Monday, May 25, 2015

Charlotte Mason On the Reading of Novels

Emily and I bristle when, on a fairly frequent basis, a child in our library informs us that "fiction is fake," or "I want to read a true book," though we know that these ideas are not their own, but have been adopted from adults in their lives. All of us speak and believe according to the ideas we have been fed, and I share here ideas I have gleaned from my own teachers.

I refer to teachers like Jesus Himself, for example, of whom Scripture states, "Without a parable, he did not teach," (Mt. 13:21) Parables are fabricated stories meant to be enjoyed by all as a literal story and for the instruction of spiritual truth for those who had "ears to hear." Good fiction does the same, showing life to us so that we can perceive lessons for living our own.

This is the principle Charlotte Mason emphasizes as well when she states that "fiction is of enormous value to us in teaching morals and manners," as it illustrates for our mind's eye to see, gives us food for thought. She believed that children should be taught through story - "living books," as they instruct by showing, as well as telling. In a work of fiction, life is revealed, as if lifting a curtain, to see how others have lived so we can learn how to live our own lives. This is a powerful teaching tool, not just for informing the mind, but the heart as well. After all, there is more to education than knowing information, and learning to live well is a lifetime process, a mystery continuously to be solved. For that reason alone, fiction is more valuable to us than nonfiction.

Mason considered novelists as offering us "a key to the vexed problem of education," because she recognized the child's "immense appetite for knowledge, and when he does not want to learn, it is because he does not get the right books. We give children a diet of facts, either condensed or diluted, unaware that the mind has really no use for facts uninformed by intelligence. It takes ideas to evoke ideas, intelligence to awaken intelligence, and the heavy compendiums of the schoolroom are of no use in education." (Vol. 5, pg. 394) I am not stating that nonfiction is by any means useless, but is helpful most when it appeals to the needs of the whole person, who craves literature of beauty and noble ideas for living, in addition to gaining knowledge for utilitarian information.

Children learn more about who to be and how to behave from stories than from our endless verbal instruction. The short tales and stories of childhood appeal to their short attention span, providing concise explanations of right and wrong and the immediacy of consequences from specific choices. but, as children mature and understand that life is bigger and more complicated than their own familiar surroundings, novels become invaluable instructors for them.

Parents must provide excellent novels to give guidance for their children in ways they cannot give themselves, and not simply to educate them in the classics. Charlotte Mason deplored the attitude that "I've read Austen...or Shakespeare," as a mark of ignorance and as silly as having said, "I've eaten breakfast." Surely breakfast is not a one-time experience. Good novels require being read and reread, the mind of the author, his wisdom and knowledge, continually teaching the discerning reader, as long as that novel is good literature.

Taste, however, must be cultivated, and parents are responsible for ensuring the quality of the books their children read. "It is stupid to disregard such a means of instruction; and yet, judicious parents either 'disapprove of novel reading for their young people' or let them read freely the insipid trash of the circulating library until they are unable to discern the flavour of a good book." (vol. 5, page 374) All that is written is not gold, and much of what passes for it is a waste of time, not to mention of mind. Not only does twaddle not cultivate their taste, it bores children with reading.

We parents can also err in another direction. In a natural desire to protect our children, Sometimes our fear of contamination prevents our children from benefiting from the literature that can nourish them. Here too, Mason advises, "There is a good deal to be said for this point of view; but the decisions of life are not simple, and to taboo knowledge is not to secure innocence. We must remember that ignorance is not innocence, and also that ignorance is the parent of insatiable
curiosity." (Volume 5, page 374)

Mason next guides us in our discernment by classifying novels into two categories: sensational, and "reflectional." By sensational, she does not discount exciting adventure, high action narratives, but is deploring those that titillate the senses and incite lust. Especially in the popular genre of "romance" fiction, she is quite clear:

"The 'his lips met hers,' 'the touch of her hand thrilled him in every nerve' sort of thing which abounds in goody-goody storybooks, set apart in many families for Sunday reading, but the complete absence of which distinguishes our best English novels. To read that a girl has been betrayed by no means affects an innocent mind; but to allow oneself to thrill with the emotions which led to the betrayal is to get into the habit of emotional dram-drinking--a habit as enervating and as vitiating as that of the gin-shop." (Volume 5, page 374)

