So yesterday I attended my first ever session at a book group. I almost didn’t make it. Not that anything prevented me from leaving the house, or driving through an immaculate spring evening to my son’s school. When I arrived it had that centuries-abandoned look that silent buildings acquire when they are usually swarming with life. The empty games pitch swept away to one side, like a small green ocean, birds tweeted cheerfully in trees and nothing could have been more idyllic or more quintessentially English. I walked up the broad concrete steps before the double glass doors and – nothing happened. Usually they part welcomingly as you approach them, but not on this occasion. So I briefly checked out the rest of the doors I could see on the front façade, somewhat gingerly as I anticipated tripping the security system and setting off klaxons blaring and sirens wailing. But no, only the birds kept tweeting in a landscape of complete human desolation. I stepped up to the double glass doors again, and hopped up and down in front of them, but still nothing. I reviewed my options. Had I over the course of the day accidentally sold my soul to the devil and was therefore now incapable of triggering the release mechanism, which refused to acknowledge me as human? Didn’t think so. Had I maybe got my dates mixed up, and was standing outside the book club venue on the day I was supposed to be at the writing group? Such eventualities are not unknown to me, but again, no, not this time. I decided the book group had a trapdoor, known only to initiates with a secret password, and that clearly all I needed to do was wait until a member came along and shadow them. I listened to some more birdsong and in about five minutes a car drove up, whereupon I exchanged suspicious glances with the woman inside it. When she got out, I called ‘Is it tonight for the book group?’ and she replied enthusiastically, ‘Oh yes!’ Encouraged, I said ‘Only I can’t get in the building.’ ‘That’s odd,’ she said. ‘Usually the glass door on the left is open.’ And of course, even as I registered the words, I could now see that the furthermost glass panel was not smooth as I had thought, but displayed a perfectly visible, if discrete, black handle. Well, duh! ‘It’s okay!’ I called back. ‘It’s just me being stupid!’ And at least in this way the ice was broken.
The meeting took place in the psychology room, that’s to say your average classroom but with a poster of Sigmund Freud on the wall. When I finally got there, a small clutch of ladies were engaged in wheeling a drinks trolley in that seemed laden with bottles and little wicker baskets of snacks. The group leader gazed at me with hungry eyes – a new recruit! – and introduced me to the three others standing around her whose names, in the stress of the situation, I instantly forgot. ‘How did you hear about us?’ the leader inquired. When I said from the school newsletter, there was a moment of pure celebration (‘It IS worth putting our report in there!’). ‘We always tell people we are very friendly and welcoming,’ she said. And indeed that was true. A few more members trickled in and we ended up an all-female contingent of seven with more drinks and snacks than we knew what to do with.
The reason I wanted to attend a book club meeting was to see for myself the kind of discussions that go on there. I was really curious to find out to what extent the book would hold people’s attention, and to witness the conversations it might provoke. I’ve mentioned already on this blog that I was a bit amazed that the books set for the evening had amounted to over a thousand pages, but I’d dutifully read both and turned out to be the only person (apart from the woman who’d chosen them) to do so. I’d only had twenty-five pages of The Suspicions of Mr Whicher to go, and had wondered whether I might skip them. But earlier that evening, when I’d been preparing my dinner in the kitchen, I’d been idly tap-dancing in my clicky-heeled boots and my son, sighing at the kind of nonsense he has to put up with, had instructed me to sit down and finish the book. Just as well, really, as there was a twist right at the end that it would have been a shame to miss. The Kate Summerscale was up for discussion first as it was the one most people had read. One member introduced the book and the liveliest moment was, without doubt, the first opportunity we all had to give our impressions. The women around the table were all keen and well-read; they were ready to talk about any aspect of their reading, but were extremely cautious of being critical, and I would be surprised if any of them had ever studied literature. They were altogether enthusiastic, well-intentioned book lovers. And I can recall almost nothing that was said about the book; the memorable parts of the conversation were indeed to be found almost exclusively elsewhere.
