Of course, it’s the reader that changes, not the book. But it’s strange how books can have an on-going existence in the reader’s mind that the writer can never have intended. For example, I love some of the early chapters of Villette because they convey to me like nothing else the excitement and the romance of going abroad for the very first time; travelling nowadays has lost much of its romance, and even seeing somewhere you’ve always longed to see can’t match the thrill of that first cross-channel ferry to Calais all those years ago, and realising, this is abroad, this is different.
But my jury’s out on Lucy Snowe – sometimes I like her, sometimes I want to chuck stuff at her.
As you change over time, so do your perceptions. This can be especially true of the books you read as an adolescent. Wuthering Heights has often been described as a book for teenagers – and so it is, with its passionate, despised, handsome hero. But when you grow up, and when Heathcliff grows up, what a difference. The last time I read Wuthering Heights as an adult, I gave up at the point where he was strangling puppies. No, that isn’t a hero, merely a psychopath. The late Angela Carter once said words to the effect that most women spend the first half of their lives looking for Heathcliff, and the second half wishing they’d never found him.
And Jane Eyre – as a teenage girl, Rochester, mean, moody and magnificent, seemed to be just the sort of man one would want for a lover. Frances Towers’ wonderful story ‘Tea with Mr Rochester’ describes how he might appear to a teenage girl; ‘Mr Rochester belonged to that part of Prissy’s experience which was too poignant to be shared. Her voice would go all trembly if she tried to tell Bunty about Thornfield Hall. ‘Jane, I’ve got a blow -I’ve got a blow, Jane!’ Was ever a woman so honoured? He was so strong, so fascinating. And rather wicked…’ Yet now, he seems to me just garrulous and self-pitying. And he isn’t very nice to Jane, playing with her affections and trying to trap her into a bigamous marriage. An American Professor friend of mine told me that she’d read Jane Eyre with a crowd of undergraduate young women, but instead of finding Rochester magnetic and attractive, they thought he was simply unpleasant and manipulative. Maybe today’s young women are too smart to fall for these destructive and controlling men (though Fifty Shades of Grey is doing all right.)
I’ve been working through my usual reading of comfort books recently. Jane Austen is always there of course. I’ve reread Emma, which doesn’t change, except to get even better every time. But I’ve also reread Mansfield Park, another of my favourites, though I know it isn’t popular. The main problem in Mansfield Park is Fanny Price of course. I’ve always felt sympathetic towards her, given her disastrous start at Mansfield Park, and the continual put-downs of Mrs Norris. Mrs Norris is my favourite Austen villain.( She reminds me, though I probably shouldn’t say this, dear Reader, of my grandmother.) Fanny shows great fortitude in her beliefs. We may not agree with her reasons for her hostility to the amateur theatricals, but we can understand them. And she stands up bravely, if tearfully,to her bullying uncle when he wants her to marry a man she doesn’t even like, let alone love.
I always feel that Mansfield Park is a story with a sad ending. By the time she gets round to marrying Edmund, we no longer care; and neither it seems does the author, who dismisses this important event in a paragraph. The real story is that of the relationship between two incompatible people, Henry and Fanny. Henry behaves impeccably in Portsmouth, but just as we feel Fanny might warm towards him, Jane Austen pulls the rug from under our feet. Every time I read the story I hope that this part of it might be different, but it never is. So how has the story changed for me, then? Well, for the first time, I’ve become really annoyed with Fanny. Not a joke, barely a smile, just endless prosing and high principle. And why does she have to be so physically weak? Why is walking across the park enough to make her retire to a sofa with a headache? And why is Mrs Norris’s strength in walking seen as one of her flaws? Remember Elizabeth Bennett striding boldly through mud and rain, to be with her sister. Jane Austen, you can do better than that, we feel. And surely, a ten-year old girl, the oldest sister, who has emerged from the mess of the Portsmouth family would have developed some survival strategies to help her out at Mansfield? Okay, I know all the rest of you got there a long time ago, but these are just my feelings of last week.
Another comfort book which I’ve just read, and feel hasn’t changed for the better, is I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. Of course is has enormous charm and atmosphere which is why we love it. But I’m worried about those girls. At first they seem to be behaving like children, but Cassandra is seventeen and Rose is nearly twenty-one. And they sit shivering and starving in their bleak kitchen while their horrible father ignores them. The story was published in 1949, which brings it not far short of the period my own schooldays and youth when girls certainly wouldn’t be acting in that way; but you feel she is writing about an earlier time, the twenties or thirties. But there was nothing to stop a young girl getting a job in those days, even though the choice of work was limited. All the women in my family worked during that period, teachers, nurses, clerks, shop assistants. It wasn’t felt to be demeaning, and it put butter on the bread and woollen coats on their backs. So what is it that stops these two girls getting work? Just laziness and snobbery, really. They don’t think of themselves as lower-middle class, like the working women of my family; they’re just posh without having any money to be posh with. I’ve also just read The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West, set in the Edwardian age, and all those girls, Rose, Mary and Cordelia, also from a bitterly poor family with an improvident father, are all determined to work. So it could be done.
Am I just getting picky in my old age, or becoming more perceptive, and shaking scales from my eyes? And of course there are books which change for the better as you develop and understanding of them, and I haven’t mentioned any of those. What about you? Do you find books change over time? And is it mostly for the worse or for the better?