I stepped from Plank to Plank
A slow and cautious way
The Stars about my Head I felt
About my feet the Sea.

I knew not but the next
Would be my final inch -
This gave me that precarious Gait
Some call Experience.

Emily Dickinson, c. 1864

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Revisiting the past

This past week I've been re-reading a book I read long ago, about the time that this young woman was taking care of her newborn baby boy. That's me fifty years ago. Chris is dressed for his christening, with his godparents and the Episcopal priest Fr. Shipps surrounding us. It's a bit overwhelming to realize that I was once that young. My husband Derald was still in Puerto Rico, and I was in Georgia visiting my parents for a short visit when this picture was taken. Fr. Shipps eventually became a Bishop, and the young man Charles on his left became an Episcopal priest as well. I don't even remember the names of the couple, I'm ashamed to say. I think they were active in the church, which I wasn't, and they were probably chosen by someone other than me. Fifty years is a long time.

One of the things I did to pass the time as a young mother was to read books. I would visit the library and choose several to take home and would lose myself in them. It wasn't a particularly happy time in my life, so entering into the world of various authors would lighten my spirit and give me something to think about. I remembered reading "Of Human Bondage" by Somerset Maugham. I didn't realize it at the time, but it was written in 1915 and was considered to be a classic. It's long but easy to read, although I didn't remember much about it, other than that it followed the life of a young man. When I finished the book, I thought about it a lot, and over the years I considered it to have affected me profoundly and that it was one of the best books I had ever read.

I suppose it's true that you can never re-read a book, since the person who read it long ago has changed through life experience enough that the book is being read by an entirely different person. I'm about halfway through the book and find myself quite surprised that it affected me so deeply. Perhaps the protagonist's search to find himself was what the young mother identified with. Life was so different for me in those days, but the struggle to become your own person is one that goes on from one generation to the next. I think I felt trapped into motherhood and an unhappy marriage, and that would have certainly colored anything I was reading. But I remember so well that this book stood out from many others, and I decided to find out why, this me of today.

That Wikipedia link above tells me that the Modern Library ranked this book as one of the best 100 English-language novels of the twentieth century. Well, I guess I wasn't alone in thinking it was good. But I'm curious to know if I will feel that way when I reach the end of it in a few days. The world is not only very different today than it was fifty years ago, but the book was also written a century ago, and the inhabitants of the world of 1915 could hardly imagine what 2012 would look like. Who could have visualized the Internet?

I have probably spent as much time this week on line, reading the news, blogs, commenting, reading emails, as I would have spent at my job during my working years. Several hours every day find me peering at a computer screen, and the connection I feel with people I've never met, will never meet, consumes much of the time I once spent reading hardback books. In fact, I'm reading the aforementioned book on my iPad!

Another event of this past week has me thinking about how much our lives have changed. I finally got to the movies to see Albert Nobbs, where Glenn Close plays a woman who lives her entire life as a man, a butler in 19th-century Ireland. Both Close and another woman who masquerades as a man in the movie, Janet McTeer, have been nominated for Oscars for their performances. Although the movie hasn't been very successful at the box office, seeing the performance of these two makes it entirely worthwhile. I myself thought the movie was very good.

The reason they dressed and lived their lives as men is because in that era, if you were a woman without a husband, means, or the prospects of marriage, your options were extremely limited. When she was fourteen, Albert (the Close character) answered an advertisement for a butler and dressed herself up as one, got the job, and ended up working her entire life as a butler. No one suspected, and if you get a chance to see this movie, you'll see why. Albert found a way to survive in that world.

The young modern women of today have no idea how different the experience of being female in a male-dominated world can be. Of course, it's not the same everywhere in the world, but because of the Internet, because every corner of our world is easily visited on line, we know so much more about virtually anything that interests us, with just the click of a mouse.

Although the woman in Kabul who lives behind the walls of her home, unable to walk on the street alone, has no Internet, I suspect that there are leaks into her life of the wider world. I wonder if she has books to read, like the young woman I was a half-century ago, that spark ideas she wouldn't have otherwise. I wonder.


Rubye Jack said...

All I can say is thank God for books. They have pretty much saved my life. Maugham does a great job of writing about purpose and meaning, and I also gained much from reading him. It is this sort of writer, the one who takes a look at what feelings we as humans have and what drives us that make reading more than a mere pastime for me.
The Internet is a good way to fritter away time but it doesn't compare to books. For some reason, I am unable to read books online. Interesting post DJan.

June said...

Was it Of Human Bondage in which the mother says, "I wait and I wait and I don't know what for"?
I remember reading that and thinking that ooohhh, I knew how that felt...

Teresa Evangeline said...

An excellent post, DJan. I was also a very young mother who found escape in books. I read about three a week, living inside whatever world I found there. Those difficult years fed my innate love of books and I'm grateful to have had the time to read these classics, but I know I was also longing for something more.

I love your closing thoughts. I hope these women find a way to transcend their circumstances.

What a beautiful woman you have always been.

MerCyn said...

