These are the stories

Thinking further about why I read. In my own experience, there was one great reason from the beginning: to escape. I remember as a child feeling so afraid, standing in my room, knowing that most people didn’t feel this way, but that I was afraid of what people would do to me. I read whatever I found on the shelves in the basement of our farmhouse, Swiss Family Robinson, Sherlock Holmes stories, an old book about heroic horses and dogs (I loved that book) and even The Cross and the Switchblade — yes, New York gangstas finding jesus in the ’70s! I have a poem I copied out from kindergarten, it was The Owl and the Pussycat by Edward Lear, that one just enchanted me (‘The owl & the pussycat went to sea, in a beautiful pea green boat’) and I also copied out the story from one of those Mr. Men books about Mr. Tickle! I made up stories in my head too, largely romantic nonsense, but all mine.

In many ways, my mom showed me how to be a close reader. She has endlessly studied her bible over the years, not just telling us the stories fit for children, but getting us to read the whole things ourselves. We would discuss translations and different interpretations of a passage or word and how the translation in this or that version affected the meaning. When I finally came to read In Search of Lost Time, I felt at home with a long complex story like that, debating which translation to read, which edition to buy, I felt I had found a book to absorb me for years, just as my mother had. The other handy thing about so much of the bible learning was that in university, I’d be the only one to catch every biblical reference in books. The professor asking, what significance is there in this character (from To the Lighthouse actually) throwing his bread on the water? Up went my hand. It’s from the Psalms. As Michael Dirda has noted, the bible definitely is one of the patterning sources for Western literature.Β  (And certainly has many gruesomely entertaining stories that I enjoyed as a kid!)

The other thing my mother does is talk and talk. Endlessly and usually about herself. Her own stories, her past. I grew up a listener, while telling myself my own stories inside. As I grew older and began to find great English teachers, one of whom introduced me to The Secret Garden, I clung to books more and more. They were a silent place for me alone. I didn’t have to listen, I could join the story. Mary Lennox’s story in the garden could be my story, in an inner secret garden, safe where no one else could be, in my imagination. My mother’s stories were narcissistic, they kept everyone out, at an admiring or pitying distance. But books let me in, to some place better. I could play with the sisters in Little Women and the Boxcar Children (I read absolutely loads of those books, I suppose an American version of Enid Blyton maybe!) and explore bravely with Nancy Drew.

Books were what gave me a self. They gave me friends who understood and the hope that someday I would meet better people like that. I wasn’t taught to be autonomous or independent or strong, it was all about self sacrificing and clinginess. But books gave me different ideas, they gave me thoughts of my own, dreams, they gave me such richness. In high school when my teacher talked about going to university to study English, I felt lit up. That is what I want.

In the years at university, trying too hard to become something I wasn’t (a school teacher), I gradually let books go. I had to study, there wasn’t time. I felt lit up again studying To the Lighthouse, but my marks weren’t high enough, I had to stop reading for fun. (I don’t ever ever recommend doing this in university, by the way!) After eventually falling into depression, I finally remembered the books. And thus had begun my long climb out of my past. Facing the darkness and sorrow of my childhood, looking for a way to tell my own story, looking for the people who shared it. I found them in books, Portia in The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen. Dorothea in Middlemarch. Jane Eyre, of course. Young girls and what happened when they tried to grow up.

Books have been my salvation. They’ve given me a soul, a chance to be myself. They give me space, they let me grow. They’ve shown me how to grow stronger and wiser. They’ve shown me that my story and my voice matter, even just written on a page for myself. They’ve shown me that my perspective matters, even as it changes. They don’t try to hold me back. Through books I learned and continue to learn how to live, how to be. I left behind the stifling confines of The One Book written in commanding men’s voices, to find the many books by women and men that were open and accepting, that showed many views of life, that welcomed me into the great conversation of the ages.

Now I read to be comforted, I read to learn, I read for enlightenment, to laugh or be changed, I read for inspiration, I read to find the people and stories who will see me through. I read to heal. I read to meet the most original people, authors, creators. I read to think deeply. I read to feel my independence, my freedom, to pick what I want. I don’t read from a bible reading plan, with its ordered days by chapter and verse. I read to be myself, to keep my insides alive. I read for life.

Also, today I found a way to continue with Virginia Woolf. Last year I tried reading her more quickly, just to be able to get through The Waves and not drown in the poetic excess of it. But today, perhaps because it can still be ‘short story Saturday’ from time to time, I read a few short stories by Elizabeth Bowen, who helped me to figure out the right pace in which to read Woolf (they were friends), the way to pay more attention. To read closely, slowly, alertly. I was inspired to pick up my copy of her Collected Stories by 20th Century Vox and her post on Bowen’s WW2 stories called The Demon Lover. Demon lovers, not really my thing, but then I reread my favourite story of hers, called ‘Daffodils.’ It reminds me a bit of Katherine Mansfield’s ‘Miss Brill.’

