Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Objet Trouve

Most of my books are second hand, and date back to generations before mine. I find that, as a reader, I have a different relationship with books that were read or owned by others before I was born; I feel more of a custodian than an owner, knowing that my possession of - and relationship with - the book will be as transitory as it was for its previous owners. 

Marginalia leaves the most tangential proof of previous readers. Usually, it just takes the subtle forms of underlinings and corrections. Inscriptions are always more interesting, adding an imaginative element to the road that was first trodden by previous owners - when they attempted to read this, how successful a gift it might have been. Because most of my library is plays and books about the theatre, sometimes I come across the traces of previous productions, either witnessed by the previous reader (cast lists penciled in), or participated in by them (lines underlined, lighting plans set out in the back). 

I have one book that offers a higher order of marginalia, though. My copy of Famous Plays of 1932-1933 (Gollancz, 1933) has four pages of personal notes to self in the last two blank pages and flyleaves of the book. The writing is scratchy but almost entirely decipherable, and the ink has faded to a sort of browny-green. I transcribe the passage for you without introduction. Where I couldn't make out words I've put how they read to me, rather than guessing what they might be;

"I will be an actress worth while.

I will be quite lovely to look at & surprisingly intelligent.

I will do things that are worthwhile & not frivolous my 19 20 years. 

I will concentrate on what I want, what I am doing and resolve to build some strong foundations for my future happiness, my families & everything connected with me. 

I will be useful and considerate in every way, yet not weakly so. I will develop my character and personality & do the things I believe in.

I will always keep a sense of proportion & fairness in everything & be helpful & understanding. 

I am 18, not unenleiesly looking and can look quite pretty, good disposition, shy & rather negative, undeveloped & unniative in a underali way for my age. Not at all sexual, a trifle idealistic & very imaginative lazy thro lack of initiative, occupied with material living, thinks deeply rarely yet intelligent, original inventive & creative in minor ways. Ambitions growing in a wish for bettering material living & mental knowledge, for making people who've made me happy happy.

Untruthful when a lie is the easiest way out & occasionally unscrupulous weak by nature yet determined to raise ative is anxious & be successful & be acknowledged as different and above the ordinary level, & work the way up. Enjoys work, desire to please and to be liked & minds what other people say too much. Has real knowledge of self in impersonal way. Acknowledges faults & advantages tries to emulate & expand & develop the good & commercial analytical gift amounting to point of psychological insights wonderment at life sustains & complete unbelief in faiths of civilisation. Certain amount of will power developing.
Gets on easily with other people & adapts to surroundings in useful way when not she's & self conscious. Dislike of unnecessary sordidness & unnecessary luxury. Belief in appreciation as basis of real happiness & friendship & love on a 50.50 foundation real understanding one of most valuable assets. Love of people & pity of els suffering & tragedy & real depth of feeling in that respect. More mental than physical feelings, nervous & not frightfully brave yet could be I'm sure. Love of children. Very reasonable, sensible & often level-headed able to sift what's good & bad for one anxious to learn yet inactive to obtain that learning excuse lazy nites of difficulties of circumstances thus lazy mind, unstimulated. Love of nature & terrific appreciation of beauty of nature.

Incredibly disastrously vague to point of rudeness, yet knowing it & hating it all this time. Sense that if reasonably intelligent & adaptable life can really be happy & enjoyable. Wish & desire to act & make people feel & to desire to act & make people feel & to inspire. Likes solitude to think rather than being a close contact with people. One isn't in sympathy with at all tho likes of a lot of friends & intensely fond of real friends."

I bought this book for £2 in the Spread Eagle shop in Greenwich in 1996 - I miss the days when Greenwich still had junk shops in it! - so I was 23 when I came across her message.

I have a pretty strong idea of the author and the circumstances of her writing this passage. I think that she was given the book for Christmas 1933, a suitable gift for a stagestruck girl. The passage reads to me like the thoughts of somebody who normally lives in the presence of other people and who finds herself alone for a while. Either her parents and siblings have left the house for a walk for an hour or so and left her to her own devices, or - most likely - she's been allowed to stay in the living room after everyone else has gone to bed, and has decided to set out her impressions of herself.

I get an oddly mixed sense of this girl - her thoughts are often generic and timeless, but also a product of her time; the lack of a sexual sense of self, the feeling that the opportunities facing a girl coming into womanhood in the thirties are somewhat limited, the sense that something more should be open to her. Its hard to tell how much of this is wishful thinking, invented character, and how much of it is the personality that she will eventually become. The sense of knowing too little and feeling too much, the great avowal of the importance of friendship is very particular to adolescence, and is strongly - and to some extent unwittingly - revealed by this girl.

I wonder who she thought she was writing for? There's a different set of expectations inherent to the act of writing in a book than there are in writing a diary. The diary carries a specific set of cultural expectations; it is private, reading somebody else's diary is either a violation or an entrusting. While writing in a book is more of an act of offering a bit of yourself for fate. Either this girl was writing because she wanted to surprise herself decades hence, to discover her girl self as a woman and feel that she had remained true to her teenage feelings and avowals; or she hoped for someone else in the unimaginably far future to meet her as she was then. And it came to pass, too - me in 1996.

I calculate that she was born in 1915. She surely can't still be alive now, but I felt that she was when I came across her words, about sixty-three years after she wrote them. I'm pretty convinced that she didn't become an actress, but I'd imagine that - subject to the Second World War and the eternal vagaries of fate - she became a wife and mother, the usual way of the world, leaving her legacy for posterity in more tangible but impermanent things than the words that she left for me to discover in another age.

1 comment:

  1. Lovely writing. Both from you, Bill, but also such a sweet and interesting glimpse into someone - a soul somewhere. A ghost tethered in the pages of an old book. Thanks for posting it. Dx