Books on Books, Part 3

Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

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:

Tom's Midnight Garden cover illustration by Susan Einzig"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. 

Tom's Midnight Garden illustrated by Susan Einzig

"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.

Tom's Midnight Garden illustrated by Susan Einzig

"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. 

Tom's Midnight Garden illustrated by Susan Einzig"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. 

Tom's Midnight Garden illustrated by Susan Einzig"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."

Tom's Midnight Garden illustrated by Susan Einzig

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.

Tom's Midnight Garden illustrated by Susan Einzig

The Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

* 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.


Books on Books, Part 2

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

Continuing the discussion begun yesterday....

In The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford recalls the children's tales that sparked his love of reading, and of writing:

"My favorite books were the ones that took books' implicit status as other worlds, and acted on it literally, making the window of writing a window into imaginary countries. I didn't just want to see in books what I saw anyway in the world around me, even if it was perceived and understood and articulated from angles I could never have achieved; I wanted to see things I never saw in life. More than I wanted books to do anything else, I wanted them to take me away. I wanted exodus. "

But there's a difference, he notes, between stories set entirely in an imaginary world and stories that start in our own world but then take you to another.

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes"Earthsea and Middle Earth were separate. You traveled them in imagination as you read Le Guin and Tolkien, but they had no location in relation to this world. Their richness did not call you at home in any way. It did not lie just beyond a threshold in this world that you might find if you were particularly lucky, or particularly blessed. 

"I wanted there to be the chance to pass through a portal, and by doing so pass from rusty reality with its scaffolding of facts and events into the freedom of story. If, in a story, you found that one panel in the fabric of the workaday world that was hinged, and it opened, and it turned out that behind the walls of the world flashed the gold and peacock blue of something else, and you were able to pass through, that would be a moment in which all the decisions that had been taken in this world, and all the choices that had been made, and all the facts that had been settled, would be up for grabs again: all possibilities would be renewed, for who knew what lay on the other side?

Aslan by Pauline Baynes

"And once opened, the door would never be entirely shut behind you either. A kind of mixture would begin. A tincture of this world's reality would enter the other world, as the ordinary children in the story -- my representatives, my ambassadors -- wore their shirts and sweaters amid cloth of gold, and said Crumbs! and Come off it! among people speaking the high language of fantasy; while this world would be subtly altered too, changed in status by the knowledge that it had an outside. E. Nesbit invented the mixing of the worlds in The Amulet, which I preferred, along with the rest of her magical series, to the purely realistic comedy of the Bastables' adventures in The Treasure Seekers and its sequels. On a grey day in London, Robert and Anthea and Jane and Hugh travel to blue sky through the arch of the charm. The latest master of worlds is Philip Pullman. Lyra Belacqua and her daemon walk through the aurora borealis in the first book of the Dark Materials trilogy; in the next, a window in the air floats by a bypass in the Oxford suburbs; in the third installment, access to the eternal sadness of the land of the dead is through a clapped-out, rubbish-strewn port town on the edge of a dark lake.

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes"As I read I passed to other worlds through every kind of door, and every kind of halfway space that could work metaphorically as a threshold too: the curtain of smoke hanging over burning stubble in an August cornfield, an abandoned church in a Manchester slum. After a while, I developed a taste for transitions so subtle that the characters could not say at what instance the shift had happened.

"In Diana Wynne Jones's Eight Days of Luke, the white Rolls-Royce belonging to 'Mr. Wedding' -- Woden -- takes the eleven-year-old David to Valhalla for lunch, over a beautiful but very ordinary-seeming Rainbow Bridge that seems to be connected to the West Midlands road system. I liked the idea that borders between the worlds could be vested in modern stuff: that the green and white signs on the motorways counting down the miles to London could suddenly show the distance to Gramarye or Logres.

