I always think it’s a bit of a shame that we tend to experience novels, unlike say poetry or films or music, only once. Perhaps it’s because the time invested in getting through a novel is so much greater than other art forms. Perhaps it’s because, lurking in the shadows, is a sense of time running out, so we devote the precious little we have to a search for something new, and shy away from revisiting. I think this is a mistake. A novel, at least any novel worth reading in the first place, in fact offers up something new each time. The reader, as much as the writer, creates the story and the reader is always new – even when she’s the same person, with each re-reading the reader is renewed.
At 14, like her students, I was enchanted by Jean Brodie; later I recognised her as a charismatic but sinister narcissist. At 15 Cathy and Heathcliff seemed full of thwarted but strangely innocent passion; later a thinly veiled mutually obsessive sadism emerged from the book’s dog-eared pages, rendering the likes of EL James, whose work has been flying off the shelves with such abandon in recent times, really very tame by comparison.
I’ve just read a book by John Williams, who I confess to having never heard of a week ago. Stoner, despite its unhelpful title, might be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever read. I wonder whether, at 41, I stumbled across this novel at just the right age for it to be profoundly moving. I wonder how it will feel forty years down the road, if I make it that far. I wonder if at 20 I would have loved it so much. I’ll never know. I finished it four days ago and it’s taken every ounce of will power I possess not to go right back to the beginning and start again, but I’m determined to give it some time to breathe before I take a second swig.
So instead I’m reading Persuasion. Again. I think it’s been about fifteen years since I last read this particular novel. Recently I’ve been browsing some of Austen’s letters, and I see something of their elegant viciousness here when the narrator tells us that, “the Musgroves had had the ill fortune of a very troublesome, hopeless son; and the good fortune to lose him before he reached his twentieth year.” A little later we are told that: “He had, in fact, though his sisters were now doing all they could for him, by calling him ‘poor Richard’, been nothing better than a thick-headed, unfeeling, unprofitable Dick Musgrove, who had never done anything to entitle himself to more than the abbreviation of his name, living or dead.”
This is perfect, just perfect. No-one wields a knife quite like Austen. With her trademark lack of sentimentality, death is no reason to go easy on a character; not for her the fallacy of dignifying in death those who are despised in life. But what exactly is she saying here? Is Jane Austen, beloved of moralists and middle England, referring to this poor dead character, as unable to defend himself against her verbal assassination as he was to prevent his fictional demise, as a good-for-nothing dick? How wonderful. I don’t remember having noticed this before. And that’s one of the great pleasures of re-reading. And also one of the gifts a reader brings to a story. The truth is, I think that in Regency England the term ‘Dick’ was an insult in as much as it described a sort of unimpressive everyman, a person of no particular note – a Tom, Dick or Harry. I think its metamorphosis into phallically associated term of abuse was yet to be achieved. But what a delight it is to bring this meaning to a contemporary reading of Austen. I have absolutely no doubt that Richard Musgrove was indeed a dick, in all senses of the word, and that had Miss Austen been writing in 2013 she would have taken great satisfaction in describing him as such.