Never Judge a Book by Its Mother

by Esmerelda Weatherwax (February 2012)

My daughter came home from school before Christmas with a reading list. Not a list of set texts for an exam; more suggestions from her teachers of novels by authors whose writing was, regardless of their genre, of high quality when reading for pleasure.

For humour the teachers recommended Stella Gibbon’s Cold Comfort Farm and anything by PG Wodehouse. For thrillers the Tinker Tailor series by John le Carré; love and romance included Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Rebecca. Under the heading ‘Growing Up’ was Great Expectations and To Kill a Mockingbird. During my trip to Nashville in 2010 I bought her a 50th Anniversary edition as a present. An American classic from an American bookstore. Then we saw an identical copy in Waterstone’s (note apostrophe) the following week. Never mind, mine was genuine American, and to prove it I purchased it in a bookstore, not a bookshop!  

For those who like historical novels they suggested first I, Claudius by Robert Graves.  English readers of my age may have fond memories of the BBCTV series of I, Claudius and Claudius the God starring Derek Jacobi as Claudius, John Hurt as Caligula, Brian Blessed as Augustus. If you have, enough said.

The second suggestion was The King Must Die by Mary Renault.

‘What!’ I thought. ‘That’s a brilliant book but far too much sex and violence for girls so young’.

The little voice that lives at the back of my head piped up to argue with me.

‘How old were you when you first read it?’

‘Er, three years younger. But that’s not the point. It was the 60s. The world was different then.’

‘But it didn’t do you any harm did it?’

‘Yes it did. It was a terrible shock in adulthood to discover that the normal young Englishman is not capable of fighting off pirates and barbarians all day, and then making love all night to the grateful damsels and nymphs he had rescued from aforesaid pirates and barbarians.’

If you have not read the book and its sequel The Bull from the Sea it is the story of Theseus from earliest childhood in Troizen. He was an adventurous chap who travelled far and met many interesting people. Mindful of much of what passes for ‘teen literature’ today, and in some admiration of this English teacher’s taste I produced my 1958 hardback (second-hand) edition and lent it to her. She is going through a Dickens phase at the moment; well into Great Expectations and with Little Dorrit lined up so it has not yet been opened.

I started to work my way through Mary Renault’s work as a young teenager and she remains a favourite.  The September that I started my A-level course a new English teacher arrived at my school, a woman who became one of the three most influential teachers of my schooldays. She was a white haired woman who had been an undergraduate with Dannie Abse the poet in the years immediately after the war.

That first warm afternoon she spent getting to know her class and our reading tastes, asking us what we had read for our own pleasure during the summer holiday.

When I told her, Last of the Wine by Mary Renault I got a look of encouragement and approval which I have never forgotten. When I added, ‘Oh and some modern novels by Simon Raven – from a series called Alms for Oblivion’ she went a little pale. I only found out today when checking his obituary that the phrase ‘alms for oblivion’ comes from Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida. I should have known that then; another A-level set book was Chaucer’s version of that story, Troilus and Criseyde.

I liked Mrs D-- because she taught us to read round our text, setting it (as far as possible in the time allowed) within the context of the author’s other work. 1984 was a logical progression from the O-level set book of Animal Farm but with her encouragement I read Down and Out in Paris and London and saw where some of the images Orwell used in 1984 came from. Before we could start Henry IV Part II she took us through Richard II and Henry IV Part I. Other girls were angry. Three weeks into the course and the other classes were already answering exam style questions on the set play. They thought they would fall behind and not get the top marks they felt they needed for a career in a High Street bank. Coles Notes were made for them but I wanted and got more.

Simon Raven does not feature on my daughter’s list; I don’t know if he is read anymore. I agree with the writer of this obituary in the Telegraph that his writing is under-rated, but he would be a politically incorrect nightmare to film.  

The final book on the list was an unclassified general recommendation with which I also agree – A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. By co-incidence I took that into hospital when my daughter was born. I always have a book on the go and regard such as essential in situations where there will be waiting and hanging about. A rather sour nursing auxiliary glared at the volume. ‘You won’t have time for that! You’re not here to read.’

I must re-read it soon, after I have finished my daughter’s recommendation to me, To Kill a Mockingbird, which I haven’t yet started.

And I think we will both pass on The Silence of the Lambs.

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