Almost all the books I read as a child had belonged to my parents; some had even come from the bookcases of my grandmother’s library. Thus the publication boundaries of my childhood reading stretched from about 1880 to the 1940s, from Stevenson and Rider Haggard to Arthur Ransome and C. S. Forester. Even books given to me had usually been written in ancestral childhoods rather than in my own: Peter Pan, first performed in 1904 when my grandmother was 2; Swallows and Amazons, published in 1930 when my mother was 3.
Both my parents are Anglo-Scots, but my mother’s library was more Scottish, more romantic, more sentimental, more Jacobite. I still have Chatto’s elegant volumes of Margaret Irwin, who wrote novels about Montrose and Mary Queen of Scots, as well as Heinemann’s more austere edition of D. K. Broster’s The Flight of the Heron and other tales of Ewen Cameron which affected me so strongly that even now, on hearing the names, I am instinctively pro-Cameron and anti-Campbell. My father’s books tended to be sturdier and more southern, burly beige tomes of Sapper and A. E. W. Mason, though his library did include Murray’s exquisite leather pocket edition of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Looking at them now, books that I inherited and which now stand on my children’s shelves, I recall years of happy reading and rereading. The pleasure was innocent and so – mostly – were the effects. One could enjoy The Wind in the Willows without knowing it was an allegory of Edwardian England, a tale of how the rise of socialism and plutocracy was threatening the ancient rural values of the riverbank.
Similarly one could go through the whole of Jean de Brunhoff ’s Babar series without realizing that the protagonist was an agent of la mission civilisatrice française, an orphan magnanimously educated by the French who returns to his ravaged country and rules as an enlightened despot, defeating his foes, creatin
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