The pleasures of reading fiction

It wasn’t just the fact that I’d reviewed it for Country Life that made me so delighted to hear that Hilary Mantel had won the Booker Prize for a second time. Like many of my bookish friends, I’ve noticed that, as middle age advances, I read fewer novels. I’m not sure why I now prefer non-fiction of almost any sort. Perhaps it’s a male trait, as booksellers tell us that women are the principal market for fiction throughout their lives.

The special joy of Bring Up the Bodies was that it brought back to me the all-absorbing abandonment to another world that novels offered when I was a child. I could hardly bear to be parted from the book. It was the first thing I looked for when I woke up and I’d have eagerly read it by torchlight under the blankets if anyone now cared whether I’m asleep or not.

I’m afraid that reading fewer novels is a sign of a stiffening mind, or at least a growing unwillingness to let myself be mentally shaped in unexpected ways. That slightly depressing thought came to me after one of the Victorian Society’s architectural walks in London. Although I’m on the society’s activities committee, I’d had nothing to do with organising the tour of churches in South Kensington, and went partly because it was almost the last such walk until the far-off spring.

It started at the vast Brompton Oratory, a church that everyone knows, and ended up at little St Simon Zelotes in Milner Street, which few people know-at any rate, I’d never been inside it before. John Betjeman thought it ‘wild and surprising’, and it is indeed just the sort of building he loved, designed in 1858-59 by an obscure architect (Joseph Pea-cock), full of spiky Gothic detail, and almost miraculously intact.

I can’t think of any building in which the atmosphere of mid-Victorian London survives with such overpowering intensity, not least in its embodiment of class distinction. The west door leads straight into the nave, allocated for the middle classes, whereas the poor were expected to use the galleries, reached by external doorways of punishing narrowness. As they swept out of the church on their way to Sunday’s roast beef and claret, did the Victorian paterfamilias and his crinolined wife ever reflect on the text ‘strait is the gate’?

After the visit, I set off across Cadogan Square, deserted and silent in the autumn gloaming, and thought that only a hansom cab was needed to complete the Victorian scene. Then, something clicked into place. Sherlock Holmes. I’ve often wondered how my interest in Victorian buildings started. I can’t remember studying 19th-century history at school and my parents shared the contempt for Victorian culture felt by most people of their generation.

The reason must be, I realised, was that so many of the books I most loved in childhood were set in Victorian or Edwardian London. Perhaps my interest in the 19th century was first stirred by E. Nesbit’s pinafored and sailor-suited children discovering the Psammead in a Camden Town pet shop. It certainly culminated with Holmes and Watson.

The hypnotic power of Conan Doyle’s stories was enhanced by Sidney Paget’s illustrations, even in the inky reproductions in my paperbacks-when I was about 12, I begged my mother to buy me a dressing gown like Sherlock Holmes’s. (Years later, a friend commented that she was probably relieved I hadn’t asked for a syringe just like Holmes’s.)

Although the books do include a much-quoted reference to the city’s towering new Board Schools in the Queen Anne style-Holmes describes them to Watson as ‘beacons of the future’-I don’t think Conan Doyle was much interested in buildings. Yet I’m sure my curiosity about Victorian architecture was sparked by the gaslit rooms of 221B Baker Street. If fiction read in childhood gave me an enthusiasm that means so much 40 years later, what possibilities am I missing by reading so few novels now?

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