‘Books!’ says Tuppence in Agatha Christie’s Postern of Fate
(Chapter 1: ‘Mainly Concerning Books’)
“Is there anything I can take down for you?”
“Well, I wish you would”, said Tuppence. “I’m falling off those chairs. Some of their legs are very wobbly, some of them rather slippery.”
”Any book in particular?”
”Well, I haven’t got on very far with the third shelf up. Two shelves down from the top, you know. I don’t know what books are there.”
Albert mounted on a chair and banging each book in turn to dislodge such dust as it had managed to gather on it, handed things down. Tuppence received them with a good deal of rapture.”‘Oh, fancy! All these. I really have forgotten a lot of these. Oh, here’s The Amulet and here’s The Psalmayad. Here’s The New Treasure Seekers. Oh, I love all those. No, don’t put them on shelves yet, Albert. I think I’ll have to read them first. Well, I mean, one or two of them first, perhaps. Now, what’s this one? Let me see. The Red Cockade. Oh yes, that was one of the historical ones. That was very exciting. And there’s Under the Red Robe, too. Lots of Stanley Weyman. Lots and lots. Of course I used to read those when I was about ten or eleven. I shouldn’t be surprised if I don’t come across The Prisoner of Zenda. One’s first introduction really, to the romantic novel. The romance of Princess Flavia. The King or Ruritania. Rudolph Rassendyll, some name like that, whom one dreamt of at night.”
Albert handed down another selection.
“Oh yes,” said Tuppence, “that’s better, really. That’s earlier again. I must put the early ones all together. Now, let me see. What have we got here? Treasure Island. Well, that’s nice, but of course, I’ve read Treasure Island again, and I’ve seen, I think, two films of it. I don’t like seeing it on films, it never seems right. Oh – and here’s Kidnapped. Yes, I always liked that.”
Albert stretched up, overdid his armful, and Catriona fell more or less on Tuppence’s head.
Oh, sorry, madam. Very sorry.”
“It’s quite all right,” said Tuppence, “it doesn’t matter. Catriona. Yes. Anymore Stevensons up there?”
Albert handed the books down now more gingerly. Tuppence uttered a cry of excessive delight.
“The Black arrow. I declare. The Black Arrow!”
(Postern of Fate: Chapter 2 The Black Arrow)
YES, BOOKS !
Books are golden keys opening to enchanted gardens,
and, as I always say, we DON’T find them, THEY find us
At home, our new books are dangerously piling up above the others, and in the most unexpected places of our house, but we simply can’t help welcoming them inside, even the most wretched of them. I would like you to see my old edition (1809) of Ann Grant’s Letters from the Mountains. It’s in so bad condition that I hardly dare to open it. But here it is, with its two crumbling volumes, still telling its old story, a Scottish story of course: ‘I think I see you smile and compare me to the fox in the fable ; while from this solitude I rail at the lost pleasures of the dear town. I arrived here last night at eleven, after a tedious journey, in a very rainy day, through the Mona Lia, or grey mountain, an endless moor, without any road, except a small footpath, through which our guide conducted the horses with difficulty. The height of the mountain is prodigious. Crossing it, we were enveloped in the very region of storms and clouds. A small dreary lake, or abrupt grey crag, was the only variety which interrupted a scene, enough to fill any susceptible mind with awe and horror. I am now sitting, in the same rainy weather, in a house on the very edge of a sea, sprinkled with numberless islands. … (Letters from the Mountains “Letter I – To Miss Ewing, of Glasgow - Oban – April 30 1773“)
‘If my Atlantic library is pretty well-stocked with books (a few thousand volumes in several languages) and in maps (all kind of atlases, portulans and charts), it also has a special section devoted to manuscripts. Idon’t mean my own manuscripts, I’m referring to old texts I’ve managed to sniff out and pick up here and there since I took up residence in these Armorican parts.’ (Kenneth White House of Tides)
In order to prepare my next post about the life and works of Kenneth White, I was reading, in House of Tides, the above passage of the chapter entitled ‘A Bibliophile Fantasia” when it suddenly came to my mind that it could be most interesting to introduce on Scotiana a new series devoted to the library of our favourite Scottish authors, wondering about their favourite books and trying to discover to what extent these books have influenced them in their writings.
Writers are great readers and they generally own big libraries, so it could be quite interesting to try and know more about them. Tell me what you read and I’ll tell you who you are! The literary tastes of writers not only can help us to understand who they are but also make us feel like reading what they read. I always learn about our favourite authors’ ‘reading list’ with as much pleasure as I discovered the much awaited list our teachers used to give us at the beginning of a new school year
Our literary investigations will take time for even if we limit our research to our favourite Scottish writers our list of names is already long and each day brings its lot of new Scottish books and authors to read. We’ll begin with the authors we like most and know better: George Mackay Brown, Iain Crichton Smith, Neil Gunn, JM Barrie, Muriel Spark, Alasdair Gray, Margaret Oliphant, Hugh MacDiarmid, John Buchan, Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Scott, Conan Doyle, Hugh Miller, Robert Burns, Iain Rankin… and of course of Kenneth White who is second to none to tell us about his library, his books, maps and manuscripts. Indeed, his readings are omnipresent in his writings.
