BEST BOOKS I’VE READ – EVER
Posted January 8, 2014on:
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Here is a list of books (in sort of alphabetical order, I got Benson and Bronte the wrong way round) that I’ve read over the course of many years, which have left a particularly strong impact on me. These are the ones that immediately sprang to mind. I’m not saying these are the best books ever written, they are simply a very personal choice. If I could take books to a desert island, I would choose these. When I’ve got time I might add to it, but then the blog might be very long indeed! (It’s getting that way already).
THE COLLECTED STRANGE STORIES VOLS 1 & 2 by Robert Aickman
I am a massive fan of Mr Aickman’s, and I wish his stories were more readily available than they are. Like all volumes of short stories they are a mixed bag. Some are perfect, some less so, and a few I found just turgid. But at his best he was brilliant. How to sum them up? Very hard. They are highly surreal, usually involving characters who seem to stumble into some kind of parallel dimension, or dreamscape. And this is part of their charm, as they can leave the reader earnestly debating as What Happened Here Then? The first short story of his I ever came across, The Hospice, was in an anthology of short stories. It made a great impact on me at the time. A travelling salesman seeks refuge for the night at a small hotel. It is a very odd place to be sure. The guests are served enormous amounts of food, and are kept manacled to the tables! I’ve seen many debates as to what the meaning of all this is. Some have said it is a halfway house, between life and death. My own feeling is that the guests are all really human cattle, being fattened up for consumption. There are other stories equally disturbing, too many to list in this blog. Is a man receiving phone calls from a dead person? (Your Tiny Hand Is Frozen). Is another man sharing a building with noisy, disruptive people from the future? (Meeting Mr Millar). They are surreal puzzles, set in a wide variety of locations.
JANE EYRE by Charlotte Bronte
I was given a copy of this as a birthday present when I was a child. I was already familiar with the story, as there had been a very good BBC adaptation of it around the same time. It is the ultimate gothic romance, it has everything: lunatic in the attic, windswept mansion on the moors, a brooding hero with a dark secret, and a feisty heroine. Many of the scenes are now absolutely legendary, such as the showdown at the altar on Jane’s wedding day, and the brutal regime imposed by the sadistic Mr Brocklehurst at Lowood School. But there are always little touches that stayed with me, such as Jane’s delight at being given a room to herself when she first arrives at Thornfield Hall (after years of institutional living), and Mr Rochester commenting on her strange artwork. Jane is far from being a pallid, well-meaning heroine. She stands up for herself (and injustice generally), and can easily match Rochester’s verbal sparring. Through her own pure-hearted personality, she is able to win over and reform this deeply troubled man, which is why the appeal of their love story will last forever. There have been many imitations, but the original is still the best.
THE MAPP AND LUCIA BOOKS by E F Benson
I include all 6 of them here, because it would be nigh-on impossible for me to pull out one from all the rest. No one writes about small-town feuding with quite such a comic genius as Our Fred. I am an ardent fan of his. The books are essentially about the daily spats between the formidable Elizabeth Mapp, the town busy-body is the best way I can describe her, and Emmeline Lucas (known as Lucia to one and all), the acknowledged Queen of Tilling Society, with loveable arty pretensions. These aren’t just books about bitchy gossip though, they are pure escapism, set around a world that will be alien to most of us. None of her characters work for a living, they all seem to have Private Means, and live in some comfort with dependable servants to wait upon them. Don’t let any of this put you off though, I loved it all (and I can play the working-class warrior with the best of them). The eccentric characters are what makes these stories, you just want to find out more about their escapades. There is a saying that none of us ever truly grow up, we simply learn how to behave in public, and as these books show that can be a pretty fine line sometimes! The books also instilled a deep love in me for the whole Rye area in Sussex, where they are set (and fictionalised to Tilling). For that reason alone I could rate them very highly indeed. Would also like to mention his non-Tilling book ‘Secret Lives’, which contains characters very similar to our Tilling friends, plus Susan Legg, who writes sensationalist fiction, with music blasting at full volume in her ear. A character I felt a bit of an affinity with!