We are lucky we are literate and able to seek new ideas and learn about lives not our own. I wonder about those women behind walls where men are intent on keeping them ignorant. I hope they somehow learn about the world beyond their walls.

Anonymous said...

But, you saw so much of the country when you were a military dependent -- something I didn't do as a timid, repressed girl, growing up in Hawaii. I was 21 when I finally got on a plane and flew to Maui for the first time. The following year, I graduated from college and started my trip around the world. That changed my life! And as you see, I am no longer timid and repressed! Lol.

I wouldn't go back 50 years. Fifty years ago, I was 16 and was so unhappy.

Anonymous said...

And, yes, I read Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage when I was a teenager for an English class. It moved me to tears.

CiCi said...

You were a lovely young mother and have maintained your poise throughout your life.
It is a sweet photo of you holding Chris.

I hope you do a book review when you finish the book, a review through the eyes of the woman you are now.

There have been movies made of the book in 1934, 1946, and 1964. I would like to see all three versions.

Retired English Teacher said...

This is just such a classic Djan post. I loved every word of it. You are so right. The young women of today don't know the world we lived in as young women fifty years ago.

I love that you are re-reading this book and wondering how you will see it from today's perspective. I used to try and read War and Peace every decade, then life got too busy.

I do think it is about time for me to do some re-reading of books that greatly impacted me. We are not the same people today that we were then, but I think we do find more about ourselves by revisiting who were then.

Jackie said...

What a thoughtful post. Very intense, and I hear the voice of a woman who is wise beyond her years. I find myself communicating with and reading about those I've not met, and those people (yourself included) are very special to me. I don't make friends easily, and I don't use the term 'friend' lightly. I am thankful to call you friend.
There aren't many books that I re-read. I do enjoy getting lost in a book, though. And I tend to do that immediately. I read Of Human Bondage in the early 70's. At the time, it was "required" reading. I should go back and read a lot of the literature that was 'required' at that time...now that I'm older and want to read for a different reason.
Hopefully, there are outlets/readings/glimmers of hope for the women of the world who aren't as fortunate as we are. You have a sensitive side to you that I admire, Jan. Thank you for that...

Blissed-Out Grandma said...

DJan, you are undertaking a really interesting journey, or experiment, by rereading the book that meant so much to you. The photo could be a scene from a movie, everyone is so attractive and stylish. But when I see the clothes from that era, I feel very uncomfortable. Probably because I, too, was uncertain and trying to define myself. Great, thought-provoking post.

Judy Cosgrove said...

I recognized bits and pieces of our conversations the past week in your blog, but you do such a wonderful job of putting those thoughts on paper - oops, look how old I am. What's paper?

Dee said...

Dear DJan,
I so admire your writing. The way each week you start with an incident from your life and then, by the end of the posting, you expand your life into the Universe. We see then how what you have shared with us applies to the world at large. That's a great gift to us. Thank you.


Linda Myers said...

Here in Ecuador, our housekeeper has a second grade education. She reads with difficulty. There are internet cafes in the village. I wonder if she goes there.

Arkansas Patti said...

I loved that book but also as a much younger woman. I'm sure like you, it would affect me quite differently today. I guess it is like the old saying "You could not step twice into the same river"

Gigi said...

I love the picture DJan, despite everything the pride of your son bursts forth.

I'd never read that book, but have added to my never-ending To Read list.

I'd never heard the you can't re-read the same book again thought - but it is true I suppose, which makes me think that there are quite a few books that I should read again - just to see if they affect me as deeply now as they did then.

It pains me to think of those women behind walls - being dominated by men who think they know better. I'm sure they do hear whispers of different lives and hopefully, one day, they will become active participants.

Bragger said...

I have just downloaded Of Human Bondage. Thank you for the suggestion!

I loved your comment that we can never reread a book, because we are different people the second time around. Perhaps that's why I never mind reading a book for the second ... or third ... time.

SquirrelQueen said...

What a wonderful classic novel to revisit, I would be interested in hearing your review once you've finished. I read Of Human Bondage in high school (not required reading) and again while I was in AK (I read a lot up there as for several years I refused to buy a tv).

There have been a few books I have revisited and found I saw them differently after a few years.

Red said...

You put together a very detailed post as to how we develop through our lives. When we are 20 we feel that we are completely adult but not so. I was in my 40's before I found myself and I kind of liked the person I discovered. I get the same from your post that you became must more self assured.
As for Sommerset Maugham I've read a couple of his novels and short stories. They were a good read. I've never read of Human Bondage but when people discuss a book I tend to read it.

Rita said...

Gosh! Never read the book. Saw the movie with Bette Davis when I was young but don't remember a lot about it now. Long time since I was young--LOL!

And when I was growing up things were very different for women here. But, even so, much better than in a lot of other countries. I do so love your contemplative posts, Djan!!

Linda Reeder said...

