All the Books of My Life came about fifty years too early for the wave of what some refer to a “bibliomemoirs” — books such as Reading Lolita in Tehran, Howards End is on the Landing, How to Be a Heroine: Or, What I’ve Learned from Reading too Much, The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life, and about a gajillion others (see Jenny Bhatt’s multi-part disquisition on the topic, which is already about a couple dozen titles out of date). Unlike these, however, it’s available free, via Project Gutenberg Canada, provided you’re willing to swear you’re not accessing the site from the U.S..
All the Books of My Life was the last of Sheila Kaye-Smith’s over fifty books, most of them novels with settings in rural England — the sort of books that Stella Gibbons parodied in Cold Comfort Farm. In scope, it puts the bibliomemoirs of the 21st century to shame: this is truly a lifetime’s account of reading, starting with the books she came to know at the foot of her nanny and ending with the religious works that came to command a larger part of her reading list as her interest in Catholicism and mysticism grew over the years. And in the titles covered, it provides a remarkable contrast with the kinds of titles one finds in recent bibliomemoirs.
I doubt, for example, that many of today’s girls would be willing to put up with the earnest Victorian morality and innocence found in the many tales by L. T. Meade that she devoured. They will not find the works of Rosa Nouchette Carey, Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey and Mrs. Philip Champion de Crespigny filling up the tables of their local lending library — particularly since lending libraries were already a thing of the past when Kaye-Smith was writing. Nor are young readers likely to come across a copy of Richardson’s Sir Charles Grandison, let alone spend the next months reading it. Kaye-Smith’s mother encouraged her daughter to follow her interests wherever they might lead, as long as they remained within the confines of the school library: “If you find anything that’s improper you can always skip it. It seems a pity not to read the book when you’re enjoying it so much.”
She acknowledges that her youthful hunger for reading often led her past the point of her own understanding. “Read Thackeray later,” one of her mother’s friends advised. “You wouldn’t understand him now. You’d miss a lot.” “This was perfectly true,” she admits, “and I only wish her advice had been applied more widely, for I spoilt a number of books and authors for myself by reading them too early.” Among these was Middlemarch: “I read it painstakingly, without skipping a word, but most of its virtues — and they are pre-eminent — were thrown away on me.” I have to say that I thought the same thing many times when I saw the college-prep reading lists our kids received: “King Lear? For a sixteen year-old? Are you kidding me?”
She admits to have struggled unsuccessfully with certain authors who were regularly recommended to her. While Austen became a lifelong love, each time she picked up something by Trollope, “I waded —- yes, that is my word —- through Trollope’s prosy style, in which his characters struggle for life like sheep in a swamp.” She also argues that a fair number of the authors whose works were considered classics in her youth have failed the test of time: “Any novelist in the second or third rank today could make rings round Maria Edgeworth; and compare Bulwer Lytton’s method of writing history with that of Oliver Onions or H. V. Prescott —- it is not only changing fashion that has blurred the colours of the earlier writers. They were always dingy and no closer to what they represented than a Victorian stained-glass window.” Ironically, one could say the same thing now if comparing a book by Oliver Onions or H. V. Prescott to Wolf Hall or The Seige of Krishnapur. Of the two writers whose work she stored up to tide her through the dark years of World War Two, P. G. Wodehouse’s readership stays comic and carries on; I’m not sure the same could be said for the Catholic theologian Friedrich von Hügel or his relatively light Letter to a Niece.
“In spite of all the books I have read there are so many more that I want to read and there is so much more that I want to know,” Kaye-Smith writes at the end of All the Books of My Life. Sadly, however, she did not even live to see this last of her own books in print.