Mum, Memory, and Jane Austen

Jane Austen, painted by her sister Cassandra c.1810.

My mother rings. She is reading Jane Austen (again) and would I like to join her (again). My mother reads a lot of Jane Austen – she always did. But her reading habits have changed. Once upon a time she would read (and discuss) Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, Wilkie Collins, Walter Scott, the Brontes, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell to name but a few (she always liked the classics best). But these days she finds the plots too complicated, and there are too many characters, and the books are too long. They scramble her brain she says, sadly.

But Jane Austen remains a constant, perhaps because her novels are shorter, with tighter plots, and fewer characters, and Mum knows them so well that I think the printed pages are a kind of aide memoire for the words inside her head, which is why she keeps reading them. Apart from that she mostly reads books from her childhood – Winnie the Pooh, Ballet Shoes, The Railway Children, Milly Molly Mandy, The Secret Garden. Again, these are things she knows almost by heart, and she can remember her mother buying them for her, and connect them with long-ago events. And the same goes for poetry. She reads a lot of poetry, but it has to be the poetry she learned in school when she memorised a poem a week, which adds up to an awful lot of poems. With a book to prompt her she can still recite many of them, as well as great chunks of Shakespeare. However, she can’t tell you what day it is, or what she ate for breakfast.

As her dementia advances her reading matter shrinks, along with the boundaries of her life, but she still gets so much pleasure from books, as long they are very, very familiar, fairly simple, and quite short.

When I visit we chat about books and chant poetry aloud – the strong, rhythmic, rhyming verses that she loves and remembers. Fortified by tea and cake, we read The Highwayman, The Listeners, The Rolling English Road, The Smugglers Song, William Allingham’s The Fairies, part of Hiawatha, some of Wordsworth’s work, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets, Christina Rossetti’s work, a selection of John Masefield, and lots from AA Milne’s When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six… the list is endless, and she refers to the words much less than I do. We talk about poets and poetry, discuss highwaymen, smugglers and travelling, and she tells me about her childhood and the distant past.

Sometimes we discuss novels over the phone, and though her reading matter has become more limited she still finds something apposite to say about characters, politics, social issues, how people lived. Again, literature seems to jog her memory and she relates the books and people in them to her own life, however tenuous the connection may be.

Books and poetry are never going to restore my mother to the person she once was, but I’ve been surprised at the positive impact they have had, and how important it is to her, and to the family, that she should continue to read, and to talk about books. And since I love my mother, and I love reading as much as she does, I’m more than happy to join her in reading Jane Austen for the umpteenth time. She says we will begin with Persuasion, because it was Austen’s last book, so I have dug out my copy and started reading, and will report back on our progress as we go along.

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My younger daughter sent  this card, because I read to her and her sister when they were small, and Mum read to me, and her mother read to her.


19 thoughts on “Mum, Memory, and Jane Austen

  1. This has brought tears to my eyes, because I remember this stage of my own mother’s journey through dementia so well. The love of books and characters and words is something that doesn’t seem leave us even when the memory we need to keep track of them fades, and I think you are doing exactly the right thing wonderfully well.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can empathise strongly with this lovely post, because on a recent visit to my mum it became clear that she’s starting to slip away a bit – names are going, she denies recent events that are facts and she’s retreating into a little bubble of her own, often in the past. It’s difficult to deal with and I’m glad you and your mother can still bond over books.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Karen, the description of your mother retreating into her her own bubble is so true – mum has done the same and it’s a kind of protective space she’s created around herself as she moves further away from the wold.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. This is the most beautiful post I have ever read. What a tremendous gift it is to read to your children. My parents never read a single word to me but the love of books lies within somewhere. I was the only family member who loved books. Thank goodness for the small town library. I so appreciate what your family has created beginning with your mother. All my best to the lovely lady who is your mother. She is a wonderful gift.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pam, I cannot imagine what it must be like to be brought up without books. When I read stories mum read me when I was a child I hear voice, changing with the characters, and my daughters say the same happens to them but they hear my voice.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I grew up with books only because of my teachers in the 1950’s. There was a library a block away and I took myself regularly and read everything they had. The librarians were witches.. I was just never around anyone that enjoyed books the way we do. Thank you for your reply.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. What a lovely, moving post. Thank you. My mother read to me when I was very small, but we have different mother tongues and my ability to read in English eclipsed hers after a time. I doubt her mother read to her, as education for girls was just not done; my grandmother had to teach herself to read. This is just a long way of saying you are very lucky to be able to share authors with your mother!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Sorry for the late reply – I agree, I am very lucky to share authors with Mum. What a hard time your grandmother must have had, and what a special lady teaching herself to read. You made me realise we should never take reading and education for granted. for granted.


  5. A beautiful post! One of my treasured books is Pride and Prejudice, not just because it’s on of my favourite books, but also because it’s the copy my mother owned. Both my parents loved books and read to me when I was a child and in turn I read to my son and grandchildren. I hadn’t known that the knowledge of books and poetry stays in the mind when dementia sets in, so the gift of reading really is a powerful thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Margaret I was surprised that some dementia patients do remember much-loved books and poems, and apparently some people remember music and, if given an instrument, can play pieces they learned and loved in the past. I’d love to know if anyone has done any research in this field.


  6. I wish your mother all the best. I don’t know if you are aware that the quote on the card is from a poem – I attach it below as I think you will like it:


    I had a mother who read to me
    Sagas of pirates who scoured the sea,
    Cutlasses clenched in their yellow teeth,
    “Blackbirds” stowed in the hold beneath

    I had a Mother who read me lays
    Of ancient and gallant and golden days;
    Stories of Marmion and Ivanhoe,
    Which every boy has a right to know.

    I had a Mother who read me tales
    Of Gelert the hound of the hills of Wales,
    True to his trust till his tragic death,
    Faithfulness blent with his final breath.

    I had a Mother who read me the things
    That wholesome life to the boy heart brings-
    Stories that stir with an upward touch,
    Oh, that all mothers of boys were such.

    You may have tangible wealth untold;
    Caskets of jewels and coffers of gold.
    Richer than I you can never be —
    Because I had a Mother who read to me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Michelle Ann, I wasn’t aware the quote came from a poem, so thank you for including it here. I think it is lovely, and applicable to all of us who were read to as children, male and female, and I shall copy it to my daughters because I know they will appreciate it, and print it out for Mum, because I think she will like it too – I have been been with her for the last few days, and she was telling me about the stories her mother read her, but her brothers were never interested.


  7. I am so sorry that your mother has dementia. I was very moved by your post; what a wonderful power literature can have, and how lovely that you can still share and enjoy it. I love the thought of you chanting poetry together! All my very best wishes to you both for the coming years, I hope that you have many more happy times together.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your kind thoughts Helen. I don’t think Mum or I come across many people who appreciate us reciting poetry, so it’s just as well we have each other!


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