Between six and a half and nearly nine, I lived with my grandmother. My mother had disappeared, not to be found until fifty years later, and my father was at the war from when I was a year old until nearly nine. Those two and a half years I spent with my grandmother were the happiest years of my childhood, and one of the reasons, apart from the fact that she loved and spoiled me, was that she brought loads of book into the house when she came to look after us,
I was allowed to read everything, and my range was a wide one, from Enid Blyton’s fairy story The Faraway Tree, published by instalments in a magazine called Sunny Stories, which I collected from the grocer every week, to Foxe’s Martyrs, a huge leather bound book with engraved illustrations with a piece of flimsy paper covering each one. It was a ghoulish record of the three hundred Englishmen and women who Bloody Mary had had burned at the stake for being Protestants. Foxe’s Martyrs wasn’t one of my favourite books, but it was there.
Also there, were bound copies of Victorian ladies journals, with stories about beautiful orphans, though of noble birth, and young men with crisp, fair curls, sporting striped blazers, straw boaters and high moral character, who rescued these pure young maidens from lives of poverty and humiliation.
Little Lord Fauntleroy was also pressed on me by my grandmother, as was Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which sold even more copies in England than in the US, was one of my grandmother’s favourites, and after reading it at eight, I became a fervent abolitionist. Which no doubt would have warmed Harriet Beecher Stowe’s warm heart.
I never had any trouble with poor old Uncle Tom, in spite of today’s politically correct connotations. I loved him for his moral courage and kindness, which I could understand even at eight. He died for his principles, refusing to inflict on other slaves the same cruel beatings that killed him. Eliza and her child fleeing over the frozen river haunted my nightmares.
The other book on my grandmother’s shelves which shaped my life even more than Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was John Halifax, Gentleman, written by Mrs Craik. Published in 1865, the year of the ending of the American Civil War, it was about an orphaned boy who found a home in a Quaker household, and through espousing Quaker virtues became a successful and prosperous pillar of the community. Sounds pretty boring, but even as a child, I loved him for his dignity, integrity, moral courage and loving heart. Like Uncle Tom, he never sacrificed his principles for the sake either of safety or material gain.
When my father returned from overseas, I went to live with him and our new stepmother. I never mentioned these two books, after they had laughed themselves silly when I disclosed to them in an unguarded moment that I had read Little Lord Fauntleroy. I thought maybe these two books might also be material for grownup mockery, and it wasn’t until my late teens that I discovered that they were both well regarded classics. When I re-read John Halifax in my twenties, I realised that the principles that he had lived his life by had been the unconscious grounding of my own philosophy.
My first Christmas with them, my new parents gave me a copy of Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women. Like most children of my generation and previous ones, I read it again and again, and the principles of integrity, kindness and concern for others influenced me deeply, as I’m sure it influenced so many other girls back then. Thanks to Jo March, I also began writing, and produced my own newspaper, somewhat plagiarised, until it was discovered by the adults and became a great joke.
The last book which influenced me all my life was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, a birthday present. Black Beauty, the story of a horse and his friend Ginger, and how they were exploited by human beings they trusted, until these two fine thoroughbreds had been worn down to become half-starved, broken down cab horses, entered my soul. I’ve always been thankful that we use the motor car now, instead of horses, no matter how much pollution cars cause. Black Beauty taught me to love and respect all animals and all life, including the birds of the air and the creatures in the sea.
Louisa Alcott was brought up and taught by Transcendentalists, including Emerson and Thoreau, while Anna Sewell’s parents were Quakers. So when I look back at the four books that in many ways have shaped my character, I see that they were all written by women in the middle of the nineteenth century, all of whom lived in families and communities with the highest ideals and with a commitment to actually practising what they preached (Harriet Beecher Stowe and her husband used to hide escaped slaves). I feel I was so lucky that these four books came my way at the age that I was so that their philosophies became an integral part of my values and thinking.
As the years have gone by, and I’ve explored different creeds and religions, in the end, the core of them seemed to be the principles that the American Transcendentalists and the English Quakers lived by. So there’s never been any conflict between other creeds and the old beliefs that I picked up from these old books. I often wonder which are the books today that do this same job of inspiring and grounding children in the ideals and values of our civilisation.
I’ve watched the Harry Potter films with my grandchildren, and can see that it’s a struggle between good and evil. But the books that taught me, were about the immediate, down to earth, everyday situations, in which truthfulness, and kindness, moral courage and selflessness were the standards by which the heroes and heroines lived and died in these old books. And these Victorian books were lovely – gold embossed covers, thick paper and beautiful type-faces.
There are so many well written and inspiring books for children and young adults these days, and the nature of our civilisation is such that there are actually hundreds. So instead of a handful of classics uniting people, so that they knew the same stories and shared the same experiences, today there are so many stories that people don’t have a background in common.
I remember the true story of British writer Patrick Leigh Fermor, who kidnapped a German general in Crete in 1944. They smuggled him up into the mountains. In the morning as the shocked and despondent general was looking over the mountains in the dawn, he quoted some lines to himself in Latin from the Roman poet Horace. Leigh Fermor recited the rest of the ode with him, and in his words:’…for a long moment, the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountains long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together.”
Stories like this remind us of the power of books and words and art.
Food for Threadbare Gourmets
I’ve been so busy with blogging and making lemon chutney with our surfeit of lemons at this time of year, that I haven’t had time to prepare a sustaining lunch for my hungry 82 year old husband. Quick onion soup will have to do, with hot rolls.
I have some lovely stock from the potatoes, carrots and Brussels sprouts all cooked in the same water yesterday, so that also makes me feel virtuously frugal. The soup takes four large onions sliced thinly and stewed in butter. When they’re soft, stir in a tablespoon of sugar. Stir until the sugar browns – don’t let it turn black. Then pour in a pint and a half of stock, with either half a glass of wine, or a dash of wine vinegar. Simmer for about 15 minutes, add salt and pepper to taste, and a sprinkling of parsley. Caramelising the onions with the sugar gives the soup colour, a rich delicate flavour and thickens it up. Recipe for the lemon chutney in the next post!
Food for Thought
Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good; just as a gold piece, or an emerald, or a purple robe insists perpetually, ‘whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true.’
Marcus Aurelius, born in AD 121, Philosopher, Stoic and Emperor of Rome from AD 161 to his death in AD 180