AND THEN THERE WERE NONE by Agatha Christie
I had to put a book by Dame Agatha on the list, and this one stood out. I first read it many years ago (when it went under its politically uncorrect title), and was swept along in the economy and speed of it. Over the space of just a couple of days, 10 people die mysteriously on a small Devon island. It is one of the darkest of Agatha’s novels. There is no Poirot or Miss Marple to add a comforting presence, and to neatly ensure justice prevails at the end. These characters are on their own, and no one gets out alive. Agatha shows them all drinking cocktails at the beginning, and exchanging waspish remarks. In no time at all they are plunged into a savage situation, where the trappings of civilisation soon break down. Agatha has been criticised often. Ruth Rendall once held up ‘And Then There Were None’ for ridicule, claiming that Agatha was almost too laid-back about such a horrific scenario. Reading it again recently, I was struck by how this is actually the book’s strength. Lesser writers would have gone vastly over the top with such a premise. It’s actually Agatha’s economy of style which makes it all the more grim. You also have to look closely (as you do with all her books). These characters are all deeply dislikeable, or they wouldn’t be there in the first place, and Agatha’s sparing style works very well. Take the character of Vera, the young woman in the group. If you listen closely to what she says, and the way she is haunted by her victim, she actually comes across as very chilling, but Agatha wisely doesn’t lay it all on with a trowel. The author herself said that this was a very difficult book, technically, to write. How do you kill off 10 people, one after the other, in a confined area, and make it plausible? But let’s just say, she gives it a damn good shot. Apparently the ending was simply too macabre for the stage version, and she had to write a happy one, sparing the two final characters.
THE DIARY OF A PROVINCIAL LADY by E M Delafield
There are 4 volumes of these fictional diaries in all, The Diary Of A Provincial Lady, The Provincial Lady Goes Further, The Provincial Lady In America, and The Provincial Lady In Wartime. All are a delight. Our Heroine (she is never given a name) lives in rural Devon, married to an archetypal middle-class Englishman called Robert, and has two lively children called Robin and Vicky. As with E F Benson’s stories, hers is the lost world of the inter-war years, when the middle-classes had live-in servants, and spent a great deal of their time in harmless socialising. These books work so well for me partly because Our Heroine is such a delightful narrator, but also because they are very very funny. She describes the stresses and petty jealousies of daily life in a way which is neither saccharine nor nasty, and has an endearingly self-deprecating style. The final volume though, covering the first few months of WW2, show a much grimmer reality seeping in, as she feels great sympathy for the world of her friends and neighbours, which is changing beyond repair.
THE SUMMER OF THE GREAT SECRET and NO MISTAKING CORKER by Monica Edwards
These are two children’s books that I absolutely loved when I was knee-high to a grasshopper. Monica Edwards’s books tend to be about hearty young horsey gels, who get up to all sorts of jolly scrapes, whilst growing up by the seaside. Now you’d think that me, being a council house (or “social housing” as it’s somewhat pompously called these days) chick by origin, wouldn’t have any time for books like this, but I loved them. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a horsey village, I don’t know, but these kids in their muddy jodhpurs roaming the countryside as they wanted, spoke more to me than any dreadfully weird and preachy working-class children’s books I briefly strayed to. ‘The Summer Of The Great Secret’ has Our Heroine, vicar’s daughter Tamsin, and her no-nonsense best friend Rissa, getting involved with a gang of smugglers who are plying their trade around the local coastline. As if that’s not an exciting enough way to spend your school holidays, they also get to act in a film being made in the area. ‘No Mistaking Corker’ is about a family who decide to hire a gypsy caravan for the holidays, only to have one of their horses get stolen, and they have to track him down. This is the kind of book which has people of my generation or older boring the arse off younger people by saying “you don’t know how much freedom we had back then”. “Oh and all the Summer’s were long and hot” (yeah right). It is true that you couldn’t do these books now, but that doesn’t mean they have no place. They show kids being brave and resourceful for one thing. Although now I suspect you couldn’t have Tamsin escaping from her bedroom by shinning down the drainpipe without some worthy, high-minded soul popping up and going “now listen kids, just because Tamsin managed it unharmed it doesn’t mean to say you will”. Monica Edwards’s books also tend to be set around the Sussex coastline and Romney Marsh area, a part of the country that has a special place in my heart. Her books tend to be quite expensive these days, and not that easy to track down, which suggests that they are only being sold to women of about my age, who want to get all nostalgic.
FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE by Ian Fleming
I read this many years ago after picking up a battered copy at a jumble sale. What struck me from the first was the quality of the writing. Naturally with a book you get more detail and more of a feel for the characters than you might possibly get in a film version. The film version was undoubtedly good, and certainly one of the more classier Bond movies, but the book is considerably darker and racier. The cat-fight between the gypsy girls for instance is much more hardcore in the book, and when Bond meets Tatiana for the first time, she is naked except for the black velvet ribbon around her neck. We also have a scene where Rosa Klebb tries it on with her, which is suitably grotesque. Bond remains as cold and enigmatic as ever, but that’s the character. If he wasn’t a psychopath I guess he wouldn’t be Bond, although, having said that, there are some tender moments with Tatiana on board the sleeper train.
THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL by Anne Frank
I first read this when I was about the age Anne was when she first went into hiding, and it had a huge impact on me. I had borrowed my sister’s copy, and was reading it in the garden on a hot Summer’s day. It was hard to take in that there had been a girl my age who had spent 2 years living in a set of tiny rooms, never going outside. Anne is a gifted writer, and a lively narrator. She has a voracious curiosity about everything, and a lively intellect. I never stop wondering what she would have achieved if she had survived the war.
