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The Old Bookshelf

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Sketch on page 170 of 'The Author's Father'

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ALL the books that had been saved from many vicissitudes were on the three little shelves that fitted into the niche on one side of the wide chimney of the living-room. The sofa stood under the shelves, and in very early times formed a handy mounting-place for a book-curious child. Many a time, there must have been footmarks left on its clear chintz covering: old-fashioned it was, that sofa of red-gum wood, and polished by my father's hand. The books reachable over the polished arm of that old sofa were a wonderland to an eager brain. They brought, indeed, many worlds to us without our going out adventuring.

That isolated little library, when one got within its pages, was not without some claim to being what the sale catalogues might call “well-selected.” The selection had been made by a process of elimination; the books on those shelves represented the irreducible minimum of much gathering, and many sheddings of change and travel—the changes and travels of our parents in the nomadic days of early Victoria. Those dim and faded covers held volumes prized as often for their associations as for their contents; they as often, perhaps, reflected the taste of the giver as the taste of the recipient. And yet, thrown together in that sense by chance, and kept for reasons of sentiment, it was, I reflect, an extraordinarily good little library.

I must have explored the shelves early. I can remember the joy, first presided over by my mother, of dividing the long words into syllables, and so getting the sound if not always the sense, out of them. Poetry was, I remember early a delight to my ear, even much of it that was above my understanding. It was the first music I knew—that and

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the winds singing down the chimney or sighing through the sheoaks on the hillside. Beauty of sound at least entered into us, and gave us many a rhythmic hour, though the truth, embodied in the tale was not always understood. It was I suspect, much like reading a mystic might be to-day to the grown-up understanding, though we had more of joy possibly, and less of puzzlement. There was much sentimental poetry in some of these books, the authors of which had a fame only of the album and valentine order. Such books had my mother's name in them, the cause of their embalmment there being, visibly enough, sentimental. There was one in particular of these sweetmeat books which appealed to Claribel and me. It was a large, flat album, on the delicately-tinted pages of which were mounted gay valentines, displaying sportive or plaintive Cupids—to our imagination babies made ready for the bath! There were arrow-pierced hearts with languishing sentiments subscribed. It seemed that a whole galaxy of swains had been desperate about my mother, but later we knew that that was merely the way of the young men of the sixties or thereabouts. None of them ever died so far as I have heard, from unrequited affection; neither have the ladies of the period been noted as bigamists or polygamists in any sense. It was a beautiful book, that scrap-album, and a mine of interest on a wet day. We knew eventually what was on each page ere we turned the leaf, but the knowledge never staled the book. It reeked of early Victorian sentiment from cover to cover. And such beautiful handwriting as it was! the men's like copperplate, uncorrupted by the hurry of to-day; the women's delicate, as though writ by a fairy's pen. It taught me, that book, that poets and the inspirers of poets were not a mystic race apart. How could I miss that fact in reading these odes to the eyebrows of the woman who tucked me up at night? It made poetry a homely thing and yet conversely gave a romantic value to the guardian of my days, moving quietly about her household tasks.

It did more, and perhaps a less valuable thing: it set my little feet a-toddling amongst the perilous feet of poesy. I put it so without punning intent. Such ardent verses I

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wrote, modelled on those of that album—verses to imaginary beings, beings unresponsive to the asseverations of my tortured heart! All this was at a time when I had ceased to need the chintz-covered sofa as a ladder to the bookshelf—I may have been 11 or 12. My verses were relished by Claribel; I am grateful to her to this day, remembering this. Annie more matter-of-fact, bluntly dismissed them as “trash,” and was consequently deprived henceforth of the privilege of hearing them.

The little shelves had a few stories upon them, of a really enthralling nature, and while the rage for them lasted, it ran through us like a fever—the dull-covered, much travelled books were oftener in their places than heretofore. It was a temporary decline in taste, that rage for the “Family Herald” kind of reading, it staled the literature that hitherto had charmed. I don't know how it began; it just came; the mood does not belong, I suspect, to accident at all, but has actually a deep psychological basis. It put Claribel and me, I know, out of tune with our boy cousins for the time being. Dick's rage was for wild adventures round the pole at the time, and Jules Verne had just suggested the reign of frightfulness by his wonderful submarine. These things and Fennimore Cooper's scalps were all very well; but we were for other regions and interests, too, and so Dick, out of alignment with us, had to carry his enthusiasm elsewhere.