A gust of wind rushed up the street, whirling her skirts up round her like a ballet-dancer’s, and rustling the Reckitts-blue paper round the daffodils. The slender gold trumpets tapped and quivered against her face as she held them up with one hand and pressed her skirts down hastily with the other. She felt as though she had been enticed into a harlequinade by a company of Columbines who were quivering with laughter at her discomfiture; and looked round to see if anyone had witnessed her display of chequered moirette petticoat and the inches of black stocking above her boots. But the world remained unembarrassed.

… Miss Murcheson remembered that her mother would be out for tea, and quickened her steps in anticipation of that delightful solitude. The silver birch tree that distinguished their front garden slanted beckoning her across the pavement. She hesitated, as her gate swung open, and stood looking up and down the road. She was sorry to go in, but could not resist the invitation of the empty house. She wondered if tomorrow would fill her with so strange a stirring as today. Soon, in a few months, it would be summer and there would be nothing more to come. Summer would be beautiful, but this spring made promise of a greater beauty than summer could fulfil; hinted at a mystery which other summers had evaded rather than explained.

… She was bewildered by them; could not fathom the depths of their cinema-bred romanticism.

… They had awaited a disclosure intimate and personal. The donor of those last year’s daffodils had taken form, portentous in their minds. But she had told them nothing, given them the stone of her abstract, colourless idealism while they sat there, open-mouthed for sentimental bread.

Sigh. Now I wish I could have Elizabeth Bowen week, to get you all reading her! She’s on those 1001 best of lists and a few of her books are still on the shelves even in western Canada, but I haven’t found many ardent fans of hers, what’s up with that? Clearly she needs some love. Maybe there is an Elizabeth Bowen group I could join, internet help me out! Or maybe I’ll just copy Laura’s Musings and create my own Favourite Authors page for her and other worthy members, where I may wax lyrical about their many wonders!

35 thoughts on “These are the stories

  1. Elizabeth Roberts says:

    I remember hearing in a lecture – I remember by whom and where – that ‘English Literature’ was designed as a university course after WWI to foster patriotism in a disillusioned generation (of men, of course).

  2. Elizabeth Roberts says:

    I don’t mean that women weren’t also disillusioned, but that the course (English Literature) was designed to be taught to men because in those days women weren’t allowed to attend the so-called ‘old universities’in the UK (Oxford, Cambridge etc) as full students

  3. Chrissy says:

    Hello again, Carolyn.

    I am Elizabeth Bowen’s number one fan (anyway, that’s how I think of myself) and have read everything she wrote, including her heart-breaking love letters to Charles Ritchie (Love’s Civil War).

    In fact, heart-break seems to be her personal theme and she certainly had a lot of that in her life. I think I would have been a little frightened of her great intellect but I think I would have loved her too, if we had met.

    I’ll join in if ever you have an E B week.
    Have you read The House in Paris? If not, prepare to revel in her clever and touching portrayals of children. It is such an intense and beautiful and uplifting book.

    I was very moved by your post this week. It’s so good to know that reading is a comfort to you.

    • Carolyn says:

      Thank you, Chrissy. Glad to know there are other fans of Bowen’s and to share enjoyment of her books, which are a bit difficult, but give a lot to think about. I was frightened by one of her short stories the other day, The Cat Jumps, so maybe I’ll avoid her scarier stories for a bit! Heartbreak does seem to be her theme, perhaps she’s harder to read for that reason, although necessary, I think.

      It’s changed to a read-along instead of a week, but I hope you still join in! I’ve read part of The House in Paris (and remember someone else recommending it to me recently, unless it was it you both times!), I will have to finish it.

  4. verity says:

    I like the new look of your blog. I love Elizabeth Bowen although I have only read a very few of her novels – not sure to be honest how many there are out there, but I thin they are wonderful. Hurrah for reading, it has always been a comfort to me too.

  5. Penny says:

    I love your new-look blog: the banner is beautiful and it’s nice and easy to leave comments. As always, I find your writing and way of expressing yourself beautiful, too. You fill me with envy!

    I found this post very moving. I, too, have a mother who talks endlessly about herself, but her stories of her past are unreliable, as I’ve found from her stories about the present! I feel so sorry for the poor wee you, standing in her room, frightened. Thank goodness for books! They can get us through so much! And I’m so glad you now have a loving relationship with a nice husband. πŸ™‚

    I have a couple of Elizabeth Bowens here: The Last September and The Heat of the Day. I’ll start on them very soon!