Through the Wardrobe by Pauline Baynes"But my deepest loyalty was unwavering. The books I loved best all took me away through a wardrobe, and a shallow pool in the grass of a sleepy orchard, and a picture in a frame, and a door in a garden wall on a rainy day at boarding school, and always to Narnia. Other imaginary countries interested me, beguiled me, made rich suggestions to me. Narnia made me feel like I'd taken hold of a live wire. The book in my hand sent jolts and shimmers through my nerves. It affected me bodily. In Narnia, C.S. Lewis invented objects for my longing, gave form to my longing, that I would never have thought of, and yet they seemed exactly right: he had anticipated what would delight me with an almost unearthly intimacy. Immediately I discovered them, they became the inevitable expressions of my longing. So from the moment I first encountered The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to when I was eleven or twelve, the seven Chronicles of Narnia represented essence-of-book to me. They were the Platonic Book of which other books were more or less imperfect shadows. For four or five years, I essentially read other books because I could not always be re-reading the Narnia books."

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

Lev Grossman was also ensorcelled by Narnia as a boy. In a fine essay on the subject he writes:

"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a powerful illustration of why fantasy matters in the first place. Yes, the Narnia books are works of Christian apology, works that celebrate joy and love -- but what I was conscious of as a little boy, if not in any analytical way, was the deep grief encoded in the books. Particularly in the initial wardrobe passage. The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline BaynesThere’s a sense of anger and grief and despair that causes Lewis to want to discard the entire war, set it aside in the favor of something better. You can feel him telling you -- I know it’s awful, truly terrible, but that’s not all there is. There’s another option. Lucy, as she enters the wardrobe, takes the other option. I remember feeling this way as a child, too. I remember thinking, 'Yes, of course there is. Of course this isn’t all there is. There must be something else.'

"How powerful it was to have Lewis come along and say, Yes, I feel that way, too.

"But I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they're exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

"The whole modernist-realist tradition is about the self observing the world around you -- sensing how other it is, how alien it is, how different it is to what’s going on inside you. In fantasy, that gets turned inside out. The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them."

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

In her delightful book Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, Lucy Mangan reflects on the fourth book in the series, Prince Caspian:

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes"The Pevensies return to the magical kingdom to find that hundreds of years have passed, civil war is dividing the kingdom and Old Narnians (many dwarves, centaurs, talking animals, the dryads and hamadryads that once animated the trees, and other creatures) are in hiding. The children must lead the rebels against their Telmarine conquerors. The warp and weft of Narnian life is seen up close, in even more gorgeously imagined detail than the previous books. Lucy, awake one night in the thick of the forest that has grown up since she was last in Narnia, feels the trees are almost awake and that if she just knew the right thing to say they would come to Narnian life once more.

"It mirrored exactly how I felt about reading, and about reading Lewis in particular. I was so close...if I could just read the words on the page one more time, I could animate them too. The flimsy barriers of time, space and immateriality would finally fall and Narnia would spring up all around me and I would be there, at last."

Lucy Mangan's Bookworm is the second of the "books on books" I am recommending this week. Like Spufford's The Child That Books Built, Mangan's Bookworm combines a bibliographic text with childhood memoir in order to look at the ways books act on us in our earliest years. More on this tomorrow....and more on Narnia soon after....

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

The art today is by Pauline Baynes (1922-2008), from the first editions of The Chronicles of Narnia (1950-156).

Pauline BaynesBaynes was born in Sussex and spent her early childhood years in northern India, where her father worked with the Indian Civil Service. At the age of five, however, Baynes' mother took her children back to England (leaving their father, ayah, and pet monkey behind) -- a traumatic rupture that haunted the artist for the rest of her life. After miserable periods in strict convent and boarding school, she was allowed to move to the Farnham School of Art at age 15, where she formed her desired to become an illustrator of children's books. She clung to this goal through further studies at the Slade School of Art and Oxford. The war intervened, and the Woman's Voluntary Service sent Baynes to work as model-maker with the Royal Engineers in Falmouth Castle, and then to draw maps and naval charts for the Admiralty in Bath. A colleague from this period belonged to a family firm that published children's books, and it was through this connection that Baynes received her first illustration commissions. 

