Friday, November 22, 2013



In reading, as in life, it is a wonderful thing.  I've been shipwrecked at home with a cold this week, and so revisited some beloved comfort reading, two of my desert island books.  Sitting under a comforter in a patch of sun, with a cup of tea, a box of tissues, a heap of cough drops, and a dozing cat - well, add a few particular books and I was deeply happy, in spite of feeling terrible.  First, The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim.  The ultimate getaway novel - how to transform the unspeakably dreary by renting a Mediterranean castle in springtime!  Then, in keeping with the vein of elsewhere (yes, more Italy, please, not November in bleak old Maine), A Room with a View by E.M. Forster.  Read and re-read, this must be the fifth time I've gone through both of these novels in my lifetime, and I hope not the last.  They are books for dreaming on, for seeing through the veil of the everyday.  They are books about taking a stand for happiness, after awakening to its possibilities in the first place.  It was wonderful to be able to read both from cover to cover, in two successive afternoons.  My life is not exactly busy, but it seems to be that the only time I allow myself to read that way anymore is when I am under the weather, and unable (or at least unwilling) to do the thousand and one tasks most days require.  Perhaps I should set aside one day a week just for reading marathons.  Sunday afternoons...? 

But back to serendipity.  After finishing A Room with a View I wandered into the book room looking for what should naturally come next.  Like a happy child, thinking More, please.  I picked up two E.M. Forster books (that I've had for years and yet never read), thinking they would be perfect browsing to finish off the evening with.  One is his Commonplace Book edited by Philip Gardner (Stanford 1985) and the other his Selected Letters Volume One 1879-1920 edited by Mary Lago and P.N. Furbank (Harvard 1983). After looking them both over I started with the letters, since he didn't begin keeping his commonplace book until 1925 and I feel that chronology should be respected whenever possible.  Well, the letters are wonderful indeed, and I soon found out something I may have known once upon a time but had forgotten - that for several months in 1905 the young E.M. Forster was a tutor for Elizabeth von Arnim's children, at her schloss Nassenheide (then in Germany, now in Poland).  I blissed out, at not only this serendipitous reading experience - picking a book on a whim and finding it linking so firmly the two books I'd just finished reading on more two more whims - but also at the glimpses behind the scenes, at it were.  Forster recorded his experiences and opinions in chatty letters home to his mother, right at the time when his own first novel (Where Angels Fear to Tread) was being accepted by a publisher back in England.  He writes of Elizabeth as a near-celebrity, or at least as a known person, and brings her down to earth gently yet firmly.  I love hearing her vacillating opinion of his novel, in a letter to his mother from July of 1905 (p.81):

"My proofs are arriving at last.  E. is very funny over it.  She read ch. 1-3, and said it was very clever, but most unattractive, and she felt as if she wanted a bath.  Then she read ch. 4, and said it was really beautiful, and she wanted to retract.  Now she has read ch 6 - you wouldn't remember, but it was the one that you rather liked - and has gone back to her original opinion."

I also love Forster's adoption of Elizabeth's phrase The Man of Wrath, used in many of his letters to refer to Elizabeth's husband the Count, just as she herself does throughout her autobiographical Elizabeth and Her German Garden series.  He doesn't spend much time with Elizabeth, however, and so, besides containing the pleasure of reading about two favorite authors at the very same time, his letters go on to become utterly compelling for many other reasons.  His writing, his turns of phrase, his friends, his opinions about his own reading, his homosexuality, his travels in Italy and India, and his years in Alexandria during the first world war, well, it's all fascinating, and let's just say that this turned into so much more than merely a browsing book.  I now must find a copy of Volume Two, and see where it leads me.           

A Room with a View is also one of my comfort reads (along with PG Wodehouse's Psmith) and I'm happy you feel the same way.

I just read in Forster's "Commonplace Book" that he regarded "Howard's End" as a failure because he didn't love any of the characters he'd created. He also said, not so, in "A Room with a View" - Lucy, he loves. Me, too.

Other comfort reads - "Jeeves and Wooster" certainly, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ronald Blythe, oh I could go on and on. Thanks for your comment.
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