As we ceased to go to the old literary fountain-head— the bookshelves in the chimney corner—for our reading, so, too, we ceased to keep our books in ordinary places. The volume we were reading reposed between times, it might be, in a sheltered log over the hill-top by the mail-box. What a long time it used to take in those days to post the letters with which we awaited the passing mailman!—he came early or late, according to the interest of our tale. A native cat or a hare sometimes jumped out at us from the hiding-place of “So Fair, So False,” and the “Duke's Secret,” and between rainy days a mouse had nibbled the most exciting part of “For Her Only” as it reposed deep in the hayloft of the old barn. Now and then we lost by confiscation a half-read

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tale. I remember coming upon my father one day—how he found it is a mystery—reading with a smile unusual to him a paper-covered treasure, entitled “Heart for Heart.” The book remained in his care, but only after a discussion bordering upon argument. If I wanted love stories, there was Romeo and Juliet, or Ophelia. He went on helping his memory by a visit to the shelves in the corner, which caused him to pass from Shakespeare into biography and history, and finally to Scripture. I felt that anyone who could be satisfied with the unembellished story of Jacob and Rachel could not appreciate the situation. How we obtained all this absorbing literature I cannot remember; but I recollect that we were first introduced to its fascinations by a girl much older than ourselves. She knew life through this medium, and to us appeared an oracle. I fear, from certain whispers that have since come to me, that real life has for her long ago roughly corrected this innocent delusion of Minnie Speary's.

But all this is of our aberrations, and not of the shelves at all. I know that Claribel and I returned to the books that stood for good taste as well as for respectability. And before we had turned aside to the flesh-pots of melodrama we had tasted of faery and of much else. To go back to the days when our reading was helped out by laborious spelling and the hand-in-hand delight of accompanying pictures, the first story-book that I really remember was an old “Peter Parley's Annual.” It was a soiled, water-stained volume— my mother's ship was wrecked at the Heads, and most of their belongings had lain a full week in a flooded hold. There were several pages of dragons—that's the acutest memory —illustrating some terrible story of times when dragons were apparently as familiar as iguanas were to us. They were an old style of iguana, in fact, but more terrible. The dragons did not stop at robbing hens' nests; they spat flames at people who incurred their displeasure, and did all sorts of awful things. The red eyes, fangs, and claws of these creatures got into our dreams sometimes, and I know there was a period when Claribel was afraid to go into our bedroom in the dark. There were many wonders in that book; tales

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with moral tags attached to them about children who did not obey; little girls who were vain. This last Claribel finally tore out of the book in a fit of chagrin, for it had a habit of pointing an allusion whenever she had a new ribbon or frock.

There was also a book of fairy-tales containing many stories I've not since seen. Some of them, I recollect dealt with the subject of evil step-mothers and sadly misused step-daughters.

We had a “History of England,” of which the first volume was missing, and until I went to school, aged eight, I had not heard how the race of kings and queens (and incidentally of soldiers and citizens) came to England. Of the volume we had, the best-loved part was that about Henry VIII., because he was the most terrible person in the book. His fat face with the plumed hat turned up at one side always evoked our childish abuse, and declarations of how we would have served him for his Bluebeard habits. Little savages! It was the “eye for an eye” dictum with us! Standing in the courtyard of the Tower of London, and looking on the inscription shown there on a brass tablet, I remembered that old print in the history-book of the chimney corner many years after. There are named amongst others, two of Henry's beheaded wives, and the place is shown as “the saddest spot in England.”

There was a number of religious books on those shelves. There had been an era of sermon-publishing before and during the youth of our parents, and terrible evidence of it was preserved there. Such dreary pages! such boring, unilluminating discourses! Their chief object must have been to make people aware of the wretchedness of this world. And the print of those books was always small; the paper yellowed; the lines close set. Printed sermons were surely in the interest of the oculist. There were books of meditations, of prayers, of reflections (mostly gloomy reflections), and there was “Kitto's Bible Readings,” in five volumes; the works of Josephus; several “lives” of divines, with scattered pictures of funny, bewigged men. We passed such books over, wondering sometimes to see one or other of them in the hands of our

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elders on Sunday afternoons. I have, indeed, wickedly wondered if that had not something to do with my father's tendency to drop off to sleep on Sunday afternoons. But “Pilgrim's Progress” lured us always; that breathless romance and adventure of the spirit, written by the tinker of Bedford, who had an art lacking in all the learned divines on the shelves.

The only other book in this section in which we were interested was Spurgeon's “John Ploughman's Talk”—a book very popular in those days among the Nonconformists. Its breezy style of presenting otherwise possibly uninteresting matter to our understanding made it acceptable for the Sunday evening after-tea hour.

Of the few novels of this company of books was “Uncle Tom's Cabin.” This book, too, had been in the hold of the wrecked ship, and bore some traces of its adventure. It was dear to us, also, by the history of its coming there. It was my mother's book; yet not wholly hers. Just published when her people were leaving the Old Land, the book was the rage in London: a friend gave them a copy to read on the way out. It was then to have been passed on to someone in New South Wales, vaguely supposed to be near Melbourne, but of no definite address. The book was never applied for by anyone in Australia Felix, and so remained with my mother. This was one of our earliest stories, and was read aloud to us in the evenings by our parents in turn. I had a childish pose. That which might cause Claribel to lapse into tears was quite incapable of affecting me. When she, on the hearth-rug, dissolved at the death of Eva, I contrived to remain dry-eyed. It was Old Prue's tale in Aunt Dinah's kitchen that finally sent my head down.

