Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Most Fun You Can Have With Your Eyes Open

Ah, August. Summer has been a strange one in the Walker Household this year as we are experiencing the joys of being parents to a school-age child for the very first time. Carnation-Lily-Lily-Rose Walker (not her real name, we're not that cruel, but she is named after that painting) has just finished her first year at primary school/inner-city borstal, and our mission is to teach our beloved daughter to read and write better before she returns in September. It’s not only that we are overly-middle-class people and feel the need to press our child against learning whenever the chance arises, but also Miss Walker was born with a fun genetic condition which means she is visually impaired, so the whole literacy thing has been somewhat more challenging as she can’t see a piggin’ thing. However, being inner-city like what we is, frankly her problems are quite small compared to some of the poor little kiddiwinks she goes to school with, who simply don’t want to read, don’t see their parents reading, don’t have books around the home. Their priorities are things like having clean clothes, getting sleep, actually getting to school. Yikes.

Today’s post is therefore about the beauty and luxury of reading, because everyone needs a bit of luxury in their lives…

Girl Reading Alfred Stevens
Above is a picture of me, on a casual day, hence not one of my better dresses. Note the wool on the table next to me. That is a lot of dress for one little armchair, and I think the tiny foot resting on the velvety cushion tells you all you need to know. The ball of yarn on the floor next to the cushion made me think I should be looking for a kitten, but I wonder if it is a subtle dig at the girl. She could be doing something useful, like knitting, but instead she reads, her action equivalent to a kitten playing with yarn.

Lady Reading Joseph Soulacroix
Let me just up the luxury stakes, then. This is such a shiny picture, but given that she is reading in a dark Victorian house, maybe the light is reflected off her dress, chair and floor and helps her to be able to see the page. I adore the lacy fingerless gloves and that Chinese screen is preposterously fabulous. I am guessing it’s mandatory to have one unfeasibly small shoe poking out from under your skirt as you read…

 Caterina Reading a Book (1888) James Kerr-Lawson
Possibly my favourite so far, I thought this was a Tissot when I first saw her pale perfection, but you need to look further north than that. There is something in the sharpness of her face, hands and book that contrast beautifully with the looser handling of the rest of the scene. Kerr-Lawson gives us a pale, northern European rendering of the Soulacroix scene, but it is no less luxurious for it.

 Woman Reading Erik Werenskiold
Holding back on the luxury stakes, I find this image beautifully peaceful. The woman pauses her reading to gaze at her jug of flowers in an otherwise rather sparse room. She doesn’t look poor, her clothes are neat and the few things she has are not worn out. Possibly the picture speaks of small luxuries, the luxury of beauty being a necessity. Unlike our glamour girls above, this lady has chosen a vase of flowers and a book to enrich her life and they seem to be all she needs. It could also be that she looks at the flowers as their beauty is fleeting, but her book will last forever.

 Drinking Coffee and Reading in the Garden Edward Johnson
Don’t want to bring a jug of flowers into the house? Fine, move yourself into the garden. I don’t believe this woman could look fancier if she tried, holding her book back in a half stretch as she stirs her teeny tiny cup of coffee. I love the fact that the colours of her clothes compliment the flowers, as if she is part of the garden. Judging by the fact she’s sat on some more books, I’m guessing she intends to be out there as long as the sun keeps shining and the coffee keeps flowing.

 The Novel: A Lady in a Garden Reading a Book Frank Dicey
 You would not believe the number of sad images of women squinting by windows in order to read I had to work through when finding pictures for this. That may have been the reality, but that’s just depressing. I want glorious images of glamour girls lounging around enjoying their books. Mind you, considering the Victorian obsession with clutter and privacy, it’s unsurprising the house were so dark and I think I would have moved out into the garden too, if only to lie on a fur rug. How often do I get to lie on a fur rug these days? Not as often as I should, believe me.

My obsession with reading started early. My father tells a charming story of me shoplifting a book while still in a pushchair (only discovered when they returned home and I was there, gleefully clutching a novel in my chubby toddler hands). It’s probably why I write too, to provide myself with exactly what I want to read. There is nothing like reading something that moves you, being entirely isolated within the moment. Much like this young lady…

 Idle Tears Edward Hughes
 Oh, I’ve been there, although I’ve read very few books that made me cry. I’ve had books where I have screamed in the middle (Fingersmith by Sarah Waters) and books where I have been terrified out of my wits (Woman in Black by Susan Hill, really, the bit with the dog in the fog? God Almighty…) but one of my proudest moments has to be when my friend admitted she cried during a sad bit of a manuscript I wrote. I admit it, I want to make you cry so hard bubbles come out your nose.

It is a rare book indeed that I really, really can’t put down. These are the ones that get shoved between the mattress and the bedframe at night because I have fallen asleep reading them, the ones that get carried everywhere until they are finished.

Last Chapter Robert Braithwaite Martineau
Yes! You have to kneel by the dying embers of the fire late at night as you just can’t stop reading, you just have to know what happens next. My worry would be a spark hitting that rather glossy dress of hers but you have to wonder at what point she would notice and how long it would take her to stop reading. Just another paragraph…even though my corset is now on fire…

So, Lily-Rose will be a reader, she has no option, I’m afraid. Both her parents read obsessively (me when I’m not writing) and our house is stuffed with books. According to Freakanomics, a truly fascinating and revealing book, no matter how you try and get a child to read, unless your child sees you reading as part of your normal life, you’re on a hiding to nothing. Her albinism has made that job a little more challenging for her, but reading is just one of those things Lily-Rose wants to do. Thank God for that, as it is the most fun you can have with your eyes open.

Christina Rossetti reading
Lily-Rose 'reading' Christina Rossetti

Thanks for reading this…


  1. "Just another paragraph…even though my corset is now on fire…" Oh my, this made me laugh out loud! I have been like that near a campfire, leaning in while embers flew dangerously close to my hair!

    Lily-Rose has such great examples to guide her in her love of books. Wishing you all the best on that adventure.

    My daughter has stuffed her bookcases, read every book in them at least once, and still "needs" more! Her ideal room would have floor to ceiling bookcases, and a ladder to reach the books at the top.

    Loved the pictures. It got me to wondering if there are more paintings of women reading than there are of men reading. Thank you for sharing so much loveliness and humor!

  2. Thanks for your nice blog!
    Worth reading in this perspective are also two books of Stefan Bollman: "Women Who Read are Dangerous" and "Women who Write"
    (in Dutch know as "Vrouwen die lezen zijn gevaarlijk" en "Vrouwen die schrijven leven gevaarlijk"

    The book "Women Who Read are Dangerous" was also released as "Reading Women"

  3. And you find such fantastic pictures. Men read by windows too by the way!

  4. i love "Caterina Reading a Book"... a new fav!
    thank you for sharing :)
    I love your daughters name - and she sure is a cutey-pie! your a good mama :)
    My 'little' one just went off to high school today - eleventh grade. they grow up fast...

  5. *you're* a good mama..
    ugh, i hate it when people mess that up.... and there i did it myself!

  6. Ironically, I'm such a language fascist. I get really cross when we go to one of my favourite chain restaurants and they have 'Famous for our Fajita's' written on their backs...

  7. Such a fun post! I've never seen most of these pictures before, so it's a real treat. Although I would venture that Walter Plunkett had definitely seen that first one! (Though it's difficult to imagine Scarlett so absorbed in a book...)


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx