They say you can’t judge a book by its cover. But surely, when it’s a book you have read and loved but don’t own a copy of, when you serendipitously find one in a secondhand bookshop you can give silent thanks to Seshat, Sant Jordi, or other bookish divinities and venerable figures, and promise yourself the pleasure of revisiting beloved places and renewing acquaintance with long-lost friends?
Well, maybe. That’s certainly what I thought would happen when I found a copy of Elizabeth Goudge’s A City of Bells last weekend.
I have loved the quiet wisdom of every book I have read by the author, but it’s so long since I read this one that I’d forgotten which it was.
I’d intended leaving it until this weekend, so I could have a proper binge, but made the mistake of leaving it by the kitchen table and couldn’t resist picking it up at breakfast on Monday. At first, I read slowly, fully intending to eke out the pleasure of each phrase, each image, and each situation.
Almost immediately I remembered that it was the delightful story of the bookshop in the house with the green door in the rural city of Torminster, of the pied-piper figure of Gabriel Ferranti, and of Henrietta. I have no problem re-reading favourite books: even knowing exactly how the gently tangled relationships would resolve at the end didn’t stop me being eager to keep reading. I found myself taking longer coffee breaks than were strictly necessary so I could read “just one more chapter”.
And it was all going smoothly until I reached the bottom of page 224. The children were with Grandfather in London, in a hansom cab – “Surely a chariot of the gods” – on the way to see the dentist, Mr Arbuthnot. The joys of the the cab are delightfully described:
The glorious thrill of it, bowling along at a great pace driven by someone you could not even see; the genius shown in the design of the thing, two wheels only, so that you swayed as in a rocking chair, the graceful curve of the hood over your head, the slanting shutters that were slapped down over our knees, shutting you as firmly in as though you were about to turn a somersault, the trap-door through which you could if you wished hold converse with the god in the sky who drove you. And
And then, suddenly, I was back on page 193, with the children learning about Faith and Works through giving away some of their older toys to the poor after Christmas.
The lesson, and the account of their visit to the poorer quarter of the city, is perhaps worth repeating, but I didn’t need my nose rubbed in it. Surely I could have chosen to re-read those pages of my own volition, simply by turning back in the book? Instead it was all narrated anew in the next pages, leading me again onwards towards the trip to London and the visit to Mr Arbuthnot.
Again, then, I reached page 224, and again rode with the children and Grandfather in the magical conveyance driven by a god in the sky…
And this time, I was whirled away and on past the visit to the dentist straight to page 257, where the children are out in the woods on a Nature study lesson led, ineffectually but with good intentions, by Miss Lavender.
The scenes at the theatre, with the almost telepathic experience of Jocelyn and Ferranti, while Felicity and Henrietta are on stage playing the Minstrel’s rejected wife and child, are nowhere to be read. Fortunately they exist in my memory, so I wasn’t entirely taken by surprise by the final unravelling of the story.
Really, though, it was disappointing. I’ll accept that you can’t tell a new book by its cover, but I thought old books were familiar friends who didn’t let you down. I felt cheated.
I’m also a bit confused about what to do with the book. Since I do actually own a copy (stored, along with so much of my past, in a lock-up in central Spain) and it’s the next best thing to a correctly bound copy, it will sit on my shelf for the moment. But I wouldn’t want anyone else to suffer the same deception, so eventually I will probably have to throw it away, which seems a huge waste. It is, after all, only 16 pages that are missing – just five percent of the total.
The only relevance today’s photos bear to anything is that they have all been taken recently, so it would be nice to have a relevant poem to conclude the post. And, since there was no actual account of the visit to the dentist, just the preparations, I think I have just the thing:
Armour and amulet
She showers meticulously, then applies
unscented antiperspirant deodorant:
she must not sweat but, if she does, he
must not smell her fear. The bed is strewn
with rejects as she scours the wardrobes
for the simple outfit that will bolster
and protect her: linen – comfortable and cool
– though with a geometric print to hide
the nervous creases; the side zip’s flattering
and will not gape. She’ll wear no necklace
and the neckline – low enough to let her breathe
– must not be too revealing: he mustn’t be
distracted but she needs to show she’s softly
vulnerable and should be treated gently.
In the patch pocket she carries a spotless cotton
handkerchief she rescued from the rag pile
when her father died; it’s worn and sheer
from twenty years of laundering; her fingers
ravel the fraying hem.