Marcin Wicha’s mother Joanna was a collector of everyday objects from penknives to paperbacks. Following her death, Wicha sorted through her possessions and as he did, he began to construct an image of his mother – her devotion to work, her formidable temperament and her love of reading. On rereading her well-worn copy of Jane Austen’s Emma, Wicha decides he doesn’t like its author very much … Below is an extract from Wicha’s book, Things I Didn’t Throw Out by Marcin Wicha, translated by Marta Dziurosz, Daunt Books.
So let’s not sugar-coat it – condition: poor. No front cover. A stain on the back. Loose pages in the middle. Damaged spine. Numerous tears, creases, dirt. The paper falls apart when handled. On page 27, on the inner margin, there’s a drawing of a heart behind bars.
On page 155, another doodle – a miniature envelope or a sunken destroyer from a game of Battleship. This surprises me a little. I never saw my mother damaging books like this. I didn’t find any more drawings, but I did discover a minuscule hole burned through page 162. Perhaps it’s a memento of a power cut. It’s hard for me to imagine her reading Emma by candlelight. My mother never smoked, but she could have lent the book to a smoker friend (Marital crisis? Work problems? Something healthrelated?). If that’s what it was, the smell of smoke has long disappeared.
She treated this novel as therapy, returning to it in moments of unhappiness. During illness. At times of depression and historic catastrophes. She bought Emma in 1961, and in the 50 years that followed she must have reread it a few dozen times. Emma was a warning sign: Caution, bad mood. A hoisted black flag. A pile of apples, some tissues, a damaged book. The cover went missing a long time ago. I vaguely remember it featuring women in long gowns and bonnets, colourful little prints.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Polish publishing houses were not in the habit of printing blurbs. Today the copy dashed off by someone in the publicity department would sound like this: “The classic novel. Amorous adventures in the English countryside. Witty, beautiful and rich Emma Woodhouse believes in her matchmaking talents. But the hearts of those closest to her hide many secrets, and her own feelings will surprise her the most. Meet the lively Miss Woodhouse and her circle of friends: stern Mr Knightley, humble Harriet, reticent Jane Fairfax – and the unique Mr and Mrs Elton.”
Emma is like Winnie-the-Pooh: A group of fundamentally goodnatured but flawed characters wander around a rural area. They pay each other visits and talk. Chat. Blather. Converse. Material worries aren’t of primary importance. Piglet will always find acorns. Pooh empties the last jar of honey with trepidation, but in the next chapter the larder is full, so everyone ambles off to play Poohsticks.
As well as the economic stability, the very rhythm of Emma’s sentences are calming and don’t try to prove anything. In no rush, they carry participles ready to stop the plot’s course and spill out into a short digression. Add an ironic remark of a general nature, while the main current remains lucid and clear. Of all the books I know, this one most resembles a brook (in The Hundred Acre Wood, naturally).
But my mother was not the sort of person who would spend half a century seeking solace in the babbling of a brook. Beneath all appearances hides a book that is hardly goodnatured. The interjections, succinct descriptions and pithy comments add up to a clear image of Jane Austen. And compared to this lady our pal Nabokov seems like a cheerful, fun guy.
Emma is a record of linguistic allergy, of a festering caused by certain sentences, phrases and mannerisms. Chapter 19. Emma visits Miss Bates and her mother in a modest house where the two women “occupied … the very moderate-sized apartment”. What we learn about the older lady is that she is neat. The younger – energetic and talkative – explodes into a monologue that takes up four subsequent pages. Boring, chaotic, dense with repetitions, larded with courtesies, obsequious and boastful, marked with ellipses, pinched with brackets, full of various “often says” and “I do not know that I ever saw anybody more surprised”. This logorrhoea contains mainly praise for her niece, one Jane Fairfax, and a detailed report concerning her activities and plans. After page two, we’re already sick of this character. We burn with deep, intense dislike towards her. The tortured Emma listens and suddenly “an ingenious and animating suspicion” penetrates her mind. It’s about “Jane Fairfax [and] this charming Mr Dixon”. Clearly Emma is counting on Jane having an affair with her married protector. The hope that the humble young woman has strayed from the path of virtue will stay with Emma for the next two hundred pages. The main character might be driven by ambition, selfishness, jealousy, but why on earth would the reader share those feelings? Suddenly, Ms Austen pivots. The beginning of chapter 20 is devoted to Jane Fairfax, who has still not entered the stage. The narrator starts with the words “Jane Fairfax was an orphan”, and then offers us the sad and compassion-stirring story of this – hard to disagree – “sweet, interesting creature”. It’s a game.
