Collage of images of Hilary Barry holding Pride & Prejudice and looking at camera, bright and happy, red tones
Our Hilary, reading Austen to the adoring masses (Photo: Facebook; Design: Tina Tiller)

Dear Hilary: thank you for the reading

This lockdown, Hilary Barry spent half an hour every afternoon on Facebook, reading Pride and Prejudice to the nation. Adoring listener Pam Jones responds. 

Dear Hilary,

Firstly, a weird disclaimer from one about to wax excitedly about your readings to the plebs: I didn’t listen to you all of the time. In fact, as I’d already read Pride and Prejudice, the novel you brought to the masses (“plebs” may be unkind, there’s nothing uncommon about Jane Austen fans, but we do identify as the general populace, so do go on), I didn’t listen to much of it at all. I just tuned in at the beginning and end, mostly, to listen to your warm chatter, see what pretty top you’d chosen that day and read some of the nice comments from your fans. They love you, Hilary, and they’re not alone. Remember the gushing interview with Rebecca Gibney you just did, the “girl crush” to which you gleefully admitted? You’re our girl crush, Hilary, or at least you’re mine. And your literary contribution to help us out during lockdown? It’s elevated you to sheer cult status in my mind. Hilary: you’re the queen, and you’ve got the tiara to prove it. We love you, and we know you love us back.

For those of you who don’t know (if you are reading this, pretty sure you know), television presenter/journalist/oldest-woman-on-New-Zealand’s-news-circuit-and-goddam-proud-of-it-too Hilary Barry dialled up her usual Facebook presence during this lockdown and, as well as bringing back Formal Friday with its associated glam and home baking (love the coconut cookies, Hils, they’re to die for), started a little bedside reading routine for her many fans. It wasn’t actually night-time stuff – although some of the punters waited till they had nightie on, bedlamp ready, to play the recorded session at day’s end – rather an afternoon session that started during Hilary’s own isolation period at home and moved on to somewhere within TVNZ’s studio once she was allowed back at work. Thirty minutes a day of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice read with trademark warmth and authority – with bits of banter at the beginning and end – while the audience listened replete with a cuppa, cookies, knitting, or just good old open ears and minds.

‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.’ Elizabeth and the rest of Bennet sisters in the 1995 BBC adaptation

We gobbled it up. Who among the Austen brigade can’t quote in a heartbeat the opening line to Pride and Prejudice (it is a truth universally acknowledged, etc) or recount the agonising ecstasy of the slow-motion 19th century courtship of Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy? The dashing handsomeness of it all. The indignant feminism. The exhaustion for readers of waiting for Regency-style wooing and manners to finally bring love for, not just Elizabeth, but other Bennet daughters as well.

But Hilary, your lockdown reading was not only about that. Over 25 days you dished up 61 chapters of famed English literature, but also provided the escapism which all good literature allows. When so many were doing it tough you provided a cheerful face and something else to think about every day, reliably at 3pm. One could curl up on the couch, cradling a phone much as we would cherish a good book, but this book had smiles, fun and empathy. You were real, like a good friend, and much-needed company for many. Your generous act was the highlight of many people’s day and helped make lockdown bearable, they said. Thousands (sometimes tens of) tuned in each day. When you finished the book last Sunday, some were left bereft.

Of course we wondered if you sometimes also found lockdown hard. “I miss my babies even though they’re 19 and 21. Who are you missing?” you asked one day, mid-book, on your Facebook feed. More than 1000 people replied, sharing stories of funerals they had missed, friends and grandchildren they couldn’t see, grown children overseas; covid stopping familial contact and separating friends and whānau; a sad and familiar refrain.

So we hope you enjoyed the readings, too, Hilary, and felt the warmth and sincerity of our comments. “Thankyou Hilary, this was so fun,” said Rebecca. “You have inspired me to read more of the classics,” said Elaine. “You are a national treasure,” said Maureen. “Thankyou for lifting my spirits every day with your humour, and thoughtfulness,” said Cameron. “You have done a national service of building morale.”

Indeed. We hope one day you may read us another book. In the meantime, keep up the fun, the banter, the warmth, the intellect. Keep wearing off-the-shoulder tops, reminding us that women have boobs and posting right-of-reply swimsuit shots (we know these are all, as they should be, your own right and pleasure, but we do love how it pisses off some of the chauvinists out there; what a bonus). We love your ball gowns, your bad hair-days and your self-styled moniker “lippy mother of two”. We love that you gave up half an hour of your day, every day, to bring a little bit of joy to the masses during lockdown. We hope you enjoy some level three takeaways, and get to see your boys real soon.

Yours truly,

Pam




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