Beloved Books, Part Three
While my friends and colleagues were writing their lists and explaining their passions, I was writing mine. Three pages of lists. Books I own, books I dream about. All old. All wonderful. I have thrown it out.
This was a mistake. I thought I was throwing out something entirely different. Where I had lists of nineteenth century books, I now find I have notes that say things like ‘persecuting aristocracy’ and ‘density of space, numinous, dangerous politics.’ Also, “Why are there myths of magic?” Amidst questions concerning myths of magic, I discovered one last (very small) note about loved writing that’s over a hundred years old. That last (pathetically small) note reminds me to talk about Thomas Macaulay and Miles Franklin (My Brilliant Career is over a hundred years old, which I find astonishing), Laurence Sterne and Harriet Martineau. That is what I shall do, therefore, talk about Macaulay and Franklin and Sterne and Martineau.
Thomas Babington Macaulay’s Lays of Ancient Rome was one of my earliest paths to history. I possibly read it a little too young, initially, for I discovered it on my uncle’s bookshelf alongside the Rudyard Kipling and the volumes appeared the same and one had been recommended and the other had been mentioned in another children’s book and so both were mine to read. I found it bewildering as a pre-teen, for it had many references to things that I didn’t understand. Many, many references.
This was the moment of my big breakthrough. I looked at it and I thought “I can understand this, if I read a bit more.” So I read a bit more of this and a bit more of that and, a few years later, I understood the references and was able to see why it’s such a very quotable book and why it was so very popular with Victorian educationalists.
I haven’t read the Lays for years, for they really didn’t stand up too well to close scrutiny. They’re something I will always love, however, because Macaulay taught me how to decode foreign cultures. Thanks to him I could read almost anything in English.
All the children's books I read at that stage told me about Horatius and the bridge and I was entirely confused that I didn’t find Horatius heroic or the bridge compelling. I still don’t. I never have. But I love Macaulay for letting me know that others found it such, and for letting me know with such style. And in verse! Stories told in verse were something I became quite addicted to, thanks to Macaulay.
I simply am the wrong person to find this inspirational:
Then out spake brave Horatius,
“And for the tender mother
With all the speed ye may;
I, with two more to help me,
Will hold the foe in play.
In yon strait path a thousand
May well be stopped by three.
Now who will stand on either hand,
And keep the bridge with me?”
The idea of history told in a way that readers can understand it, the idea of being able to decode cultures and to understand references that are not part of my education or upbringing—for these things, I still love Macaulay.
Miles Franklin is closer to home. She was a writer who played politics in her books and in her life. I now live a few miles from where she grew up, and I point out her family landscape to anyone who is willing to listen. Mt Franklin and Mt Aggie and old, wild roses that might have come from her garden. I didn’t know that landscape as a child, however. What I knew was My Brilliant Career. It was my personal answer to the happier universes of Little House on the Prairie and to Norah of Billabong. It didn’t have the pathos of Judy’s death in Seven Little Australians. It took the themes of novels with young heroines and it turned them out and shook them round a bit and put them back together again. It's about choices and futures—not about happy endings or about glamour.
Henry Lawson helped get it into print (1901). s a child, Henry Lawson was one of my favourite writers, and so I followed him and read My Brilliant Career. He said about it “the descriptions of bush life and scenery came startlingly, painfully real to me, and I know that, as far as they are concerned, the book is true to Australia-the truest I ever read.” This is what I love about it. I also love that the novel itself begins “Just a few lines to tell you that this story is all about myself-for no other purpose do I write it.” And a short while later “There is no plot in this story, because there has been none in my life or in any other life which has come under my notice. I am one of a class, the individuals of which have not time for plots in their life, but have all they can do to get their work done without indulging in such a luxury.” This is the Australia I grew up with. My life, also, lacks plot.
Laurence Sterne is quite different. The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman is one of my dream novels. It also doesn't follow normal narrative and the fact that it was written before novel narrative became standardised is no excuse, for Sterne knew what he was doing. The hero is not even born for a very large chunk of the story and the actual process of his birthing is . . . special. Like Franklin, Sterne wrote people as he saw them. His view of the world is sardonic and somewhat wicked and completely disrespectful. On my first reading, I thought his characters were spectacularly strange, but as I get older and read Tristram Shandy again and again and again, I realise that they are people I have met. Sterne has a better eye for the odd than Dickens.
Harriet Martineau’s autobiography was a very different type of inspiration. I didn’t discover it until I was in my twenties and, in all the time since then, I have dipped into it to be reminded what is possible in a life. Martineau could write, but more importantly, she could think. She was a Victorian woman who was not ashamed of her mind or of her ability to put her mind and her writing at the service of others. She did this despite major illnesses. She was a professional writer and made it possible for other women to claim the same title.
Most importantly, she communicated her life in an intimate voice.
When I first read her work, I had to decode cultural references. In her way she is as hidden as Macaulay (at some times the past is more foreign than at others) and I had to deal with her affection for some things I found very strange. I loved her autobiography, however, and I still do.
Martineau is not a great writer. Was not a great writer. Will never be one. What she is and was, however, is a thoughtful woman of exceptional intelligence who was gifted in making sense of the complex and the difficult. She cared about people and society—not in any theoretical sense, but in a very real and solid way. Her autobiography shows this and shows how she managed the world around her. Her writing doesn't have the intense wisdom about people that George Gissing or Henry James display, but she led me through an understanding of society. I rather suspect that it was due to her that I felt so very comfortable on committees and doing government policy work in my twenties and thirties.
What I love most about her writing, however, is that she didn't say “I have to behave like a Victorian female.” She was a woman who lived in Victorian England. She was lionised and loved and lonely and throughout all, she behaved like Harriet Martineau. She wrote as herself. There was a wonderful authenticity to her and a need to communicate.
That’s all I have today, and for the moment. I’ve not even scratched the surface of older books I love. There are so many of them. The others will, however, wait for other days.
I now return you to normal programming.
Books mentioned in this column: