In a joint collaboration between a team at The Open University and the Institute of English Studies, the latest annual History of Books and Reading seminar series (HOBAR) on the theme of ‘Reading and Wellbeing’ had just begun when the COVID-19 pandemic broke.
Dr Shafquat Towheed and Dr Edmund King, blog series organisers, write: "lives have been turned upside down and our most natural instincts suppressed. Pandemic social distancing rules have cut us off from participatory culture, sport and social life, and is causing a surging mental health crisis. Never has reading matter, specifically, having books at home, been of greater importance. Confined to our homes, many have turned to the printed books on our shelves and the eBooks on our digital devices for reassurance, reflection, or escape. Putting this seminar series together in the pre-Coronavirus world, we had never imagined that our research topic would be so close to home for so many people, including ourselves. This blog series will reflect on the HOBAR seminars, with organisers and speakers considering the relevance of reading and wellbeing in the current pandemic."
The Institute of English Studies has kindly allowed us to reproduce this work for inclusion in the OU's new Arts and Humanities in the time of COVID-19 online series. In this article, we reproduce the work of Sally Blackburn-Daniels, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in English and Impact Consultant for English and Creative Writing at The Open University. She is the current communications officer for the International Vernon Lee Society (IVLS) and is an editor on the Holograph-Lee project. This was originally published on 29 September 2020.
Throughout the lockdown I have been thinking about the ways in which I spend my time; am I productive enough, what do I do to wind-down, do I wind-down enough, and how do I compare with others?
Both my work-life and leisure are tied to reading, and whilst the opportunities for this activity have been many, like many people, I have struggled to focus (see Ella Berthoud). The existential dread, the doomscrolling (see Edmund King), and the worry about how our society will recover from COVID-19 has led to concentration lapses when reading, and, more significantly, a general malaise. It was as I struggled to concentrate upon the new and unfamiliar that I turned to re-reading.
I’ve spent the majority of my academic life reading, thinking, and writing about the author Vernon Lee (Violet Paget, 1856-1935). Lee was a British citizen, born in France, who lived and died in Italy. She had no formal education aside from a few German governesses, and yet she was fluent in four languages, and was as confident writing about aesthetic philosophy as she was conjuring ghost stories. She produced over forty published works in her lifetime, and wrote, she suggested, only to ‘please herself.’ She survived both the First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic.
One of Lee’s lesser studied works (but one worth reading and, I would argue, re-reading) is Hortus Vitae: Essays on the Gardening of Life (1904). The book contains a collection of essays in which Lee reveals how she cultivates her life with simple pleasures: music, friendship, letters, theatre, riding her bicycle, silence (a particular favourite!) and ‘Reading Books’. Hortus Vitae is dedicated to a Madame Blanc-Bentzon, as a proxy for their shared and much-loved friend, the late Gabrielle Delzant. Shortly before her death in February 1903, Lee notes, Delzant practiced speaking English by reading aloud the (as yet unpublished) essays from Hortus Vitae; this reading experience became embedded within dedication.
According to Lee, Delzant—even in illness—had inspired her with her pragmatic outlook, and with her advice that resonated with Blanc-Bentzon and herself, particularly:
We must, be prepared to begin life many times afresh
I am unsure if at this time Delzant was aware of her own impending mortality, or of her deep connection with Hortus Vitae. But for Lee and Blanc-Bentzon, Delzant’s life was to become synonymous with the book, as each return to its pages provided an opportunity to remember the woman they both deeply admired. Delzant’s life, and Lee’s story of their friendship, begins again each time a reader picks Hortus Vitae up from the shelf. This sense of repeated beginnings seems an apt one for a book in which Lee writes:
The greatest pleasures of reading consist in re-reading, sometimes almost in not reading at all, but just thinking or feeling what there is inside the book, or what has come out of it, long ago, and passed into one’s mind or heart as the case may be.
In returning to a book once read we begin the book’s life (with ourselves) afresh. Whether we do this as a reader, or by merely leafing through its pages, we are able to connect to a prior version of ourselves; to the experiences we brought to its interpretation, and to the memories we associate with it. But our reading will undoubtably never be the same. The pool of experiences we draw from to engage with the with the work will change, and our responses will be somehow different. I’m not sure how my reading of Hortus Vitae will change whenever it is I come to pick it up again, but it seems significant that those things that struck me this time were absent friends, the devastation of loss, and the need to be prepared to re-start life afresh.