MARIE ANTOINETTE by Antonia Fraser
One of the best biographies I’ve read, and certainly one of the most enjoyable. As I’m not particularly pro-royalist myself, I did wonder if I would find her too much on the Queen’s side. Well she’s certainly fighting Marie Antoinette’s corner, but not in a way that I found remotely offensive. And as the Queen said herself, towards the end of her life, whatever sins she may have committed, she certainly paid for them. And it can be strongly argued that it was the remote world of Versailles that was to blame, cut off as it was so disastrously from the rest of France. One thing that always stands out for me about Louis and Antoinette is, that apart from Paris, and the short journey they made when they tried to escape, they didn’t see any of their realm. BIG mistake. Antoinette never saw the sea! I can’t understand that, in their position I would have wanted to see everywhere. It was their self-imposed isolation in their glittering palace that was their downfall. It is easy for people to demonise you if they never see you. The following century, here in Britain, Queen Victoria nearly inadvertently caused a revolution when she isolated herself in her grief over losing Albert. It’s not a mistake royalty has made since. What stands out about all the biographies I’ve read from Antonia Fraser, is her love for each subject she writes about. This is a smooth, sympathetic biography, and I even like her use of footnotes (though I admit I might be in a minority there).
HANGOVER SQUARE by Patrick Hamilton
I was alerted to this one when I read a piece by Julie Burchill, in which she said she regretted that she’d never be able to write a book like ‘Hangover Square’. I was intrigued by the title, and I quickly became intrigued by the author as well. Patrick Hamilton was a writer who never did things by halves. He either wrote exceptionally well (such as with this book, and ‘20,000 Streets Under The Sky’), or terribly, as in the last volume of the Gorse trilogy, where Hamilton’s alcoholism was now severely hampering his creative output. ‘Hangover Square’ is set in the months running up to the outbreak of war in 1939. The central character is an odd, lonely man, prone to mental blackouts which have a devastating effect on his personality. He has an obsession with the vile Netta, a woman who is incapable of feeling (a female psychopath if you like), and whose only redeeming feature is her beauty. We read this book as if it’s a car-crash slowly unfolding before our eyes. We know no good can come of this relationship, and we’re urging him to forget her, but knowing all the while that he won’t. He can’t. It’s not even as if he’s blinded by Netta. He knows full well what she is, and he rages about her faults, but he can’t switch off from her. I’m not really giving away any spoilers when I say that the end is tragic and violent, because the writing’s on the wall right from the beginning. It is one of the most painfully moving books I have ever read.
THE WATER GYPSIES by A P Herbert
Absolute delightful novel about the lives of people living on Thames barges in the 1920s. A young girl, Jane, lives with her father (who works as a musician at a cinema, this being the silent movie era, when a live musical accompaniment was needed for a film), and her flighty, flapper sister. Jane works as a maid, but yearns for a more glamorous life, and seems to get her wish when she gets hired as an artist’s model. Her love life is complicated. She is adored by a fellow barge-dweller, but makes the mistake of marrying Ernest, a firebrand Socialist reformer. The character of Ernest is very funny. How well he would’ve fitted in with the worst of New Labour, with his chronic urge to reform everything and everyone (and I say that as a lefty myself!). In one scene for instance everyone goes off to the races for a day, but Ernest is thoroughly disapproving. “Ernest has broken out in principles”. Jane and Ernest’s grim seaside honeymoon is so much of the era that frankly we can only be glad things have moved on! It’s a funny, heart-warming book with great characters, and made me wish I lived on a barge when I first read it.
