Last weekend I finished a library book, and since then it has been sitting on the dining room table. I’ve wanted to write about it, indeed to enthuse about it, but I knew that when I had done that I would have no excuse for not taking it back to the library. And I wasn’t ready to let go.
I think you may understand my feelings if I quote a little from Warne’s Announcement list for October 1893 …
“Mrs Burnett’s story is unique in literature, being the frankly autobiographical narrative of a child up to girlhood, with its sensations and emotions as each new phase and problem of life opens to it.”
The volume I have is a later reproduction, a facsimile edition published by the same publisher, Frederick Warne & Co Ltd, in 1974. It is very lovely, and it matches my recollection of its author very nicely.
The author’s preface was a little stiff, but when I read the first words of the first chapter I was charmed, and I knew that I was in safe hands.
“I had every opportunity for knowing her well at least. We were born on the same day, we learned to toddle about together, we began our earliest observations of the world we lived in at the same period, we made the same mental remarks on people and things, and reserved to ourselves exactly the same rights of of private personal opinion.
I have not the remotest idea what she looked like. She belonged to an era when photography was not as advanced an art as it is to-day, and no picture of her was ever made. It is a well-authenticated fact that she was auburn-haired and rosy, and I can testify that she was curly, because one of my earliest recollections of her emotions is a memory of the momentarily maddening effect of a sharp, stinging jerk of the comb when the nurse was absent-minded or maladroit.”
The adult voice was there but it allowed the child, and the childish perceptions, to shine. I saw a hint of what made her into a writer, and a hint of the woman she would become.
The author’s decision to always refer to her younger self as ‘The One I Knew The Best of All’ bothered me a little at first, but it very soon felt entirely natural. Definitely a wise decision: I came to know the child and her world with the least possible distraction from the knowledge of who she grew up to be.
The story began quietly, in the nursery, with toys, a nursemaid, an occasional visitor. And slowly, as the first picture books arrived, it became more and more vibrant.
I had worried a little that family seemed absent, that the first mention of a father was when he died, but very quickly I realised that was not the case at all. the child was so secure in her home and her family that she didn’t need to mention them and she was free to explore her world.
She fell in love with her garden as soon as she set foot there …
“Was it always Spring or Summer in that enchanted Garden which, out of a whole world, has remained throughout a lifetime the Garden of Eden? Was the sun always shining? Later and more material experience of the English climate leads me to imagine that it was not always flooded and warmed with sunshine, and filled with the scent of roses and mignonette and new-mown hay and apple-blossoms and strawberries all together, and that one laid down on the grass on one’s back one could not always see that high, high world of deep blue with fleecy islets and mountains of snow drifting softly by or seeming to be quite still. That world to which somehow one seemed to belong even more than to the earth, and which drew one upward with such visions of running over the soft white hills and springing, from little island to little island, across the depths of blue which seemed a sea. But it was always so on the days the One I knew the best of all remembers the garden. This is in no doubt because, on the wet days and the windy ones, the cold days and the ugly ones, she was kept in the warm nursery and did not see the altered scene at all.”
She was fascinated by the world she saw, and utterly captivated by books that could take her in to whole other worlds …
“The Small Person used to look at them sometimes with hopeless, hungry eyes. It seemed so horribly wicked that there should be shelves of books – shelves full of them – which offered nothing to a starving creature. She was a starving creature in those days, with a positively wolfish appetite for books, though no one knew about it or understood the anguish of its gnawings. It must be plainly stated that her longings were not for “improving” books. The cultivation she gained in those days was gained quite unconsciously, through the workings of a sort of rabies with which she had been infected from birth. At three years old she had begun a life-long chase after the Story.”
Perceptions, emotions and stories are balanced quite beautifully. And the adult writer let me in toallowed me to see into the heart and soul of The One She Knew The Best of All.
My heart was in my mouth when the child acquired a slice of parkin without her mother’s permission, and I completely understood the guilt that stopped her eating after a single bit.
I was bewildered with her when the mother of an admired baby played a joke, offering to make a present of the baby. I should have realised, but I had been completely caught up …
The latter part of the book loses just a little magic, as suddenly the adult writer seems to realise that she must put certain things into her book. The chapter about her mother is lovely but it doesn’t quite belong, and emigration to America offers much but there are so many facts to be explained that I couldn’t stay caught up as I had been.
But it was there was still much that was lovely. And my heart sang when the child, on the verge of adulthood, became the local storyteller, and then began to wonder if she might even become a writer.
“The people whose stories were bought and printed must sometime have sent their first stories. And they could not have known whether they were really good or not until they had asked and found out. The only was of finding out was to send one – written in a clear hand on one side of ordinary foolscap – having first made quite sure that it had stamps enough on it. If a person had the courage to do that, he or she would at least hear if it was worth reading – if a stamp was enclosed.”
Of course she might! Of course she did!
But the the story of the child, and this book, ends.
I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to return to childhood, to spend time in those wonderful gardens, to reach up to those shelves for another book to consume.
But leave I must.