On The Heir of Redclyffe and on reading but not writing

Four months is an unconscionably long time to let a blog languish.

I would like to offer a few excuses:  been moving office, had a very long holiday, incredibly busy post-move and post-holiday. But the real problem is: I don’t have time in my week to write.

I hardly have time to read. Or at least that is what I tell myself.  I’m interested in this because what’s true for me is likely to be true for others. So for  one week only – a reading/time-use audit starts  today. Each day I’ll publish what I’ve done/read with my time and we shall see if I do have time to read/write or if I am simply frittering hours on  newspapers, bad TV and  hanging-around-chat or Zumba.

In my own defense I wish to state  that in  the last six months  I have been  making time for books during the week by  getting up earlier and  using the 6.30 -7.00 am slot to read each day. I read interesting, hard things in that half hour – things   requiring  my best concentration. Harder novels, or nonfiction, sometimes Wordsworth (The Prelude, which feels as if I  have got to keep reading it on some sort of continuous loop through the second half of life). Half an hour, I have to say, is not enough to even open up my best concentration, which seems a rhythm I need to build over a day or days. Time and depth (and habit) are connected.

I read in the hour or less before going to sleep (mostly  novels – recently Jeanette Winterson’s Tanglewreck, and Russell Hoban’s new book Soonchild – out next year with Walker  Books)
or things which bring the energy of compulsive reading with them – things which I really can’t bear not to be reading (lately that has been Jeanette Winterson’s memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Suite Francaise  by Irene Nemirovsky, Images of Organisation by Gareth Morgan, and Emotion and Spirit by Neville Symington)

And I am aware that an average of an hour a day, for someone heading up an  organisation dedicated to a reading revolution is just not enough.  But what to do about it ?

Since I last wrote on this blog I’ve been reading…

The Heir of Redclyffe – Charlotte M Yonge – wonderful strange Victorian novel about a man who tries to be good, to really live by  Christian principles. It was a massive bestseller in its day, but for modern readers will be problematic in lots of ways – mainly, it’s not ironic or cynical! So you have to do  one of  those time-translations as you read, and keep thinking, ok, how would this translate into modern  experience/ways of thinking… but really worth the  effort of trying to do that
As in many novels about ‘good’  the centre of goodness is  hard to portray ( I’m thinking of Daniel Deronda, or Lawrence’s Birkin in Women in Love , or God in Paradise Lost). But what is brilliant, and awful, is what very real  portrayal of what stubborn, understandable, stupid, ordinary egocentric badness looks like (the kind you and I practice every day). Could anyone  write a novel that could go into this astonishing, real place today? Probably not. Only  The Wire gets there – and not even  that consistently. Why?

Here’s a bit from near the end of the book when Philip returns to visit Amy, (a young widow, new mother) the cousin he has badly wronged:

All was as usual. Charles’s sofa, little table, books, and inkstand, thework-boxes on the table, the newspaper in Mr. Edmonstone’s old folds.Only the piano was closed, and an accumulation of books on the hingetold how long it had been so; and the plants in the bay window werebrown and dry, not as when they were Amabel’s cherished nurslings. Heremembered Amabel’s laughing face and abundant curls, when she carriedin the camellia, and thought how little he guessed then that he shouldbe the destroyer of the happiness of her young life. How should he meether—a widow in her father’s house—or look at her fatherless child?He wondered how he had borne to come thither at all, and shrank at thethought that this very evening, in a few hours, he must see her.
The outer door opened, there was a soft step, and Amabel stood beforehim, pale, quiet, and with a smile of welcome. Her bands of hair lookedglossy under her widow’s cap, and the deep black of her dress wasrelieved by the white robes of the babe that lay on her arm. She heldout her hand, and he pressed it in silence.
‘I thought you would like just to see baby,’ said she, in a voicesomething like apology.
He held out his arms to take it, for which Amy was by no means prepared.She was not quite happy even in trusting it in her sister’s arms, andshe supposed he had never before touched an infant. But that was allnonsense, and she would not vex him with showing any reluctance; so shelaid the little one on his arm, and saw his great hand holding it mostcarefully, but the next moment he turned abruptly from her. Poor sillylittle Amy, her heart beat not a little till he turned back, restoredthe babe, and while he walked hastily to the window, she saw that twolarge tear-drops had fallen on the white folds of its mantle. She didnot speak; she guessed how much he must feel in thus holding Guy’schild, and, besides, her own tears would now flow so easily that shemust be on her guard. She sat down, settled the little one on her knee,and gave him time to recover himself.
Presently he came and stood by her saying, in a most decided tone,’Amabel, you must let me do this child justice.’

You have to accept it for what it is – mid Victorian, High Anglican and necessarily full of values we don’t care for these days – but also full of brilliant observations  – as above in Amy’s instinct to let Charles hold the baby, and her fear while he does – and powerful vision of  how good can operate in a  naughty world.

I read it in the Oxford World’s Classics  paperback  – highly recommended – and you can download the full text from Project Gutenberg