Ronald Blythe regrets turning out one of his bookcases
IS IT not a fact that when a bookcase is emptied out upon the floor its contents double in volume? Such tall unsteady piles. I sit among them, regretting my folly. It was the local-history bookcase, and Suffolk had wandered up into Norfolk, and Essex into the Soke of Ely. I thought a clean sweep was demanded.
Long ago, when I was a youth, I was sent to convey Canon Gerald Kendall’s library from his big old house to the local museum, to which he had generously bequeathed it. He had been a mighty scholar, although, in spite of this, he had believed that Lord Oxford was Shakespeare. None the less, he had a fine library, and it was a splendid gift to the borough. Also, I had been given his school prize for mathematics, Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, still a treasure, which, though massive, I had carried all around the Hebrides on one of those “in the steps of” journeys.
But back to the Canon’s house, where his conifers rattled against the windows in a kind of mourning. The library window was wide, and a truck was parked below it, and down to it the removal men were sliding his precious books like coals. They were making a start, they said, whistling cheerfully. Beautiful bindings with his crest, fluttering pages, first editions fell from the duckboard in a heap.
Shock must have lent my voice authority; for the removal men’s carnage came to a sudden halt. As I was putting the already trucked books into some kind of decent order, I heard one of them say: “You know I don’t mind what I do, Bob, but I hate moving a parson — half a ton of bloody books before you start.”
Outside my window — I am in my
house now — the pre-Easter gale blows. It is the kind of wild weather that I once found blissful and inviting. “Come and join us!” it would howl. Jean’s horses prance about as if in a circus, their manes waving. Spring grass, which wasn’t there yesterday, ripples. “Come outside!” shrieks the wind. “Get bashed about like the birds and the trees.” Get pneumonia, more like, says my ancient self. But the rain-filled clouds remain enticing, and the noise of the weather stays thrilling.
I possess one book-lined room that I hesitate to call the library. Else it is tottering bookcase after bookcase all over the house, its floors being up hill and down dale, so that each of them has to be wedged steady. Never again will I tip them out, but sort them on the shelf.
For Jane Austen, the library was a male sanctuary. Ladies read on sofas or while making gooseberry jam. Anywhere. Men were delicate creatures who had to have a refuge from their tiresomeness. Mr Bennet would clearly have become insane without his library, his safe door against silly women.
What did Mr Bennet read? Not novels, one thinks. Or, nearly as fictitious, the Baronetage. I think Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson as he imagined swapping Mrs Bennet for the Hebrides. His book-fed calm drives her up the wall, if one may be vulgar. But, like a sensible parent, he sees that what might be called book sanity takes root in one child — Elizabeth. So maybe she and her lovely husband will read together, laughing, pages turning in unison — which, to my mind, is part of a desirable marriage.
There was an American who said: “They tell me life is the thing, but I prefer reading.” But this can’t be right, tempting though it is.