Reader, do you still feel solidarity with Emma? Do you continue to share her dislike for the “quiet neat old lady”, Mrs Bates? Do you still have the urge to take a swing at her kind little head? And the decent orphan whose fate has tried her sorely, the apple of her auntie’s eye, how has she wronged you?
What Austen has done is perform a classic motherly gambit. She provoked us: She presented a verbatim record of Miss Bates’s words, presented it so maliciously that she would only be equalled by journalists transcribing a recording of a politician’s locker room talk. She kept every inanity and every platitude, she made us see every single word making up this gibberish, until we were convinced. Now she looks at us innocently and accuses us of pettiness. Oh, it’s as if I was listening to you, mother dear: “I honestly don’t get what you’re talking about: he’s such a nice man!” “You should be ashamed of saying such things.” “They’re only human.” “You nasty boy.”
My mother could hold a grudge. She carefully measured out understanding. But she was also able to find new reserves of tolerance and gentleness when she wanted to annoy someone. In the book, Emma is taken to task. To this end, Austen sends in the sanctimonious Mr Knightley, a pompous bore who brings another portion of admonishment every few chapters. “For shame, Emma!” And indeed: she suffers pangs, pricks, jabs, blows of conscience. It’s not nice to make fun of old ladies. It’s rude to sneer at orphans. For shame! At the end of the book Emma gets unbounced like Winnie-the-Pooh’s Tigger. She becomes – at least temporarily – a docile, repentant, grateful Emma.
Fortunately, there’s also Mrs Elton, a character – as my mother once explained to me – created to be disliked. The narrow minded, pushy Mrs Elton forces her way onto the pages of the novel only to irritate. A repulsive parvenu unprotected by emotional blackmail. An allergen. Hazel pollen, red eyes, swollen throat. The current of her speech carries all the most irritating phrases, mannerisms and boasts. The tales about her brother-in-law’s carriages. The epithet “lord and master” which she bestows upon her husband. That “caro sposo”; the clichés repeated for maximum effect, “Surrey is the garden of England”. Argh! Something had to result from that. From the teethgnashing over Mrs Elton. The scoffing at the slowcoach hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse. From the obviously unfair dislike of Jane Fairfax. From those kilograms of apples eaten and the hundreds of Emma-hours that my mother clocked up.
Firstly: Verbal agility helps in difficult situations. One must be a shrew. One must get friendly with words.
Secondly, I imagine my mother as she begins reading for the hundredth time. She can be sure that nobody will die in childbirth or be finished off by TB. Even the hypochondriac Woodhouse will make it to the last page. Old Mrs Bates will again gobble ham, tasty as always. They’ll remain in place with their flaws, selfishness, haughtiness. With their funny pretensions: Oafish father, passive friend, irritating neighbours. Thirdly … I don’t know what the third thing was. It had something to do with silence.
After my father’s death and later, when she was ill, she never reached for that book. This time Emma was too feeble. Too weak. Below par. Jane Austen failed her. Words failed her. I also failed her, but that was to be expected.
From: Things I Didn’t Throw Out by Marcin Wicha, translated by Marta Dziurosz, Daunt Books, is out now.
7 MORE BOOKS ON JOANNA’S BOOKSHELVES
Emma wasn’t alone. The shelf with my mother’s favourite books contained these books. Someone has probably already invented this: therapeutic literary packages. Seven titles for depression, in our autumn sale.
1. MAGDA SZABO, Old Fashioned Story. Damaged spine, dust jacket lost. This is possibly Szabo’s best novel and is a history of her family. It is claimed this was the first Hungarian novel to deal openly with women’s sexuality.
2. EM FORSTER, Howard’s End. Cloth Spine, cardboard cover with an elegant pattern. Design by Andrzej Heidrich. Set in a country house in 1910, Forster examines social conventions and relationships in turn-of-the-century England.
3. JOHN GALSWORTHY, The Forsyte Saga. No dust jacket. The sequence of three novels in the saga chronicles the lives of three generations of the same family at the beginning of the 20th century.
4. VITA SACKVILLE-WEST, All Passion Spent. Black dust jacket with a white rose. Often read in tandem with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, it is about Lady Slane who makes dramatic changes to her life after the death of her husband.
5. ÉMILE ZOLA, The Ladies’ Delight. Damaged paperback with a blurry painting by some Impressionist. This book details the rise of the first department store in Paris: Au Bonheur Des Dames.
6. BARBARA TRAPIDO, Brother of the More Famous Jack. Gaudy nineties cover. A funny coming-of-age story. The title refers to WB Yeats.
7. MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM, The Hours. Hardback. Stills from the film on the cover. Time has stopped on The Hours. The novel recasts Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs Dalloway in a startling new light. It moves between America and England and deftly intertwines the world of three women.
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