My father recently gave me a charming anthology called The Family Book of Best Loved Short Stories, a Doubleday edition from 1954, edited by Leland W Lawrence. He said he’d seized upon it long ago because it had Rudyard Kipling’s The Man Who Would Be King in its contents.
I took it with me on my recent reading holiday because it contained a lot of stories I’d heard of but never read, including the Kipling piece.
While some of the stories in the book didn’t work so well for me – I’m still not sure of the point of Mark Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County – it was delightful to be reminded, once more, of the joys of reading stories from earlier eras: especially if they are stories that you think you know well.
It’s tempting to steer clear of 19th century writing, for example, as the writing style is so much more complex and circumlocutery than contemporary fiction. Perhaps there’s a tendency to think of writing from the era as stodgy and earnest and lacking in humour. But you’d be wrong.
There’s a rakish delight in Thomas Bailey Aldrich’s epistolery Marjorie Daw as two friends exchange letters, and I had to read sections aloud to my other half because they were too funny not to share. I was surprised by the ending (and found a definitely more modern homoerotic subtext that may not have originally been intended). Bret Harte’s The Outcasts of Poker Flat had its devilish moments too, and reminded me of Eric Frank Russell’s later story, Somewhere A Voice.
The greatest treat of the collection, however, was Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It’s a story we know well – or think we do – due to countless rehashings in Christmas films, holiday specials and the like. The Blackadder Christmas Special is one of my favourite send-ups of the tale!
But on receiving this book, I realised I’d never read the original. And what a revelation it was!
The story has a flow and elegance, and a distinct rhythm to the language. While the language can be archaic, there’s real music in it, not to mention wit, and some truly splendid imagery. The description of roasted chestnuts piled in ‘apoplectic opulence’ captures beautifully the picture of glossy brown nuts bursting open. The reference to a household full of exuberant children – ‘they were not forty children conducting themselves like one, but every child was conducting itself like forty’ – reminded me happily of my childhood, where my four brothers and I conducted ourselves in this manner most holidays.
There’s even the quite adorable description of Scrooge’s small house tucked into the back streets as though ‘it must have run there when it was a young house, playing at hide-and-seek with other houses, and forgotten the way out again’. Not only is it a wonderfully playful, whimsical description, it gives the reader some hope that, miserable as Scrooge is, maybe there was something innocent about him once and, like the house, perhaps he just got lost and forgot the way out again.
It turns out that returning to the source of a well-worn story can lead you to rediscovering gems, and learning why these writers are considered to be Great Writers in the first place. Dickens has more eloquence and humour than I’d realised; O Henry’s Gift of the Magi isn’t anything like as maudlin and sappy as the story is annually portrayed.
I resist making New Year’s Resolutions, but I think this year I’ll make an attempt to read more of the classics and rediscover for myself what all the fuss is about.