Sunday, 20 May 2007

For the First Time: Dashed Off Letters, Taking the Water and the Gentle Art of Being an Excellent Walker

While it is true that a book, or whatever object the old metaphor is applied to, ought not to be judged by it's cover, never let it be said the cover isn't yet significant. At fourteen years old I hadn't yet read any Jane Austen, and though I read constantly, my exposure to books that weren't Enid Blyton or on the school list and/or didn't involve vampires, preferably, or adventures on the other side of wardrobes or looking glasses, was minimal. But I was however seriously into black and white movies and spent most of my early teenage years watching them, reading books and devoting much time and energy to clandestine smoking. Clearly, I did little homework. It was through one of these b&w movies that I first came across Austen, thanks to the Laurence Olivier phase I was in and the 1940 Pride and Prejudice adaption he was in. Incidentally, that phase started with my catching Lady Hamilton, also more sensationally billed as That Hamilton Woman in the US, on TV one Sunday afternoon. The same movie also was the first small grain in my interest in all things Georgian (era not country) including of course, literature.

Though I wasn't overly crazy for the Pride and Prejudice film, there was something about the dialogue and the story that intrigued me. I found the novel in my school library, checked it out, and didn't read it. Probably too busy reading Anne Rice novels and smoking and watching movies, habits which contributed no doubt to my leaving high school shortly thereafter at 15 and getting a job in a technical bookstore. Suddenly I had money. Not much but enough for a trip to blessedly air conditioned shops in the city on Fridays to buy a book, see a movie and drink coffee (from an espresso machine! Crazy). In a bookstore there where I was probably looking for a new Anne Rice novel, there was a table loaded up with Wordsworth Classics going for three or four dollars. I perused them enthusiastically but didn't recognise any names or titles except for Dracula and Frankenstein, which I'd naturally read, until I came across Persuasion by Jane Austen. The volume was slim and the book's billowy cover caught my fancy, as it were. I remember reading on the inside that the painting was called April Showers Bring May Flowers. Back in the day in Western Australia, I always enjoyed showers. That of course was before I moved to Vancouver and despair over the rainy weather often makes me want to set myself on fire. But anyway, the book cover appealed to me, the girl and the colours in her dress, the shower and garden, and remembering how I had liked the style of the dialogue in the film, I bought it.

It might seem excessive to say that a three dollar copy of Persuasion I'd bought when I was 15 influenced my life, but it did. I fell rapturously in love with the book, and with the writing style, intelligence and insight of Jane Austen and with the small window of time and the places she wrote about. I rapidly worked my way through all of her writings and thanks to my local library, onto many more authors who I may never have read. A whole new world opened up to me then, of things I knew very little of at the time..the classics of European literature, art and music and even interiors, landscaping and of course, tea (made from real leaves! Crazy). And l reckon that the landscape gardener who had the most lasting influence over the parks and shrubberies of the era has the best nickname ever: Capability Brown.

More than ten years on, Persuasion is still my favourite book. I so admire and enjoy the story, the character insights, the satire and the fun of course, but it will also always be the first really adult book I bought with my own money, for myself. And thanks to my much indulged obsession, when I inevitably went back to school three years after buying it, I got an A for an English essay I wrote on Persuasion. Crazy.

I don't smoke anymore Mother and Certain Other Readers, so stop looking at me like that. You know how. Thank you.

1 comment:

Lisa said...

What a wonderful obsession it is! Just discovered your blog--I am really enjoying it!