“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a fortune must be in want of a wife.” Okay, so I’m missing the punctuation but I can still remember it. Yes, we’re talking Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Mr Darcy is yesterday’s sex symbol.
There are some books that stay with you throughout your life. “There was no possibility of taking a walk that day,” and “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.” (Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway respectively, and I’m remembering them so I may be slightly wrong.) There she is again, Woolf that is, not Mrs Dalloway, and while I remember the opening of Jane Eyre, I’m more of a Wuthering Heights girls with the Yorkshire moors and the wind and the rain. We all have our own little treasure chest and associated memories. These are the books that mould and nourish us; we may flirt with others, but these have the staying power.
Look through your bookshelves and you look through your life. Recently, I’ve been doing that a lot as they’re all in one big bookcase now and I was the little girl on Christmas morning. There are books for specific periods. There’s the English undergraduate’s library or rather Shakespeare, The Revels Plays (mainly tragedy complete with suitably tragic covers), Chaucer and Beowulf or at least it was when I was at university. There’s the copy of The Riverside Shakespeare I got from my tutor for £80. There’s Middlemarch next to Irvine Welsh, Malory’s Works beside Jean de Florette while Callas is serenading The Lord of the Rings. Oranges are not the Only Fruit is making Hopkins blush and isn’t King Arthur’s Death well suited next to Raising Boys? Then there are the various house and garden books dating from my thirties, my old French dictionary from school and a Centre Pompidou brochure from a school trip to Paris. I was the teacher and then there were the students. I can’t remember if this was before or after the trip to London when I was stopped at the airport and given a thorough search. Obviously, the students found this hilarious. Obviously. And here’s a complete series of Art books that I collected once, various histories of… and Belle’s Best Bits that an old friend gave me. I never bought Fifty Shades of Grey or even read it, although my said friend did and we spent a hilarious (and precious because rare) evening agreeing the writing was awful.
Scattered in between are the books that I bought with the intention to read but are still sitting there. They’re usually the hefty ones with “complete” in the title. I can even see the gaps for books which for some unknown reason are no longer there, but remain despite their absence. Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is one and more recently Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, and then there are the various paperbacks bought on Amazon of the yummy mummy variety which was possibly the only thing I read when my children were small: therapy between two covers cloaked in dark child-induced humour.
I read the other day that the female essay form is making a comeback. Yes, it probably is. Short, complete and not too time-consuming, it lends itself to the world in which we live, a world in which newspapers now give us what is known as “the long read.” Besides this, they tell us the printed book is dead for we’re all on Facebook anyway and God save Twitter and Kindle rules.
I wonder what Austen would have made of it all as she sat there in the middle of her domestic circle scribbling out the lives of various young women till it all ends in marriage. “It is a truth universally acknowledged…” There it goes again. It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single girl in Italy will usually end up with an Italian. Possibly, but that’s another story.