Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Old Books

The dining-room books were only an overflow, so that any reason for wanting to keep them was likely to be sentimental, any reason for wanting to buy them second-hand utter lunacy. Who would be inclined to read them? Mottled, clenched together, they had the unpleasant smell of books which have been behind glass. Caroline, sneezing, took them out in armfuls, kneeling on the carpet.

"We should be quite ruthless, Hugo," she said, pushing her spectacles up her nose, peering at a row of titles. "They are only decaying here and it would be a wonder if we ever took any of them out to read. What an enormous spider! It amazes me that they can go on living shut up in a cupboard year after year: years it must be since I opened this door. Oh, it is dead, anyway. Well, there's one we don't want, to begin with. The Roadmender. Falling to pieces. Smelling bad."

"That was Vesey. He left it out in the rain and ruined it. Scarcely apologised afterwards. I was very annoyed at the time. My brother gave it to me." Hugo turned the book sadly in his hand.

"In that case . . ." Caroline said.

"No. After all, we said we'd be ruthless and we must be. It's useless to harbour it."

At the Liberal Party Jumble Sale he felt a good home would be found for it, as if it were a shabby kitten. He threw it into the armchair with the other rejects.

"Mothercraft Manual," Caroline said sadly. "No more call for that."

"We hope," Hugo said, as husbands feel they should.

Caroline remembered how she had turned those pages in anxiety and despair. Few of the horrors had happened to her
– neither of the children had had convulsions or pushed beads up its nose. She threw a pile of Jules Vernes into the arm-chair.

"Steady!" said Hugo. "Joseph may like those later on."

"Oh, I doubt it. Boys don't like the same books nowadays." She tossed some more of Hugo's youth away
– Captain Marryat, Ballantyne.

"But, Caroline, this was a prize," he protested.

"Oh, was it, dear. Sorry. Keep it then."

"I intend to. All right for this Little Women to go, I suppose? There's another one in the sitting-room."

"I think I'll keep that for Deirdre. It's rather a nice copy. My Aunt Hester gave it to me."

"Well, then, the one in the sitting-room can go. Harriet, I wonder if you'd mind fetching it?"

"My mother gave me that one," Caroline said in a shocked voice. "She used to read it to me after tea. We both cried dreadfully."

"All right, dear, all right."

He carelessly tossed aside another book, then some memory checked him. He retrieved it and cautiously glanced at the flyleaf.

"Well, here's one we won't send. Here's one there's no argument about. Harriet, look! There's a book I'd never surrender. Never. The first book
– I think I am right in saying – that Caroline ever gave me. You'll see, she's written in it. The Story of an African Farm. "Allons, the road is before us," she's written. "Hugo from Caroline". We were just engaged. I've always treasured that and always shall. The Liberal Party can go bankrupt before I'd be induced to give them that."

He replaced the book with dreadful vehemence on the top of the bookshelf. 

This passage occurs in the middle of the attractive novel pictured above, A Game of Hide and Seek, by Elizabeth Taylor. It came out in 1951, was reprinted as a paperback by Virago in 1986, and the copy I just finished reading was reissued by Virago in hardcover in 2008. Last year I read The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Nicola Beauman's biography of the author, who lived from 1912 to 1975. Since then I have read most of the dozen or so novels that "the other Elizabeth Taylor" published. A Game of Hide and Seek is at the same time one of the funniest and one of the grimmest.

Image at top is here
; image at bottom is here.