While most of our youthful passions fade before long, our bookish loves stay with us
I have just finished writing a book about ageing. There are lots of things that change as you get older, most of them bad. Your body parts succumb to gravity and your face begins to look like your mother’s. One of the very few upsides is that the hairs on your legs grow at a slower rate.
In addition, nobody is interested in old people. As Proust’s Baron de Charlus observed rather acidly: “You have not, perhaps, any personal merit – I’ve no idea, so few people have! But for a time at least you have youth, and that is always an attraction.”
However, there are some benefits to ageing. As our body changes, so do our tastes. I used to think, for example, that Les McKeown from the Bay City Rollers was the most handsome, cleverest, most miraculous man alive. This is no longer an opinion I hold. I also used to dream about Adam Ant sharing his eye-liner with me. Now I can afford my own eye-liner and wouldn’t dream of sharing anyone else’s, particularly not Mr Ant’s.
But one thing that has struck me is how the literary heartthrobs of our youth don’t ever change. Yes, obviously they are in print so they are unlikely to start suddenly sprouting hair in the wrong places and dribbling, but what I find incredible is how my opinion of them has remained constant.
Take Heathcliff, for example. I first fell in love with him when I was fifteen. In my mind’s eye he must have been no more than thirty, probably at the limit of what I would have found attractive back then. Some thirty years later I still wouldn’t kick him off the sofa; his smouldering manner, swarthy good looks and Machiavellian behaviour is as enticing to me now as it was then. Not bad for somebody nearly 200 years old. Then there’s Darcy. This is a man whom every woman in England, whatever her age, seems to be in love with. Otherwise they couldn’t keep making films and TV shows of the book. He is your perfect Byronic hero; totally disinterested, fabulously rich and a class A aristo to boot. What’s not to like?
Even heroines age better in books than they do in the real world. Compare and contrast Julie Burchill for example, with Emma Bovary. Burchill was a heroine of mine when I was a youngster trying to become a writer. Now I’m not sure I’d even want to have lunch with her – judging by recent photos, she’d probably scoff the lot. Emma Bovary though, silly as we all know she is, is as fascinating to me now as she was when I first read her adulterous adventures in my teens.
So why is this? How come when everything changes as we get older our literary heroes and heroines remain constant? Is it because they made such an impression on us that we never lose that sense of awe? I don’t think so. I can think of few things that had more effect on me than the arrival of Duran Duran. But now they seem old, hackneyed and rather pathetic, a male version of the Spice Girls.
I think it has more to do with the fact that a good book remains just that. Most people read The Great Gatsby when they’re relatively young. But ask anyone over 40 who has read it to tell you what they think of it and chances are they will still rave about the quality of the writing, the descriptions and, above all, Gatsby himself.
Above all, we remain the same age as when we first discovered novels – in my case around seventeen. I feel as if I could still be invited to one of Gatsby’s bashes on Long Island, and be asked to dance; or not look out of place at the Count d’Orgel’s ball. The Duchesse de Guermantes might make even me welcome in her salon, but here at last is a consolation of middle age: I have decided that I am still too young to read all of Proust, saving it perhaps until I am being pushed around Brighton Beach in a bathchair.
Or perhaps I will always be too young for all of Proust.