A Child’s Eyes: reading the classics

I recently read Claire Tomalin’s wonderful biography of Samuel Pepys, The Unequalled Self (2002). Tomalin, the authoritative chronicler of Britain’s greatest literary figures – Austen, Dickens, Hardy – writes biography as it always should be: a gripping and moving exploration of a life, and the world it inhabited. For those who don’t know, Pepys, a senior civil servant, lived through and recorded the English Civil War, Commonwealth and Restoration, the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. Most of what we know about life in 17th century London is taken from his lively and candid private diary, unique in its time. Thanks to Tomalin’s diligence and humanity, I feel I know Pepys and his world, even if I’ll never read the Diary myself. (Even the Penguin Classics ‘Selections’ run to over a thousand pages.)

But wait – I have read the Diary. At least, a little snatch of it. Before Year Two, we didn’t learn any history in school. But that year, we covered three events central to London’s history: the Gunpowder Plot, the Great Plague and the Great Fire. I’d always remembered learning about these things. But only now, as I go through all my schoolwork, do I find that we were given real source material. Here is the warning letter which alerted the authorities to the Gunpowder threat, its early modern elegance of phrase reproduced in my childish hand, and my drawing of Pepys:

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On 9th February 2000, I wrote:

He wrote a famous diary in secret code. John Smith a student at Cambridge University decoded it two hundred years later. His diary told of the Plague every day life in London and the fire of London in 1666.

This is interesting, for two reasons. Firstly, although I’d never forgotten Samuel Pepys, it had entirely escaped my memory that he wrote the diary in ‘code’ (shorthand) – yet here is my six-year-old self, telling me so. Secondly, it’s heartening to note the credit given by the curriculum to the Cambridge undergraduate who deciphered Pepys’ shorthand. Because Tomalin has now taught me that although he undertook the painstaking work of ‘translating’ the entire Diary, he was barely paid for his work – a public figure later made his fortune publishing and editing the Diary, using Smith’s text.

This left me wondering: what else did I read and react to, when I was far too young to fully appreciate it? And what did these reactions tell me? What I’ve learnt, as we can see above, is that even if later re-readings are layered on top of initial discovery, with added depth and nuance, they don’t simply replace what we took from the earlier reading. Those first explorations of a text often hold the essential truth of our relationship to it – but if we don’t record them, we’ll lose them. The same goes for my nine-year-old reading of The Hobbit (1937). This picture shows that I knew exactly what happened in The Hobbit after I’d read it – because I chose it as the story with which I demonstrated my ‘Understanding of Sequencing’ in Year 5 ‘Literacy’:


Yet this picture, from my Year 5 Reading Log, shows the sum total of my reaction to The Hobbit, when I first finished reading it at home:

(For those who are curious, the review above 'The Hobbit' is of David Almond's 'Skellig'.)

(For those who are curious, the review above ‘The Hobbit’ is of David Almond’s ‘Skellig’.)

When I found my Year 5 book a couple of days ago, I recognised the story the Sequencing work told. But only because I, a sucker, paid to sit through all three films of The Hobbit. Until then, my memory of the story had been so limited that, on the way to see Part Two, I realised I was unable to recap for my forgetful parents what had already happened. Hasty Googling ensued, to recover the plot of a film we’d already seen, and a book that two of us had read together.  I know what I retained of Tolkien’s book: the character of Gandalf, Smaug in the Lonely Mountain and the narratively unimportant visit to Rivendell. Gone from my memory were the actual purpose of the quest (the twelve dwarves and their recovery of the Arkenstone), the resolution of the story (the defeat of Smaug in a dramatic battle at Lake-town, as related in my Sequencing work) and everything in between. Hardly surprising, when the only thing I took away from the book upon closing it was my sympathy with the Hobbitish proclivity for second breakfasts.

