Thursday, 30 May 2013


Mattie had been a curious child and a voracious reader; she devoured all sorts of books: fictitious ones, historical novels and real life stories. When she visited the library at weekends, she was the first in and the last to leave. She whizzed around the shelves removing all the books she wanted to read until the weight and height of them nearly toppled her over. In a quiet corner she stacked them in alphabetical order, using them as a seat while the pile grew steadily smaller. Back then she'd been known as Matilda, a thin, pale girl who was quietly inquisitive, but as Mattie, although her health was frail, she was headstrong and bookish. Brown hair coiled in a loose bun and glasses perched on the end of her nose; often she read over the top rather than through them. She liked the bookish look because her family and physician said she couldn't be a librarian. They declared she could touch and read books, but not professionally, and the piles she had once read had been reduced to one or two weekly volumes. Further more, she was not to exert herself with excessive trips to the library; there was a world waiting for her outside!
With each attack, Mattie had grown used to such restrictions, relying on her librarian friend to conceal and bring her new editions. These she hid under her bed and read in the bath or after midnight, but at the breakfast table, her constant yawning was beginning to be noticed. Her sisters said her eyes were red and she looked sickly. Their Papa peered over his newspaper at her and told his eldest girl to call the doctor. Mattie was too tired to raise her head or earnestly protest. She wondered what treatment Dr. Morgan would advise when he arrived and began to dread it.
Later that morning, Dr. Morgan was shown to her room with his examination kit to put her through what she called his 'dog tricks.' She begged, walked to heel and sat, but it was no good. It was said her compliance was weak and her nerves had been temporarily afflicted. She was put under strict orders to rest her brain, and her eldest sister was told. 'She will get worse before she gets better.' Dr. Morgan now forbade her to read or touch books. Her thirst for knowledge was to be denied; there was to be no hint of learning. In a condescending tone, he told the household she could knit! If she improved, she could occasionally visit the library or study hall to stare at books or students revising, but this she would have to do accompanied by a chaperone.
On hearing his prescription, Mattie was inconsolable. For days she wept and then sank into a deep depression. Exiled from her only solace, she took to gazing longingly at the titles of books and their covers. Her hands clutching at her skirts or knitting needles to prevent her from tracing the spine or reading the back cover, and everywhere she went, she left a trail of coloured wool. Most of the time she took to her room and knitted scarves, booties and armless jumpers. Her needles clicking along to the animated tones from Cook in the kitchen. In the evenings, she made Papa or her sisters sit with her and read aloud a piece of news or a book's passage. Despite these anomalies, she was discontented. Being read to was not the same as reading with your own eyes, absorbing the printed word, and turning the pages.
Mattie increasingly flew into rages or was sullen, and her knitting became erratic. Scarves were unfinished, booties were made singly, and jumpers had gaping holes. Her hands shook if she was passed a book and she couldn't abide listening to the spoken word. As her health further deteriorated, Dr. Morgan conceded that the invalid needed more and not less books. In all his years as a physician, he had never before been defeated by a patient's wilful opposition.

*Inspired by 'A Suppressed Cry – The Short Life of a Victorian Daughter' by Victoria Glendinning.