Once several years ago I was waiting for my daughter to come out of a medical appointment. The waiting area was, as is typical, neither particularly comfortable nor particularly cheering, and yet when she came out she stopped and exclaimed “you look so happy!” And I was! Why? Because I had just been reading the part of Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub in which (if you know the novel, you can probably already guess) our heroine Mary accidentally tells the forbidding Duke of Avon all about the troubles she has been having with his renegade son, the Marquis of Vidal, with whom she has, against all propriety and practicality, fallen completely in love. I say “accidentally” because she doesn’t know that the enigmatic man she’s talking to is Vidal’s father–but we do, or at least we suspect it much sooner than she discovers it, and so the whole conversation is just delicious, for reasons you have to read the rest of the novel to fully appreciate.
Last week, because the new books I had been reading weren’t thrilling me, I decided to reread an old favorite, Dorothy Dunnett’s The Ringed Castle. I know this novel so well now that sometimes I skim a bit to get to the parts I particularly love. I read quite a bit of it ‘properly’ this time, because it’s just so good, and it helped reconnect me with my inner bookworm. Near the end, there’s a scene in The Ringed Castle that makes me just as happy as that bit of Devil’s Cub (again, readers of the novel can probably guess which one – in fact, when I mentioned this on Twitter Matt did guess right away!). Even more than the scene in Devil’s Cub, this bit relies for its pleasures on everything else that has happened, not just in The Ringed Castle but in the four preceding books in the series–and it is even better when you know the next book, Checkmate, in which the possibilities awakened in those rare moments of levity and delight (it’s a pretty emotionally fraught series, overall) come at long last to fruition.
“You look so happy”: that’s not the only thing reading can do, and it isn’t always what we want from our reading, but it’s a special gift when it happens, isn’t it, especially these days? I can think of only a few other scenes that have this particular effect on me: the bathing scene in A Room with a View, the evidence-collecting walk on the beach in Have His Carcase, the rooftop chase in Checkmate (so, score two for Dunnett), the ending of Pride and Prejudice, several small pieces of Cranford (the cow in flannel pyjamas!). Of course there are many, many other reading moments that I love and enjoy and return to over and over, for all sorts of reasons, but these are the some of the ones that make me feel as if I’ve turned my face to the sun: warmed, uplifted, delighted. The joy they give me depends not just on the words on the page but on my history with those pages, and also, as with all idiosyncratic responses, on my own history more generally, and on that elusive thing we could call my “sensibility” as a reader. In that moment everything, not just reading, feels as good as it gets. What a comfort it always is to know that I can return to that happy place any time, just by picking the book up again.
What are the happiest places in your reading? Is there a scene that you know you can always count on to bring you joy, to turn your face to the sunshine?