Friday, February 19, 2010

Picture Books in Winter

Summer fading, winter comes--

Frosty mornings, tingling thumbs,

Window robins, winter rooks,

And the picture story-books.

Robert Louis Stevenson

Make no mistake, being snowed in has its advantages. Schedules are disregarded, appointments cancelled. Routine existence is jettisoned for the cozy comforts of a snow day; hot drinks, warm shawls and books, books, books.

I have such affection for the richly illustrated books of my childhood. The magical worlds brought to life by all those exquisite drawings that sprang from the minds of artists such as Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac - Jessie Wilcox and Howard Pyle, greatly nourished my fledgling imagination and taught me to see far beyond the words on the printed page. I have a large collection of these treasured books and I visit them often with fondness.

Nowadays however, most of my storybooks come without illustrations. But no matter; the pictures that are conjured within my head are more than sufficient. When Clarissa Dalloway pushes open the door to Mulberry’s flower shop, I can see it all quite clearly. Entering along with her, I stare, enchanted, at the jars and jars of sweet peas and lilacs, the purple delphiniums - the iris, the rose.

When Rebecca’s car winds through the wall of blood-red rhododendrons that line the drive up to Manderley, the old house is soon visible to us both, its mullioned windows reflecting our astonishment, its garden pathway leading us off to the sea.

I open The English Patient and I can see the nurse Hana drawing chalk rectangles in the hallway of the ruined villa in order to escape life’s cruelty through a simple game of hopscotch.

I peek inside the covers of Bleak House and find Miss Flite in her tiny room, surrounded by all her little birds, waiting for "the day of judgment" when she will release them from their cages.

No illustrations are needed to make these stories breathe.

Having spent my recent snow day sitting in a cushy chair by the window, gazing out on a ermine world totally bewitched by ice and snow, I found myself thinking of the most masterful pictures of cold ever drawn in words, glacial passages penned by some of my favourite authors. Their evocative descriptions unscroll a biting, frozen world right before my eyes, making me shiver, causing me to inch just a wee bit closer to the fire.

Here are seven books that, for me, describe winter in sublime fashion.

Do share some of your favourites!

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

Each perfectly placed word of this classic conveys coldness - of landscape, of spirit, of past and and of future. Though a tragedy to be sure, one of the books I hold most dear.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

From the very first time I read this beloved book I could feel the cruel cold of Lowood School. I shivered as I saw poor Jane lying under her threadbare sheets, the water in her washing pitcher frozen solid. I felt the sharp needled wind sting my cheeks as I trudged alongside her through the white drifts to church, the wet snow melting inside her paper thin shoes. I thought my hands would freeze just turning the pages.

The Nine Tailors by Dorothy Sayers

This wonderfully atmospheric mystery opens with a delightful description of a snowy winter night. One of The Songwriter’s favourites; he re-reads it every December.

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

When little Lucy climbs in the wardrobe to hide herself amongst the fur coats only to feel something soft and powdery and cold beneath her feet, I swear I can feel the temperature in my room drop a few degrees. As she pushes her way through the branches of snow covered trees, into a land where it is “always winter, never Christmas”, I find myself wishing for one of those old wardrobe coats to wrap round my shoulders as I read her adventure. A classic winter tale.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

Who amongst us has not felt the chill of that cold night as Mole and Ratty make their way through the snow? And who has not felt the sweet thrill that Mole feels when he senses the nearby presence of his beloved home - the warmth of his own fire, the familiar comfort of his own rooms? I can still see the chorus of field mice at his door, stamping their little feet to stay warm as they sing their carols in the frozen air, still feel their delight when they are invited inside to get warm. Such a snug, cordial picture of home on a cold, cold night.

All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot

How I would have hated to hear that phone ring at Skeldale House in the middle of a blowing winter’s night. Reading as James, the Yorkshire veterinarian, crawls from his toasty bed and out into the freezing dark, heading off to a farm in the driving snow, not knowing what catastrophe might be waiting... I would snuggle down further in my own comfy bed each time it happened to him.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Oh, how uncomfortable winters were for poor Cassandra in her grand, crumbling castle with its moat awash in emerald green water weeds. I see her clearly, even today, in her iron bed, clad in her school coat, with a hot brick at her feet, worrying about money and trying to get warm. A wonderful book.

And I could certainly go on.... Dr. Zhivago, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Shipping News.... so many splendidly written paintings of cold.

But I have to leave you now and look for my fuzzy slippers!

NOTE: Of course, as I was writing this, I naturally began to think of my current favourite “picture” books - lavishly illustrated wonders that are almost better than any plane ticket for whisking one out of the usual and straight into dreams.

I’ll post some of those later in the week. Should be fun!