Today has been cold and grey, the kind of day that makes me want to do nothing other than curl up and read. I’ve been reading A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight, which I recently scooped up at a library book sale. As I set it aside, I thought about the fact that reading a book I’ve never read before on a day like this is a departure for me. Historically when the weather inspires me to read, I am reading more for comfort than escapism. Comfort means a book that is an old friend.
When I was a child, there were two books I always chose on cold days. I still have both.
Mystery of the Hard Luck House, a fun little romp written in 1965.
And Tales of a Russian Grandmother, a discarded library book I bought for a quarter in 1984.
For the past twenty-five years, my go-to comfort book has been Possession by A.S. Byatt.
Thinking about my own reading habits always makes me curious about other readers. What books do you turn to again and again?
We are lucky enough to know at least one of the works celebrated and enjoyed by artists Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris in their early days at Oxford and it was a work that influenced them for the rest of their lives. In The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination, Fiona MacCarthy describes it as “the book that of all books altered the direction of Burne-Jones and Morris’s creative lives.”
The artist’s wife, Georgiana Burne-Jones, discussed it in the following passage of Memorials of Burne-Jones:
“Then there were quiet times when Edward and Morris were alone and communed with each other in their own world of imagination. About this world which never failed him Edward once said, “Of course imagining doesn’t end with my work: I go on always in that strange land that is more true than real.” He had lately found a treasure belonging to that land over which he and his new friend now rejoiced together.
It was Southey’s reprint of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur and sometimes I think that the book never can have been as loved as it was by those two men. With Edward it became literally a part of himself. Its strength and beauty, its mystical religion and noble chivalry of action, the world of lost history and romance in the names of people and places–it was his own birthright upon which he entered.
“I remember I could not buy the precious book,” he writes thirty-five years afterwards. “I used to read it in a bookseller’s shop day after day, and bought cheap books to pacify the owner, but Morris got it at once and we feasted on it long.” (Memorials of Burne-Jones, vol. I)
There are books that shape who we are and become a part of us. Possession courses through my bloodstream. It is encoded in my cells. When I first read it at age seventeen, it awakened several things within me, things it took me years to understand and uncover with each re-read. Without that book there would be no Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood website. So I don’t find it too fanciful to picture Burne-Jones and Morris absorbing Morte d’Arthur over and over again until the book itself became embedded in their souls and spilled out into their work. In fact, the cover of Possession is one of Burne-Jones’ most famous Arthurian works, The Beguiling of Merlin.
William Morris wrote a short story called A Dream, which begins:“I dreamed once, that four men sat by the winter fire talking and telling tales, in a house that the wind howled round.” That’s how I like to imagine Burne-Jones and Morris reading Morte d’Arthur, in a more romantic version than my own cold weather reading. Sitting by a fire, talking and telling tales, in a house that the wind howled round.