    • Carolyn says:

      Thanks so much, Penny. I’ve felt uncomfortable sometimes since starting book blogging, wondering what was too much to write about here, but I’m beginning to feel more at home with my writing here now and it’s so wonderful to find this support. πŸ™‚

      My mother’s stories about the present seem reliable, they’re just very focused only on her! And the men in her life too, it sometimes seems. I am so glad for my husband, although it is odd being with him while living with my parents again, they remind me of my past, who I was as a child. With my husband, I’ve always seen myself and been treated as an adult. Add that it’s awkward to have to rely on them while we stay here with them so my husband can get better, I want to be my own person, but wonder if they still see me as a little girl or clueless teenager.

      I hope you join in on the read-along in April (instead of a reading week), but you can’t wait, enjoy Bowen any time!

  6. Elizabeth Roberts says:

    It was your mention of being able, because of your childhood experience, to understand and identify references from the Bible in the canon that reminded me why ‘Eng Lit’ – an ostensibly secular subject – was, according to this lecture I went to some years ago, deliberately invented as a university course post WWI by the authorities as a tool of public policy in the face of a newly sceptical generation of students.

  7. Carol Roberts says:

    This is a lovely post. I’ve been a reader for 60-something years and you have put many of my feelings into words. You have a wonderful blog. I plan to come back often to read your thoughts.

  8. Nicola says:

    I like the idea of promoting Elizabeth Bowen. I’ve only read The Death of the Heart and To the North is sitting unread on my shelf. I do wonder if her writing has dated more than other writers of her era? Maybe not all readers can get beyond that.

    • Carolyn says:

      Oh good. I know I’ve tried to get some of my friends to read her and they’ve found her dry. I think she’s like Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Henry James, so I guess it just depends what you’re looking for in a book. Certainly there are enough bloggers who read from this time period who I think would (or already do, I’m finding!) like her.

  9. Jillian says:

    A lovely post. You mirror so many of my own feelings with your words, though life was too busy for me as a child to embrace reading. I’m remembering, though, that I did. I think I will love Woolf, and be caught up in her, as you have. So far I’ve only read one short story by her.

    I LOVE the favorite authors idea.

    • Carolyn says:

      Thank you, Jillian. I think Virginia Woolf could be a revelation to you, as she was to me in university, with the stream of consciousness style.

      Of course, now that I’m thinking about this favourite authors page, I want to make it perfect, so that everyone else will want to read them too!

  10. cousinsread says:

    I really enjoy your musings on reading and authors and books. You have a lovely way of connecting books with life and showing that reading is not just a “hobby” as some people like to think. – Anbolyn

    • Carolyn says:

      Thank you, Anbolyn, I’m glad to have the chance to blog thoughtfully about these things, it wasn’t until recently that I’ve felt comfortable doing so, but it is reassuring that I’m not just wasting my time.

  11. litlove says:

    Self-sacrifice and clinginess was exactly my background too, and it also made me a reader. I remember recently coming across a quote I loved (and which of course I cannot now place) about the fact that we are never so free as when we are reading – freed from context, from expectation, free to think and respond and feel exactly as we choose. No wonder the scared children of the world find such solace in their pages. You are writing so beautifully and movingly about your past. I hope you are finding it frees up new spaces inside you, too.

    And I’m also an Elizabeth Bowen fan and would happily readalong with you!

    • Carolyn says:

      Thank you, your praise and understanding mean a lot to me. Perhaps it’s because reading is such an independent, private, personal and even selfish act. There’s no group or team or even apparent useful product made at the end of it, it is just for you the reader. My sister was the one always doing crafts and helping my mom with chores and baking, so she was the favourite, while I was always sneaking out of the kitchen to read some more! I was made to feel selfish and lazy for that. But I just didn’t want to be forced to have to do cooking and crafts just because I was female, it didn’t seem fair. My brothers were given computer and video games and certainly weren’t chided for wasting their time on those things! I still feel it is selfish to ‘waste my time’ reading all day, perhaps that is part of the reason why I don’t read as much as some bloggers… I feel I must, should, ought to be doing other more worthwhile things instead. Something to think about.

  12. Darlene says:

    Oh Carolyn! I finished, To the North, last night and it was SUCH a fabulous reading experience from beginning to end! Now I feel the need to rush out and buy all of those books of hers that I brushed aside before.

    And your comments about your relationship with books is all too familiar. My parents were not readers so I would read and reread anything that was lying around. A box of Classic comics and the encyclopedia were a Saturday morning treat! I love having my own money to buy all the books I want, that feeling never gets old.