After the war, Baynes built a solid career creating book cover art and interior illustrations, most notably for J.R.R. Tolkien's tales of Middle-Earth, and C.S. Lewis' journeys into Narnia. (She had a close friendship with Tolkien throughout his life, whereas her relationship with Lewis was professional and distant.) She also illustrated texts by Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Rudyard Kipling, George MacDonald, Mary Norton, Arthur Ransome, Alison Uttley, Richard Adams, and many others over the years -- winning the Kate Greenaway Medal for her illustrations to Grant Uden's A Dictionary of Chivalry in 1968. 

Baynes worked from her book-crammed study in Surrey, her desk looking out to a high-hedged garden, her beloved dogs sprawled at her feet. She continued illustrating books until the day she died at the age of 85.

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

The Chronicles of Narnia illustrated by Pauline Baynes

The passages above are from The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford (Henry Holt & Co, 2002); "Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy" by Lev Grossman (The Atlantic, August 2014); and Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan (Penguin, 2018). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and the artist's estate.


Books on Books

Lisbeth Reading by Carl Larsson

Howard and I have been dealing with Long Covid since catching a mild dose of the virus last spring -- and although (touch wood) we're both getting better, my studio hours are still limited as I find my way back to health and strength. But when illness robs us of productivity, breaking down our usual routines, slowing time down to a crawl, it also gives us unexpected gifts -- and for me, that gift is the time read

Okay, I'd rather be writing, painting, doing, not watching the world through a fever haze, or experiencing life through a printed page -- but on those days when my body fails I'm grateful to books, and to all those who write them.

Olvaso No by Berény Róbert

Reading having played a big part in my life for many reasons in addition to health, I have a particular fondness for books about books. Here are four I particularly recommend: The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford. Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan. Books & Island in Ojibwe Country: Traveling Through the Land of My Ancestors by Louise Erdrich. From Spare Oom to War Drobe: Travels in Narnia With My Nine-Year-Old Self by Katherine Langrish.

All four weave literary studies with memoir; all four explore the author' s personal relationship with books; all four examine the ways that stories form us, effect us, and define us. I'm planning to discuss them all this week, starting today with The Child That Books Built.

Books on books

Katherine Langrish on the Narnia books

The Child That Books BuiltI first read Spufford's book in 2002, the year of its original publication, and what struck me then was the unusual nature of its composition: childhood memoir mixed into literary and publishing history, with digression into cognitive science and child psychology in relation to story. In the two decades since, writers of memoir have expanded the form in so many ways that the structure of Spufford's book has lost its radical edge; I find that I have to remind myself that his memoir was a pioneering text. That said, it is still a cracking good read. Spufford is roughly the same generation I am and grew up with many of the same children's books on his shelves. He also has a taste for fantasy, and discusses the genre with knowledge and love. Although his writing on fairy tales relies too much (for this reader) on the disputed psychoanalytic theories of Bruno Bettleheim, his passion for all things magical wins me over nonethless, and his poignant reflections on a difficult childhood in which finding doors into other worlds was merciful and necessary.

Here's a passage from Spufford's introduction  to give you a sense of the book as a whole:

When I Grow Up by Tim Daly"I began my reading in a kind of hopeful springtime for children's writing. I was born in 1964, so I grew up in a golden age comparable to the present heyday of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, or to the great Edwardian decade when E. Nesbit, Kipling, and Kenneth Graham were all publishing at once. An equally amazing generation of talent was at work as the 1960s ended and the 1970s began. William Mayne was making dialogue sing; Peter Dickinson was writing the Changes trilogy; Alan Garner was reintroducting myth into the bloodstream of daily life; Jill Paton Walsh was showing that children's perceptions could be just as angular and uncompromising as adults; Joan Aiken had begun her Dido Twite series of comic fantasies; Penelope Farmer was being unearthly with Charlotte Sometimes; Diana Wynne Jones's gift for wild invention was hitting its stride; Rosemary Sutcliffe was just adding the final uprights to her colonnade of Romano-British historical novels; Leon Garfield was reinventing the 18th century as a scene for inky Gothic intrigue. The list went on, and on, and on. There was activity everywhere, a new potential classic every few months.

