Reading Lives

Histories of reading; intimate life stories; relations through print

Mary Curzon referred to her reading practice whilst in India as a process that ‘polishes the facets of the mind’. Reading certainly enabled her to carry out her public role with aplomb, and she reflected in a letter to her mother:

It is only after vast study & reading that women can ever become good companions but it is a far greater satisfaction than frivolity…

An intriguing statement that places Mary outside an active feminist politics, but reflective of her awareness of the value of her place in politics life. The lofty sentiment was further compromised by the end of the sentence which concluded

 …we had our first dance the other night and I wore my light blue satin & Velvet.

 Mary accustomed herself to the history and culture of India through books that were undoubtedly imbued with the racism of the time that underpinned the British colonial encounter in India:

 I finished my book on the horrors of Hinduism at 5.

This airy colonial discourse infuses later entries in her travel diaries as she grapples with encounters with strange ‘others’ from her elite position of power.

Reading offered company when she retreated from the world: the extended days spent reclining in the hope of avoiding a miscarriage were saved from greater depression through her reading life. Print also acted as a link to home. Reading the London newspapers brought her familiar social and political circle to India. Writing from Mashobra Mary entreated her friends to send letters. She wrote to Jennie Churchill: 

 I am sticking to the sides of the Himalayas like a barnacle with only a 3 week old copy of the Times to make me gay or witty!

The prevalence of reading as a daily practice in her life reflects the central place of print culture at the turn of the 19th and 20th century. Mary had an elite access to books and print media; she certainly didn’t need to rely on public libraries, but she did struggle to access new material and ‘made do’ with that which was at hand; sent by family and friends and on the shelves in her official residences. I have always been attentive to her reading practices, but recent engagement with research around the history of reading and the discussions in the ‘Books and Print Sandbox’ has made me reconsidder the place of books within Mary’s life.

Mary was, of course,  not alone in her retreat to print as she found new ways of being in the world. For others living at her time, including my own ‘newly-literate’ great-grandparents in Cornwall, new print cultures gradually found their way into the rhythm of daily life.  The Afterlives of Books authored by Prof Gillian Thomas, traces the reading experiences of three generations of our family.  Her research works at the intersection of social and reading histories: histories of the book segue into histories of print circulation, into a commentary on living memory,  encounters with the violence of the 1st World War and practices of educational improvement. My favorite entry is the story of my great-grandparents courtship undertaken through the pages of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury. Life writing and life reading are intimate pursuits. When I reflect on the influences on my own life, and the path as an academic I have taken, Gillian’s gentle mentoring, her ethical resolve and uncompromising political engagement across local and global worlds has been a guiding light. The Afterlife of Books is both an intimate family history, and a narrative of a family's engagement with the ever-changing books and print industry.

The connections with others forged through our reading practices is part of what continues to drive people’s engagement with the genre of biography. At the 'Books and Print' launch I was asked about Mary Curzon: ‘Do I like her?’, ‘Am I obsessed?’, ‘Is there another Lady Curzon in me?’. For the time being, Mary Curzon is an unfinished story. I will get to the point when I have told all the stories about her that I am capable of telling. Someone else will come, in time, and tell new stories. Until then, I do continue to be fascinated by the way in which telling Mary Curzon’s life can open up ways to see our own and others lives, differently. Although ‘Books and Print Sandbox’ is drawing to a close, my encounters with Mary remain an unfinished project. 

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