(originally published 2005 in Inkblots magazine)
It was five years ago this October that I casually tossed my new Victoria magazine on the coffee table and then snatched it back up again. Invite Your Book Club to Tea proclaimed luxurious scrolls above a picture of a tastefully laid table by the fire and promises of worthy recipes within. I stared for a moment, an idea working in my mind. It was just what I needed, what my soul was craving. Only just emerging from the cocoon of the newly married, with my sister in New York and my two best friends on opposite sides of the globe, I had a distinct need for feminine companionship. Without further delay I called up three kindred spirits and asked them if they’d like to start a book club.
Two weeks later we were eating soup at my kitchen table and discussing Anne Bronte’s Agnes Grey. Cherishing a personal penchant for almost any book with heroines in long skirts however drab (skirts, that is), I was surprised and yet stimulated to hear my friends take issue with Bronte’s admittedly mousy leading lady. “I liked it,” I managed to submit amid the lively repartee, recalling gentle scenes of English country life and pity for Agnes’ un-chosen lot. But I was overridden. In the annals of our book club, Agnes Grey went down as a book that we decidedly did not like.
The next October found us with eight members and a name: The Ladies’ Literary Society, or LLS. Several months previous a gem of an Elizabeth Goudge, Pilgrim’s Inn, had prompted such an outpouring of sympathetic delight that one of the members had shared her thoughts with the rest by way of a small essay and accompanying sketch. And thus the Notes were born. Beyond minutes, these little handcrafted leaflets were to describe in glowing terms the precious details that made each meeting a day that we never wanted to forget—from depictions of table settings and flowers, to a mouth-watering portrayal of dainties and morsels the hostess had provided, as well as a never-to-be omitted review of the book.
“They’re for posterity,” Jenijoy insisted with a gleam of laughter in her eyes. “Someday our Notes will find their way into a museum, and when someone wants to write a book about us they’ll be unearthed with great rejoicing.”
“Well, they’re alright,” proclaimed one of our mothers upon perusing my flowery reminiscences of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, “if you’re living in the nineteenth century.” But the effect was intentional. Apart from an occasional foray into the WWII era, our choices have always seemed to rest heavily upon books with two striking features: they are old, and they are English.
We celebrated our first anniversary in 2001 with a golden picnic in a friend’s pasture. With just the right touch of chill in the air to make sweaters welcome and a dazzling blue sky overhead we spread our repast upon a well-worn quilt: roast chicken flanked with chrysanthemums and bundles of herbs served from beneath a silver venison dome, hot peanut soup and pumpkin muffins, with baked apples in little glass jars and lashings of fresh whipped cream for dessert. Cut glass plates and antique flatware were the order of the day and linen napkins were spread daintily across tweed-clad knees. At the four corners of the blanket our hostess had laid bouquets of autumn flowers, wild asters and goldenrod and stalks of wheat.
“Oh, how I needed this,” Laura sighed, tucking a wayward brown curl behind her ear.
Louise poised her teacup meditatively. “We all did.”
It was the first truly beautiful thing we had known in a post-September 11th world and the loveliness of the autumn day and the comfort of friendship had worked their charms upon each of us, loosening the iron bands of anxiety about our minds and whispering that life was still exquisite and that God was still in his heaven.
That afternoon I realized as never before that the purpose of our dear Society transcended the common love of books. It was a knitting of hearts, a safe haven for ideals in a world more uncertain than we had once thought. Our mutual passion for good books had brought us together and sealed our friendships, but it was our shared faith and our sisterhood in Christ that made the time we spent in each other’s company an eternal treasure. We have since wept together over one’s bereavement; we’ve spontaneously prayed for one another in moments of trial and perplexity; we’ve laughed till our sides ached and dished out all manner of unsolicited advice. And ignoring the clock as best we can on the third Thursday of each month we put away gallons of hot tea—an essential ingredient for invigorating talk—and wax eloquent on the glories of Tennyson or the absurdities of P.G. Wodehouse.
In the spring we become a quasi-garden club, discussing the growing of foxgloves or the propagation of shrubs from cuttings with as much solemnity as we would the nuances of a Jane Austen novel. Invariably there is a collection of newly-potted plants by the hostess’ door in token of promises made at the previous meeting. And the sprays of wild ferns or masses of violets that grace the table always represent offerings from one or another’s yard. Rachel is famous for her English roses; I have a coveted flowering quince; Jenijoy is the first to procure winter honeysuckle and the earliest April irises.
But, at the very core, we are a book club. The knowledge of my wonderful friends enjoying the very same book as me at the very same time has added a whole new dimension to the pleasures of reading. I wonder what Amanda thought of that scene on the moors…Won’t Rebecca love that philosophical passage…I imagine Lori has some striking observations on that subplot… To me, the satisfaction of a loved book is only complete when I can share it with those that I love. I do not believe that the adventure of reading was meant to be a wholly solitary one.
Our book club is an assembly of eight completely unique and diverse personalities sealed at the heart by mutual values. Wives, mothers of young children, single girls. We limit our size both for the intimacy of the discussion and the hostess’ ability to easily accommodate members present around her dinner table or by her fire. A beautifully-tooled brown leather journal that houses the Notes and a silver-plated tea warmer circulate among hostesses; the choice of tea itself rests most definitely and unanimously upon Yorkshire Gold. We are loose enough to require a sergeant-at-arms to keep the discussion on track, but so entrenched in common devotion that no one wants to admit that they didn’t finish the book or that they will have to miss an upcoming meeting.
In the movie Shadowlands, Anthony Hopkins as C. S. Lewis muses on an arresting comment made by one of his students: We read to find we’re not alone. I’ve known the unspeakable sweetness of discovery among the pages of my favorite books, that bright flash of illumination shed upon my deepest thoughts, both expressing and validating what I had imagined only myself to have felt. But how much sweeter still is the happiness of making the journey itself in company of proven companions, of catching that illumination in the eyes of a friend. The dear girls of my book club are fellow pilgrims on a Golden Road. I feel sure that we’ll still be meeting when we’re eighty.