THE RIPLIAD by Patricia Highsmith
The Ripliad is the collective name sometimes applied to all of Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley novels. As with E F Benson’s Mapp & Lucia novels I didn’t want to pull out any single one. Tom Ripley is one of the most interesting fictional creations of the 20th century. He is a psychopath, he has no normal human empathy, and yet instead of being repelled by him we are fascinated by him. Highsmith loved her creation, to the extent that she reputedly sometimes signed his name alongside her own. I suspect that he was the person she felt herself to be deep down, and I can completely understand that. Tom is intriguing. The first book in the series, ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ (which Matt Damon starred in superbly) has Tom going off to Europe for the first time. He’s a young man, he’s alone in the world. Even his own mother despised him. This first novel is a dark adventure story, as Tom tries to crowbar himself into the kind of glamorous life which he yearns for. “Better to be a fake somebody than a real nobody”. The following books show Tom settled into domestic bliss in France, with his wife Heloise. And things get even more bizarre. Tom and Heloise’s marriage is totally baffling. Tom regards her as the only human being as unscrupulous as himself (and yet in the books she comes across as quite sweet, just a bit frivolous that’s all). He clearly married her so that he could live off her rich father’s bounty, and yet – as far as Tom is capable of feeling anything for anyone – he does have an affection for her. Their marriage is fascinating. Are they two gay people who have got married as a cover (I think it’s what used to be called “a beard”)? And yet, Tom talks of taking showers with Heloise, and wanting to go to sleep with her arms around him, so they clearly have SOME kind of intimate life. There is a brief reference to their wedding night, when Tom is described as barely being able to keep a straight face. One critic I read described them as like aliens from another planet, trying to live inconspicuously amongst humans. In ‘The Boy Who Followed Ripley’ we get Tom at his most overtly gay, when a wholesome young American lad comes to stay. In this book we even have Tom dressing up in drag in Berlin! For those who want to read something a bit off-the-wall, then the Ripley novels are well worth seeking out. An American author I see on Twitter recently said that writers should only write mainstream stuff, with characters that the reader can identify with (balls to that, with knobs on). I couldn’t disagree more strongly. All I can say is, read Patricia Highsmith, and then come back to me and say that. Not everybody wants to read novels about Mom, Dad, and their kids all the time y’know.
THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson
I read this again very recently for the umpteenth time, and was once again awed by the sheer poetry of Mrs Jackson’s writing. It stands as one of the most atmospheric ghost stories ever written. A psychical researcher, Dr Montague, wants to rent out a haunted house for the summer, and invites three people to help him with his research. So we have Theodora, a sophisticated artist who scored highly on an ESP test, Eleanor, a nervy young woman who was once the focal point of a poltergeist outbreak, and Luke, the man who will one day inherit the house. After a short time it becomes very clear that Eleanor is going through an emotional crisis, brought on by having spent most of her life secluded away, looking after her invalid mother, who recently died. Her nerves are not in the strongest state to cope with staying in a haunted house, plus her need to be accepted and loved by everyone is proving too much for the other characters. It’s quite hard for me to do a plot summary, as I just want to keep on about how beautifully written the whole thing is. I find I want to go on about things like the soft summer rain falling in the early hours of the morning. Instead, take these words from the opening paragraph: “Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within … silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone”. The house itself is an entity in its own right. It’s brooding presence dominates the book. Apparently Shirley Jackson based it on a sinister-looking place she used to see from the train when travelling into New York. She was struck by how evil the house looked, which is an idea which has always fascinated me. Humans can look evil, so can buildings? And I’m not just talking about lousy architecture here. Can something rotten seep into a building’s psyche, which is clearly what has happened in Hill House? In his book ‘Danse Macabre’, Stephen King wrote that he found the idea that it is the house itself which was deliberately claiming Eleanor as too awful to contemplate, and yet it’s the idea that works best. If the book had focussed on the deceased inhabitants as ghosts, I might have found it a it a bit ho-hum, but the idea of the HOUSE being evil is what gets me every time. Plus (and I know this is going to sound a bit odd) it is the pure escapism of the book which works so well too. These people are having a holiday from life. At Hill House they are removed from the cares of every day. Mrs Dudley, the housekeeper, is doing all their shopping, cooking and cleaning. They don’t have to go out to work. They are free to regress to childhood, with Dr Montague as a sort of kindly father figure. And it is this which ultimately has the devastating effect on poor, needy Eleanor. She cannot bear the thought of leaving the house and going back to real life, of being separated from the first people she has felt she belongs with. And it is that which will be her doom.
SUTTON PLACE by Deryn Lake (aka Dinah Lampitt)
Sometimes a book comes along that simply gets you in it’s grasp and sweeps you along. ‘Sutton Place’ is such a book, the first book in a trilogy centring on a real-life stately home near Guildford in Surrey. The house is allegedly built on ground cursed by the unhappy bride of Edward the Confessor. Over the centuries to come the house, a bit like Hill House in Shirley Jackson’s novel (see above), will claim a victim at regular intervals. History and the supernatural are two passions of mine, so when the two are combined I’m bound to be enthralled. But it’s not just that, there is something about the way this is written that is deeply compelling. I’ve read a lot of novels set in the Tudor era (I find Anne Boleyn to be on one of the most fascinating women in history), and they vary greatly in quality. This is one of the best I’ve come across so far. Modern readers may not like her portrayal of Anne as an unscrupulous ambitious woman, because 21st century novelists have a tendency to overly sugar-coat her, but it works for me. The odd thing is that ruthless and ambitious she may be in this book, but you don’t lose sympathy with her, either because we know she will be the mother of one of the greatest monarchs in British history, or because we know she will ultimately pay a terrible price (or both). Set during the years from Anne first bursting on the scene, then up to her trial and death, we see the house being built by the Weston family. Francis Weston would be one of the unfortunate men who would be condemned to death by King Henry VIII for being Anne’s lover. There is a magic in this book, as Francis’s mother is able to see “ghosts” of the future, including the tycoon John Paul Getty, who would live in the house in the 20th century. Looking forward to reading the next two in the trilogy.
