I recently read one of my favourite ever author autobiographies, Sheila Kaye-Smith’s All The Books of My Life (1956) without having read any of her novels. I have read two volumes about Jane Austen which Sheila Kaye-Smith co-authored, and now I have read her autobiography (of sorts) – but I have still yet to read any of her fiction. Should I? Being ‘rural novels’, I have an unreasoning terror that they will be exclusively in cod-dialect, and feature sturdy (but honest) young men and flighty (but honest) young women. Everything, in fact, that Stella Gibbons warns there might be, in Cold Comfort Farm. My experience with Mary Webb has done nothing to assuage these fears.
Most of us turn to author’s biographies or autobiographies to elucidate their novels, or simply because we want to learn a bit more. My way of doing things seems a bit contrary, but I happened to flick through All The Books of My Life in the Bodleian the other day (somehow it has found its way to the high-use open shelf collection – who could possibly have been reading it?) and I knew I’d have to get myself a copy. As the account of writing and living as a novelist, it is deeply interesting. As the perspective of a reader in the first half of the twentieth century, it is a joy.
Kaye-Smith apparently wrote an earlier autobiography about ‘my marriage, my home and my religion’, and decided that, turning seventy, it was time to dedicate an autobiography to the books she has read. It’s like My Life in Books, I suppose. From the book about Charles which taught infant Sheila to read, to the latest developments in her reading taste, Kaye-Smith threads the narrative of her life with the books which have influenced her. Naturally, perhaps, the quotations I have jotted down are those which deal with the books, rather than the life. Her life is interesting, but I found myself nodding in agreement so enthusiastically at her readerly opinions that I couldn’t help but mark them down. Excuse a torrent of quotations… beginning (let’s keep this chronological, shall we?) with her early affection for Lewis Carroll’s Alice:
My delight in Alice in Wonderland, which I feel with increasing strength every time I read it, dates from the very dawn of understanding. It is surely a wonderful achievement to have written a book that does not lose a spark of its magic in the re-reading of sixty years. As I grew up I came to prefer Through the Looking-Glass – the adventures and characters are more significant and I am increasingly amazed at the brilliance of its construction – but my first introduction was to Wonderland, by means of a version specially prepared for small children and called The Nursery Alice. This had the Tenniel illustrations, but they were all in colour, and the book must have been an expensive one for it was always kept in the drawing-room. I remember the panic with which I saw my mother lock the drawing-room door when a thief was supposed to be about, for I felt sure that his main design was to steal my Alice.
There is something rather adorable about that, isn’t there? I love how Kaye-Smith is able to recall the perspectives she held at various stages of her life. Not only does she remember the books she read, but how she felt about them and the impact they had. She covers all manner of obscure novels and esoteric books, but my next two excerpts concern well-known writers, and I’ve selected them purely because I agree with them so whole-heartedly…
I do not think a full-grown sense of humour is required to appreciate Dickens, but it is advisable to read him as I did for drama and pathos. He is primarily a comic writer. His character-drawing – and no one more signally then Dickens has given honorary members to the human race – is the drawing of a humorist, that is of a caricaturist, who can often show more of his model’s essential quality than a ‘straight’ artist, but certainly requires a mature mind to appreciate him at his full value. I read Dickens not to laugh but to cry, for in those days I wanted most of a novel was the gift of tears.
And how could I resist this account of her experiences reading Ivy Compton-Burnett? Not only do I agree with her assessment of Dame Ivy, but it shows that a false-start with her needn’t be the end of the story… encouraging words for any of you who have tried and failed to enjoy ICB!
For many years I found her unreadable, and the praise of her admirers was as the meaningless clamour of those who worship strange gods. I myself bore all the marks of the Philistine – I complained that her novels were only dialogue, that the characters all talked alike, that they did not belong to the story and so on. When J.B. Priestley in one of the Sunday papers investigated her cultus and found it more of a craze, I murmured ‘the Emperor’s clothes…’
Then came what can only be called my conversion. It was one of those mental switch-overs in which a pattern that had seemed meaningless as black on white is suddenly filled with meaning by the discovery that it is really white on black. I. Compton-Burnett’s novels are not pictures, they are designs, and bear the same relation to life as the stylized rose on the wallpaper bears to the realistic illustrations in Flowers of the Field. One does not quarrel with the wallpaper flower because it has a symmetry and formality which the model lacks. We obtain both from the book and from the wallpaper the essential meaning of a rose – indeed there may be more abstract meaning in the wallpaper design than in the naturalistic picture. I. Compton-Burnett is definitely an abstract novelist.
When with a deep sigh of satisfaction I closed Mother and Son I did not at once, as I should have in the case of any other author who had so delighted me, rush to order more books by the same hand. I shall doubtless read them all in time, but they must be spaced out – probably as far apart as their actual dates of publication. To sit down and read, say, six I. Compton-Burnett novels in succession would be like sitting down to a six-course dinner consisting entirely of caviare. The addict would find that bad for the palate as well as the digestion – time must pass and other food be eaten if he is to recapture the original savour. So promising myself a treat in the future not too far away, I open a novel by Monica Dickens.
|Sheila Kaye-Smith (photo source)|
I shouldn’t be giving the impression that All The Books of My Life is simply a collection of reviews tacked together. When Kaye-Smith subtitles the book ‘an autobiographical excursion’, she means just that – the books really do frame an autobiography and, especially in the second half, anecdotes and reflections prompt or are prompted by comments on the reading Kaye-Smith undertook at any point in her life. For example, there is a fascinating account of a friend in early adulthood who suffered a psychiatric-disorder which made her believe in her own false double-life. Details of fan letters and increasing literary celebrity will appeal to anybody intrigued by the status of authors in the mid-century. Towards the end of the book, there is quite a bit about Kaye-Smith’s Catholicism and various theological and spiritual books, which will appeal to some readers (although mostly went a bit over my head, as her spiritual reading seems rather more learned than mine.) And any well-known admirer of Jane Austen could hardly craft a book without humour – it is a subtle wit, found chiefly in the turns of phrase Kaye-Smith uses, or wry conclusions to paragraphs…
Love and violence also swelled the sales of another spinster novelist, E.M. Hull, author of The Sheik, whose remarkable picture of desert life started a public demand for sheiks that was fostered by the cinema until it died of its own absurdity.
We all love reading the words of bibliophiles, otherwise we wouldn’t be reading blogs. All The Books of My Life demonstrates that you don’t need to have the remotest interest in an author’s work to find their autobiography engaging, and I found herein the dual pleasures of agreement and discovery. For all the head-nodding passages, there were two or three about books and authors I have yet to encounter. It is perhaps surprising that more authors do not choose this bookish format for their autobiographies, and I wish more would, but I am delighted to have found (entirely by good fortune) so sublime an example. But I still won’t be throwing my hat into the ring and trying one of her bain’t-youm-be-alost rural novels.