I’ve been a passionate reader all my life, be it of labels on jam jars or the small print on the back of tax forms, aged copies of free newspapers left on seats on the London Underground, Peter Rabbit or Plato. Reading is more than pleasure, it’s like breathing. Generally, though, I read for aesthetic reasons (literature, to enjoy the writer’s skill), to keep up (newspapers and periodicals) or for escape (thrillers, the blacker the better). Or that was true before my mother died.
She too loved to read and, though not formally educated past the age of 16, had read all the great canonical works of English literature from Shakespeare to Lawrence. She especially loved poetry: nineteenth-century romanticism was meat and drink to her and she would quote reams of Meredith and Hopkins and Rossetti as well as the poets she always referred to as ‘Sheats and Kelley’. A perfect poetry reader in the Keatsian sense – ‘poetry is not poetry until it is proved upon our senses’ – she took it all personally. After she died, in remorse and regret I began a pilgrimage through the books she had loved, following her trackless feet, looking for clues. Clues as to what to do, how to bear it.
George Eliot is especially suited to this thirsty reading. Whilst receptive to the surfaces of life, with her lush landscapes and crackling comic scenes, she stares seriously into the heart of things, where the small actions and feelings of daily life add momentously to good or evil. She is not shy of drawing out moral questions and setting them in an eternal frame. It’s not fashionable to be ‘moralistic’ and take a firm stand, to say ‘falsehood is so easy, truth so difficult’ as Eliot does, or to skewer our practices of self-exculpation as she does when observing in Adam Bede of the false lover Arthur Donnithorne: ‘our deeds determine us, much as we do our deeds’.
Yet, strangely, if one feels, as I did, frozen on the thorns of misery, th
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