Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Re-reading the Classics

War and Peace. Middlemarch. Heart of Darkness. No, none of these, for I haven’t read them first time round. I’m talking the classic tales of my childhood…and the thrill of rediscovering them as an adult.

I have to start with the best book ever written: The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith (1956). Within its covers you will find everything that makes a good story. An edge-of-the-seat plot—97 Dalmatian puppies held in a spooky old house in Suffolk are rescued from a future as fur coats at the eleventh hour. (The remaining four of the 101 Dalmatians are Pongo and Missis, parents of 15 of the puppies, their nanny Perdita, and her lost—and found—love, Prince.) A whole selection box of characters: the larger-than-life Cruella de Vil, sensible Missis, sweet, fragile Perdita, the bumbling villains who guard the stolen puppies, and so on. Fast-paced action that jumps between a smart area of London to rural Suffolk and back. Romance and reconciliation. And the absolute glory of it being a Dalmatian-fest and set in the Promised Land of Suffolk. And to boost the feel-good factor, the puppies are rescued the day before Christmas Eve! I treat myself to a re-read at this time of year every four years, and I’m due to dig out my dog-eared copy at my mum’s this very Christmas. So picture me this Christmas Eve, curled up in bed in my childhood bedroom, book in one hand, mince pie in the other. That’s my idea of a rocking good time! Ahem, I’ll just get down off my soap-box before we move on to…

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild. An eccentric fossil collector and explorer (Great Uncle Matthew or “Gum”) separately brings home three little girls from his travels for his great-niece to bring up. Pauline, Petrova and Posy adopt the surname “Fossil” and vow to put their name in history books ‘because it’s our very own, and nobody can say it’s because of our grandfathers’. The girls all go on to drama school, where Pauline shines as an actress and Posy as a ballet dancer, but where tomboy Petrova struggles to fit in. Happily, she goes on to find her own path in life—when Gum returns at the end of the book he pledges to help her realise her dream of becoming a pilot. I like this touch. The moral of the story is everyone has a unique talent, and the sky’s the limit. Written in 1936, I think this book is pretty egalitarian and feminist and a little bit ahead of its time. I do love a bit of old-fashioned drama school and a bit of ballet, so it’s a winning combination for me.

Before you think I’ve gone too girly, let’s go on to The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. Published in 1956, it tells the tale of three Polish siblings left to fend for themselves when their parents are taken by the Nazis. Their father manages to escape the prison camp where he is held and returns to the site of his home. Nothing remains but rubble, and his wife and children are gone. He finds a boy, Jan, sitting where his house once stood, holding his wife’s letter opener—the Silver Sword of the title—which he allows him to keep. The father sets off to Switzerland, where he believes he will find his wife. After many twists and turns, the children, who pal up with Jan, embark on an odyssey across Europe to find their parents, the Silver Sword accompanying them. There’s a happy reunion at the end but the drama, near-misses and suspense along the way will make you weep. It’s so touching, of course, because it could be the true story of thousands of families within living memory. And the story stands the test of time, I know, as I inherited my brother’s (23 years my senior) book and I in turn gave a copy to my 12-year-old goddaughter, who has devoured it with relish. Definitely one for the boys and the girls…

I could go on ad infinitum: Black Beauty, The Wizard of Oz, The Phoenix and the Carpet, any of the Famous Five books (the gut-wrenching suspense as you reached the dénouement!)…but why don’t you tell me which books you loved as a child and which you revisit every now and then for that heady combination of nostalgia, escapism and pure literary joy?


  1. I loved The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper - very seasonal too! - but didn't get the same nostalgia when I re-read it recently. Anything by Alan Garner still thrills me, as does The Eagle of The Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff, and The Lord of The Rings.

    At this time of the year I also get the urge to watch The Box of Delights, which I remember from childhood winter but I haven't seen since; I wonder if it would live up to my memory?

  2. Hi Autumn. Yes, I remember The Box of Delights that was a great story. I will have to search it out and have an indulgent re-read.