Boy Reading by Carl Larsson

"Unifying this lucky concurrence of good books, and making them seem for a while like contributions to a single intelligible project, was a kind of temporary cultural consensus: a consensus both about what children were and about where we all were in history. Dr. Spock's great manual for liberal, middle-class child-rearing had come out at the beginning of the Sixties, and had helped deconstruct the last lingering remnants of the idea that a child was clay to be molded by a benevolent adult authority. The new orthodoxy took it for granted that a child was a resourceful individual, neither ickily good nor reeking of original sin. And the wider world was seen as a place in which a permanent step forward toward enlightenment had taken place as well. The books my generation were offered took it for granted that poverty, disease and prejudice essential belonged in the past. Postwar society had ended them. 

Boy Reading by Carl Larsson

"As the 1970s went on, these assumptions would lose their credibility. Gender roles were about to be shaken up; the voices that a white, liberal consensus consigned to the margins of consciousness were about to be asserted as hostile witnesses to its nature. People were about to lose their certainty that liberal solutions worked. Evil would revert to being an unsolved problem. But it hadn't happened yet; and till it did, the collective gaze of children's stories swept confidently across past and future, and across all international varieties of the progressive, orange-juice-drinking present, from Australia to Sweden, from Holland to the broad, clean suburbs of America.

Children's Classics by Holly Farrell

Puffin editions

"For me, walking up the road aged seven or eight to spend my money on a paperback, the outward sign of this unity was Puffin Books. In Britain, almost everything written for children passed into the one paperback imprint. On the shelves of the children's section in the bookshop, practically all the stock would be identically neat soft-covered octavos, in different colors, with different cover art, but always with the same sans serif type on the spine, and the same little logo of an upstanding puffin. Everything cost about the same. For 17p -- then 25p and then 40p as the 1970s inflation took hold -- you could have any one of the new books, or any of the children's classics, from the old ones like The Wind in the Willows or Alice to the new ones that were only a couple of decades into their classichood, like the Narnia books (C.S. Lewis had died the year before I was born, most unfairly making sure I would never meet him).

Children reading by Honor C Appleton & Mary Cicely Barker

"If you were a reading child in the UK in the Sixties or Seventies, you too probably remember how securely Puffins seemed, with the long, trust-worthy descriptions of the story inside the front cover, always written by the same arbiter, the Puffin editor Kaye Webb, and their astonishingly precise recommendation to 'girls of eleven and above, and sensitive boys.'  It was as if Puffin were part of the administration of the world. They were the department of the welfare state responsible for the distribution of narrative. And their reach seemed universal: not just the really good books you were going to remember forever, but the nearly good ones too and the completely forgettable ones that at the time formed the wings of reading and spread them wide enough to enfold you in books on all sides."

Felcia by Henry Lamb and Girl Reading by Edward Thompson Davis

The Reading Boy by Joseph Fielding Smith

A little later in the Introduction, Spufford lays out the premise of his memoir:

"I have gone back and read again the sequence of books that carried me from babyhood to the age of nineteen, from the first fragmentary stories I remember to the science fiction I was reading at the brink of adulthood. As I reread them, I tried to become again the reader I had been when I encountered each for the first time, wanting to know how my particular history, in my particular family, at that particular time, had ended up making me into the reader I am today. I made forays into child psychology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, where I thought those things might tease out the implications of memory. With their help, the following chapters recount a path through the riches that were available to English children of the 1960s and 1970s, and onward into the reading of adolescence. It is the story (I hope) of the reading my whole generation of bookworms did; and it is the story of my own relationship with books; both. A pattern emerged, or a I drew it: a set of four stages in the development of that space inside where writing is welcomed and reading happens. What follows is more about books that it is about me, but nonetheless it is my inward autobiography, for the words we take into ourselves help to shape us. "

It is a premise Spufford amply fulfills in this moving and insightful volume.

The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford

Wrapped in magic and stories

Words: The passage above is from The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford (Henry Holt & Co, 2002); all rights reserved by the author. Previous posts that discuss The Child That Books Built include "In the Forest of Stories" (2013) and  "Built by Books" (2014). Pictures: The art is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) All rights reserved by the artists.


