Monthly Archives: March 2015

Old Books

Given the choice, I would always choose the old, battered, secondhand book over the brand new version. I’m not sure what it is about old books – whether it’s the feel of the well-worn cover in my hands; whether it’s the faded name on the flyleaf written in an elaborate hand no longer seen nor aspired to these days; or whether it’s the idea that so many other people have used it, read it, carried it around with them. Well: maybe I am sure. It is all of those things combined.

I long to know who “Frances, Christmas 1940” was, other than being the recipient of a lovely collection of poems by Longfellow. Did she read every poem, I want to know, because there is no clue left on the pages: no pencilled-in thoughts or questions; no dog-eared corners; no tiny notes slipped between pages – Oh! the excitement that would cause! Perhaps Frances did not even like Longfellow and forced a thin smile in thanks for the unwanted present; or perhaps it was such a treasure that it remained unread, unopened, unappreciated on a shelf except for its cover which would be dusted religiously every Monday – that would be a shame indeed.

If a library is giving away books,or a second-hand book store is having a sale, I can’t walk past, and the idea of a book being tossed into a recycling bin and being mulched up is horrifying. While I know I cannot save every book I see, I certainly have come home with many more than I should. These books have all had a life and deserve to have it extended as long as possible.

Not that I can hang onto every book I save; please don’t imagine some crazy hoarder person gradually losing rooms to increasing piles of salvaged books. Some prove themselves to be worthy of the recycler’s chipper; some smugly hiding behind a very artistic and gripping cover, prove themselves unable to live up to the outward show, but I still can’t be the one to actually throw them away. I guiltily pack them up and hand them over to the nearest charity shop in the belief that someone else will not only be intrigued, as I was, by the cover, but might also find the content worthwhile, too.
One book-lover’s trash, hopefully, is another book-lover’s treasure.

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The Art of Literary Conversation: Biographers vs. novelists

[With acknowledgment to the creators of this ‘card game’ Keith Lamb and Louise Howland.]

Q: ‘Where biographers fear to tread, novelists can rush right in.’ Example?

A: I certainly do have an example. I have just finished reading a novel called Girl in a Blue Dress by Gaynor Arnold and it answers this prompt perfectly.

It is the fictionalized account of the private life of one of the world’s most revered authors – Charles Dickens – told from the point of view of his estranged wife living in what amounted to solitary confinement for the twenty years after he decided to publicly take up with his mistress. The names have been changed and, I am sure some of the facts of the affair, but it remains rather a sordid and sad account. The reader has no difficulty in becoming very angry on the wife’s behalf since she, sad creature, still loves her husband and remains in her apartment so that he is not embarrassed or annoyed by her ineptitude in dealing with his increasingly public life and fame.

I am sure that there are several biographers of Dickens who have lionized his triumphs and literary successes – indeed it would never have occurred to me that there could be anything else to be said about such a great writer – and quietly ignored the despicable manner in which he cast off his wife and the mother of his ten children, convincing them to cut off all ties with her as well. Apparently, if the book is to be believed, he forced them to choose between living with him or their mother, a very usual situation in the Victorian Era; there could be no compromises.

Very often we tend to idolize public and successful people, we want to have someone to look up to, to dream about becoming, but as is so often the case, the saying ‘look how the mighty have fallen’ can be applied. For some of them, being so adored inflates their view of themselves and they begin to believe the hype and adoration that surrounds them everyday; and so it was with Dickens, evidently. He did not wish to be lumbered with a fat, boring, lazy, stupid wife anymore (his opinion of her; not her actual character), and decided that he deserved better and more interesting company in the form  of a beautiful young actress who would make him feel young again whilst hanging on his every word.

The fictionalized biography begins on the day of Dickens’ funeral, the day that his wife feels able to break her self-imposed solitary lifestyle and leave her apartment to face her demons, and in very short order she discovers that her children still love her, and that the actress is also living an enforced solitary lifestyle in a house in the country with her mother. The actress’s whole life revolves around wondering if today would be the day that Dickens would honor her with his company. The wife discovers, as is often the case, that her imaginings have been far worse than the actual fact, and ends up feelings quite sorry for her old nemesis.

The aspect of this novel that makes it so interesting and allows the writer to tread very heavily over Dickens’ good name and flawless reputation is its foundation in truth, based as it is on the man’s actual behavior as displayed through his and his wife’s letters, but it is an aspect that few biographers would want to dwell upon. It is not in their interest to reduce their subject’s worth in the reader’s eye.

Which makes me very glad that novelists are not as bound to the truth as are biographers, because they are expected to, and do, tell a damn fine tale around thinly-veiled truth without repercussions.

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