Saturday, 23 February 2008

'Read to pieces' (. . . and Literature Is All About Sex)

There’s a phrase in the 1889 NYT review of Mrs Leicester’s School which I love: ‘read to pieces’.

(The reviewer was lamenting the fact that children’s books from the early nineteenth century (being comparatively rare) did not survive very long at all.)

How many books have I ‘read to pieces’? Not many, I think, although some of my favourites have become comfortably dog-eared over time.

As children, my sister and I were taught always to be very, very careful with books. Books were precious and should always be handled with care. This was not because they were particularly scarce – in fact, looking back, we seem to have had many more books in our house than a lot of people we knew – but simply because they were worthy of respect. To draw in a book (other than one designed specifically for the purpose or those which, like Annuals, invited completion of quizzes and joining up of dots between the stories) was a cardinal sin, and one I would never have contemplated committing.

There were some crayon marks on the endpapers of my copy of Peter Rabbit, but this shocking desecration had, it was explained in disapproving tones, been committed by The Very Naughty Child who had owned the book before me (namely my cousin Terry – who turned out jolly well in the end, considering).

(The Very Good Girl and the Bad, Scribbling Boy)

Despite all this early repression of my creativity, I did finally - and joyously - learn to 'express myself' in books. In this I was shamelessly encouraged by the fabulously inspirational Eng. Lit. teacher, Mr Curtis (or Robin, as we were daringly allowed to call him), who arrived when I was in the Lower Sixth.

‘Buy your own copies of these set books’, he said, ‘and then you can write all over them’. And so I did. And so I did. And how! D H Lawrence ( The Rainbow); James Joyce (A Portrait of The Artist at a Young Man ); Wilfred Owen (Complete Poems ); Shakespeare (Antony & Cleopatra, Macbeth, Midsummer Night’s Dream, but we got through several others as well); Chaucer (Canterbury Tales); Arthur Miller (Death of Salesman) - I still have my paperback copies of all of these and, while they may not have literally been read to pieces, they were so scribbled-on with a pencil that in places the paper is laced with holes. Especially The Rainbow, which completely took over my life for a term or two. I have never actually dared to re-read it. I feel it would be inadvisable. Too much like meeting up with a former boyfriend - far better to leave the memories intact than to re-visit with the ‘benefit’ of what passes for wisdom and maturity. I fear it would spoil everything.

There were, if I recall correctly, eight girls in my Eng Lit tutor group and just one hapless boy. Poor chap. The school was short of space, so A-level English lessons were held in one of the physics labs – all stained and burned mahogany benches (with inset sinks and gas taps) and tall stools to perch on.

In our first lesson, Robin - who could only have been a decade older than his pupils but he seemed tremendously worldly and sophisticated - climbed aboard one of these benches, lay down on his side, propped up on one elbow, loosened his tie and announced, languorously: ‘Right, then. I’m going to be teaching you English Literature for two years, and we need to get one thing straight right from the start. Literature is All About Sex. So we’re going to read about Sex and talk about Sex a lot in these lessons. Now I’m not going to be embarrassed about talking about Sex and I suggest that, if you want to get the most out of these lessons, you should not be embarrassed talking about Sex either. OK?’ And thus we began.

It’s often remarked that one will meet only one or two truly inspiring teachers in one’s educational career but that their influence will last a lifetime. This is certainly true in my case, and Robin Curtis was one of the two. Had it not been for his encouragement of one pathetically shy 17-year-old with very little self-confidence, then I’d never have gone on to a degree in English.

(Photo of my old school by Andrew Smith )

And there was something else about Robin, too, which makes me remember him often. We had a really very good school choir and orchestra and we were working on Vaughan Williams’s Five Mystical Songs. Several teachers sang in the chorus, so it did not seem particularly surprising when Robin turned up for a rehearsal.

What did surprise us, however – and made me at least go helplessly weak at the knees and nearly faint (oh, the susceptibility of youth!) – was when, as the opening bars of the orchestral accompaniment swelled, in came this fabulous, rich baritone voice in controlled but thrilling crescendo: ‘Rise heart; thy Lord is risen. Sing his praise without delays . . .' (if you’re not familiar with the piece, you can listen to the opening here ). Robin had been a Choral Scholar at Cambridge, and his contribution to the musical life of the school was as memorable as his recumbent teaching position, as he read aloud from D H Lawrence while his adoring pupils sizzled and blushed in the gloom of the old physics lab on many a long, hot summer’s afternoon.


Stephen said...

Lawrence definitely doesn't pall with age. If you're wary of revisiting The Rainbow, you should seek out the two earlier versions of Lady Chatterley, quite different from each other and the final published version.

There was a body of critical opinion that felt that Chatterley was a poor novel by Lawrence' standards, but it looks better as time goes by. And I bet you never studied it at school!

Juliet said...

Hi Stephen - No I didn't study LCL at school, but when I was awarded the English prize in my A-level year (brag, brag), it came in the form of a book token so I could choose the worthy tome with which I wished to be presented on Prize Day. Predicably enough, I chose a fat hardback compilation of five DHL novels, including LCL. My mother was scandalised (it being a mere 18 years after the Lady Chatterly trial at the time, after all!) and contrived to prevent my grandmother from attending the ceremony on the grounds that Grandma's knowing that I had read ANYTHING by DHL, let alone THAT BOOK, would probably result in fatal consequences of one sort or another!