I’m reading Celia, a novel by E.H. Young, 1880-1946. She’s a woman, a provincial person and her novels are quietly domestic, largely about women’s lives. I read Young’s Miss Mole a while ago, recommended by my beautiful recommender, Angie Macmillan (editor, A Little Aloud) and it has stayed quietly in my mind, asking me to re-read it, maybe during the Christmas break. You’ll find half a dozen of E.H. Young’s novels in the old Virago Modern Classics series – worth seeking out in second-hand shops.
At the beginning of the book, Celia and her cleaner, Miss Riggs, are working on a clean-out in one of the bedrooms and talking about the (recent, to them) First World War, where a generation of men, including Miss Riggs’ fiance, were wiped out. Miss Riggs is thinking about the fate of men who came back from the war. They’ve come back from the biggest thing that’ll ever happen to them ( risking their lives at war) and now they’ve got ordinary daily life;
‘The baby cries and the man gets vexed, and may be, the money’s short. There’s nothing that ever happened as big as what the little things mount up to as the years go by. Having words with each other or trying not to and that’s worse, and this done and that undone. Oh, it’s a mountain! And that’s where I think I’m lucky. You never know what life’ll do to you. Death’s kinder, often. Very comical he was, too. He wouldn’t laugh himself, but he’d make me, right enough, and that’s the kind that makes you laugh most, isn’t it? Often times I laugh now, when I think of the things he’d say. But what if he’d come back and by this time there wasn’t a smile between us?’
I have been thinking about the difference between reading prose and reading poetry, or Shakespeare, in a Shared Reading group. Poetry and Shakespeare may be harder, but in a strange way that may make them easier to read and discuss because there is so much to notice; nothing is normal, everything is up for question. Whereas when we’re reading a novel, a short story, often the narrative itself takes over and the headlong rush to see what happens can be irresistible. But we still need to slow it down so we can think about what we’re reading and share our responses.
But how do you know where to stop?
As I’m reading, I’d be reading with a pencil and I’d mark bits where I felt something as I read. You’ve got to look out for your felt responses. At first they can be hard to spot – like Matthew Arnold’s ‘Buried Life’ (see previous posts) those feeling responses can be buried out of sight.
Sometimes people think this finding somewhere to stop and talk is about noticing good writing and perhaps because of school leftover habits, they think this means descriptions of stuff, nature etc. (‘The writer successfully conveys a picture of the fruit and veg in the shop window’). No.
I’m talking about feelings.
Where do you feel moved? What touches you? Where do you care about what is written?
In preparing a Shared Reading group with prose, you’ve got to read slowly enough to feel your own feelings in the first place.
In this novel I was really struck by this page. Miss Riggs seems to have kept her happiness by losing the actual man – can that really be so? I was trying to work out if she was fooling herself. But when I stopped to re-read, the bit that really got me was this sentence:
There’s nothing that ever happened as big as what the little things mount up to as the years go by.
This may not be a universal truth, but it rang a big bell with me about the shape of life and the power of the little things that seem so insignificant.
I felt something, and I suppose you’d call it recognition.
Some biggish things have happened in my life – can’t go into them here, but say, the death of my mother, which profoundly affected me for ten, fifteen years, midlife. Other things, bigger than that. But whatever the impact of those big things, it remains true that the little things add up. Say adult life begins at 21, and we assume an adult life is about ffity years, then fifty years of day to day do become very big, very dominant, and possibly, the biggest thing. Small matters.
I loved the fact that Ms Young picks up this ‘things mount up’ thought and turns it in the next sentence but one into ‘a mountain’.
There’s nothing that ever happened as big as what the little things mount up to as the years go by. Having words with each other or trying not to and that’s worse, and this done and that undone. Oh, it’s a mountain!
It’s a mountain alright, but one we often can’t even see.
I thought this was a good bit because it made me feel – almost like an ouch! – at first, and then it allowed me to think. I thought this is good writing, good because it makes connections and makes me both nod acknowledgement and think about some bits of real experience. It’s real.
In my Shared Reading group I’d want to stop here, and get some conversation going about what the big things seem to be – getting married or not, the day your first child is born, gaining or losing a job – and then share our thoughts on the reality of the long stretch of life, also a big thing, but much harder, perhaps because it is so big, to see.