Tuesday, 26 December 2017

The Joys of Rediscovery

Last week I was listening to an interview with 100-year-old Diana Athill, editor and novelist (Woman’s Hour, I think), and she talked about the potential joy of losing her memory, forgetting she had read a book and being able to discover it all over again. It reminded me of books I have been able to discover twice, not as a result of failing memory but thanks to the word “Abridged.”

When I was a child, I was invariably given a book for Christmas. There were Puffins, of course, but a great many were red-cloth hardbacks of classics, published by Dean & Son, or Regency. They must have been going for some time, because my mother passed on some of hers (with titles like Phyllis of the Fourth Form and featuring a lot of hockey). They all had pages like blotting paper (the lingering results of wartime economy production, maybe), and they usually had one or two pictures. Just enough to intrigue. I particularly remember the picture in the Regency edition of Jane Eyre, which struck me, even at a very young age, as bearing no resemblance whatsoever to Rochester and Jane.

It was that edition of Jane Eyre that first opened my eyes to that word “Abridged.” Much of the story made no sense at all, but I put it down to me being young and the writer being Victorian and nothing in the adult world really making sense. Why did Jane get on a stage coach, get off it a few hours later and almost immediately be found starving by St John Rivers? I knew that I could get quite peckish in a couple of hours, but I’d never swooned with hunger after one coach journey. Years later, I read the Penguin classic version of Jane Eyre and discovered all the vast chunks that had been left out of the Regency edition, including the days Jane spends wandering on the moors, resorting to pig swill in her desperation. It read as a completely different book. After that, I was able to go back over all the books I’d read in my childhood and discover the full unabridged versions. Like coming across a book for the first time.

I have never understood the reasoning behind the abridging decisions. It had nothing to do with shielding children from naughtiness or nastiness. I think it was just an exercise in randomly saving paper. As well as the Dean and Regency classics, I also inherited a few Everyman’s Library little volumes from my grandfather. I learned to read far more effectively from struggling with Alexander Dumas’ Twenty Years After (because it featured the absolutely fascinating execution of Charles I) than I ever did ploughing through the tedious Janet and John series. As I discovered later, they too were abridged. Ironically, the Everyman versions (intended for adults) coyly left out the sex scenes, and the children’s version kept the sex but left out the most humorous scenes.

I have yet to tackle the unabridged version of Moby Dick. Maybe that’s because I never could bring myself to tackle the unabridged version. Sorry about that, Herman.


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