When I finished reading All the Books of My Life by Sheila Kaye-Smith, I was almost giddy with delight. A memoir focused on Kaye-Smith’s reading throughout her life, I was enchanted by it to the point that when I finished I told Simon (who read it last year and adored it) that “if I wrote the review right now it would be so gushingly, adoringly positive that only people who have read and loved the book already will be able to make sense of my ramblings.” So, for your benefit dear readers, I have waited. Let us see if I am any more coherent now.
Kaye-Smith uses the books in her life as markers, guiding the reader through her childhood (full of Victorian children’s novels where the heroes and heroines all seemed to die), her teen years (when she was warned off reading the classics – a topic that prompted a very interesting discussion here), her early adulthood (when she finally felt mature enough to handle all the novels she had forbidden herself when younger) and so on and so on, tracking her evolution as a member of the literary community and, eventually, her conversion to Roman Catholicism (I must admit, she lost me briefly at this point, her theological readings being far too dense for my understanding). All those stages and, most importantly, all those books contributed to the woman she became, the one who wrote this book:
I do not want to exaggerate the effects of reading on character, but the influence of a book is probably as strong as any to be gained from most human contacts. After all, a book is the voice of a fellow creature, calling through the print, perhaps from somewhere close at hand among our own interests and occupations, perhaps from across the world, perhaps from across the ages. It is one of the many forms taken by experience, and through reading it we may find ourselves transported into an entirely new field of perception. Even if we do not choose to remain there we probably shall not leave it as if we had never entered it.
Kaye-Smith had already published a conventional memoir by the time she sat down to write this and, because of that, seems to have felt little need to go into specifics about her personal relationships with non-writers or even much detail about her career as a writer (only a few of her books are mentioned by name). Instead, by tracking the evolution of her tastes, her different motivations and influences over the years, you get a wonderful sense of her personality. I particularly enjoyed hearing about her priggishness as a teenager, when “…like the schoolmistress my conscience would cry ‘Stop!’ when anything suggested deviation from strict propriety occurred or seemed likely to occur in a book.” Her parents had little patience for such affectation and did their best to discourage it. I was also interested to see her frustrated reminder to readers about the career ambitions of Edwardian girls, something that the 1950s cult of domesticity (the book was published in 1956) was doing its best to ignore:
It is generally supposed that in the early years of this century girls left school only to lead a vapid social life at home until somebody came along and married them; but nearly all my contemporaries left to take up some sort of profession – to be nurses, teachers, missionaries, and even doctors. I left to become a writer, to the disappointment of my father, who would have liked me to go to Cambridge…
Not every page of the book is about Kaye-Smith’s reading but the real fun does come from hearing her thoughts on authors and books that are still read today. Simon, for instance, adored her musings on Ivy Compton-Burnett. I loved everything she had to say about Jane Austen (though not as much as I loved Speaking of Jane Austen, a book of essays by her and G.B. Stern that I finished on Saturday and cannot wait to discuss with you all) but probably had even more fun reading her thoughts on the books she didn’t like. As delicious as it is to hear her enumerate all the reasons why Emma is a perfect book, it is much more fun to hear her complain about Little Women:
My failure ever to read Little Women must be put down to more humbling causes. I found the March family much too good for me. I liked children to be naughty – to ‘get into scrapes’ as we called it then – so that I need not inevitably feel inferior to those I read about. The unselfishness of the Marches in giving their breakfast to feed the poor, and sacrificing their Christmas presents to help the Union Army was more than I could bear. They had performed actions of which I was incapable and I hated them for it. I never got beyond Jo’s sacrifice of her hair.
For all the recognizable titles she mentions, there are just as many obscure ones by authors long forgotten. There is an entire chapter, “Sad Pageant of Forgotten Writers”, devoted to them but the second-rate reading material of her youth belongs there too. Kaye-Smith is very sensible about it all, being not particularly sentimental about childhood favourites and recognizing that the bulk of the reading material from her Victorian and Edwardian childhood was poorly written and not worth preserving.
I am not sure I’ll ever want to read Kaye-Smith’s novels – like Simon, I am afraid they are just the kind of rural novels that Stella Gibbons had such fun skewering in Cold Comfort Farm, though I do already have Joanna Godden sitting on my bookshelf – but I loved reading this. It is such a fun, appealing format for a memoir and Kaye-Smith carries it off beautifully; the balance between her life and her reading is just perfect and the writing is beautiful and humourous. I thought it would be a difficult book to top…but then I read Speaking of Jane Austen (aka Talking of Jane Austen) and that was even better. Thanks to Sheila Kaye-Smith, my reading for the year is off to a very good start!