THE TOWN HOUSE TRILOGY by Norah Lofts
Norah Lofts was a very prolific author, who was immensely popular in the middle part of the 20th century. She came from East Anglia, and many of her books are set in that part of the world. They were often turned into thoroughly enjoyable, hoary old bodice-ripper films, usually starring Margaret Lockwood. The Town House novels cover the history of a house from the Middle Ages up to the 1950s, focussing on one or two characters from each era. We see the house go through many different uses. One thing I particularly like about Norah’s books is that, like Hugh Walpole (see below) she wasn’t afraid to use elements of the supernatural in her stories. So my favourite part of ‘The Town House’ is the part near the beginning, where escaped serf Martin Reed, meets an old lady whilst he is travelling through the forest. The old lady tells him she often sees the ghosts of Roman centurion there. I don’t know why, but I loved the off-hand, casual way that she tells him this.
HELL HOUSE by Richard Matheson
In some ways this book bears comparison with Agatha Christie’s book on this list. A group of people are lured to a remote location, which proceeds to strip away their civilised veneer, and plunge them into unmitigated horror. I always think it a shame that when discussing haunted house books, this one seems to get pushed aside in favour of ‘The Woman In Black’ or Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Haunting Of Hill House’. Now those are fine books, and Shirley’s book particularly is rich in spooky atmosphere, and beautiful prose, and ‘Hell House’ isn’t a flawless book by any means. Many of his psychic investigation techniques would have been horribly dated in 1970, let alone now. And Florence’s lesbianism simply doesn’t ring true. Where it works though is the history of the house itself, and its evil villain character of Emeric Belasco. I have no idea if Matheson was influenced by the life of Aleister Crowley when he wrote this, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller
A weird, abstract work in which Miller, an American ex-pat who has relocated to the bohemian wastes of Paris in the inter-war years, describes his life there as a penniless, struggling writer. His relationship with fellow writer, Anais Nin, is the stuff of literary legend. I’ve included this because it had a big effect on me when I read it in the 90s, and I quickly tracked down as many books by Miller as I could get my hands on (not easy, in the days pre-Amazon!). There is one section where Miller muses on creativity generally, which I remember at the time had me leaping out of my chair in excitement. It is not so much a novel, as a prose poem, sometimes difficult to understand, and at others exhilarating.
1984 by George Orwell
I probably don’t need to say much about this one. I first read it when I was 18, and I got completely swept up in it. Winston Smith is an Everyman, living in a bleak world which resembles Stalinist Russia. TV sets are compulsory, and used to spy on people. So much of the language Orwell uses in this book have crept into mainstream language. Thought Police, Big Brother Is Watching You, Room 101 etc. In recent times I’ve read books by David Icke in which he claims Orwell was an Insider, who wrote 1984 to warn people of what was coming. I don’t know about that, but I do know something about this book has crept under the skin of everyone, and the ideas he puts forward in it are more relevant now than they’ve ever been.
MURDER MOST ROYAL by Jean Plaidy
I have a great admiration for Jean Plaidy. Her output was tremendous (in fact, I think she’s in the Guinness Book Of Records as one of the most prolific authors ever), but sometimes I can’t help wishing she had written less. Instead of setting herself the awesome target of chronicling a 1000 years of royal history, perhaps concentrate on just a few aspects of it. Her books were good, but sometimes there was a feeling of a conveyor-belt about them, (“right I’d better get on with knocking out the next one”, that sort of thing). ‘Murder Most Royal’ was an early entry in her literary canon, and one of her best. It covers Tudor history, from Anne Boleyn to Katherine Howard, and is one of the best novels I’ve found about those unfortunate ladies. I always think of it as a Springtime book, because I read it in the run-up to Easter one year, and I don’t know why, but it always has that feel to it. The most memorable part is the execution of Katherine Howard, where she shows great sympathy for this silly young girl, who was going to pay a terrible price for … well just being a silly young girl. It’s a fat, chunky, juicy read. I could quote Horrible Histories here, and say it’s history, but with all the boring bits left out. By the way, if you like romance mixed with Gothic mystery, I can recommend her Victoria Holt books. They are very entertaining.