Unfolding our wings

The Angel of Childhood by Terri Windling

I recently re-read My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead, and was struck by the following passage about young Mary Ann Evans, an editor and critic for The Westminster Review in the years before she transformed herself into the writer George Eliot.

" [H]er critical judgement could be instringent, even snarky, and she enjoyed the professional attention she got through exercising it. If one is accustomed to think of George Eliot as she ended up -- the novelist famous for the generosity of her comprehension -- it's shocking, George Eliotand not a little thrilling, to read her early essays and discover how slashing she could be. I wouldn't exchange the large, sympathetic capacities she later uncovered for these lesser dagger blows, but there's something very satisfying about knowing she once had it in her to land them. It's oddly reassuring to know that before she grew good, George Eliot could be bad -- to realize that she, also, had a frustrated ferocity that it gratified her to unleash, at least until she found her way to a different kind of writing, one that allowed her to lay down her arms, and to flourish without combativeness or cruelty.

"Beyond the pages of the periodicals, too, she could be acid and spiky, defensive in anticipation of attack. 'Treating people ill is an infallible sign of special love with me,' she wrote to a friend. New acquaintances were not sure what to make of her. 'I don't know whether you will like Miss Evans," Bessie Raynor Parkes, who became Eliot's good friend, wrote to Barbara Bodichon, who became an even better one. 'At least I know you will like her for her large unprejudiced mind, her complete superiority to most women. But whether you or I should ever love her, as a friend, I don't know at all. There is yet no high moral purpose in the impression she makes, and it is that alone which commands love. I think she will alter. Large angels take a long time unfolding their wings, but when they do, they soar out of sight. Miss Evans either has no wings, or, which I think is the case, they are coming, budding."

Boy, did Bessie get that right.

I love the passage not only for the glimpse we get of women's friendships (always a subject close to my heart), but also for the insight into how Eliot changed and deepened over the years...not unlike writers I know today. It takes time to grow into into the person, and thus the artist, you are going to be. It takes time to find your true voice.

The Angel of Language by Terri Windling

My Life in Middlemarch

I highly recommend My Life in Middlemarch, which is a skillful blend of literary history and memoir. As Mead explained in an interview:

"The book began with a piece that I wrote for The New Yorker, an essay about George Eliot, specifically investigating the source of a quotation which is often attributed to her: 'It's never too late to be what you might have been.' I believed, and I still do believe, that she didn't say that. It doesn't appear to be in any of her books, and I haven't been able to find an original source for it anywhere.

"When I was 42 or so, thinking about doing this, I felt very strongly that it was too late for certain things to happen. I mean, one does, at that age. You know, it's too late to have kids, or it's too late to marry the person that you didn't marry earlier in your life… you realize that there are things that you haven't done that are going to remain undone. So it was in that mood, that mood of reflection, that I wanted to go back to Middlemarch and to think about the ways it had influenced me and shaped my understanding of myself and my own life....

"I don't think Middlemarch tells you how to live your life; thank god it doesn't! It's not a set of instructions, it's not a self-help book, and it would be bizarre to try to read it and follow its 'rules' or something. But I do think that our own life experience obviously informs how we read, and it means that our readings of different novels through different times become richer and change, and that's the measure of a great work of literature -- that you can go back to it time and again, time and again, and it will tell you something new, not just about what's in it but what's in you."

Middlemarch book art by Stephen Doyle

Words: The passage by Rebecca Meade is from My Life in Middlemarch (Crown Publishers, 2014). The quote is from an interview with Ron Hogan (BuzzFeed, November, 2014). All rights reserved by the author and artists. Pictures: The etching of George Eliot is from a chalk drawing by Frederic William Burton, 1864  (National Portrait Gallery, London). The Middlemarch book art is by Stephen Doyle. The angel paintings are old ones of mine (oil paint on paper). All rights reserved by the author and artists. Related post: The Art of Creating a Life: Barbara Bodichon.