom's Midnight Garden, then or now. Because I have re-read it countless times since Mrs. Pugh closed the covers for the final time, and within three pages I am my ten-year-old self again. Within six I am with Tom in his 1950s world and after that we are both in the Victorian garden again with Hatty and the yew trees and hedges that preceded and will outlast them all. I still believe, deep in my heart, that if I wake up at the right moment one night, I, too, will be able to step out of this world and all its inconsolable longings and run wild forever in the gardens of the past. But the best I can do is live there again for a while. Which is, almost, enough. After all, if you are as close to something as you were in childhood, then you have your childhood back again, don't you? Time no longer."
The illustrations here, of course, are by Susan Einzig for Tom's Midnight Garden. Einzig (1922—2009) was born to an affluent Jewish family in Dahlem, Berlin, and studied art at the age of 15 at the Breuer School of Design. Two years later, as World War II loomed, she was sent to England on a Kindertransport train, where she lived in London with former Berlin neighbours. Her mother also made it out of Germany in time, and an older brother (with whom she lost contact), but her father died in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Einzig studied illustration and wood engraving at the Central School of Arts & Crafts before being evacuated from London to Yorkshire, she then worked in an aircraft factory and as a technical draughtsman for the War Office. At the end of the war, she painstakingly built a successful career as a illustrator, painter, and lecturer. She produced many book illustrations over the years, beginning with art for Norah Pulling's Mary Belinda and the Ten Aunts (1945) and Mrs. Richard's Mouse (1946) -- but she's perhaps known for her later work, including illustrations for Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1962) and E. Nesbit's The Bastables (1966). Regarding her now-classic pictures for Tom's Midnight Garden, she said: "I had been to see the children’s-book editor at Oxford University Press, who looked at my work and seemed very unsure about it. However, she gave me Philippa Pearce’s manuscript to try to see if I could do it. I did two or three drawings and took them to show her, and then she asked me to do the book....I was paid just a hundred pounds for the whole thing."
Einzig also taught art at Chelsea School of Art & Design for more than thirty years, was part of the "Soho set" of the 1940s and '50s (with Francis Bacon, John Minton, Lucian Freud, Dylan Thomas, etc.), and raised at least one child, her daughter Hetty, on her own. (Some biographical accounts list a son as well, but that might be erroneous.) For more information on this remarkable woman, go here and here.
* Though as you might expect with such a porous, abstract concept it has slightly different connotations from our word -- theirs means something more like 'life longings', particularly for a home, or homelike place that you have not necessarily experienced, or for something unnameable and indefinable. - L.M.
Words & pictures: The passage quoted above is from Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan (Penguin, 2018). The cover art is by Laura Barrett; you can can see more of her lovely work here. The rest of the art today is from Tom's Midnight Garden by Philipa Pearce, illustrated by Susan Einzig (Oxford University Press, 1958). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and the artists.