“Reading round the subject” is a phrase I first encountered in Kate Atkinson’s book called When Will There Be Good News?, the third book in Atkinson’s Case Histories series. I wrote about this book and the whole idea of reading round the subject in a post a while ago.
In that post, I talk about how certain books make me disappear down a reading rabbit-hole. Following leads to other books by the same writer, or about the writer, or about the subject of the original book.
I talk about reading and loving Paula McLain’s book The Paris Wife, and Hemingway’s memoir A Moveable Feast about his time in Paris. How I read and loved a different book by McLain called Circling the Sun, about famous aviator Beryl Markham, and then followed that up by reading Markham’s memoir West with the Night. And then finding an article which said that Hemingway had read Markham’s memoir, and written to her that it was one of the best books he’d ever read.
And finally how when I was writing the post I reread parts of Atkinson’s book in which the character Reggie’s tutor advises her to “read round the subject” to prepare for her A-levels and suggests Hemingway’s short stories.
“Aha,” I remember remarking to Hubby. “See? It all starts and ends with Hemingway.” And Hubby rolled his eyes and replied that I always think everything starts and ends with Hemingway. Ha. He was probably still bitter that I’d dragged him all over Paris earlier that year in my search for Hemingway sites.
These past few weeks I’ve found myself reading round the subject of grief. Not so much reading about grief. But reading and listening to books which help me to deal with my grief. Books which help me to process my mum’s death. And what the world will be like for me without her in it.
I’ve always turned to books during times of sadness or times of stress. The first book I recall helping me cope with life’s uncertainty and pain was Gene Stratton-Porter’s The Keeper of the Bees. I read it back in 1984, the year I fled my city life to move home to New Brunswick with my tail between my legs.
That year, I unearthed in my grandmother’s book closet an original hardcover copy of this book, published in 1925. There was something in this novel about James McFarlane, a World War I veteran who recovers both physically and spiritually, that helped me. Maybe it was the story, although I don’t remember much about the plot. Maybe it was Stratton-Porter’s writing. I do remember her vivid descriptions of the landscape. I remember her writing about the sunshine, the sea, something about fresh-from-the-vine tomatoes, and about James McFarlane’s caring for the bees. And how all this helps him heal. And reading of his healing helped me see the world differently.
I wonder if I read it again now if I’d cringe at how dated and overtly sentimental it is. Or if I’d be charmed all over again.
During the ten days in late April and early May that my sister and I sat by Mum’s bedside in the hospital, I read a lot. I read as we sat in her hospital room. Over my breakfast or lunch in the hospital cafeteria. And in bed at night.
Not all books that help during times of stress offer solace, as such. Sometimes distraction is what is needed.
I read Natalie Jenner’s book Bloomsbury Girls, about a post World War II book shop in London and the fate of the women who worked there. I plucked this book from Mum’s bookshelf. I’d bought it for her for Christmas last year. I don’t know what she thought of it, or if she even read it. During the months after Christmas she wasn’t talking much on the phone, and I know she wasn’t reading much anymore. But I loved it. And I think if Mum had read it a couple of years ago, she would have loved it too.
I loved just about everything about Bloomsbury Girls. The talk of books, how books are written, the glimpse into how they are published, and how they were sold. Jenner’s exploration of themes of feminism, art and creativity, and scholarly research. The appearance of several real life characters: Daphne du Maurier, Samuel Beckett, Peggy Guggenheim to name a few. And the details of the characters’ lives, especially Evie’s scholarly research into the existence of a lost rare book. I also enjoyed meeting again several characters from Jenner’s previous book The Jane Austen Society, which Mum and I both loved.
This was a wonderfully distracting book for me. Especially as it sent me down several topical rabbit-holes, researching the historical characters and their lives. Just as she did in The Jane Austen Society, Natalie Jenner melds her fiction and historical fact with great skill. Both Jenner books have satisfyingly happy endings; all of the Bloomsbury girls live happily ever after. To be honest, I could not have borne an unhappy ending.
I also read Elly Griffiths’ murder mystery Bleeding Heart Yard. This book, the third in Griffiths’ Harbinder Kaur series, is set in London. It involves a series of murders beginning with the killing of a well-known MP at a school reunion, and it explores the secret that several friends who attend the reunion share. This book is classic Elly Griffiths. She explores themes of truth, the reliability of memory, and love, who loves whom and why. Of course, most poignant for me was the development of the relationship between the character Anna and her mum who is ill with cancer. Their relationship is nothing like the one I had with my mum. But still mother-daughter relationships, illness and care-giving, dependence and independence…. that hit close to home for me.
These past couple of weeks, since Mum has died, and I’ve been back home, I am reaching for quiet books. I don’t so much need distraction now, as quiet and the space to think and process.
I’ve been listening to the Audible version of The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson-Burnett, read by Lucy Scott.
