Dear Reader

I was reading David Copperfield the other day, and couldn’t help noticing the aplomb with which Charles Dickens addresses his reader – confident that the reader is out there, and hanging on to his every word. And it’s not just a reader, but The Reader. Sometimes he even seems to be a personal friend of this Reader, talking to him or her as he’d talk to his own family: (‘I am in danger of wearying the reader whom I love, with personal confidences and private emotions…’) Charlotte Bronte, speaking as Jane Eyre, had no compunction in addressing her Reader directly, in that famous announcement of the marriage. Victorian writers were quite happy about doing this, it seems- typical of the confidence – the intellectual confidence, anyway of the age in which they lived.

We’re not nearly so comfortable about that, these days. You very seldom find a modern writer addressing his or her Dear Reader – we aren’t even sure that this personage exists, by the time the Publishing Industry with its marketing strategies and sales figures and projections has finished with our poor little offerings. Are our books there to be read, or to be marketed? Do we have to jump up and down and wave our hands to grab our reader’s attention, or do we just sit quietly at our desks, quill-pen in hand, in a pool of lamplight, knowing the reader is out there waiting for us?

I found myself thinking about this the other day; wondering who I’m writing for, and who my Ideal Reader is . Am I writing for a multitude of readers, or just a single, sympathetic soul? When I write for children, do I really imagine a classroom of thirteen year olds devouring my prose? (Scary!) Or do I write for my thirteen year old self? Sometimes, I know I do, and I have to stop myself, or my characters start exclaiming ‘Gosh’ and ‘Crikey’ and other words from my long-ago youth. Great mistake.

I suspect that though we might be telling ourselves that we’re just writing for ourselves, we’ve always got in our mind that Ideal Reader, adult or child, who is longing to read what we’ve written, will share our ideas, who understands. I suppose it’s one of the reasons why bad reviews are so painful: You aren’t my Ideal Reader! How dare you say such things! No matter how our book will be sold, or who it will be sold to, the image of the Ideal Reader stays in our mind, even though he or she might be just a figment of our imagination. But….

Some years ago, I gave a talk at a Literary Festival. Things didn’t start off well. Rain was bucketing down from an angry black sky. Someone had got the timing of my talk wrong – the children who were supposed to make up my audience had mostly gone back to school the day before. I noticed a small boy, brought along by his mother and I felt bad on his behalf, because my book was really aimed at small girls. Still, I gave my talk and in spite of my misgivings, people seemed to be enjoying themselves, and all went quite well.
Later, as I left the Festival ground, I was pleased to see the rain had stopped and the sun was shining. And there, also leaving the ground with his mother was the small boy. In his hands he held a copy of my book, and as he walked along in the rain he read and read..Dear Reader, that boy was was my ideal reader…..!

Eleanor Farjeon and Edward Thomas

My first impression of Eleanor Farjeon, whom I hope to write about some time, – and it’s certainly an impression she cultivated in later life – was of a cosy dumpling of a woman who wrote poems about cats. But we saw another side of her in Nick Dear’s play about Edward Thomas, performed at the Almeida a couple of years ago, ‘The Dark Earth and the Light Sky,’ which showed her intense relationship with the poet. Eleanor was then a young woman from a literary family, who moved in a busy circle of musicians, Fabians, writers and psychologists. It was in 1912, when Thomas was receiving treatment for his depression from a young doctor, Godwin Baynes who specialised in nervous diseases, that Eleanor first met him, and very soon fell in love with him. The affair was platonic – Eleanor probably wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. Though Thomas became very close to Eleanor and emotionally dependent on her, he didn’t reciprocate her love. They exchanged numerous letters – his to her survive, hers to him don’t – spent much time together, went for long walks – Eleanor wasn’t a strider by nature but she learned to keep up to Thomas’s long loping steps. They talked about poetry – Eleanor was one of the people who suggested to a diffident Thomas that he might try writing it – Robert Frost was another, and fortunately for us, Thomas took the hint.
Thomas’s long suffering wife, Helen, must have been unsure at first about Eleanor’s place in her husband’s life, but when they met, they became good friends and remained so. Helen came to see her as an ally rather than a rival.
Eleanor had been writing poetry all her life – it came naturally to her; too naturally sometimes. D.H.Lawrence said it might be a good thing if she never saw another Elizabethan sonnet in her life again, since she could fall so easily into pastiche. But when she was moved by real emotions, her poetry was beautiful and moving. She wrote this sonnet when Thomas had just been called up, and it must capture the feelings of many women who wonder if they are seeing their loved ones for the very last time.