The Suspicions of Mr Whicher is a non-fiction book that presents a detailed, scholarly but extremely readable account of an infamous 19th century murder case. It concerns a middle-class family – a father, Samuel Kent, an inspector of factories, with older children from his first marriage (mother now deceased), a second wife, and a new set of young infants. It turns out that his second wife was originally the governess in the family, and her displacement of the first wife (who was claimed to have been mad) had occasioned a displacement of those older children in the parental affections. The victim was one of the younger children, a three-year-old boy named Saville, who had been rather gruesomely murdered and thrown down the outside privy. I won’t say much more than that as the question of who did it is repeatedly solved, only in order to be repeatedly put in doubt. The author does come up with a solution that she presents as final (it’s almost the last paragraphs of the book), and which seemed convincing to me.
In the one memorable part of the book discussion, one of our members disagreed with this and put forward her own solution which was delivered with absolute certainty but on extremely slender grounds. I goggled at this, my academic sensibilities offended. Reading against the grain is all well and good, but you don’t do it without some pretty compelling evidence. What really made me laugh was that the same member then went on to say that she couldn’t bear it if books weren’t accurate, particularly in medical details (she is a doctor). I tell you, my heart sort of bled at that point for all the misunderstood authors of the world, who are held up for ridicule by the reading public for having their characters drive the wrong way down a one-way street, but whose fundamental arguments have been willfully tossed aside. Inevitably I wanted to argue against this reading, but I was conscious that to do so presented quite a diplomatic challenge. I didn’t want to look unfriendly or superior at my first meeting. So I suggested that it was interesting to consider the characters we thought of as suspicious, because it must surely bring into question what we each, individually, considered to be criminal behaviour. And I said that detective stories were curious in the way that they encouraged us to attribute reason and logic to emotions that are in fact hugely capricious – the book talks at one point about how surprised people were, when these murder stories started hitting the headlines, by how little motive lurked at the basis of violent crime. I tried to be careful, and not too pretentious, and yet I will confess that in my heart I felt a bit of a know-it-all and an intellectual bully – why shouldn’t this woman think whatever she likes about the book, if it gives her pleasure? But these were all intelligent women, and I was equally uncomfortable with the thought of not pushing the discussion as far as it would go.
But inevitably, it was the tangential that held the day. What really got the discussion going was mention of the mysterious ‘breast flannel’ that plays an important part in the murder investigation. None of us had a clue what it was – it could have been anything from a truss to a teddy – and there was much talk of googling the term, or looking for one on ebay. This led to a discussion of liberty bodices and then vests, as the undergarments of childhood obligation. The very friendly woman sitting beside me told a funny story about coming across old bridesmaid pictures in which the pretty scooped neckline of her dress revealed the inglorious outline of her thermals. ‘I knew I should have rebelled against wearing it,’ she said. I never heard her say a single word about either book, not even whether she liked them. She talked readily about the Madeleine McCann case, and joined in the other lively debate about cherished family relations turning out to be wicked abusers (I had inadvertently started off this one by relentlessly plugging the intellectual, this time the split between public and private). And I have to say I enjoyed the stories and the anecdotes. It’s just a part of me felt sort of sorry for the lovely books, so replete with mystery and meaning. I had to wonder whether my professional interest in reading simply distances me from the general reader’s approach to books, in the same way that ex-train drivers don’t spend their weekend with railway enthusiasts, and retired doctors don’t nip down the road of an evening to visit hypochondriacs anonymous. We want different things from the objects of our devotion. But I liked the group and I’ll go to the next meeting in May. I can’t help but feel, in my meddling way, that must be a way to encourage readers to go deeper into a book, it’s just I haven’t identified it yet, haven’t found the words for it yet. Although part of me can’t help but feel my fellow readers went to their homes saying ‘my goodness me, didn’t we talk a lot about the book tonight – who was that tiresome woman?’ 🙂
P. S. For Wilkie Collins enthusiasts, there was very little discussion of this book, as we were running out of time and steam after the Summerscale. But all who’d read it loved it and warmly recommended it. One very interesting thing I was told – apparently Collins fell gravely ill near the end of the writing and worried he wouldn’t finish it. ‘Never mind,’ his mate, Dickens said. ‘Pass your notes over to me and I’ll do it for you.’ It seems that he probably didn’t, but some blame the ‘unsatisfactory’ ending on Collins’ enfeebled state. This was a blow – I thought the ending was remarkably unusual and enlightened, and it turns out to have been a product of brain fever. Well, duh, again!