I have a shameful secret. My book shelves are full of books I haven’t read. Shocking, isn’t it? You’d think that instead of browsing Blackwell’s and Waterstones for the latest hot reads, I’d get through the stack building up at home first. Good housekeeping, surely. Like eating all the biscuits in the tin before going out to buy more.
Well, not really. For a start, less than half the titles stretching out until the crack of doom across my walls are down to me. When, many years ago, my husband and I united our separate collections of 500 or so each in marriage, I looked forward to throwing out the many duplicates that must occur. There were 6. From which one can only conclude that either we complemented each other nicely, or had absolutely nothing in common. I wish I could remember what those 6 books were, as that might shed some light on the situation, but I can’t. Cider with Rosie, possibly, and The Catcher in the Rye. Certainly not Science Fiction, Fantasy, Travel, Anthropology, Psychology, Cell Biology, History, Biography, Classical Music, Wood Engraving or a free copy of the Book of Mormon picked up in Salt Lake City on a gap year holiday. In other words, my undergraduate accumulation of Eng Lit underwent a rather exciting broadening of horizons, thanks to its new shelf fellows.
Since then our store has only grown, with beautiful Folio Society editions of the great classics rendering redundant all the old dog-eared paperbacks (which I still can’t bear to throw away). And I have to admit that an uncomfortable proportion of all our books are ones I’ve bought, Fully Intending To Read One Day but have not, as yet, got round to. There are various reasons for this:
- The author is well-known but doesn’t grab me,
- The book looks dauntingly thick.
- The title puts me off.
So I have resolved to tackle the backlog, beginning with a book that comes into Category 3, in spite of its passing 1 and 2 with flying colours. I have huge admiration for T H White (1), whose The Once and Future King is one of the best books I have read in my life; and, far from being of a daunting width (2), this one is pleasingly slender. But – Mistress Masham’s Repose? It sounds like a twee fest of Miss Muffet clad little girls playing in a prettily decorated wendy house.
I could not have been more wrong. Wronger I could not have been. Mistress Masham’s Repose turns out to be a glorious riff on 18th century literature, with Gulliver’s Travels at its heart but sweeping in references to Alexander Pope, Dr Johnson and a whole sheaf of other literary figures. Mistress Masham herself doesn’t even figure in this delightful tale (it’s just the name of an island in the parkland of a vast, crumbling stately home); the heroine is Maria, a brave and resourceful 10 year-old orphan who, stumbling one day on a hidden colony of Lilliputians, battles to protect them from her evil governess and the governess’s crony, a most unchristian vicar. I love the way T H White makes absolutely no concessions to his readership in what is meant to be a children’s book, though if I’d tried to read it as a child I probably would have taken a different view. A thorough knowledge of Gulliver’s Travels, including the lands of Laputa and the Houyhnhnms, is taken for granted, and much of the dialogue is in a flowery 18th century English, to the point where Maria wonders whether she too might start speaking in Capital Letters. Yet somehow the richness of the story and the sheer powerfulness of the characters win through and all I can do is kick myself for missing out on this wonderful read for so long.
Still, I’ve learnt my lesson. Now for the next in my treasure of neglected works.
Gibbon’s Decline and Fall.
(From an article first published on Authors Electric Blog)