Bedtime stories

Charlotte’s delightful podcast made me think about bedtime reading.

When I was in my 20s and my sister in her 30s someone once asked us what was the best thing about the way our Ma brought us up as children.

We both separately said “reading to us”, and they looked at us a little oddly. How could something that obviously stopped when we were six or seven be the best possible thing?

But she didn’t stop.   She read us Beatrix Potter and Pooh and Wind in the Willows when we were smidgeons. She read us Kipling and Elizabeth Gouge when we were older. Then she read us Trollope and Austin and Dickens and Gaskell when we were teenagers. We caught the habit. My big sister read me Daddy Long-legs and T.Tembarom when my Ma had to pause draw breath and both my sisters took turns reading me The Lord of the Rings, or the first few chapters, at least.

My Ma read to me regularly until I was eighteen or so and left home. I have clear memories of sewing a seam and listening to the sarcasm of Mr Collins, to Emma Wodehouse’s silly mistakes, to Lydia Bennet’s folly, and to the smooth machinations of the Reverend Snape and Mrs Proudie.

I’ve been trying to work out what this gave me; evening upon evening of listening to second-order 19th and early 20th century fiction. Well, the Jane Austin isn’t second order fiction, but Angela Thirkle certainly is. Now that I list it I can see how neurotically small-c conservative my Ma’s taste in fiction actually was. Mind you, I am not sure that mine is any better, merely more modern. So little of it was Capital-L Literature that I still tend to slush around with low-brow and middling stuff and avoid the pure oxygen of the high-brow. I am still slightly nervous about Literatature. Am I Grown Up enough for it?

However, the true gift given was self-confidence. I was worth spending time with. Whole novels-worth of time. I don’t remember that we discussed the books very much. I think I provided monosylables in reply to “are you enjoying it?” and occasionally commanded her to “go on!”. But we spent a lot of time together, my Ma and I.

I also learned to listen, to be in an audience. I learned to hear the words that are spoken, and this has made it easier to hear what isn’t said, to hear the silences between the words. Mind you, if somone had told my Ma this when I was a teenager she’d have laughed out loud. I listened to other people no more than any teenager ever does, so the gift was subtle and long-lasting.

It gave me an ear for a well-turned phrase and an understanding that the test of a good sentence is how well it reads out loud. I can write with a troubling fluency, and I suspect that came from listening to educated English being read.

However, I think the most powerful thing that these evenings gave me was a sense of my family. Imagine, if you will, three girls swooning simultaneously over Strider in the inn in Bree. I had a moment of shivering self-awareness at the time, that this solid, firm, loving, shared, sisterly security was precious and rare and to be remembered. Then, many years later when my Ma was old and infirm and frail, I would visit her and occasionally I’d read to her. One day, when I was reading one of the old familiar stories, I realised that I was echoing the rhythms and cadences of her own voice from more than thirty years before, and in another moment of shivering awareness, I realised that these were the rhythms of my grandfather’s voice, reading to her as a tiny girl some forty years earlier again. So one of the gifts she gave me was to hear an echo of my grandfather, who died before my memories began.

Reading out loud while someone sews or draws or paints is such a simple way to share time and space with them. It combats the encroachment of television and games and the internet into all our minds. It gives a space where love and silence and sharing may grow. And enjoying the jokes and joys of a story with someone is a quietly intimate pleasure.

6 responses to “Bedtime stories

  1. Family traditions cross generations. I am envious of your reading tradition, yet my family also had a tradition, not of reading to each other but of discussing what we read. Whether it was Agatha Christie, Dickens or Georgette Heyer, Pollyanna, the Secret Seven or Biggles we shared our books, my mother and I, and we talked about them. Just as she had talked books with her headmaster father.

  2. What a lovely post. Part of me has been mourning the fact that I might stop reading to my oldest as she is now reading in German and soon will be reading in English too – of course that’s not the case. I can keep on reading to her, for as long as we both enjoy it.

    I like what being read to has given you, and I agree, it’s a wonderful antidote to all the electronic input we get, as well as a sign that someone loves you enough to give you their time.

  3. S and I read to each other in the evenings – a practice I adopted after reading George Eliot’s journals, and finding that she and her partner G.H. Lewes used to read to each other all the time.

    Well, that and the fact a Man Who Will Remain Nameless had broken the telly.

    I am very envious of all the reading aloud you got through, it’s lovely, so moving. I love the reading aloud thing so much, and am a little wistful that my parents didn’t really bother after I learnt to read by myself. On the other hand, on the rare holidays I spent with my Dad, he used to tell us stories he’d made up himself, great long epics, in which my little sister and I made bestest friends with the King of the Eagles, and went on adventures with him. I remember the first one, when I was about four, and we had to be rescued form a jaffa-cake-stealing tiger in the Indian Jungle. I remember the last one, when I was ten, in which a painting of the Last Judgement came to life and devils invaded the cathedral (it was BRILLIANT).

    Oh, damn, I’m all of a wistful now. *sniff*.

  4. Yes, reading aloud is something that can and should continue. I share the sorts of memories Aphra has related. Since our parents refused to join in the tv mania, the family history contains many hours of reading to each other, passing a book around the group, while the listeners were knitting, or drawing, or just kicking back allowing the story to take us away.

    Later on in my life, my first husband and I chose to build a house with no electricity, and we spent many of the long alaskan winter nights reading to each other. We read through several of Victor Hugo’s books, amazing stuff. Especially “The Toilers of the Sea” and “The Man Who Laughed” I don’t suppose I would have experienced those books if it hadn’t been for that habit.

    And now, Charlotte, you don’t have to be sad about the end of the reading. Read, read, read to each other. Let your daughter read to you.

  5. My Mom read to me when I was little and then for always and ever I saw her reading at the kitchen table – she was a slow reader. I used to talk to her just to make her lose her place and have to go back. I read to my father – the editorials in the daily paper. Had no idea what I was reading but I remember it fondly. He was a fast reader but patient with me and all those words. I read a lot – always have. Devour books. Have even given the habit to Husband who hardly read anything, but always has a bedtime book now (for when he wakes and can’t sleep). Grandson LOVES books. It skipped over my kids. Iread to the first one who read to the 2nd one since at that time my life/marriage was falling apart. This is a GREAT post.

  6. Great post – and some lovely comments too.

    If there’s been one single thing I’ve done right as a parent, it’s been reading to my children. Like me, none of them are ever without a book or two on the go.

    In my attic there are several boxes of children’s books which I couldn’t bear to pass on when mine outgrew them; it would have been like giving away part of their childhood.
    I look forward to the possibility of grandchildren and of enjoying again having a small cuddly person on my knee while we read together.

    The nearest thing I get to being read aloud to these days is Radio 4 – and jolly good it is too, though without that possibilty of interaction that AB spoke about.

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