Friday, February 22, 2013

Reading in the House of Busirane

I’m back from my holiday—apologies for the lack of regular posts in the last few weeks. I was able to gulp down a few more vintage novels in the last month or two, and look forward to reviewing those in due course. But for now, I want to talk about something which a lot of parents, friends, and young ladies have talked to me about over the last few years: how to choose good reading for girls.

And certainly it’s been something I’ve thought about quite a lot lately. Parents generally want to make sure their children are reading good material, especially things that won’t entice them to wander away from reality, live imaginary lives, or gain unrealistic expectations for the waking world. But if there’s one demographic that needs particular care in this area, it’s young girls. Girls are usually slightly better than boys when it comes to verbal skills and reading comprehension, so they have the capacity to read more challenging books earlier. But they are also usually more prone than boys to leave the real world for the romantic comfort of a Jane-Austen-lite universe where everyone can be Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy is never far away, or a Tolkienesque Muddle Earth where one ethereal elf-maiden, or one tomboy hobbit-lass, can save the world and defeat the Dark Lord without breaking a sweat.

Sweet on the outside...
Different people I know have approached this conundrum in different ways. In one family, the children were only allowed to read books approved and often previewed by the parents. In another, fiction of any kind is discouraged if not verboten. One friend, not opposed to fiction on principle, observed to me that she was concerned to see what difficulty young ladies who read plenty of fiction had when it came to guarding and training their hearts and emotions around young men. Another mother I know made the decision not to let a specific daughter, for the present, read anything containing romance. The fact is that fiction seems to do something to girls, and different families address this in different ways.

Not all fiction affects all girls in the same way. Jane Austen is the perfect example. I don’t consider her books to be romance novels at all (they are comedies of manners); I’ve never daydreamed about a Jane Austen hero. And yet, somehow, there are hundreds of nice home educated girls making Regency dresses and wearing out their BBC Pride and Prejudice DVDs for reasons which I suspect are not entirely unconnected with Colin Firth.

In the Apple Isle, I took the opportunity to discuss this very topic with my dear friend Christina, one of the few ladies I know who really seems to have come through the minefield of feminine teen reading without serious ill effects. I’ve long wanted to pick her brain on this subject, especially as she now has daughters of her own who she’ll be guiding through the same dangers in another few years. Here are some of the conclusions Christina shared with me.

In Dorothy Sayers’s book The Mind of the Maker, which I have not read, Miss Sayers distinguishes between imagination and introspection. The introspective author or reader constructs elaborate fantasy worlds starring herself. She is being chased by pirates, or Ringwraiths, or Mr Darcy. She is commanding armies, being feted by emperors, or fainting decorously onto strategically-placed ottomans. Her reading or writing is an excuse to insert herself into a multitude of self-indulgent fantasy worlds, where things happen for her convenience.

By contrast, the imaginative author or reader has dominion over the creative act. She is interested in the world around her, and she uses her imagination as a door into greater understanding of other people and places. She tries to get inside others, to understand what drove Napoleon or what Alfred the Great might have been like on his day off. Her reading and writing is an exercise in building her relationship with the world God made, where things happen beyond her control and everything must conform to the rules of creation.

Deadly on the inside.
The problem with young readers usually occurs when introspection is allowed to overtake imagination. An introspective girl, reading Pride and Prejudice, might use it as an excuse to step into Elizabeth Bennet’s shoes and vicariously experience her romance—but if she was more honest with herself, more imaginatively able to see the truth about herself through the eyes of others, she would know that she was actually the foolish, boy-mad Lydia. And Austen’s pointed critique of such girls would make her say ouch.

Fiction should, of course, tell the truth. In A Manual on the Art of Fiction, Clayton Hamilton said:
The purpose of fiction is to embody certain truths of human life in a series of imagined facts. …Every novelist of genuine importance seeks not merely to divert but also to instruct––to instruct, not abstractly, like the essayist, but concretely, by presenting to the reader characters and actions which are true. For the best fiction, although it deals with the lives of imaginary people, is no less true than the best history and biography, which record actual facts of human life; and it is more true than such careless reports of actual occurrences as are published in the daily newspapers.
The original sin of fiction is escapism: using the creative right, not to better understand God’s world, but to escape it altogether, to bend the rules, to ignore the No Trespassing signs. It is not the vampires I object to in Twilight; it is the idea that being a vampire might be better than dying and going to Heaven like a Christian. And it is not the adventure I love in The Lord of the Rings; it is what the adventure tells us, that there is a special Providence directing history. Although fiction of the purest kind, The Lord of the Rings is full of truth about the waking world.

And so the danger for many young girls is introspection and the impulse to avoid the rules of creation. Introspection is about constructing a private world of self-gratification; of using books to screw far down inside one’s self, to a place where one is the centre of one’s own little solar system. Here, all the men are fictional, and thus perfect. They all say that you, the heroine, are their reason for existence. And when life in the real world becomes a little frustrating, there’s always a book to crawl into to help you get back to that personal solar system.

In Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene, this personal solar system is a house blazing with sickly splendour—the House of Busirane. And it’s the place where true love is tortured and subverted. CS Lewis says,
To a man tempted by the Bower, one would say, “Pull yourself together”, but to a man tempted by Busirane, one would say “Can you not come out? Out into the free air and sunlight? Can you never break this lifelong obsession?” It will dawn on every reader in the end that the difference between Acrasia and Busirane is that between Lust (appetite) and Love, bad love.
The way out of the House of Busirane can be difficult to find, especially if introspection has become a deeply-ingrained habit. The answer is a life rooted in others: in real relationships with men and women and the world around one. The answer is the imaginative life which can feel sympathy with others; which can see the world through their eyes, or more importantly through God’s. It is hard to have illusions about one’s self when seeing oneself through the eyes of another. It is hard to have false expectations about men when one has real relationships with them. And it is always, always healthier to love God and one’s neighbour before thinking about oneself.