Hodgson-Burnett is best known for her children’s books The Secret Garden and Little Lord Fauntleroy, but she wrote adult fiction as well. I came across her name as I was searching for a book on Amazon. Up popped this book as a suggestion based on my browsing history. I know I’m supposed to be affronted that Amazon knows and remembers what I’ve looked at on their site, but I’m not. I’ve discovered several new writers that I like this way. In a review of the book, I read that The Making of a Marchioness was a favourite book of Nancy Mitford. Of course, if there’s a Mitford involved, I’m interested.
I loved the Hodgson-Burnett book from beginning to end. It’s perhaps not as iconic as the novels of Jane Austen, but I loved the loyal and gentle characters, the writing, and, well, just the whole experience. Not least of which was Lucy Scott’s wonderful narration. I kept thinking how much Mum would have loved it too. And that if someone had made a movie of the book, it might have become a lovely part of our ritual Jane Austen viewing sessions. That realization was bittersweet.
The last of the books I want to talk about is the one I have just finished. Penelope Lively’s Perfect Happiness. I discovered this book as a direct result of reading round the subject. I’ve been dipping into the biography The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym by Paula Byrne for a while now, reading a few chapters, and then setting it aside. That is in no way a comment on the quality of the book, which is wonderful. I’m just not terribly persistent when it comes to non-fiction.
Anyway, in her biography of Pym, Byrne mentions Pym’s fascination with the writer Ivy Compton-Burnett. I thought that maybe I’d like to read some of Compton-Burnett’s work. So I looked her up, and opened a digital sample of one of her books. The extract was actually the introduction to one of Compton-Burnett’s books written by Penelope Lively. And while Lively’s introduction made me think that Compton-Burnett’s work might be too dour for my current mood, it reminded me of how much I love Penelope Lively’s own books. So instead of Compton-Burnett’s book, I ordered Lively’s novel Perfect Happiness.
Perfect Happiness is actually about grief. About one woman’s grief following the death of her husband. And how she navigates the first year of her widowhood.
The plot starts when Frances has been a widow for “eight months, two weeks, one day” when she is still in the midst of “ripe, howling grief.” We follow Frances through the next few months as she examines her grief, and tries to navigate the disorienting present, to “move through days as they come,” even as she is obsessed with her past, obsessed with the moments of “perfect happiness” she recalls. Frances attempts to imagine a future without her husband, Steven, and tries to adapt to the fact that her life going forward will develop without him. She will live in a house that has not known his presence. And she will change and grow into a new person he has never known. Frances eventually stops trying to anchor herself to the past she shared with her husband, and learns to move forward independently. And watching as she does so was healing for me.
I have always loved and admired Penelope Lively’s work. Perfect Happiness is a beautiful book. Poignant, moving, sad, and yet soothing. I identify so much with Frances as she tries to understand her loss. And as the other secondary characters cope with their loss and move on with their lives without Steven, without their brother or father. As she navigates her grief Frances discovers things about Steven she never knew. She meets and likes his old enemies, and sees him through their eyes.
As I said in a message to a friend a few days ago, if losing someone were only about simple sadness, that would be so much easier. But most of the time grief is much more complex. At least I am finding it so. And even though my grief is very different from hers, reading about Frances’ experience has been helpful.
So I’ve been reading round the subject of grief without actually reading about the subject. Just reading books which have distracted me from my sadness. Or books which are calming and make me feel optimistic and hopeful. Or books which help me by experiencing grief through the eyes of someone else. Even if that someone else is a fictional character. And through all of this I am giving myself space and time to think.
It’s funny that for someone like me who loves to talk, talking hasn’t actually helped. Reading helps. And, oddly enough, writing helps too.
By the way that’s a photo from May 1983 above. Just before my birthday. Me and Mum and Lloyd and a neighbour on the farmer’s ferry heading to Sugar Island to pick fiddleheads. A spring ritual in New Brunswick. A former boyfriend took the photo. No, not Hubby; I didn’t know him then. I can tell that Lloyd is saying something jokey to my boyfriend. He always held his hand up like that when he was teasing. I imagine that Mum is probably saying to the boyfriend, “What the hell are you doing?” Mum and Lloyd could be quite the double act when they wanted to be. The neighbour and I are laughing. We all look happy, don’t we?
In the photo I’m wearing Lloyd’s heavy, home-knit socks in his rubber boots and a soft fisherman knit sweater that I loved. I was twenty-seven and working in Ottawa in a job I hated. A job which I would soon chuck in order to head home for a year to regroup and get my head straight. A few months later I would read Gene Stratton-Porter’s book and feel more optimistic about the future.
You know, Mum would be pissed if she thought I was publishing a photo of her in her old pink cardigan, half buttoned, under that red jacket. Whose jacket was that anyway? One that someone, one of us kids or one of our friends, left behind in the hall closet and which she just grabbed to wear over to the island. Never guessing that she would be frozen in time in it.
Like Frances in Perfect Happiness, am I trying to understand the present by peering at frozen images of the past? By conjuring the past in my head through images of happiness or unhappiness? I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe I am.
By the way, if you didn’t notice, in that photo on the ferry, Lloyd is wearing his hat with a slight McCarty slant.
P.S. The book links in this post are affiliate links. If you make a purchase after clicking my link, I will earn a small commission which helps to pay for the blog.