Friday 23 October 2009

The Girl Who Was Punished For Reading

When I was young, for reasons clear to regular readers of Reading 001 these posts, I was a book worm. Well, not so much a book-worm as a book-dragon. Once I discovered that it was possible to escape into a book I was hooked.

What was I escaping from? Well, start with a drab house, a stressed mother, bullying at school, arms and face too long, hands too big, hand-me-down clothes, sparse meals…

From such a place I could escape to a ranch in Canada, a long treck in China, a Scottish farm, a Spanish hacienda, a Danish castle, a house called Manderlay, a sailing boat, or a boarding school in Surrey. Adventure, colour, drama, comedy and tragedy were at my finger tips at the turn of a page. It was fan-tastic. On reflection, my life then could define the term escapism.

Nowadays there is a school of thought that disadvantaged children should be offered literature that validates and reflects their own environment.* There are good examples of this. We have novels Reading 006 like those of David Almond or Alan Garner that might do this in a way sufficiently complex and multilayered to be of interest right across - and up and down- the snakes-and-ladder board of class and culture.You may have your own favourites that fit this bill.

In those days, though, I did not look in literature for what I already knew; I looked for what I could wonder about: sumptuous rooms, tea on the table and a smiling mother, picnics in the dorm, trekking in the wastes of Canada, murderous wives and predatory widowers, love beneath the oleander tree, walking with a hundred Chinese children to safety, delivering lambs on a Scottish hillside, assassinating kings and sailing with my comrades down Coniston Lake

Reading 003 So far, so escapist. But in so escaping I discovered for myself the universals of emotional, political and social life far beyond the confines of that small house in that small town. I now feel certain that this level of escapism ensures that - in tune with the Bronte sisters - though one’s domestic life might be contained, the spirit can roam free and the soul is never parochial.

However, being a book-dragon was not without drawbacks. One day at school, escaping the dining hall clatter of plates and voices onto Crusoe’s Desert Island, I was pulled up by my red-haired German teacher.

‘What are you doing there, Wendy?’Reading 005

‘Reading, Miss.’

‘Two hundred lines! I must not read at the dinner table.’

I must not read at the dinner table

I must not read at the dinner table

I must not read at the dinner table

I do now…


Reading 004

* (Afterthought. Of course there was all of D H Lawrence in which I did recognise aspects of my own life. And I did encounter The Family From One End Street written and illustrated by Eve Garnett, a charming and romanticised version of working class life which no more resembled my own than did The Forsyte Saga… )


  1. Wow! I could SO relate to your post. I, too, read to escape a limited environment and punitive adults.

    Without these escapes, my world would have been small indeed.

  2. I was lucky in that my Mum was a reader and encouraged reading of anything and everything. Yet even for me reading was liberating. As I have said before the only thing about school that was bearable was the library.

    But for others who have come from some form of disadvantage it has always been the "wow" moment they have described as they realised there was a world other than their own. For my other half(who had a nightmare childhood) there was one of those moments. She always says that reading "Jane Eyre" at 12 or 13 was absolutely seminal for her. It sparked a realisation that she could be other that what her parents were, that there were other choices, alternative world views.

  3. In reference to your comment of a few minutes ago, I'm only too happy to share (especially on a drab morning)!
    I should add that I always enjoy (and more often than not love) your posts.
    You are a thinker and a writer, so your posts are invariably such wonderful pieces of craft that they give the greatest pleasure.



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