The question is how to put this into practice, either for one’s self or one’s children. Christina and I came up with a few pointers:

Practically speaking, perhaps the easiest thing for a reader to do is take notice of what specific books or genres are most likely to foster introspection—and then avoid them. Some books I’ve read seem hand-crafted to incite introspective daydreaming; some were hand-crafted to do the opposite; some have elements of both things. Some books will be introspective for some readers, but not for others, and of course, there are thousands of good books which the twisted heart of a reader can turn into something bad. A reader who’s serious about watching her thought life needs to be honest with herself about which books are a problem and should be rethought, postponed or given up entirely.

When it comes to unrealistic expectations about men, it can be very healthy for a girl to read plenty of books by men, especially if she doesn’t have brothers to relate to. Books by women tend to cater to feminine weaknesses, and reading books by men is a fantastic way for a girl to see the world through another point of view. I can never help comparing two pot-boiler swashbucklers on this point. In Mary Johnston’s fun To Have and To Hold, the life of the hero revolves around the heroine. But in Anthony Hope’s exciting The Prisoner of Zenda, the hero remarks at one fraught moment that he was not thinking of the heroine, but of how much he’d like to smoke a pipe. Because I had read The Prisoner of Zenda and other books by men, I knew that To Have and To Hold was being a little unrealistic on this point.

Even better, readers should live active lives grounded in the real world. They should know something about life. They should cultivate relationships with real people, and if they are girls, they should certainly cultivate relationships with real men. They should get used to thinking of others before themselves, and seeing both their faults and their strengths through the eyes of others. Fiction can tell us the truth about the world, but it can also tell us a lie about the world. And so the best way to distinguish which is which is to live discerningly in the real world. Books, of course, are a part of the real world, and so being widely-read is another help in the battle to know the truth.

The secret weapon that will help girls bring a little reality into their reading is simply a good relationship with their parents. Christina is a great example of this. She voluntarily sought her mother’s input on reading, sometimes asking her to read ahead in a book she was concerned about in order to vet it, or even (when reluctantly deciding to lay the book aside) getting her mother to read the end to tell her how it turned out

Of course, Christina is very widely-read, and one of the books she read during this time was Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, so the precautions she took did not prevent her reading serious and mature books.

These are all good ideas for how one mother-daughter pair navigated these tricky waters. How this works out in your family will look quite different. But, as Christina points out, this is the wonderful thing about home education—the parents can know their children well enough to tailor their reading diet to their particular needs.

If you’re a young girl reading this, I encourage you to make use of your secret weapon and get your parents’ input on the books and movies you enjoy. Look at your reading through their eyes. If you’re not sure about a book, get your mother to check it out first.

With the internet, there are plenty of resources out there to help parents sort out the introspective from the imaginative books, or to vet a book before it comes into one’s home. The best thing is to read widely yourself and already have shelves stuffed full of books you love and would gladly share with the children! But there will always be books one hasn’t read. I’ve used Wikipedia plot summaries to vet books I didn’t want to read, since that can sift out the really bad ones right away. If the author is a possibility, maybe you can read one of the books, either to yourself or to the family, before declaring open season. That will allow you to pinpoint and discuss areas of concern. Also be sure to cultivate close relationships with the children, so that you can be wise about which books to discard, which books to allow, and which books to postpone.

Just as fiction can be a powerful tool for teaching the truth, so also it can be a powerful escape from reality. But it doesn’t have to be.


Hannah Shannon said...

Lovely! Thank you, Suzannah, for the clarity and wisdom you give to this often bewildering subject.

Lady Bibliophile said...

What an excellent post, Suzannah! I liked your contrast between introspection and imagination. Personally I never put myself in a book; I tended more towards the imagination side, which I have been grateful for, as it allowed me to read more. I think I've always but a heavy emphasis on self-control--I wouldn't let myself fantasize, as I thought it was wrong to do so. I never gave my first kiss to Darcy, Tilney, Knightley, or Bertram, but I suspect many girls have given things in their fantasies that they would never condone giving to anyone but their husbands in real life. But it went beyond romance, too--I knew it was wrong to wish I could live in the characters' worlds and pretend I was there, when God had placed me in the situation He wanted me to be in.

I think there is a difference between escapism and imagination. For instance, when I was little I used to imagine whole series of adventures for favorite characters beyond the books the authors wrote. But there's a line between doing it at the right time and for the right reasons, and using it for self-gratifiction.

But even though, by God's grace, I haven't struggled with this horribly, I know more than one mother/girl who faces this issue, and it may be one I have yet to deal with.

Christina Baehr said...

This is great! I don't need to blog anymore! I can just talk and let other people blog! Who knew?!

Suzannah said...

Hehe--thanks, ladies, for all your encouragement. Christina! Seriously, I had this idea a long time ago--wanting to interview you on the influence of John Buchan on CS Lewis!

But don't stop blogging. That would be awful.

Rachel Rossano said...

Well put and I wholeheartedly agree. Fiction is a powerful weapon in shaping the minds of the young. As parents we must be wary of what our children are learning when they read. Teaching them discernment in reading and other things as well is vital.


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