In Dickens—who came later, when I could read aloud to the circle—I remember that we often succumbed to the pathos which critics have nowadays discovered the great Englishman had in excess. But we found this pathos too in “Ouida” (surreptitiously read); the death of Cigarette in “Under Two Flags” was to us not less distressful than the end of Desdemona or of Juliet. Who, I wonder, is the most

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reliable authority on what should move us to tears in art— the unseasoned reader or the case-hardened critic? How well-remembered are the books read in early youth, especially those read aloud as ours were read; each night's portion discussed the following day! How real to us were the characters of Dickens, and what a gallery of them were limned out for us by the jolly log fires of that wide hearth on those uninterrupted evenings of long ago! Truly a joy for ever! How we loved them and lived with the characters, peopling familiar spots with them!

Of biography, nothing stands out like the Boswell's “Life of Johnson,” that stood bulkily on the top shelf. That I read mostly to myself to the murmur of summer bees in the old orchard. I thought it then the best biography in the world, and so I still think it, and in this at least I have the world with me. The dear old man! All his ugly person, his bearish ways, I loved; he seemed like a whole world to me. I don't know of any more ample book. I fancy the one biography on those shelves was well-chosen; it was such an expanding book. Stay! there was another biography—leaving aside several tiresome self-chronicles of fanatical-faced divines which found place there. I was led to “Moore's Life of Byron” through the charmed gates of the romantic, and the passionate poetry of the poet himself, whom Moore so idolised. Byron's poems, because of the dim unpleasing cover that compassed them, for long escaped my attention.

But when I explored—you must go to Keats' sonnet on Chapman's “Homer” for my feelings! Chin in hand, many a time on the summer grass, I lay responding to the throb of that fiery heart. And then Moore's “Life” telling such human things about the man—with all its repressions as I afterwards learned. Still to me, at least, there is for ever the man between those pages of his friend's writing. I care for no other aspect. It gives the only Byron we ought to want; passionate, faulty, audacious enough, and nothing worse. Claribel and I knew half of “Childe Harold” in those days, and much of his “Don Juan” too. We took no hurt. The fascination was certainly not an evil one. It is apparent

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that we had no idea that the book was taboo to children, for I was found reading it in innocent enjoyment one day by a relative of severe mind, and after that the book disappeared from the shelves. The explanation when I pressed, was as puzzling as the confiscation.

The satiric “English Bards” used to delight me almost as much as the inspired doggerel of “Don Juan” and set me emulating it. It was something altogether new; and later— in my early 'teens—I played the sedulous ape to it. In the absence of literary persons among my circle, I spitted on my puny spear some among my ordinary friends and acquaintances. There was no malice, only an itching to imitate what had delighted me so much; but the attempt becoming known to my elders, and I fear also to some of the satirised, it was speedily frowned on, perhaps wisely; indulgence in satire, either by word or by pen, I have since observed, is not a shortcut to good will.

It was later that Shelley came to me; but none till he came ever rivalled the writer of “Childe Harold” and the “Bards.” From the first there was another mighty book upon those shelves—a book that was never removed or tabooed. It was, according to the fly-leaf, “A token of esteem to Robert, leaving for Australia, 1852. From his brother Samuel.” My father had kept it through many vicissitudes both for the giver's sake and the author's. The organ voice of Milton was held in those covers. “Few books” it is said, “make a close reader.” By the time I was eleven I had read “Paradise Lost” three times. Rather a queer feat for a child I since find. Perhaps the secret was that Milton came to me self-selected, not as the set task he is to many young students.…The majesty of the epic always swept me on and on. But the reading had a strange result. Had she known, whose hand took away my Byron, she had better left me the “Don Juan” than the Satan who became such a hero to me! Doré had not contributed to the making of my father's volume of Milton; it was much later that I saw the terrible illustrations of the unhappy outcast, Satan. But one's own imagination pictured the epic terror of the

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greatest parts of the poem vividly enough without the aid of the artist. I know I used to dream of the “nine days he fell,” and awaken, clutching the bed-clothes. It hurt the teachings I received at the Sunday school, the Miltonic emphasis of the grandeur of the villain of the story. It was long before I came back to the first idea I had been given of the fiend who lost us Eden…perhaps I have never quite recovered the earlier impression. The Puritan Milton overreached himself.

Great little shelves, those that took charge of my mental toddlings! I cannot, after the “organ voice,” speak of the lesser tones that in moods contributed to one's being. After all, the divinity that brought, and kept together when many were left, or lost in travel, that handful of books, had a kindly prevision of the needs and the loves of the unborn little ones whose curious fingers should open; whose eager eyes should pore upon their pages. The niche where the shelves were! It surely was a gateway for us from the dear world of the familiar green trees and material things, to that wider world, the inheritance of each for the entering—the realms of gold.