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
20 responses to “More about Books”
You certainly have a way with words. I always look forward to your posts 🙂 And I intend to try your onion soup…
thnks Robin- your support is such a joy – hope you enjoy the soup – we ate it all!
Valerie, great post! After 50 years – that is amazing. Enjoyed your post and like DJ, I intend to try the onion soup (one of my favorites)…
Great to connect again, hope you enjoy the soup… its’ so cold here in our wionter – but maybe you’re enjoying heat?
Such memories dear and true. I to had my books that were written long before my time and learned the morals and values that guided a society long since faded. They have served me well these years and I still strive to simply ” be a good boy”.
What a beautiful message good friend. I treasure your words.
Valerie, there’s something so beautiful about the way you describe your relationship with your grandmother, and love of the old books. I can see and smell them, and feel the spirit of those stories through yours. Very moving. Those years in a child’s life are so impressionable, and the relationship with a grandparent so special. My favourite grandmother died when I was eight. We had a close bond, and I suspect she was responsible for my love of dogs. Anyway, love the sound of that recipe to – have a great weekend 🙂
Alarna Rose – what a beautiful name – thank you so much for those sensitive and appreciative words. Yes, now that I’m a grandmother myself, it’s was one the greatest joys of my life – the experience of giving unconditional love. Great to connect and a happy weekend to you too – warm wishes ( can’t do those little yellow circles!)
Thank you for the compliments on my name! Alarna came from a newspaper. And Rose is my mother’s middle name. Also, if you are at all curious how to do the little yellow circles – you just type : immediately followed by ) (with a space either side) and it will automatically turn it into a smiley-face when you post 🙂
ah-a! thank you. will start practising! ( )… must have a sulky computer, but will get onto my grand daughter! nil desperandum
God Bless Grandmothers with Books! I didn’t have a grandmother like that, but my mother filled the bill. Every book you cited was part of my world. Except – I couldn’t read Black Beauty…I knew I could not bear the parts where the horses were abused. An older sibling referred to it and that as enough for me. I had no clue how the abuse took place until I read this post! ** years later!
I am a strong, independent, intelligent and expressive woman who cannot bear any form of abuse, especially to children or animals. I surprised myself – after all these years of avoiding the story, when I learned that Black Beauty had to be reduced to drudgery and insensitivity, I left to fold laundry and deal with the tears.
Even now, watching videos of whales being cut from driftnets, wild animals being rescued, etc. etc. the happy ending does not cause me to celebrate because I know something else is happening while we pat ourselves on the back.
And yes! Those strong characters in those well written stories helped form the integrity that I hold dear, as well. Well, let’s face it, Valerie, I realized at a very young age that my Sunday School Jesus had read all the same books! 😀
Thank you for visiting my blog. I’m excited about having met a kindred soul.
What a thrill to find your lovely comments this morning, and to find that we had “drunk at the same fountain”, so few people have! I know so well how you feel about animals, I’ve cried myself to sleep many a time over cdancing bears and hunted elephants etc. Some comfort came to me in the words of a Communication which told me that animals have chosen to serve us. The feeling that they are not just victims but beautiful loving consciousnesses helps, and I bless every creature that I see, which certainly makes me feel better! I know that feeling misderable doesn’t help the planet!
Yes, Jesus was a quick learner like us, wasn’t he! And I’m sure he’d appreciate the joke! Looking forward to following you, I’m so thrilled you found me – how did you????
Morning Valerie, Please excuse me dropping in unannounced, I am a NZer living on the prairies in Illinois, US, growing my own food on a little farm and blogging about the daily life of a little woman on the land. I am married to an american now, this is my home as far as homes go. So It is wonderfully refreshing to read about you and your life in my home land. I am so glad that souldipper pointed me in your direction. Have a lovely day out there in NZ. Stay warm.. Cecilia..
Cecilia, what a pleasure to have your visit, I hope we meet lots more – I know how you feel, because much as I love this country – been here for 42 years, I still miss England – though it has to be said that it’s the England of fifty years ago that I miss, the whole world has changed so fast in that time.
I expect you may have gathered that I live by the sea, north of Auckand, where do you come from? yes. it’s cold and I have the wood burning fire on, and had pumpkin soup for lunch! You, I know, have been having a heat wave, haven’t you. Great to have connected, and I’ll be following you. I love the sound of your life!
This is such a lovely post and it kept me absorbed in your world for a while. I remember staying with my Aunty as a child and borrowing her books for a Summer read. Your writing and blog are fantastic!
Thank you so much for your comments and encouragement. I’m enjoying your blogs, particularly as it’s winter here and not much going on in the garden… and lovely pics…
Apologies for a somewhat tardy rely… have been a bit overwhelmed the last few days!.
Little Woman was a favorite of mine too! I was transformed into your world as I was Louisa Mae’s just reading your post.
Did you take a picture of the soup? The recipe sounds simple but delicious. We are adamant soup consumers in this household & I tire of the same ol’, same ol’ recipes. Are you on Pinterest? If not, I can send you and invite-I know people would love your insights & recipes.
Great to hear from you, and thank you for your appreciation… no I haven’t yet learnt to take pictures, but I’ve just bought a camera and am hoping to master the technology! There are other soup recipes in earlier blogs if you’re a soup enthusiast like us. I”ve looked up Pinterest, and couldn’t quite follow it. I have to go and see my printer next week, who put this blog together for me, and I’ll ask him to explain.. sounds as though it would be good if you could invite me, thank you. May I come back to you?
Love your blog Valerie and thanks so much for visiting mine. I too had Black Beauty as my earliest favourite. It’s the first book I ever remember reading cover to cover. It was sooo moving and such a tale. I hope literature of the young ever as it evolves to the new society norm, continues to talk to these high standards of living. Thank you
Thank you for connecting. So glad you found this interesting… Black Beauty touched so many children back then, but sadly, none of my grandchildren ever read it! No good me trying to read it to them, by the time they were the right age, they were into their gameboys and computers!