EXCELLENT WOMEN by Barbara Pym
I must have read this many years ago when I went through a Barbara Pym phase, but I don’t think it made the impression on me that it did when I re-read it again very recently. I don’t know why this is to be honest, perhaps I was just in a more receptive frame of mind, but there is no doubting that I loved it, and the narrator, Mildred Lathbury, has become one of my favourite fictional characters of all time. The “excellent women” of the title refers to the type of woman whom I suppose used to be called “an all-round good egg”. They’re the kind of patient friend always ready to lend a listening ear and a comforting cup of tea. They are very domesticated, and a great person to have around, and yet (traditionally) they always tended to remain spinsters, whilst more flighty, lazy, selfish broads hooked all the men. Written in the early 1950s, Mildred is very much the old school type of English spinster. We’re not exactly talking Bridget Jones here. And yet you never feel sorry for Mildred. On the contrary, I think she has a pretty good life. She has her own little flat in the centre of London, an undemanding job, and a wide circle of friends of both sexes. She’s not lonely or purposeless by any means. Told with good humour, Mildred often finds herself getting fed up with her “good egg” image. (I can completely understand this, I once wanted to throttle someone who cattily referred to me as “a dutiful wife”). There is a point in the book when Mildred longs to get away on holiday, because she’s simply had enough of other people’s problems. Many people, married or single, will be able to identify with that one. It’s a lovely book, with a positive, uplifting ending. I would now firmly put it in my own personal Top 10.
VILLAGE DIARY and SUMMER IN FAIRACRE by Miss Read
All the Miss Read books are a delight, but I have a particular soft spot for the Fairacre ones as they remind me of the village where I grew up. In fact, Fairacre School is very like the first school I went to, and I feel sorry for anyone who never got the chance to go to a country village school. She began writing them in the mid-1950s with ‘Village School’, and carried on until the 1990s when the headmistress of Fairacre School was finally allowed to take a well-deserved retirement. They are marvellous escapism, but what makes these books for me, aside from the nostalgia value, is the humour of the narrator herself. Someone on Wikipedia described her as “acerbic yet compassionate”. Like the Provincial Lady we never find out her first name, she is simply Miss Read. She relishes the little things of everyday life, and has a wonderful sense of the absurd. For instance, in ‘Summer In Fairacre’, her best friend Amy is telling her about how she is finding herself beset by irrational fears (Amy must’ve been going through the menopause!), such as her car breaking down on a remote country road, and then being accosted by a man with an axe. Amy ponders what she would do in that situation. “Well if he had an axe I would give him anything he required”, replied Miss Read. I loved that! Then there is Mrs Pringle, the curmudgeonly school-cleaner who can always be guaranteed to pour cold water on any moment of happiness (she reminds me of my eldest sister). There is the gentle retired teacher Miss Clare, who was from that particularly gentle but strong breed of Edwardian spinsters. The book of her life ‘Miss Clare Remembers’ inspired an Enya track. The Miss Read books have been quietly influential, and she has had some surprising fans. The late Paula Yates was a big fan, and had a go at writing her own version. Miss Read may be a fictional character, but she is one of my heroines. She is self-reliant, and enjoys being single. Before I met my husband I never had any problem with the thought of staying single, if I could be like Miss Read! (Fate had other ideas). The author of these books – real name Dora Saint – lived only a few miles away from me, and we often drove past her house on the way to Newbury. She died recently, and it is a regret that I never actually met her. I would love to have thanked her for the pleasure her books have given me.
THE FACE OF TRESPASS by Ruth Rendell
The recent sad passing of Ruth Rendell has made me think I really want to put one of her books on this list, and it was a tough call for me to pick between this one and ‘The Bridesmaid’, both of which I found hugely atmospheric. ‘The Face Of Trespass’ had the edge, simply because I remember reading it practically in one sitting one Bank Holiday Monday many years ago. The story centres around a once-promising novelist, who now lives an acutely lonely hand-to-mouth existence in a derelict cottage on the edge of a wood. He is haunted by his selfish past love, and in that he bears some resemblance to George Bone in ‘Hangover Square’, except he’s not as vulnerable and pathetic as poor old Bone is. I must admit the mystery in this book took second place for me to the details of this man’s peculiar existence in his decrepit cottage. His only real contact with the outside world is when he goes to change his books at the library. His life is so minimal that he wonders if he can get away with reading ‘Gone With The Wind’ twice in a few months. Ruth Rendell specialised in writing about lonely people, the ones shunted aside from mainstream life, and in this story she particularly excelled. The theme of the man being obsessed with a selfish, beautiful woman would be repeated in ‘The Bridesmaid’, which I can also highly recommend.
