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.