1 October 2019 Susannah

Do you weep over books?

As a child I regularly wept over books. The death of Beth in Little Women, of Matthew Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables, of Charlotte the spider in Charlotte’s Web and of Bobs the horse in Mates at Billabong all had me soaking the hankies. As an adult I do not weep as much – have I grown less empathetic or more stony-hearted?

But there are still some books that make me weep. That terrible emptiness at the end of The Diary of Anne Frank when you realise yet again that Anne was never going to come back to continue her diary, dead Catherine deep in a coal mine at the end of Zola’s Germinal, the death of Melanie in Gone with the Wind, and the tragedy of Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s powerful Sunset Song. But today I cry for other reasons as well – I shed tears reading the last pages of the last Harry Potter novel because I was just so sad the pleasure had come to an end (and I cry for sheer joy that the exquisite perfection of Emma read by Prunella Scales on audio exists in this world, but that’s a rather different matter).

The internet provides many lists of books that are “guaranteed to make you cry” but I’m afraid I remained dry-eyed through To Kill a Mockingbird, The Kite Runner, Of Mice and Men, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and The Book Thief. I believe that vast numbers of teenagers have cried through book and movie of John Green’s The Fault in our Stars about two teenage cancer patients, but I haven’t read that one – my Mum died from cancer and books on that topic are too close to home. I know I would cry!

But is there a value in crying over the fates of fictional characters? I think there is! Books make us feel, make us aware of the preciousness of life while we have it, make us feel glad to be alive. Men tend to repress tears and our society approves of such repression, so for men books can be a much-needed emotional outlet and weeping over a novel can be therapeutic. Tears mean that we have been deeply moved by a book, that its contents have resonated in a powerful way and that that particular book is a worthy object of our feelings. In the past readers were not so reticent about shedding tears. Rousseau’s fan mail holds many confessions of all the weeping that went on in response to his novel Julie. It was the same with Richardson’s Clarissa in which the heroine takes hundreds of pages to die (no-one could claim they didn’t see it coming!) and with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin when Little Eva died. Charles Dickens should have been given shares in a handkerchief-making company, because so many of his readers sobbed over Little Nell and Jo and the other children who die young. Weeping over books used to be taken for granted.

Novelist Henry Green insisted that prose “in the end should draw tears out of the stone” and I am glad that I can still respond deeply and tearfully to a novel. Sometimes we all need a good cry!

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Comments (11)

  1. Rosaleen Kirby

    Of those on your list Susannah, The boy in the striped pyjamas undid me most. But when my the children were younger, I read a short verse novel to them. It was called Out if the dust by Karen Hesse, set in the dust bowl in the US during the Depression. My poor children, they became far more upset about me than the shattering story because I was regularly racked with sobs just trying to read it to them.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      You recommended that book to me and I also wept over it. Couldn’t bring myself to read it to the kids. Elinor and I both sobbed terribly over Judy’s death in Seven Little Australians, both book and then TV version. We were a mess!

  2. Margi Abraham

    I had to pull my car over to the kerb to weep as I listened to All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque on audiobook a few years ago. Riveting and devastating. I also remember crying at my kitchen table at injustice, reading The Breaker by Kiit Denton (a novel about Breaker Morant in the Boer War). War novels usually break me.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, All Quiet on the Western Front is so tragic. I must get the audio book and listen, if I can bear to weep all over again. I was recently in Turkey with a tour group (I wasn’t leading the tour) and as the sun came up at Gallipoli I read two war poems. There were not many dry eyes.

  3. Brian Doyle

    Like Alan Rickman Emma Thompson has such a distinctive voice, both command your full attention whenever their on screen, she could make a shopping list sound poetic, this new project sounds like another waiting treat

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, both have fabulous voices. I am still grieving for lovely Alan Rickman.

  4. Miland Joshi

    There’s only one book that has moved me in that way: Henry Van Dyke’s The story of the Other Wise Man.

  5. Kevin Byrne

    Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham-his autobiographical novel, but waited until 50 to write it, so he could do it justice-he’s seen as unpleasant and misogynist a lot these days but he is the greatest natural storyteller ever-and the story of the club-footed little boy and his passage through terrible privation and the most dreadful unsuitable love affair to love and redemption I read at 18 and remember vividly putting down the book with tears running down my face

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Isn’t it a tragic story – poor poor Philip, and such a waste that he falls for that awful girl. I think Maugham is a fabulous writer.

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