THE SLEEPING BEAUTY TRILOGY by Anne Rice
OK, a bit of a controversial entry I suppose (for some anyway). Anne Rice takes the Sleeping Beauty legend and sort of turns it into an adult Grimm Fairy Tale crossed with ’50 Shades Of Grey’. I put it here because I actually think it is very classy erotica. She evokes this strange fairy tale land very well (as you would expect from her really). I’ve read plenty of criticism of these books, and some points have been justified. Such as that Beauty herself isn’t a very interesting character. In fact, I think she’s a bit of a drip, who just seems to meekly accept everything that’s dished out to her. Even Anne herself said she got bored with her towards the end. I would’ve preferred a more feisty, characterful heroine. Anne seems to have disowned the books these days, which is a shame, as she has done a brilliant job of creating an adult fairy tale. She also said she wanted to write pornography that women wanted, and books where you didn’t have to go searching for the juicy bits. She succeeded. She also gave me the courage to write what I wanted to write, and for that I owe her a debt of gratitude.
I CAPTURE THE CASTLE by Dodie Smith
This isn’t so much a novel as a work of art. The playwright Christopher Isherwood, who was a close friend of Dodie’s described it as like “fine carving”, every time you look at it you see something you didn’t see before. When Dodie wrote it she was living as a self-imposed exile in California. She had had to flee to America on the outbreak of WW2, as her husband Alec was a pacifist, and would have been imprisoned as a conscientious objector if they had stayed here. Although America was good to Dodie, she was still homesick (as a writer, she also confessed she missed the creative opportunities being on the homefront would have given her). I Capture The Castle is her love letter to the English countryside. It is set during the 1930s, and is told in journal form by a 17-year-old girl Cassandra, who lives with her eccentric family in a crumbling castle in Suffolk. You can read the book as a poignant story of first love (and it certainly works well on that score), or simply for the landscape. It is a book about relationships, and Love Of Life generally. Joanna Trollope once said that what she liked about the book was the zest for everything. Food, even if it’s just a crust of bread, is there to be enjoyed. Add music as well. This book was the first one I read which opened the doors to classical music to me, such as in the beautiful scene where Simon plays gramophone records to Cassandra on Midsummer’s Eve. A beautiful, beautiful book.
SWANSON ON SWANSON by Gloria Swanson
One of the most enjoyable showbusiness biographies I’ve ever read. This might be partly down to the fact that the Silent Era of cinema fascinates me, but I don’t think it’s just that. Ms Swanson had a very engaging style of writing, and a zest for life which seemed to last right to the end. She is largely known these days for her portrayal of 1920s movie star Norma Desmond in ‘Sunset Boulevard’, in which she sent herself up beautifully, and gave us the immortal line “I AM big, it was the pictures that got small!” And she probably had a point. The Silent Era was movie-making writ large. Actors did all their own stunts (there were no HealthNSafety issues back then), the stories were big and the actors matched them, living lives of incredible glamour and scandal. They were regarded as gods. In those days cinema was a young industry, a bit like the Internet is now, and likewise it was largely uncensored and un-policed. Gloria was the glamour Queen. She epitomised over-the-top diva-dom. She started out as a Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, and appeared in the kind of films which were knocked out in a few days, and probably involved her being chained to railway lines, and generally being everyone’s favourite damsel in distress. She went on to achieve the kind of stardom which is described in ‘Sunset’, appearing in big budget productions, working for legendary directors like Cecil B de Mille, earning massive amounts of money, and modelling the latest extravagant fashions. I could write about Gloria all day, but I shall just give probably my favourite movie anecdote ever. Gloria had to appear in a scene in which she had to star alongside a real-life leopard, which crawled over her as she had to lay distraught on the floor. On watching it in a cinema afterwards, she overheard one movie-goer say to the other: “I bet it’s stuffed”. It wasn’t.
ANGEL by Elizabeth Taylor
If you wanted any more proof that writers live on another planet, this is probably it. This is the life of fictional romantic writer, Angel Deverall, the sort of flowery pantomime dame of an author that was incredibly popular at the turn of the 20th century, and who would make Barbara Cartland feel quite at home. They wrote racey novels which might seem tame to us now, but were considered shocking and risque back then. (“Would you like to sin with Glyn / on a tigerskin” was a popular rhyme about Angel-clone Elinor Glynn). The novel starts with Angel as a schoolgirl, living with her widowed mother above a grocery shop in a nondescript small town. To her mother’s alarm, Angel has aspirations to be a bestselling author. She begins to write a novel in her school exercise books, and sends it off to a publisher. The novel is atrociously bad, and yet a publisher sees that it could well be the sort of a thing which turns out to be very popular. He was right. Angel embarks on a successful career, churning out steamy novels featuring scandalous heroines, and plenty of high living. The novel focusses sharply on the contrast between Angel and her fevered imagination, and her private life which falls markedly short of the world she portrays in her novels. At the close of the film version Angel’s friend Nora is heard saying “which life do you mean? the life she led, or the life she imagined?” And I guess that could be said of many authors. We live two lives, the real one, and the one we imagine in our stories. It’s a sad book, and sometimes Taylor’s bitchiness about her characters is too much, which is a problem I often have with this writer. In the film version Angel is treated more sympathetically, as a woman who has the courage to go after her dreams, even if they often turn into a tragedy, a dark fairy-tale.