The other category, the "reflectional" novel, on the other hand, offers invaluable insight for both self-knowledge and understanding of others. She is not referring to morbid introspection here, but positive reflection. "He who would save us the trouble of reflection ministers to the intellectual slothfulness which lies at the bottom of the poverty of our thoughts and the meanness of our lives." Instead, the novel that provokes our thoughts "with every page we read... offers in every character and in every situation a criterion by which to try our random thoughts or our careless conduct." To occupy our mind with what to do in various circumstances, or what would happen if we behave in a particular way - like one of the characters whose life and motives are being described in the novel - is eye-opening, shows us our own faults, "some selfishness, shallowness, or deceitfulness upon which man or woman make shipwreck of their lives." (Volume 4, page 160) She even goes so far as to say that we cannot learn such things but by these two ways: through fictional literature, or, through bitter personal experience.

I believe Mason's thoughts explain why fiction is most certainly not all "fake." She addresses how worthy literature is an instructor of truth in a unique and incomparable way. Our True Teacher, and hers, said that truth would set us free. "I know no greater joy than that my children walk in truth," is the cry of every Christian parent, and our best novels may penetrate our children's hearts in ways we cannot imagine to shine a spotlight on truth.

For the joy of reading,



  1. Have to highlight these lines:
    1. Mason considered novelists as offering us "a key to the vexed problem of education"
    2... but is helpful most when it appeals to the needs of the whole person, who craves literature of beauty and noble ideas for living ( non-fiction)
    3. Good novels require being read and reread, the mind of the author, his wisdom and knowledge, continually teaching the discerning reader, as long as that novel is good literature.
    4. We must remember that ignorance is not innocence, and also that ignorance is the parent of insatiable
    curiosity." ( this is profound)

    Very good on reflective reading. Does narration bring this out from a novel? It should but when it doesn't , is there anything else to do?

    1. Hi Bonnie,

      Mason is profound, isn't she? Yet, her words remind me of her own words about "fit words saying what we are all dumbly thinking." She says what we instinctively know to be true - and it is a relief and a freedom.

      It encourages me that, though you are graduating your last child, you still find learning Mason delightful.


  2. This is fantastic. THANK YOU! I hope to read it again, slowly...things are a bit loud here at the moment. ;)

    I, especially love, " In a work of fiction, life is revealed, as if lifting a curtain, to see how others have lived so we can learn how to live our own lives."

    1. Thank you. I'm reading a novel like that currently. It almost makes me wince because of what it is showing me about myself.


    2. Oh, Liz, I read Green Dolphin Street last year, and I winced most of the way through because of the ways it revealed me to myself. I kept thinking with equal parts gratitude and horror, "There but for the grace of God go I."

    3. Kimberlee,

      I think Goudge has a particularly perceptive understanding and ability to portray characters, and, consequently, the more probing they are to our inner self. Novels can be relentlessly unforgiving mirrors to peer into. Goudge's novels all deserve several readings.

  3. Liz, I went straight from your blog here to the Circe Institute to listen to a podcast while I did my ironing. I chose an interview with Rod Dreher, whose newest book is called How Dante Can Save Your Life. In the interview, Dreher talks about how reading Dante helped heal him of depression and a chronic illness, which is fascinating in itself.

    But the part that gave me goosebumps (since I'd just read your post here) was when he talked about how neuroscience is discovering that, at a neurological level, truth embedded in story form makes deeper connections in the brain than truth stated propositionally!!! I've always said Charlotte Mason was 125 years ahead of her time, and once again science proves what she knew by observation and experience.

    Here's the podcast, if you're interested in listening to it:

    As always, thank you for your post. I am so grateful for you, for the ways you energize and encourage me through your words. Blessings upon you as you head into summer!


    1. Kimberlee,

      It's even more goosebumpy if you know that I'm currently reading Dante!

      Thanks for the link, too.