(Giuseppe Arcimboldo, The Librarian, ca. 1570, oil on canvas; to be found in Skokloster Castle; from here)
Hayley of Desperate Reader has written an interesting post about a novella by Wilkie Collins, Miss or Mrs?. She picked up on two elements which made her, as a modern reader, feel uncomfortable: the youth of Nathalie, the heroine (she is fifteen, but eligible for marriage since the age of twelve – I was astounded that as recently as the 1870s the age of consent was so low) and her rôle as property, first of her father and then of her husband.
This is a good reminder that we can never read literature of the past as a contemporary would have read it. We can read footnotes and cultural histories and literature written during the period as much as we like, but we’ll always be twenty-first-century readers peering over the fence. Not that a novelist’s contemporaries would all read a novel in the same way as one another: as we know, every reader responds differently to a text. Yet all the paraphernalia which comes with reading ‘classics’, the footnotes and histories and biographies, suggests that we consider reading like a novel’s contemporaries to be desirable. Many of us want to suck out of a text all the meanings and allusions that an educated reader of the time would have savoured, to enrich our enjoyment.
Of course, there are plenty of readers who don’t bother with footnotes or context, reading only through their own cultural lense, and others who dismiss such interpretations as facile. Although I think everyone should be free to read and enjoy as they please, for myself I prefer an ‘enriched’ reading, I find it more interesting. But what Hayley’s post made me realise is that actually that gap between the experience of the reader of the past and our experience now, the gap which we attempt to narrow through the ‘paraphernalia’, is in itself interesting and can even be the point of a reading. Miss or Mrs? is intriguing to me precisely because of the gap between my sensibilities and the sensibilities of Collins’ time, the consciousness of our difference.
Something has changed here at a gallimaufry – for the first time ever, it has been read by someone who knows me in real life. Hello Jayne! [waves] I never meant to keep it a secret, but I have never found a way of telling people about it.