A PIN TO SEE THE PEEPSHOW by F Tennyson Jesse
This novel was based on a real life murder case, the Thompson & Bywaters trial, which was a sensation in the 1920s. Edith Thompson was a married woman, carrying on an affair with a younger man, Frederick Bywaters. Both were accused of murder when Edith’s husband was killed. Both were hanged for the crime, which caused considerable controversy (particularly as there were rumours that Edith may have been pregnant at the time). The author doesn’t try to exonerate Edith, (called Julia Starling here), but does instead paint a portrait of a hopelessly romantic woman caught up in a situation which ran out of her control. Julia begins as an imaginative only child. She grows up, gets a job in a dress shop, and marries a somewhat dull older man. The First World War breaks out, and Julia is left to her own devices as hubby goes off to do his duty (a desk job). Like so many women of her generation, WW1 gives Julia her first taste of true independence, and as such she finds it hard to settle back down to domestic bliss when her husband returns. This is all done rather well. The real strength of the novel for me though are the final chapters, with the trial and the death sentence being imposed on the reckless young lovers. If anyone is ever feeling desperately low in their life (and I do know what that’s like), I urge them to read the closing chapters, where Julia, distraught in the condemned cell, longs to live. She says she will settle for anything, even being a homeless vagrant huddled in a shop doorway, if she can only LIVE. The double executions occur on a beautiful June morning, and the author combines scenes of London going about its daily business, with the traumatic scenes behind prison walls. Even now, all these years on from first reading this book, those scenes still come back to me sometimes.
THE HERRIES SAGA by Hugh Walpole
A quartet of books detailing lives of the members of the colourful Herries family from mid-18th century to 1930. These books differ from your average family saga because of the beautiful writing, and because Walpole wasn’t afraid to chuck in the odd random quality, such as elements of the supernatural, (Walpole was also a prolific author of ghost stories), and fully embracing the eccentricity of some of his characters. This is especially so with the first book in the series, ‘Rogue Herries’. I can’t think of anyone who brings the full-bodied 18th century to life better than Walpole does here. In some ways though it doesn’t feel that much different to our own time. There are characters who are off on personal odysseys, trying to find out who they are, and how they fit into their place in the Universe. In some ways I feel we have more in common with their romanticism, than the rigidity of the Victorians. More than anything though these books are a homage to the Cumbrian countryside. Walpole was born in New Zealand, but his family emigrated to Britain when he was 5. He fell in love with the rugged beauty of the Lake District, and the Herries books are a fine tribute to it. Walpole is also not afraid to show his love for his characters. He was clearly besotted with Vanessa and Sally, and this is very endearing. Walpole added two prequels to the saga, which have qualities of their own, but don’t quite measure up to the main four. He died early on in the Second World War. It is thought his death was hastened by his worries about the war, and the impact it would have on his adopted country. I can’t help thinking of a scene in the final book in the series, ‘Vanessa’, in which a conversation is being had in a cafe towards the end of the First World War, when one character says they must try and get things back to as they were before. Suddenly someone jumps up and yells “we can’t get it back!” Very poignant.
FOREVER AMBER by Kathleen Winsor
This is the ultimate bodice-ripper. It’s hard now to understand the controversy this book caused when it was first published in the 1940s, after all there are no overtly sexy bits in this novel, we’re not talking ’50 Shades Of Grey’ here, and yet at the time it was probably the sort of book which was passed around in brown paper wrappers! The story is about Amber St Clair, a feisty country-girl who is determined to get away from the small village she was brought up in, and run away to the bright lights of London. She absconds with a soldier, and for the next 10 years we follow her adventures as she falls in with a gang of thieves, ends up in prison, takes to the stage, catches the eye of powerful men, and eventually works her way up to being the mistress of King Charles II. Part of the longlasting appeal of this book must be the era in which it is set. The 1660s were the heady days of the Restoration, when London kicked off the restraints of the Puritan era, and enjoyed the kind of hedonism we normally associate with a more recent 60s decade. This was the Swinging Sixties, 17th century-style. It also saw the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London. The author captures the detail of this era beautifully, and there are many scenes which have gone down in literary legend, such as Amber taking 3 days to get herself ready for a party, and then turning up dressed in skimpy black feathers! Amber isn’t a particularly likeable character. She’s out for what she can get, and sometimes she reminds me of Julia Davis’s character in ‘Nighty Night’. She’s an English version of Scarlett O’Hara in some ways. But hey, I get sick and tired of being pressured by authors to like goody-goody Mary-Sue characters who in reality make me want to vomit up needles. Let the bad girls rock!