Something of the excitement goes out of Christmas shopping as we get older, but in a bookshop the familiar magic returns. Whole afternoons can be spent blissfully browsing and choosing. There are so many wonderful new books on display that you find yourself thinking there’s a lot to be said for giving everyone a book this Christmas and not going into any other shops at all…
One of my best Christmas presents ever was given to me forty years ago. It was a book called Reader, I Married Him, by the poet Patricia Beer. It’s a study of the women characters, their position in society and how they relate to men, in the work of four novelists: Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot.
This isn’t dry literary criticism or feminist writing, but an immensely pleasurable and easy read, spiced with a sharp and witty intelligence. It’s like enjoying the novels in the company of an acutely perceptive and sympathetic friend – and is very funny indeed about our old friends Mrs Elton, Mr Rochester and Darcy.
You’d be unlikely to find Reader, I Married Him in most bookshops now, but for those who love these four women novelists (or any one of them) a copy is likely to bring the same continuing delight it brought me back in 1975.