Now, how shall we proceed to get our information, you must ask yourself?
Of course, our first source of information will be the authors themselves. We’ll use largely their own writings : autobiographical writings, prose as well as poetry as in the case of Kenneth White whose poems are very rich in autobiographical elements, their journals and also their interviews.
Biographies : the literary tastes of the writers is a question the interest of which has not escaped biographers and they devote a lot of pages and even entire chapters to the subject. So, we’ll largely use them too.
Travel books and journals: I’m pretty sure we can glean many interesting pieces of information there. The first names that come to my mind are those of Dr Johnson and Boswell, H.V. Morton, Dorothy and William Wordsworth but there are many others…
Some of them are much more than mere touristic guides.
And of course, our own visits to Scottish writers’ houses though we didn’t visit many of them still. The most rewarding visit we’ve made is that of Abbotsford.
We’ve gone there several times and we are very happy to have been able to visit it at the time when Abbotsford was still inhabited by Sir Walter’s descendants. We could not believe our eyes when we discovered the writer’s desk and library for the first time.
We would have spent hours there!
Many reading memories still haunt Lilibanks, Barrie’s native place in Kirriemuir. We know how he and his mother, Margaret Ogilvie, were avid readers at the time of the author’s childhood.
When we last went to Ecclefechan, it was too late to visit Thomas Carlyle’s Arched House but, at the entry of the village, the statue of the writer sitting in an armchair with a book in his hands, says a lot about the importance of reading for this erudite author.
We’ll try to visit Thomas Carlyle’s native place and as many writers’ houses as we can next time we’ll go to Scotland
Scottish Museums : one of the best ones we saw, as far as literary matters are concerned, is the Writers’ Museum, in the old Lady Stairs House, Lady Stairs Close, just off Lawnmarket in Edinburgh.
For our French readers, and there are a number of them on Scotiana , and for those who have not been definitely discouraged to learn French because of the difficulties of our grammar, I would like to recommend one very interesting book out of a fascinating thematic collection entitled, quite appropriately, Demeures de l’esprit. These books have been written by a French author who has devoted part of his life travelling, visiting and writing about the homes of famous writers. Of course, I’ve begun my reading by the pages describing the Scottish writers’ houses . I still don’t have the whole collection but I’ve put it on my wishing list
Below is the list of writers’ houses visited and described by Renaud Camus in Demeures de l’esprit:
- Abbotsford near Galashiels, Borders, Sir Walter Scott’s house (1771-1832)
- Little Sparta, Dunsyre, Pentland Hills, near Edinburgh, Ian Hamilton Finlay artist and poet (1925-2006)
- 126 High Street , Dunbar, East Lothian, John Muir (1838-1914)
- Brownsbank Cottage, Biggar, South Lanarkshire, Hugh McDiarmid (1892-1978)
- Kellie Castle, Fife, Sir Robert Lorimer (1864-1929) Arts & Crafts movement architect
- Lilybank, Kirriemuir, Angus, Sir James Barrie (1864-1936)
- Church Street, Cromarty, Highland, Hugh Miller (1802-1856)
- Shuttle Row, Blantyre, Greater Glasgow, Scotland David Livingstone (1813-1873)
- Murdoch’s Lone, Alloway, South Ayrshire native place of Robert Burns (1759-1796)
- Castle Street, Mauchline, East Ayrshire, Doctor Mackenzie’s house where Robert Burns and Jean Armour lived for a time
- Ellisland Farm, Auldgirth, 6,5 miles northwest of Dumfries, Dumfries & Galloway Robert Burns 1788-1791
- Mill Hole Brae, Robert Burns, 25 Burns Street, Dumfries, Dumfries & Galloway
- Arched House, maison natale de Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) Ecclefechan, Dumfries & Galloway
- Broughton House, painter Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933) High Street, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries & Galloway
In front of this new reading challenge, we would be well-advised to ask for the help of Bernard Pivot, who is certainly the most famous and best-loved reader in France. He is a journalist, interviewer and host of French cultural television programmes, one of the most popular being ‘Apostrophes’. Indeed, we like very much his interviews of Kenneth White: a friendly dialogue more than an interview, a very lively and full of humour and complicity, which took place, guess where, at the House of Tides
Now, hoping to have given you still more reading ideas I can’t help telling you again ‘Bonne lecture’