    • Carolyn says:

      I’m thrilled you enjoyed it Darlene! I also had to order almost all her books when I worked in a bookstore! Just because they are hard to find and I wanted to be sure I was stocked up. I’ve never done that with any other author.

      Yes, money of my own to buy what I want! It is such a wonderful feeling. For a long time I thought it was frivolous to buy my own books when I could get them at the library (I was not bought many books as a child and would go to the library on my own every week), but since working in a bookshop I’ve become addicted to it. I feel proud that I am investing in the deepest part of me, when as I mentioned to Litlove above, women traditionally haven’t been granted as much access to books and are made to feel shamed, I think, for neglecting the house to read.

  13. Joan Hunter Dunn says:

    ‘They’ve shown me that my perspective matters, even as it changes’ I love how our perspectives change…
    I’ve not read Elizabeth Bowen so yes to a reading week.
    Finally I love the quote you posted.

  14. merilyn says:

    Hi Carolyn, I am just starting my adventure into reading Virginia Woolf.I find her and her sister Vanessa’s life fascinating. I think Mrs Dalloway looks like a good first choice. I have the opportunity to buy Elizabeth Bowens The Hotel apparently her first novel have you read it or know it?

    • Carolyn says:

      Virginia Woolf is wonderful, sometimes challening, but so enriching and worth it. I do own The Hotel, although I haven’t read it. It looks good, I say go for it! Elizabeth Bowen is never a bad choice!

  15. Ruthiella says:

    My local library has quite a few Elizabeth Bowen titles! I have never heard of her and would gladly participate in a read-along. Is there any particular title(s) you would recommend?

    • Carolyn says:

      Hi Ruthiella, my favourite is The Death of the Heart, but it seems different readers like other of her books better. She has some books set in Ireland (The Last September, A World of Love, part of The House in Paris) and one during WW2 (The Heat of the Day), so there’s lots of good options to chose from. I’m happy to have you join us and that you came by. πŸ™‚

  16. kiss a cloud says:

    What a lovely post, Carolyn. We have a very similar story. I clung to books as a child until my university days but then when I got married and had kids just let them fall by the wayside. When my eldest was 5, I discovered them again and am never, ever letting go.

    I love The Owl and the Pussycat, too. In fact, bought my kids a book! I am also brought up in the Bible and isn’t that a wonderful thing. I still read it up to now. It’s still the best book ever. Also began my love of novels with Nancy Drew.

    I haven’t read Elizabeth Bowen and because I’m on the TBR Dare won’t be joining the read-along but will definitely keep her in mind after the dare is done.

    By the way, your new look is lovely. I was thinking of using this template myself. Hm.. πŸ™‚ Ha ha.

    • Carolyn says:

      I’ve started to think about the ramifications of women reading from the comments on this post, how it seems to be anti-social, especially for women, when they should be raising children or doing more ‘useful’ things. I’m glad you’ve come back to reading too.

      It was the phrase ‘pea green’ that captived me with Owl & the Pussycat, probably my first experience with real poetry. I loved my pencil crayons with good colours, ‘peacock blue’, ’emerald green’, and still love verbal descriptions like that.

      The Elizabeth Bowen read-along won’t be until April anyways, when the TBR dare is over I think, so you can still join! If you want to, of course.

      Thank you and feel free to use this template, I don’t mind! I just wanted something that was a bit different and had a smaller font, since I feel like I’m shouting somehow with a bigger one.

      • kiss a cloud says:

        Lol, that is exactly how I feel when I use a bigger font. I am always looking for a white template here in WordPress but always there is something wrong with the font, either it is a wrong font or too large or the lines too far apart. This one is a fairly new template which I have wanted to try but am a little bothered that the sides don’t scroll down (I know, I’m a little weird). But I think one day I’ll try it. It’s very soothing. There’s probably only ten templates I haven’t tried in WordPress, the black ones, ha ha.

        Oh the pea green boat is a keeper phrase! My other love was Wynken Blynken and Nod. I was also a Dr Seuss fan. My older sons would be so amazed when they read Dr Seuss books to their little brother and I would recite with them by heart without looking. Can’t count how many times I’ve read those.

        Glad to hear that the read along lasts till April! I will try researching Elizabeth Bowen now and see what captures my eye. πŸ™‚

  17. Chrissy says:

    Litlove’s comment has had me searching in my mind for the
    quote she might mean, about reading. Could it be this one?:

    ” To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all the miseries of life” – Somerset Maugham.

    Whether or not, I think it’s one for you, Carolyn!

  18. Josh's mom says:

    I can relate to everything you shared about what books do for you. Thanks for this open and honest post. Since I am new to your blog, I’m looking forward to spending some time looking at your posts from the past. Don’t be surprised if you find me commenting on ones from a while ago!

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