I so rarely read literary criticism any more, and Susan Hill’s latest book has made me realize how much I miss it, and what a difference it would make to my armoury as a reader. The premise of Howards End is on the Landing is a simple one – rather than being seduced by the lure of best-seller lists and celebrity book-clubs, Susan Hill spent a year reading through the books she already owned. That choice leads her to revisit the authors she loves most dearly, and in doing so she is able to tell us stories about her life as a writer, and a reader, and the encounters she has had with some of the most important cultural figures of the past century.
I must confess that this is the first Susan Hill book I have ever read. I knew about The Woman in Black, of course, but I have never read it, or seen any of the adaptations. And the thing that struck me most of all is how much I enjoyed her writing – she describes her love of books (both specific and in general) with such warmth and insight – and her memoir, if that’s what you might call it, is full of jewels, like:
“I have put the light on, but the bulb is weak on the top landing. The books have somehow shrunken back into the shelves. Into themselves, like old people hunched into jackets that are too big for them, sleeves that are too long. They seem to be singing.
All through the house, the books are murmuring, turning over in sleep like pebbles on the shoreline as the tide recedes.”
It’s a beautiful passage, one of many, and what’s so wonderful is that this language is also used to offer us those reasons why she values some authors and some books so highly. And that she does with a light touch, and consummate skill. It felt rather like being in a university tutorial again, in the best possible way – I can’t remember the last time I was prompted to examine so carefully why I love Thomas Hardy, or Ted Hughes, just as she does. Luckily for me, and I’m sure countless others, she lands on some of my most treasured authors, too – Gerald Durrell; Virginia Woolf; T.S Eliot; P.G Wodehouse; Roald Dahl; Ian Fleming – it is impossible not to trust implicitly the opinion of a woman who speaks so fondly of My Family and Other Animals. (Which meant, unfortunately, that I have entirely contravened the spirit of Susan Hill’s endeavour by already purchasing six of the books she mentions and which I had never heard of before. It was impossible not to – she gives you the most tantalizing reading list.)
When I say reading this book was like being in a tutorial, it is not just because Susan Hill’s appreciation is so vivid – “She [Elizabeth Bowen] knows that detail can be either pointless, tiresome padding which contract’s the reader’s own imagination, or that it can be made to count, in the way it can somehow echo a sentence, illuminate a moment of choice, stand for a very particular emotional situation” – but because she made me think about the way I read for the first time in years. She counsels slow reading – lectio divina – pausing over words and sentences, revisiting the two pages of the novel you have just read, giving the writing the time it deserves. This is not a skill I claim to have in abundance any more. I remember during the Christmas holidays after my first term at university, I read a page or two of the The Faerie Queene every day, painstakingly poring over every line. In our Shakespeare exam at the end of second year, we had to be able to gloss Hamlet – which meant hours of careful study and concentration. Nowadays I’m more used to flitting between work emails and news articles, interrupting a film to read a text, quickly guzzling a page or two of a novel before bed. It’s not good enough. Having read this book, I have resolved to read a Ted Hughes poem every night. Slowly, with a pen in my hand, going over the lines again and again until I think I might be beginning to understand what it all means, rather than just enjoying the sound of the words. I used to be able to do it, and Susan Hill has made me want to do it again.
Throughout Howards End is on the Landing, Susan Hill also makes the point, very beautifully, that books become totally entwined in moments of your life. They can immediately evoke particular times, memories, people – the books we read, as she says, become our literary DNA. Again, this made me think about things I hadn’t dwelt on in a long time – but she is absolutely right. There are three books which have marked the most important times in my life, and I was surprised by how forcefully Susan Hill brought that home to me. Very briefly, then, because this is a review rather than an autobiography, the first for me is Jane Eyre. When I was perhaps ten years old, a supply teacher broke off from her lesson to tell us about Jane Eyre. I read avidly by then, but mainly Enid Blyton or C.S Lewis – I had never read what I thought of as an “adult” book. But her description captured my imagination, and I told my father how much I wanted to read it. That weekend, then, he took me into town to buy a copy. He was not much of a reader himself (he wrote his entire English A-level exam on Sir Walter Scott, even though Scott wasn’t on the syllabus, because he was the only author he knew) and was so keen to make sure that he had got the right book that we went to two different shops, and he bought me a copy in each. It is still my favourite novel, possibly partly because it is bound up in such a precious memory, and I still have those two copies. When my dad died shortly after university, Hamlet was, strangely, the one text that made me feel slightly less alone. And when I moved into my boyfriend’s parents house in Oxford a couple of years ago, I was astonished to find my copy of The Portrait of a Lady on his bookshelf. We had been at the same college at Cambridge and had both studied English, but we had never been friends – neither of us could even remember having had a conversation before we re-met five years after graduation. Yet somehow he had my second favourite novel on his shelf, and it felt like a sign. Anyway, I am grateful to Susan Hill for reminding me.
I am often wary of books about reading – simply because I’d rather be reading a good book than reading about reading a good book. But this is absolutely an exception to that rule. I would recommend this whole-heartedly to anyone who loves reading – and I can’t wait to start making my way through Susan Hill’s recommendations. Slowly.