I don't think I've ever read Of Human Bondage, I'm almost ashamed to say. After all I'm an English Lit major.
But I was most taken by the idea that you are not the same person you were 50 years ago, and that you are re-reading to try to see why this work had a profound effect on that young mother that you were.
It reminded me of the title of the Thomas Wolfe novel, "You Can't Go Home Again". We can't go back to the old days because we have changed too much and our reactions would be completely different now.
I will be interested in hearing what you have discovered when you finish reading.

Whitney Lee said...

You are beautiful. What a wonderful picture.
I've never read the book. It sounds like something I need to get. I understand the whole bit about not being able to read the same book twice. I reread nearly everything, at least the books I enjoy. Aside from the fiction I read for pure entertainment I've noticed that I get something different out of a book each time I pick it up. This is particularly obvious in the books where I've highlighted sentences or passages. Sometimes I'll wonder why I've underlined some sentence or why I've not recognized the truths found in another paragraph.
I can't quite imagine what it was like to be a woman 50 years ago. I figure I would have been relatively content as I enjoy raising my babies and making a home. It's hard to say, though, as what I am doing is the choice I made. Sometimes I feel there is more, and it's right there if I would just open the door to it. I think fear may be a part of what holds be back, but the bigger piece is that I know that this opportunity I have right now is fleeting, this chance to be with my children won't be here in quite the same way ever again. That's why it makes me happy to devote the majority of my time to them. Again, though, this is the choice that I make. I'm not sure I'd be able to find as much joy in what I do if it were thrust upon me as my only alternative.
I feel fortunate for growing up in a time and in a family where it was made clear I could be and do anything I chose. My parents have always made it clear they had complete confidence in my ability to do whatever I chose, and my mother taught by example that a woman can be extremely successful in business during a time when the bigger offices were primarily occupied by men.
I'd be interested in hearing what you think of the book after you reach the end.

Trish said...

Beautiful post, DJan. When I first read of human bondage, i was struck by the incredible detail, the way Maughm wove things together so effortlessly. I started reading a bit about him - he spoke 12 languages, was a gay man in a time when that was a big OMG moment, and he followed the dictates of his heart.

If I read that book today, it might not make such a huge impact.As you said, we, the readers, have changed. We find certain books and movies when we need to be exposed to the ideas, emotions, and textures they encompass.

Friko said...

Books were my escape too, I was in a foreign land, trapped in a unhappy marriage and unable to work for several years. Books were my salvation then, I could live through the characters on the page.

I am not sure if the young (or old ) woman in Kabul can actually read. She has probably not been allowed to go to school at all. Education makes all the difference in a woman's life and there are still men on this earth who deny this basic right to their women.

I have books which have helped me to become the person I am today, particularly feminist literature. The number of times I said "That's me" , when I recognised myself in yet another statement!

I am very glad that those days are over for any women who wants to lead a full life. Unfortunately, it seems that there are young women today who prefer to go back to the old ways.

Star said...

You are right, we are not the same people as we were 50 years ago. Like you, I have been reading 'old' books, trying to recapture the feelings I had when I read them first time round. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I've never read the one you mention so can't comment on that. Nor have I seen the 'Albert' film. I saw it advertised, but decided it wasn't my 'cup of tea' so didn't bother. I wonder if it will get any oscars.
We shall have to wait and see.

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

I've never read "Of Human Bondage," but now I want to.

It amazes me reading back through my journals. I can't believe how much I've changed.

CrazyCris said...

Great post again DJan!

I haven't read Of Human Bondage, but I'm know I've heard it mentioned several times in the past as an excellent book and one "which should be read". I'll have to look it up!

Books have always been great friends to me, friends which never let me down and were always there when I needed them. I'm a fan of re-reading old favourites now and again. The experience changes with age, and I frequently get something new out of a good tale whenever I pick it up again. :o)

gayle said...

Books have always been a part of my life. Such a great way to pass the time.

Snowbrush said...

I'm going to get the Maugham book because I've never read it either.

I loved the christening photo. You remind me of my wife back then, not because you resembled her so much, as that you had the same look of shy innocence that I found so appealing in her, although I was hardly less innocent.

Sandi said...

Wonderful post, DJan! Somehow I missed it last week and I'm catching up tonight. You have me thinking about what books I'd like to reread as an adult.

I couldn't have survived without the library as a new mom. I went every week and checked out all I could carry. I read voraciously about babies and pregnancy, then about whatever struck my fancy that week. The library has always been like a home away from home.

Glenda said...

Wonderful post, DJan. Books have always been my salvation from when I was a small child living in a rural area. Recently I searched out books on grief and grieving and I am grateful for those writers who shared their journey with me.
As a writer, I have learned that the reader brings so much to the message shared that a a manuscript is incomplete until it is in the hands of the reader.
We read from one perspective when we are young and from a completely different one as an older person. I find that is true of my writing, also.
Of Human Bondage sounds like a book I should read. Thanks.

Heidrun Khokhar said...

Curiosity led me to this post and what a gem it is. You write with wisdom and insight.
Reading is one of the treasures that have helped many an individual cope.The printing press invention gave us a way to pass information on and now it's the internet.
Cell phones are likely in the hands of some of the women you wonder about. They seem to find there way into the remotest and poorest places.