Pauline Chandler lives with her family in a Victorian gasworks in the Derbyshire Dales, next to the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. After teaching for 40 years, she now writes full time, mainly historical fiction for children, and in 2003 won an Arts Council Award for her book Warrior Girl, based on the story of Joan of Arc. Other stories include Viking Girl, set in the midlands where Saxons and Danes had to find ways of living together, and The Mark of Edain, inspired by the Roman invasion of AD43. In July Pauline's first novel, Dark Thread, will be published in a new edition. The action takes place at the first cotton spinning mill in Cromford, built in 1771. Here Pauline asks why we should read fiction and discusses Rose Tremain's Trespass.
Pauline Chandler on Trespass by Rose Tremain
It still amazes me that many people don't read fiction. I used to take it for granted that everyone would choose reading as a preferred leisure activity, until a chance comment from a friend, an artist, shocked me to the core. 'I don't read much', she said, 'the odd blockbuster, certainly not anything Booker'. She might as well have said 'I don't breathe.'
I've since discovered that 'not reading much' is quite common, especially, sadly, among teachers and teaching assistants. Perhaps it's all that paperwork. No time to read anything other than the latest advice about improving their performance and making sure the agreed 'learning outcomes have been met'. Pah.
I have to say, though, that fiction didn't much feature on the curriculum in my own school days, during the 50s and 60s, and there was certainly no discussion about what we read in our spare time. We were allowed to read a book, carefully censored, at playtime, aimless running about being discouraged. In class we read the Greek Myths, Arthur Grimble's A Pattern of Islands (non-fiction) and C.S. Forester's The Ship, which I can't now recall. Then, because I took Latin, I was not able to take English Literature for O Level, so it was something of an eye-opener when I came to study fiction for A Level. A world of commentary on the human condition opened up for me, from such authors as C.S. Lewis, Iris Murdoch, Conrad, Lawrence and Hemingway, to the 'moderns', Alan Sillitoe, Shelagh Delaney, Alan Paton, Arnold Wesker, James Baldwin - authors who spoke about relationships, love, sex, race and gender, without prejudice. And my cramped wings spread as I started to learn and understand important lessons, under the gentle persuasion of the stories.
So, non-reading adults and teachers, though I suspect I'm preaching to the converted on this blog, if you would say to me, as someone once did say to me, 'You can't learn about life from books, you know', hear this: 'You can! Oh, but you can and you can, again!'
All the stories we tell our children teach them the real stuff they need to live well: all about friends and kindness, respect for the earth and the rest of living things, about war and peace, famine and plenty, justice and injustice. About families and how to make things right after a falling out, about serious illness and disability and what life might be like, to lose someone or something you love, about heroism and sacrifice and survival. How to judge what's worth aiming for and what's not, what will stand through time, and what will melt away and fade like the mist. This magic doesn't stop when you grow up. The stories just get better, richer, more challenging.
The Greeks, without whom... but that's for another post – said Know Thyself. Did they know how hard that is? And what about Know The Others? For some reason we find communication one of the most difficult things we attempt. Expressing, listening and understanding? Learning Sanskrit or Cuneiform would be easier. How many times have you answered 'I'm fine' to the question 'How are you?', knowing it to be less than the truth? The lies trip off our tongues because dealing with truth is so difficult. That's what fiction does. Deals with the truth and reveals it to us. Allows us to walk in another person's shoes and see through their eyes.
Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day hinges on the sheer difficulty of communicating our deepest feelings when we're subject to the restraints of manners, breeding and accepted social behaviour. Jane Austen's novels work in a similar way. Some stories hinge on a lie and a misconception, a miscommunication with tragic consequences, such as Ian McEwan's Atonement, or the story of Othello.
These are the writers I go back to for clear-sighted truth-telling: George Eliot, E.M. Forster, Pat Barker, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Annie Proulx. The book I've chosen to discuss is by one of my favourite writers, Rose Tremain, whose work is filled with clear-sighted compassion for those who, unable to connect, are cast adrift and caught in dark, lonely places, into which only kindness, forgiveness and love can bring a light.
Trespass tells the story of how fate brings together a group of such characters, who, from a desperate need for understanding, trespass into each other's lives, causing terrible damage. The book opens when a child finds the corpse of a murdered man, a 'trespass' on her innocence, a plot thread which is picked up again at the end, when love and kindness ease her pain. We then meet Veronica and Kitty, two middle-aged lovers, English ladies, who share an idyllic life together in the south of France, until Veronica's needy brother, failed antique dealer Anthony Verey, decides to join them. Another trespass, which leads to the unravelling of the bond between the two women. Much of the action takes place around an old French silk farm, Mas Lunel, now falling into ruin in the hands of the owner Aramon, observed with bitter resentment by his sister Audrun from her ugly little bungalow in the grounds. Audrun has always loved the Mas and knows it would have been better cared for in her hands. She has further reason to despise Aramon, whose trespass against her is not only his attempt to sell the land and evict her, but the far worse trespass of the sexual abuse he subjected her to, egged on by his father, both of them abusing her for 15 years. Like a Greek tragedy the action unfolds, with inevitable consequences for those who, lacking understanding and love for the people around them, commit acts of trespass.
When I put this book down, with the story ringing in my head like a bell, I knew that my mind had been engaged, challenged, exercised and left with lots of questions. I love that. That's what fiction does for me. That's why we should read it. I love it. It's what we should teach the children to love too.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]