My mother was not bookish, but she encouraged bookishness.
She read to me day and night until I learned to read. I bounced into her room at 5 a.m. to beg her to read She read nursery rhymes (I was partial to Three Little Kittens), fairy tales, and Make Way for Ducklings.
How glad she must have been when I learned to read!
I owe my bookishness to Mom, whom I miss very much, so I am dedicating this List of Favorite Books of the Decades of My Life to her. I am listing only one per decade, so it is a bit arbitrary. Lists are fun!
My first decade (zero to nine): E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle. This is a classic, my favorite of Nesbit’s fantasies. It is the story of the “magic adventures” of Gerald, Jimmy, and Kathleen (siblings), and a friend, Mabel. The three siblings wander into the garden of a castle and see Mabel dressed up like a princess and feigning an enchanted sleep. When she is kissed, she convinces them she is a princess and says she has a magic ring–and then, to her consternation, it becomes true. She wishes she were invisible–and becomes invisible. She doesn’t believe they can’t see her–and shakes them. The sight of their being shaken by someone invisible is terrifying. They clutch her invisible arms and legs. In each chapter, they have a different adventure with the ring. I especially remember a frightening chapter when the statues come to life.
My second decade (ten to nineteen): Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. The Nobel Prize winner’s powerful experimental novel centers on Anna, a writer and single mother whose life is fragmented because she no longer respects her fiction-writing. She has contempt for her best-selling novel about an interracial relationship in Africa, is a disillusioned leftist who once idealized the Soviet Union,,and can only fall in love with men who cannot love deeply. Lessing also chronicles a collapsed society, broken by the trauma of World War II, fear of the bomb, and emotional frigidity.
The experimental structure of the novel is bold. Lessing alternates sections of a short traditional novel about Anna, “Free Women,” with Anna’s writings in four notebooks–black, red, yellow, and blue–in which she tries to measure out the truth about her life of organized chaos, often writing in fragments, experimenting with different styles, chronicling her experience straightforwardly in the communist party in Africa, her marriage and love affairs, her difficulty with writing. She also writes a novel about an alter ego, Ella, who is more brittle than Anna, but undergoes similar emotional upheaval. Eventually she receives a golden notebook…
My third decade (twenty to twenty-nine): Margaret Drabble’s The Realms of Gold. At the beginning of this fascinating, insightful, analytical, but ultimately cheerful book, Frances Wingate, a brilliant archaeologist, is in her hotel room suffering from depression. The next day she must give a lecture, and, having idly visited the city’s octopus research laboratory, she is thinking about the octopus who lived in a plastic box with holes for its arms. The female octopus is programmed to die after giving birth: what has Frances been programmed for? She wonders. What are middle-aged women supposed to do when they no longer have babies? Her children are fine. She has her work.
Frances has some non-biological reasons to be depressed. She broke up with her lover, Karel, a professor, adult education teacher, and misses him badly. She even carries a bridge of two of Karel’s false teeth, sometimes in her bosom to “protect her virtue.” He was married, and she was suddenly disturbed by the fact they had only managed to get away for four days away in the years of their relationship. She told him she didn’t want to see him anymore.
Thee novel is also a dark exploration of family, heredity, and “the landscape of the soul.” Frances is fascinated by herroots, and we learn about her relative Janet Bird, a trapped housewife in Tockley, France’s hometown. . There is something profoundly optimistic about Frances, the second generation away from Tockley. And that is why we like this book so much.
My fourth decade (thirty to thirty-nine): Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend. The plot of OMF revolves around money: the effect of the inheritance of the riches of a miserly junkyard owner on his heirs, the Boffins who worked as his servants; they believe his son, John Harmon has been murdered. Members of the Boffins’ circle include John Rokeman, the mysterious secretary who dedicates himself passionately to their interests; the beautiful, greedy, witty Bella, whom the Boffins informally adopt; poisonous Wegg, the one-legged con man who hopes to blackmail Mr. Boffin; and Betty Higden, the independent old woman who refuses to accept money from the Boffins because she wants to stand on her own two feet and, by her own money, keep out of the workhouse.
There are also sub-Boffin circles: Lizzie Hexam and her father, Gaffer Hexam, a waterman, find the body of John Harmon in the Thames. Mortimer Lightwood, the Boffins’ lawyer, and his good friend and fellow lawyer, the witty, languorous Eugene Wrayburn, meet them when they come to identify the body. And thus they are all connected to the Boffins.
And there is a shallow monied sub-culture which is hilarious: the Veneerings, social climbers, invite everybody and anybody who seems to have money to dinner as part of their scheme to claw their way to the top of the precarious ladder of high society. Lightwood and Wrayburn are members of this group, though they seem not to know why they are there or want to be there. And Dickens’ portrayal of this group is an education in what kind of person not to aspire to know. In this whole layer of society, as we learn as the book progresses, there are only a few good souls.
My fifth decade (forty to forty-nine): Charlotte Bronte’s Villette. To a woman of a certain age, Bronte’s Villette, an unflinching report of solitude and isolation, is more interesting than Jane Eyre. This bold novel is tougher and yet more nuanced than Jane Eyre, and feminist readers and Bronte fans should give it another chance.
Lucy Snowe, the solitary narrator, is the invisible woman in triangular relationships. Attachments become triangulated without her realizing it whenever she has a relationship with a man.
When we first meet Lucy, she seems cold. There is something voyeuristic about Lucy’s cold scrutiny of her godmother Mrs. Bretton’, though she loves her godmother. As a teenage girl, Lucy has no interest in Graham Bretton, the handsome, lively teenage son. But in minute detail Lucy describes Graham’s friendship with Polly, a small child who becomes passionately fond of Graham when she stays with the Brettons during her father’s illness. Graham teases her and behaves like an older brother, while Polly is like a tiny woman. Lucy cannot understand the magnitude of the child’s attachment.
Lucy is shadowy. She tells us very little about her family, and there is a Gothic mystery about her intense solitude and taciturnity.
Then as an adult she is thrown on the world without money, and eventually ends up a teacher at Madame Beck’s school in Villette (an imaginary city like Brussels, where Bronte taught) and meets Graham Bretton (now called Dr. John) again.
And you can read the rest of this “review” here.
YOU’LL HAVE TO WAIT TILL I FINISH MY SIXTH DECADE FOR MORE. 🙂