Some weeks before the end of the term my mother had said I had now brought home enough embroidered animals and paper mats and would I please tell my teacher that I was expected to be able to read by Christmas. The teacher then conducted a crash course in reading for the whole class and on the last day of term I could officially read. This meant that I had got through the last story in my Reader, two whole pages long, with only four mistakes. As I walked home to begin the Christmas holidays I felt awed at the thought of all the books in the dining-room bookcase which now lay before me: Shakespeare, the Bible, long rows of Dickens, Trollope, Lytton, The Life and Times of Lord Palmerston . . . but I began with a bound volume of Little Folks.
For days everyone was patient about telling me what the words I spelt out were, but this fairly soon palled, particularly on my uncles who now merely said, ‘Guess.’ It turned out to be good advice for I then entered an enchanted world. In one of Maurice Baring’s books he describes the pleasure of reading in a language with which one is not quite familiar, and I think I experienced a similar pleasure during those days when I could not quite read; my imagination had to do double work and every story was a little fuller than in the printed words. While I struggled with the syllables of fairy tales I visualised castles, landscapes and fantastic towns which the author had barely indicated. If a story was set by the sea I summoned seaside memories to help me guess puzzling words. I created atmosphere, projected myself into the characters I read about. I have re-read some of the stories of my early days as a reader and found them mere shadows of my memories of them, but my impressions were not false; they were amplifications which would, I think, have given pleasure to any of the authors, for authors know a much fuller world than they can get down on paper.
As soon as I was a little more proficient I tackled Shakespeare and never admitted to anyone how disappointing I found him, compared with Uncle Harold’s dramatic presentations. I was as fascinated as ever by the Kenny Meadows illustrations and was particularly taken with one of a lonely seashore on which stood a tomb with ‘timon’ engraved on it – I imagined it would be pronounced ‘Timmon’ as I already knew the name ‘Timothy’. For Christmas someone gave me a small red-leather bound copy of Coriolanus (why?) which I proudly carried about with me for weeks, though unable to make head or tail of it. If anyone, on seeing it, asked me if I liked it (as I hoped they would), I replied, ‘Oh, quite well but I prefer Timmon of Athens.’
Though not particularly fond of fairy tales, I read all Grimm’s, disciplining myself by reading them straight through instead of dipping. Of that extremely large collection the only stories I still remember are the one about the youth who kept saying, ‘Oh, if I could but shiver!’ and the one about a witch who, having turned her enemy into a log of wood, says, ‘At last my fire burns brightly.’ It was the two phrases which so satisfied me. These stories seem to be omitted from modern editions and I have never been able to find an old edition that contained them. I did, after advertising, get a collection called Gamma Grethel, published in 1839, with exquisite illustrations, some by Cruikshank, but my two favourite stories are not there.
I also read Hans Andersen, a queerly-smelling old copy with mid-Victorian coloured illustrations. It had belonged to the aunt who had died in childhood and over the whole book there hung for me an atmosphere of death and misery. I was particularly depressed by ‘The Girl Who Trod on the Loaf’ and then quite overcome by ‘The Mother’ – so was my own mother who, after reading it, took the book away from me, much to my relief. Had it remained with me I should have felt I had to go on harrowing myself. Still, I have tried to find that particular edition again; the picture of the angel with a flaming sword turning the child in the red shoes away from the church was terrific (and all my life I have loved red shoes).
As soon as they believed I could really read, my relations hastened to press their favourite books on me, feeling that as I shared most of their amusements I should share their taste in literature. A very early suggestion was Wuthering Heights, which I detested. I tried it again in my twenties and again in my thirties and liked it no better, and six months after I finish it I can never remember anything but an atmosphere of gloom; it just does not take on me. Had anyone offered me Jane Eyre I feel sure that I would have loved it. I failed to like the work of Mrs Henry Wood. Nan gave me a beautiful edition of David Copperfield, her favourite book; it wasn’t mine. I quickly took to Sherlock Holmes, but what I hankered for most were books about large families of children to whom nothing worrying ever happened (strange taste for a child who loved the most gory melodrama in a theatre). Little Women was nearly perfect; true, Beth died but one got over that after several readings. The Swiss Family Robinson was fairly satisfactory, but not until I discovered E. Nesbit did I find my ideal author. When I became a playwright, critics (not always with flattering intention) noticed slight resemblances in my works to Dickens, Barrie, Turgenev, Chekhov, Ouida and the author of The Young Visiters, but nobody commented on the profound influence of E. Nesbit.
One book my mother wished on me made a deep impression, even if I didn’t exactly enjoy it. It was The Lancashire Witches by William Harrison Ainsworth, inscribed ‘Nell, from Ernest’; it had been one of my father’s favourite books. In my mother’s mind it was linked with the once-wild country around her childhood home, Darley, and I felt it was somehow connected with the family. When I was quite grown up I cherished a belief that I had, in a previous life, been a witch and I had vivid memories of a tower on a lonely heath – until I re-read The Lancashire Witches and discovered that all my ‘memories’ derived from it. I had the run of a vast number of books and, apart from delivering me from Hans Andersen and also removing Struwwelpeter because, she said, it made her feel sick, my mother never censored my reading. She did, however, express anxiety when I became interested in the Bible; she said there were ‘some very nasty things in it’ – and how right she was. She need not have worried. I adopted my Grimm’s discipline of starting at the beginning and going straight on, had the greatest difficulty with the dedication to King James, and eventually bogged down altogether in the building of the tabernacle. Not until twenty years later did I read it from cover to cover.
Extract from Chapter VII: ‘Aunt Etty’
Plain Foxed Edition: Dodie Smith, Look Back with Love
© Dodie Smith 1974