Comfort reading

DRAWN FROM MEMORY and DRAWN FROM LIFE, by E H Shepherd, originally published in 1957 and 1961 respectively; joint edition, 1986.

Bookcase 4, shelf 4, book 9

I’ve not been very well. I’m waiting for a hand op – which I’m looking forward to, as it should make my life much easier – but I’ve caught the Great Cold from Hell, and have been feeling very sorry for myself indeed.

The dice must have sensed this, because they led me to this enchanted title – the literary equivalent of a nice snuggly blanket and a welcome cup of tea.

That’s not to say that it’s cosy. Far from it, in fact. But it is a good read, and that’s exactly what I needed.

E H Shepherd is an artistic hero of mine, and I adore his work (I worked for a brief while as an illustrator’s agent, and this amazingly failed to put me off my love of illustration). He’s undoubtedly most familiar as the man who brought Pooh Bear to life, not to mention Piglet, Rabbit, Eeyore and – unsurprisingly my favourite – Tigger. He also breathed illustrative life into Mole, Water Rat and Badger, and gave Mr Toad his rakish air and goggles. 

These books are his autobiography. They are snapshots rather than a full account, though – the first one looks at roughly a single year, 1887, and the second takes the story on until his first marriage in 1904. They are, of course, beautifully (and often wittily) illustrated.

Drawn from Memory originated because Shepherd promised his children to write down all the stories he had told them, and it reminds me strongly of Marcel Pagnol’s magical autobiographical books. There is the same clarity of vision – almost like looking down the wrong end of a telescope into the past – and the same elegiac quality. That is perhaps not surprising. Like Pagnol, Shepherd lost his mother shortly after the book’s narrative ends and, also like Pagnol, his best friend (in Shepherd’s case, his older brother Cyril) died in the First World War.

He describes and illustrates a vanished world, but one which is recognisable much of the time – small boys are small boys, always have been and always will be. Childhood holidays, especially when looked back on, can be idyllic, times of sun and animals to make friends with and undiluted fun.

Other things here are amusing and entertaining because of the changes that have taken place since, but I suspect that the characteristics underlying incidents (such as his maiden aunts’ shocking discovery that the new curate was – shhh – a smoker) still remain. And his illustration of their horrified recognition that the mantlepiece held a tobacco pipe – sorry, a ‘TOBACCO PIPE!’ – radiates their disapproval and uncertainty. How could such a thing be tolerated? What was the world coming to? A curate! Smoking!

The second of the two books, Drawn from Life, was really written in response to the success of the first. It is darker, partly because Shepherd is older and partly because the years after Drawn from Memory were not easy. His mother’s illness and death is not mentioned in any detail, but the shadow is cast over the future – and before the book is out and Shepherd is married to his beloved ‘Pie’, his father has also died, after becoming increasingly disabled. It’s also a book about a young man, with a young man’s recognition that the world isn’t straightforward and with his growing understanding of how things work between people. But it is still a delightful account of life as an art student at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is still a good read even if it hasn’t quite got the innocent charm of Drawn from Memory (it would be fake if it did, after all).

And I’m sure I’m not alone in seeing in the final full-page illustration an echo of the legendary hundred-acre wood, where ‘a boy and his bear are forever playing’:

(Incidentally, and this has nothing to do with these books, but Pie died young too, following an operation to relieve her athsma some ten years later. Shepherd’s illustrations may reflect a sunny and innocent world, but that’s a tribute to his personality, and his upbringing. He was, above all, a survivor – not someone to whom bad things never happened. Another reason to love his work. It radiates optimism.)

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