I often make lists during bouts of insomnnia. Recently I got to thinking back on the most memorable books I have read over the years. I do not speak of the greatest books but of those which made an impact and opened a door to something else. Here are the first five of 20.
- Children of the New Forest, Captain Marryat.
When did you last see your father? William Frederick Yeames (1835-1918) Walker Gallery, Liverpool.
I was brought up in a relatively bookless bog. There were book presents at Christmas from city cousins. The upstairs bookpress was quickly exhausted. Books had to be hidden in those days in the country. Such was their scarcity they would be seized on by neighbours and never seen again. Libraries were distant and poorly stocked for kids. Bookshops did not exist. There never seemed to be a shortage of lives of the saints however. The comic bought in town on Friday was manna. I kept getting gifts of boy lit, The Coral Island or Treasure Island. I hated that stuff. Patricia Lynch’s The Turf Cutters Donkey was constantly being pushed on me as suitable reading. I opposed it stoutly. Turf cutters and their donkeys trundled past the house all day long and did not seem to me the stuff of literature. Why would one read if not to find out about more distant worlds? I wanted something more girly romantic like Lorna Doone. Then someone gave me Children of the New Forest. I was enthralled. I learned about the English Civil War, about Roundheads and Cavaliers. It was another spur to a lifelong love of history. There was a boy called Humphrey, dogs and, best of all, two girls in the thick of the adventure. I learned that venison was the meat of deer. I think what appealed most was that the children were good children. I never could identify with rascals. They were brave children. Their parents were dead and they had to live in hiding in the New Forest because of their father’s support for the King. Marryat was a sailor and wrote many stories of the sea but this book, published in 1847, was comfortingly landlocked.
E.D.Hirsch argues in Cultural Literacy that learning is all about making connections. The rich get richer he thinks. Not long afterwards I remember seeing an image in an Encyclopedia lent to me by one of my teachers who was also a neighbour. It was When did you last see your father? by William Federick Yeames. I could connect it immediately with Children of the New Forest. The rich get richer.
2. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
I was sent to boarding school in Dublin in 1964 for my last two years of secondary school. There was a glass fronted bookcase in the music room filled with books and that was the closest we came to having a library. For some reason Sr. G., the nun in charge of us boarders, appointed me custodian of the key of this bookcase. It was there that I found Wuthering Heights.
When homework was finished one was allowed read or write letters in the study hall until the bell went for rosary, tea or bed. I spent at least a week, like one afloat, reading Wuthering Heights. The windswept moors, the ghosts, the dogs, the savagery and passion carried one out of the real world into some other element. I found Heathcliff and Cathy fascinating but, being a good girl, I could not help rooting for Edgar Linton. Good manners and order appealed as much then as now. That must sound boring to modern ears. Heathcliff hanged a spaniel from a tree after all. He had to be beyond the pale. I found the secondary plot of young Cathy and Hareton Earnshaw a comforting resolution. The restoration of order comme on dit. The second phase is often omitted from filmed versions which is a pity. I deliberately did not go to the most recent film of W.H. The clips were not encouraging. Heathcliff was swarthy not black and no amount of political correctness can make him so. I suppose that is what cool people call creativity.
In later years I taught it to Leaving Cert pupils many times. It was always fun to try to reproduce Joseph’s dialect as faithfully as possible.
‘“T’ maister nobbut just buried, and Sabbath not o’ered, und t’ sound o’ t’ gospel still i’ yer lugs, and ye darr be laiking!”
I think this novel should be read before the age of twenty. After that it must lose its impact. Though with the delayed adolescence we are seeing today one never knows. Many years later as I mounted the steps of Haworth Parsonage I remembered those magical evenings in a Dun Laoghaire study hall.
On the same principal of the rich getting richer I dipped into Hemingway on many other occasions. A Movable Feast became an indispensible preparation for a trip to Paris. Fiesta,the Sun also Rises was a must read after a visit to Pamplona. For Whom the Bell Tolls laid the groundwork for books on Spain by Gerald Brenan, George Orwell, Laurie Lee and Kate O’Brien. They say that Franco won the war but lost the literature. For Whom the Bell Tolls testifies to the truth of this.
4.An Béal Bocht, Myles na gCopaleen
It was in that same bow windowed library seat I read An Béal Bocht. I was in second year in UCD where Irish was one of my three subjects. First year English was hugely exciting after the restrictive Leaving Cert programme. Litríocht na Gaeilge was a bit lacklustre in comparison. One felt sure things would hot up in second year. Much had been promised. But no. This was not to be. There were endless self-consciously revivalist short stories where daoine were ‘ag bailiú feamainne ar an gcladach’. There were tomes where people we would have called ‘oul eegits’ in my own native bogs recounted their tedious lives. They did not write them of course. They dictated them to some Scandinavian or Englishman and were passed off to us as great works. Surely they belonged in anthropology rather than literature. Compared to what we were exposed to in English and French class these offerings were pathetic. Time has outed the dreary Peig. Myles, as Flann, described Lady Lavery on the pound note as ‘a personable shawlie’. Peig was a less personable shawlie. I’ve known old men and women in the middle of the country with far livlier, more hilarious narratives.
One secretly began to suspect that anything or anyone emanating from the Gaeltacht got away with murder. Liam O Flaherty anyone? By year’s end one had enough seaweed to last a lifetime. The only real literature that appealed was Caoineadh Airt Uí Laoghaire. Now there was a poem to reckon with. But then the poet, Eibhlín Dubh Ni Chonaill, was the aunt of our one and only Dan. Seathrún Céitinn [Geoffrey Keating] also seemed authentic. Sceptical about the gutterals of fisherfolk which had long been transmitted to us as the caighdeán, I once asked a prominent Gaeilgeoir how he thought Keating would have sounded. ‘Like a pompous Norman’, he replied. What a pompous answer. Scratch any of us and you will, with any luck, find a Norman. A bit of French style never went astray.
Then along came Myles and An Béal Bocht. Was I seeing things? Was he really sending up all this stuff? Coming from anyone else it would have seemed like sacrilege. One agreed. One laughed. But secretly. One did not dare dissent from the received wisdom. ‘An domhan mar a cítear é ag muintir Corcha Dorcha’ was such a perfect phrase. Whatever one’s love of the language, and mine is great, I became determined not to inhabit Corca Dorcha.
Myles – ni bheidh a leithéid arís ann.
5. The Sun King, Nancy Mitford
Corcha Dorcha this was not. The Sun King, read in the early seventies was my first foray into Mitfordiana. I have since become addicted to the writing of all that charming clan. My copy was the illustrated edition which made all the difference. It was packed with wonderful images of the galaxy of characters who inhabited ce pays-ci, the court of Louis XIV. Nancy Mitford lived in Versailles and this ignited her passion for the period. Her account of the time is packed with scandals, rivalries and glittering contemporary detail. A thirst for more was quickly satisfied with the follow-up volume, Madame de Pompadour, which carries the narrative on from the death of Louis XIV through the reign of his great-grandson Louis XV. Madame de Pompadour was his best remembered mistress. The Lettres of Madame de Sévigné were made accessible by Nancy Mitfords books. She had clearly used them as a major source. They are the pefect preparation for a visit to Versailles. I can still remember how the guide described the royal levée – ‘Ils venaient s’incliner devant le roi’. The image it conjured up was straight out of Nancy Mitford.