That the copies of my grandparents’ Golden Treasuries which had served as a vehicle for their courtship survived at all is remarkable. But the two books did not survive unchanged.
One copy became a schoolbook for their only child, Alice, when she was a pupil at the local grammar School. She added a few penciled underlinings as well as firm marks of ownership, inscribing her name and form number on both back and front endpapers. But the Treasuries suffered much more serious damage at my own hands over four decades later.
I set off for university in 1962, a bookish adolescent with literary tastes more heavily influenced by the Victoriana on the home bookshelves than by any of the reading required to be committed to memory so extensively for O and A level exams. The “great writers” of the household where I’d grown up, Walter Scott, Trollope, and Tennyson went unmentioned in the university curriculum, unworthy even of contempt. Dickens, with the Leavisite exception of Hard Times, was studiously ignored. My literary pantheon was clearly in need of considerable reconstruction. I managed to embarrass myself in one of my first tutorials by mis-reading the curriculum and substituting aloud “Keats” for “Yeats.” Unsurprising really, considering that my only knowledge of Yeats, consisted of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree” anthologized in Quiller Couch’s Oxford anthology my father had given me for my tenth birthday.
When my reading for the term’s first essay led me to “Byzantium” and “The Circus Animals’ Desertion” I immediately bought the cream-covered Collected Poems in the university bookshop. Yeats, with his “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” blasted away the Tennysonian sonorities which had, until then, echoed in my mind as the most intense experience poetry could offer.
The university’s aesthetic values undermined my previous notions about which writers merited attention, but more radical shocks were administered about reading practices. While the stolid efforts of our schoolteachers were never directly derided, it rapidly became clear that most of us were woefully unprepared for the level of exegisis expected of us in tutorials and seminars. In the eyes of some of our professors the reading habits of female students were particularly suspect.
One of the best-loved professors was David Daiches. Although all lectures at Sussex were optional, his were always crowded. Like many of his colleagues, he was adept at lecturing without notes, but he also drew on a vast storehouse of literary knowledge. Student legend claimed that in Daiches’ boyhood, his father, the chief Rabbi of Edinburgh, used breakfast-time as an opportunity to test his son’s classical knowledge by deliberately misquoting from Homer and requiring the young David to correct each quotation. While this may have been an exaggeration, it matches Daiches’ own account of the scholarly atmosphere in which he was raised. In his memoir, Two Worlds, Daiches notes that his father came from a long line of Talmudic scholars, but also revered Greek and Roman literature and regularly tested his two sons’ ability to spontaneously translate quotations from the Odyssey.
One November afternoon he drew our attention to a passage in the poem under discussion. Smiling around the lecture theatre, he pronounced it “Just the sort of thing that makes a girl write, ‘This is me.’ in the margin.” Nervous laughter rippled through the lecture hall. “Ah yes,” with an avuncular look around the room, “I see I’ve hit a nerve there.” Although I’d never been given to personal annotations or marginalia, the sense of shared shame made an indelible impression.
As young women undergraduates we were being singled out as naïve readers whose subjectivity constantly trumped critical insight. But, in an environment where sophistication in all forms was ranked as the highest social virtue, Daiches’ mockery was guaranteed to find its mark.
A few weeks later, back in Cornwall during the first vacation, I put all possible distance between myself and Daiches’ disdain. Taking down the two Golden Treasuries from the shelf, I erased dozens of John and Mary’s marginalia, sometimes tearing holes in the page in my panicky effort to expunge the shame. Not only were John and Mary shown as hopelessly naïve readers by their ingenuous marginalia, but their literary tastes were embarrassingly unsophisticated. The energy with which I erased their annotations now seems to me an incomprehensible act of literary vandalism.
Mercifully, my vandalizing hand must have grown weary, leaving many of the annotations still legible. For many years I assumed that the two dark blue volumes had vanished –inevitably and irretrievably dispersed into auction rooms and secondhand bookstores. Half-consciously, I associated the books’ disappearance with my own earlier efforts to obliterate their use. Discovered decades later by my niece at the back of my brother’s garage, they eventually came back to my once too-careless hands and presented me with the task of deciphering and preserving what remained of their century-old love messages.