What did you read as a child? I was asked this question recently for an article about the childhood reading of writers; the idea, I suppose, being that what we read as children is telling about what we write as adults.
My earliest experience of reading was being read to. When we were very small, our mother used to read to us at bedtime – nursery books first and, later, classic novels from the Brontës, Dickens, Lewis Carroll. Some of these novels I’ve reread myself – Jane Eyre is a particular favourite – others I haven’t, because they’re so bound up in that primal “being read to” memory.
Then came the Paddington books from Michael Bond followed by the ubiquitous Enid Blyton. When I began reading independently I lived on a staple diet of Blyton. Everything she wrote – The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, Malory Towers. These books were like currency. They were traded and swapped like cigarette cards (very few people had a full set) and valued in a culturally acquisitive way – you gained status from how many of the series you could boast of having read.
The drawback of this reading monopoly was, of course, that we were essentially reading in a “foreign culture”, with all its attendant misapprehensions. How in heaven’s name, we wondered, did the kids get away with drinking ginger “beer”? And what exactly was in those “potted meat” sandwiches they were always tucking into?
But Enid Blyton was treated with wariness in our house. We had been raised early on the classics and inculcated with a strong sense of national feeling. In that context, Blyton was regarded as decidedly second-rate.
Now she’s seen as racist, sexist and snobbish, more valued as fodder for parodies, or knowing irony. But she did encourage generations of children to read – in volume and at length. There have been great developments in children’s fiction as a genre – not least the huge growth of Irish children’s authors writing about Irish childhoods. But the Blyton model, though degraded now, is never far away. If you look at the Harry Potter books, for example, they’re really boarding school books – like Malory Towers – but with wizards and magic.
In my early teens I progressed on to historical fiction – Georgette Heyer and Mazo De la Roche – an author almost completely forgotten about these days. De la Roche was a Canadian writer, who penned a 16-volume saga, The Whiteoaks of Jalna, over a 30-year span from the 1930s to 1960s about the eponymous Whiteoak family. They were considered suitable reading for our convent school library in the 1970s. Much like the cult of Enid Blyton, we were evangelists for these books enthusing about them as early teens now do about You Tube clips.
The Jalna novels were what you might call polite bodice-rippers. Lots of heaving bosoms and unrequited love but the bedroom door invariably closed at the opportune time. Georgette Heyer was another acceptable face in our school library. These were solid, middle-brow novels, well-researched and historically accurate with doughty female heroines. Heyer was probably one of the authors who prompted my journey into writing historical fiction
I was into my teens before an Irish writer loomed large in my reading – that was the under-rated Walter Macken and his tales of Cromwellian and Famine Ireland – Rain on the Wind, Seek the Fair Land, The Silent People.
But where is short fiction in all of this? I noticed a complete absence of the short form in my childhood reading. I racked my brains to locate the first time I read a short story – and failed. Then, accidentally, I found it. While clearing my late mother’ house, I came across two forgotten volumes – forgotten by me, that is. They were heavy, large format hardbacks, clearly part of a set, and their portentous title, The World’s Library of Best Books, was emblazoned in gilded letters on the front covers. They date back to the 1920s and came from the hugely successful London publisher George Newnes, originator of an entire stable of populist periodicals of that era – The Strand Magazine, The Westminster Gazette, Country Life and Tidbits – the original, more respectable version that is, not the later tit and bum manifestation
How these orphaned Best Books volumes – numbers two and four – had found their way to our house is a mystery. Given their age, I’m guessing they came via my father and perhaps relate to his own youthful reading; he was a passionate auto-didact and these encylopaedic tomes were aimed at the literary self-improver. The writers featured were an eclectic bunch, among them, Shakespeare, Maupassant, Dumas, George Bernard Shaw, Lytton Strachey, Mark Twain, Arthur Conan Doyle, Sir Walter Scott and Ambrose Bierce.
The extracts in these compendiums were my first independent forays into adult reading. What exactly was their allure? Well, they represented a literary pathway into the grown-up world. Still, I remember hiding the fact that I was reading them, though presumably, they had been left on the shelves for precisely this reason – to be discovered.
The secrecy lent an illicit charge to their consumption. Their other attraction was that they had superb colour plates showing large and sometimes lurid history scenes – Chaucer at the Court of Edward 111, Lady Hamilton as a Bacchante [a priestess or follower of Bacchus – Helpful Ed], a scantily clad Cleopatra, artfully strewn on her death-bed – and scattered through each piece, there were delicate pen and ink drawings which eased a child’s eye through a lot of dense text.
Which was the case with my favourite story in Volume Two, “The Last Leaf” by O Henry, probably the first short story I ever read. O Henry was the pseudonym of William Sydney Porter, an American author of the early 20th century, who wrote over 300 stories for magazines and newspapers, notable for their exploration of commonplace situations and their unexpected plot twists.
In “The Last Leaf” Sue and Johnsy are two young women artists who share an attic studio in Greenwich Village. They are wine-quaffing bohemians who dine out in Delmonico’s: they share a taste for Art with a capital A, and the latest fashion in the form of bishop-sleeves, and in private, use pet-names for one another. In deepest winter Johnsy falls sick with pneumonia and loses all hope of living. Outside the window there’s an ivy vine espaliered against the gable wall of a neighbouring building and she declares she will die when the last leaf falls from it.
Rubbish, says Behrman their neighbour, a failed, gin-swilling elderly painter. Or words to that effect – he has a very bad, stagey German accent. Despite her fatalism, Johnsy struggles through the winter, counting off the leaves, but one leaf clings stubbornly to the branch and because of it, she holds out and recovers.
Behrman is not so lucky. After a severe drenching he succumbs and dies. It is only afterwards Sue and Johnsy discover that he has gone out in the worst of the winter weather and painted an ivy leaf on the wall visible from Johnsy’s sick-bed, thus fooling her into living. They declare the leaf to be the masterpiece he waited all his life to paint.
The nobility of self-sacrifice is a theme O Henry revisited although he wrote many of his tales while serving a five-year jail term for embezzlement in a penitentiary in Ohio.
But apart from this idealism, I can’t really explain why, as a ten-year-old, I loved this rather sombre story so much and kept on returning to it. It was hardly the unlikely hero, the irrascible Behrman, and his unhappy end, although he is an artist whose work does come to something, even though it’s the death of him. The depiction of the two young women certainly made artistic life in a New York garret seem indolently glamorous; maybe I imagined something similar for myself? Now what I see is the lesbian sub-text, the caricaturish rendering of Behrman, and the over-neat geometry of the plot.
It’s true we can’t ever go back – not even in our reading.