I posted a good while ago about songs. This post is about books (not mine, though do go and have a look at it!). These aren’t my favourite books (I’d be hardpressed to name those, and my list would change with mood and weather) nor those I decided to take to a desert island but they are ones I return to over and over when I’m a bit low or just need to revisit old, familiar friends.
I must have read this for the first time when I was thirteen or thereabouts. A couple of years later I had to study it at school for an English Literature exam. and it’s a tribute to Charlotte Bronte that not even two years of essay writing and character studies spoilt it for me. It’s easy to pick holes in the plot (She didn’t see through his disguise? Really? In the attic? Of all the people in all of Yorkshire she bumps into her cousins?) but doing so misses the point of what makes it a great book. Passion carries it, author sublimated into character, and the certainty of equal worth and equal feeling make it one of the few truly feminist novels.
The third novel in Byatt’s Frederica Quartet is long and complicated and, I think, immensely satisfying. Something to wallow in; of the books on this list this is the one which offers the most complete immersion in a fictional world. It’s the real world, but the world before I knew it, Britain in the Sixties. It’s a book about books and about ideas. About being a woman, about motherhood, and mind, and sex. About retaining one’s integrity as a person. Two trials feature, a fictional obscenity trial about a book (Babble Tower, the novel within the novel) and a real trial (the moors murders), and a divorce, and a custody battle. The running theme is the difference between what happened and what is accepted to have happened, story set in opposition to truth.
A later, rather atypical novel by Agatha Christie. Very dark and twisted. It displays her range, as a writer and creator of characters (often underestimated), and skill at plotting (often acknowledged, and with good reason) but it’s a surprisingly delicate and effective lovestory too. It also served as my gateway to William Blake, so many thanks are due for that too.
A Mirror for Princes
A fantasy kingdom, not entirely unlike mediaeval Europe. A generation ago a usurper seized the throne, killed the rightful heirs and forced the surviving princess into marriage. On his death, the struggle to succeed him is compounded by betrayal, intrigue and incest. I came across de Haan’s novel in Morningside library when I was a graduate student and since then it’s been the fantasy novel I’ve read and reread more than any other (thank you, ECL!). It predates A Game of Thrones by the best part of a decade and is infinitely more subtle and engaging. I’m always surprised by how few other people have heard of it, and saddened by how long it’s been out of print. There’s a companion novel too, if, like me, it leaves you wanting more.
Austen at her most autumnal. Anne Elliot is the most Cinderella-like of her heroines, with the ugly sisters to prove it, but, unlike most Cinderellas, Anne had her chance of happiness and with a satisfyingly sensible, unByronic man too, and cast it away. On the advice of her fairy step-mother analogue no less. There’s none of the dazzle of Pride and Prejudice or the narrative slight of hand of Emma but a quiet tale of second chances and love returning, after hope of love’s return is lost. And Oh the joy when I finally got to the steps of the Cobb at Lyme Regis. Years it took before I got there, and, reader, I jumped down them. Didn’t slip, either.