When I was a little girl visiting my grandmother and great-grandmother in Fargo, there was a series of handsome hardcover books on their bookshelf, green, with gold lettering embossed on the spine. I grew up believing that this was a collection of Charles Dickens (but evidently never mustering the interest to walk across the room to actually confirm my assumption). One day, decades later, a box of books arrived from my uncle, my grandmother’s oldest son, and in that box were two of the beautiful green books, part of Great-Grandma Port’s collection of the fiction of Victorian novelist, Charles Reade.
Charles Reade. Not Charles Dickens.
I couldn’t have been more pleased. I enjoy Dickens, but I really get a kick out of Charles Reade’s fiction. His plots can be melodramatic and tendentious (when they aren’t downright impossible), his characters, predictable, and yet, I just tumble into his fiction, happily landing in another world. And any writer who has spent days trying to elegantly move a novel’s action forward in time has to appreciate the Victorian novelist’s cheerful solution of, “Our story now makes a bold skip.” It is true that my favorite novels ask me to work, to pull my own weight in the process of “reading,” but there are times, too, when reading is simply about the pleasure of consumption.
Then again, maybe I love these books because the time to which I am transported is not Victorian England, but early-1960s Fargo, and a house where the living room smells like peonies and the furniture is slippery, where a grandmother feeds her small grandchildren candied orange slices and butter mints and expects them to speak only when spoken to, but then gives them her full attention, and where a great-grandmother, blind and almost silent, knits on and on, past her hundredth year.
Maybe there’s no explaining the unexpected appeal of certain books, and certainly there’s no explaining the role that serendipity plays in a novelist’s process. Those green and gold volumes arrived on my doorstep during the two-year period when I had decided to limit my pleasure reading to 19th-century fiction in the hope of attuning my ear to the spoken and written cadences of the time. One of the volumes included a collection of short stories, and one of those stories, “Man’s Life Saved by Fowls, and Woman’s by a Pig,” showed up precisely when I needed it. Readers of Dakota, Or What’s a Heaven For will find this story in the hands of Kirsten Knudson in Chapter XLII, “In Which Always is Always (Maybe).”
By the way, if any of my relatives, or friends of relatives, happen to know where the rest of that collection of The Works of Charles Reade, illustrated with 112 full-page wood engravings, got to, let me know. I have Volumes 8 and 9. I’d love to get the set back together again on the shelf.