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Confessions of a literature addict

  • 14 August 2017


Was Harry Potter’s 20th birthday to blame? Or the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death? Or merely the ageing process? It’s hard to decide, but in a life quite possibly ruined by literature, I have started remembering some of the books I read in childhood.

Enid Blyton had not then fallen under a cloud (I’m pleased to note she has since re-emerged into the light) and I was a fan. But I was also devoted to Mary Grant Bruce and her rural Billabong series; then there was Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians, with its unforgettable ending: noble teenager Judy is killed by a falling tree but saves her baby brother.

I was born pre-TV, and into a family of auto-didactic and fanatical readers with catholic tastes. And radio was important: when the ABC’s Argonauts dramatised Captain Marryat’s Children of the New Forest, my head and I seemed to spend a lot of time in the England of the Civil War; I was disappointed when my mother declared that our family would undoubtedly have been Roundheads, for I naturally considered Cavaliers much more romantic.

Impressed by my reaction to this work, my maternal grandmother went to considerable trouble and expense to order me an elegant copy of the book: I can still remember the satisfyingly solid navy-blue covers.

My paternal grandmother was addicted to swashbuckling adventure, and therefore a constant reader of writers like Zane Grey, even naming her only daughter after a ZG character. The prolific and workmanlike E.V. Timms and Nevil Shute were also high on her library list. Two of her presents to me were in an older but similar mould: Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho! and The Swiss Family Robinson, by pastor Johann David Wyss.

Both these books were wildly popular in their time, which was well before mine: a village in Devon, now a popular tourist spot, was named after Kingsley’s best-seller, and Wyss’s book has been filmed more than once.

Life was simpler then, and adults had firm ideas about values and conduct, so it is hardly surprising that books deemed suitable for children conveyed Moral Messages: Pollyanna, the 1913 novel that popularised the ‘glad game’, must have been the most unsubtle example in the genre, but I remember reading it avidly.

My favourite literary heroine, however, was undoubtedly tomboy Jo in Little Women. At only 15, Jo was the budding writer who boosted the family finances while chaplain father was away with