I found this same telling honesty in a Year 6 reading of Oliver Twist (1838). Dickens is one of very few authors represented by multiple books on my shelves. Unlike one schoolfriend, who is obsessed with the man and rereads his complete works in the run-up to Christmas every year, my appreciation of Dickens has not been lifelong. Like many people, I shrank from his interminably long sentences and miserable social realism. At sixteen, though, Hard Times changed my mind – aside from perfectly capturing a whole society, from the slums to the Commons, Dickens is funny, a vivid and mercilessly shrewd sketcher of character. After the Year 8 ordeal of Great Expectations, which followed uninspiring memories of Twist and A Christmas Carol, I never thought I’d read Dickens again. Yet my ten-year-old’s ‘Personal Response’ to Twist shows signs of my later affection:


In my youthful bluntness, I landed here on the essence of Dickens: it’s only boring if you can’t bring those characters to life in your mind. Without them, yes, to the modern eye it’s simply a “slightly over-described”, linear account of individuals living unimaginative lives, devoid of dragons, schizophrenics or BDSM. But as soon as you’re on Dickens’ wavelength, they jump off the page.

If we fast-forward to Year 7, we’re back with the same text. And here again we see how younger readings can be more perceptive than more mature ones. Once in Big School, rather than a ‘Personal Response’, my eleven-year-old self was set an essay, on Oliver Twist’s portrayal of Victorian childhood. I obliged with an indictment of the establishment’s cruelty towards Oliver, couched in analytical terms but essentially one-dimensional in its identification of this as reprehensible:


Of course, this isn’t a wrong reading of Twist – Dickens worked tirelessly, in his novels and in life, to improve the lot of the poor and to bring public attention to social injustice. Every one of his works is populated by wretched innocents on the one hand, and heartless perpetrators on the other. His power of caricature serves to highlight this distinction. Yet if you read the characterisations closely, it’s clear that Dickens doesn’t dismiss his villains as inherently evil – this would undermine his calls for social reform. The Mr Bumbles and Scrooges of Dickens can’t be pathologically evil; they are, primarily, socially evil. My Year 6 response to the book, as a purely personal reflection, highlights this:

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So here’s something else these childish perspectives tell us – the way we’re taught literature profoundly influences our view of it. Maybe not big news, but it surprised me how subtle this can be. Here’s a final example: Shakespeare. I had a very privileged primary education in Shakespeare. For one day every year, a theatre company came in to run an acting workshop based on one play. By the time I left primary school, without ever having confronted the written texts, I knew the stories of Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Macbeth and Hamlet. In Year 6, though, we also began to think about the plays in some more detail, in the classroom.

As an A Level student of Othello, or even when a Year 9 student of Richard III, I would have been insulted, patronised, by the task of writing a modern version of the play. At face value, this kind of exercise is simply a gimmicky way of making Shakespeare seem fun to kids. But now that I read my rewritings back, I see that my younger self was getting right to the heart of these characters. Scholars and critics have spent centuries trying to pin down the psychology of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes in fine detail. (For a recent example, Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth suffers more than a hint of veteran’s PTSD.) But appreciating the plays at all requires some understanding of their basic state of mind. My so-terrible-it’s-good first-person narrative of Macbeth‘s opening captures the arrogance of the young and victorious war commander:


Whatever happens in his mind later on, this is the Macbeth of the play’s first scenes. But my favourite example of my younger self unwittingly hitting the nail on the head is from this diary entry by Hamlet:


The story of Hamlet’s guilt, hesitation, self-doubt and hopeless longing has become one of the world’s most quoted and most performed works of English literature. And here I boiled it all down to a single interjection which I probably found very funny at the time.

What’s the moral of this story? Well, I guess a couple of things. Firstly, if there are children in your life, encourage them to write down what they think about the books they read, and do the same yourself. It could make a great blog post in fifteen years’ time, or at the least, make you see your reading experiences and memories in a new light. Secondly, talk to kids about their reading. You never know what strange wisdom you may find in their deadly serious or ‘cleverly’ witty responses. Of course, children’s reading is also about unbridled joy and unquestioning enthusiasm, free of our profound insights and thorny debates. On this note, I’ll leave you with my drawing of Smaug. He looks quite friendly, really.



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