Books to Read in Wintertime

Although it has been unseasonably mild of late and not the usual freeze, the days are short and dark. I am therefore still following my usual course of reading some old favourites which seem particularly suited to this season. In this connection I was delighted to find an article in the Guardian, by Charlotte Higgins, which begins

Every midwinter, as the year dies, there is a ritual in which some grownups, old enough to know better, indulge: we reread Susan Cooper’s children’s story The Dark Is Rising.

Susan Cooper

Susan Cooper

Of the five books which make up ‘The Dark is Rising’ sequence, this one, and ‘The Grey King’ were my favourites. The former is set over Christmas – and carries on right into the New Year. It begins with snowfall, which at first is received joyfully, but as the cold deepens, becomes much more frightening. Will wakes up on Midwinter day, the morning of  his eleventh birthday and everything is different. He dips back through time, and familiar figures are woven into the story – Wayland Smith, Herne the Hunter and Merlin himself.  What I particularly love and relate to is not only the weaving in of myths and stories, like the Hunting of the Wren but also the importance of the landscape, a familiarity with place. The way you can walk a path and know that it has been trodden for hundreds of years and if only you could step back, you could see those others. It reminds me very much of Kipling’s “Puck of Pook’s Hill” as well as some of Alan Garner’s work. A sense of being deeply rooted in a landscape and connected to the past and the future through it.

By way of contrast, another of my reading traditions is to embark on ‘The Pickwick Papers’ just a little before Christmas, timing my reading so that I get to Christmas at Dingley Dell on Christmas Eve. It was not until my twenties that I began to appreciate Dickens; I think I  began to slow down in my reading and have more appreciation for description and characterisation rather than just racing to follow the story and find out what happens in the end. Although I have never managed to get through ‘The Old Curiosity Shop’. I’m with Oscar Wilde on that book (One must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing) The pleasure of the Pickwick Papers is in the journey – literally, as much of it is a record of the travelling branch of the Pickwick Club – the Corresponding Society. It’s a thoroughly engaging read and very varied – ghost stories, social commentary, satire, pathos and comedy.  The central narrative focuses on the engaging and touchingly naive Mr Samuel Pickwick who approaches the world like a new born babe, but it’s a rambling novel, full of diversions.

Illustration by Phiz; photo by Philip V. Allingham.

Illustration by Phiz; photo by Philip V. Allingham.

I particularly like the Eatanswill election episode, with its depiction of many electoral malpractices, and the wonderful literary party to which they are invited – by Mrs Leo Hunter, the famous author of an ‘Ode to an Expiring Frog’:

Can I view thee panting, lying
On thy stomach, without sighing;
Can I unmoved see thee dying
On a log
Expiring frog

Tear-jerking stuff. There’s an excellent description of this episode and comparison of the different ways in which illustrators have treated it at The Victorian Web.

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