Often, I know I’ve read a particular book without remembering much about it. Someone mentions book “X” and I am quite brazen about it: “Oh yes,” I’ll say with breezy confidence, “that is a good book.” I might be able to dredge up some vague ideas, e.g. it’s sad/nihilistic/offers redemption, or I might even be able to pick out a specific character or scene (who can forget the opening scene of Ian McEwan’s “Enduring Love”, once they’ve read it?). The point is, I know I’ve read it.
But here’s the mystery. A couple of weeks ago, my dear daughter brought me a book from the library. She knows I like Dickens and handed me “Our Mutual Friend”. I couldn’t remember when I’d read it, but I assumed I had, perhaps twenty or so years ago. I read the somewhat offputting introduction by Nick Hornby, saying why the book was probably one of Dickens’ least popular novels. None of what he said rang any bells. I started reading: still no bells. I thought the story was good. Surely, I’d have remembered some of the characters? After all, these are Dickens’ forte. Nope. I found the story gripping. I spotted John Harmon (spoiler alert, as my dear son would say after the spoiler), but that was clearly Dickens’ intention.
Then it happened. A character said something I say. ‘ “I know your tricks and your manners.” ‘ I quote this at my children to tell them I know what they’re up to. I always thought I knew who’d said it: Miss Mowcher in “David Copperfield”. In fact, it’s Jenny Wren in “Our Mutual Friend”. So, I thought, here is proof that I have read the book; the only mistake I made was in confusing the characters. Miss Mowcher is undeniably a dwarf and Jenny Wren is described as “a child—a dwarf—a girl—a something—”, so I assumed I’d just latched on to the “dwarf” idea, forgotten Jenny Wren and ascribed the quote to Miss Mowcher. Problem solved.
Not so. As I read on, I realised I couldn’t remember a single thing about this book. I didn’t even know what happened to the main characters. I hoped they’d marry, but I didn’t know – and I always remember the marriages, because that’s the happy ending we long for, isn’t it? The biggest shock was what happened to Lizzie Hexam and Eugene Wrayburn (no spoilers here). That would never have happened in earlier Dickens books. I had to conclude I had never read the book before.
So, the mystery is, where did I get that quote and why – if I’d never read the book before – did I attribute it to a “dwarf”?