Now That You Too…

Now that you too must shortly go the way
Which in these bloodshot years uncounted men
Have gone in vanishing armies day by day,
And in their numbers will not come again:
I must not strain the moments of our meeting
Striving each look, each accent, not to miss,
Or question of our parting and our greeting –
Is this the last of all? is this- or this?
Last sight of all it may be with these eyes,
Last touch, last hearing, since eyes, hands, and ears,
Even serving love, are our mortalities,
And cling to what they own in mortal fears:-
But oh, let end what will, I hold you fast
By immortal love, which has no first or last

(copyright Eleanor Farjeon)

Comfort Books

What makes a comfort book?You don’t have to be ill or even tired, to feel the need for one, but you know you just want something familiar and reassuring. A comfort book won’t hurt you or bewilder you, or tax your brain. It doesn’t have to be sticky or sentimental – sometimes it can have quite rough edges – it just depends what works for you at that moment. There are all sorts of books out there – worthy, good, enjoyable books – but just for the present, they aren’t for you. You’re after comfort.
When I knew that I was to start chemotherapy, I put aside ‘Middlemarch’ for my comfort read and it’s stood me in good stead over many an evening -Dorothea’s ghastly marriage, Lydgate’s slow corruption and Rosamund’s complacency- so many stories, all against the background of small town intrigue and politics. Dorothea does become annoying as the story progresses, Ladislaw is annoying throughout, but it’s a book to lose yourself in.
Where to go from ‘Middlemarch?’ Well, surely it has to be Trollope. I looked on our shelves and found ‘Phineas Finn’ which I haven’t read for so many years, I’ve quite forgotten it, and so far am absorbed by this story of a young, confused but ambitious man thrust into Parliament. And I’ve just discovered that I can download most of Trollope for free on my Kindle – so hooray!
Jane Austen is the ultimate comfort read. All of them, of course, but I’m fond of ‘Mansfield Park’ though I know it isn’t her most popular book. Fanny Price is tougher than she seems at first glance, and Mrs Norris is probably Austen’s most monstrous monster.
Here are some more of my comfort books:
I Capture The Castle – Dodie Smith
Bilgewater – Jane Gardham – a teenage novel, long out of print, but worth chasing up.
Enchanted April – Elizabeth Von Arnim – A friend gave me this once when I was ill. Three women rent an Italian castle on spring in the inter-war years – lovely.
The Great Gatsby – Scott Fitzgerald. Maybe not an obvious comfort book, with such a strong skein of melancholy and disquiet running through it, but the beauty of the writing, and the atmosphere make it a book to float away on like a dream.
And perhaps my favourite contemporary writer for comfort – Anne Tyler. She writes about ordinary people leading ordinary lives, but transformed by a deep humanity and warmth, and full of unexpected twists and turns. Recently I’ve read ‘Digging to America’ in which two very different American families adopt Korean babies, and ‘A Patchwork Planet’ about the black sheep of a stuffy well-to-do family.
Of course, comfort books are quite personal and idiosyncratic. What works for one person might not work at all for someone else. You might be bemused by my choice, I might be left cold by yours. So what does work for you? It would be lovely to read some of your suggestions.

The Unwelcome Guest again

The Unwelcome Guest seems to have been taking up far too much of our time and attention recently what with hospital visits and appointments for this and pills and injections for that. Much as you’d like to, you can’t avoid it, though cancer’s not a subject you’d ever chose to become an expert on. But I know for many people it’s difficult to broach – is it rude to talk about it, or ruder to pretend it isn’t there? ‘I wanted to ask, but I didn’t like to,’ people say, and I guess you can’t blame them for feeling awkward.
Well, I suppose everyone’s different – some people don’t mind talking, some people just want to go away into a hole. But I think that most want to stay attached to reality during the process of treatment and that means being quite happy to talk. I don’t need anyone to put on one of those special serious voices: ‘Do tell me, my dear, how are you?’ I don’t want people to give me advice on what medication I should or shouldn’t be taking, or which alternate treatment will make me feel so much better. But there are all sorts of light neutral questions that you can use to broach the subject; How’s the chemo going? How much longer will it go on for? Have you got a nice consultant? What’s the worst thing about the treatment? What are you looking forward to doing most when it’s all over? How do you pass your time? If someone doesn’t want to talk, you’ll soon get the hint and change the subject. Otherwise, it’s just a very big elephant in the room.
People will tell you you’re ‘brave’ and that you’re ‘fighting’ cancer. But you have the treatment, and it’s probably better for everyone around if you can be upbeat about it, but bravery is something different and special, and doesn’t really come into it. Likewise there’s no ‘fight’ involved. It’s a fairly passive process. You have the treatment, and wait for the results. If they’re good you’re pleased, if they aren’t, you’re despondent, but ‘fighting’ involves something a bit more proactive. People talk of ‘winning’ or losing’ the fight against cancer, but really you just take what you’re given. Of course, if eating organic vegetables, or having alternate medicines, or praying, makes you feel a bit better, or more in control, that’s fine, but it’s the poisons coursing through your body that are actually doing the business.
I guess the worst thing is the boredom of not being yourself during the treatment. In my case I have a bad back, so I’m hobbling around weakly everywhere. Your brain sort of works – just enough to remind you that you still have one – but concentrated effort is a bit beyond you. But, I’m looking forward to a bit of normal life again – believe me, I shan’t take it for granted. At any rate, I might not be brave and I might not be fighting, but I’ll try to keep the door shut on the Unwelcome Guest for just as long as I possibly can.