We wrote recently about some of our favourite first lines in literature. In a similar spirit, we’ve drawn up a list of books we’d rescue in the event of fire, or flood or general disaster. Admittedly in the event, if forced to choose, we’d run around like a headless chicken trying yo salvage everything. But if we had to draw up a shortlist, gun to heart, this might be a reasonable approximation.
Persuasion -Jane Austen. What can we hope to say about this that’s remotely our own? It’s our favourite of all Austen’s writing. If it’s not as polished and sparkling as Pride and Prejudice we don’t care; the emotional claustrophobia of Anne Eliot’s limited perspective, the stunning piece of writing that is Wentworth’s letter, we could read this book forever. Instead we choose to cherish it like a rare and valuable tea, rereading it only at intervals. There has never been a rereading when we haven’t worried it will all go wrong, even knowing Austen is famed for her marriage plots and neat conclusions. It’s truly that strange and wonderful rarity, a living book.
Gaudy Night – Dorothy Sayers. One of the Lord Peter books, it contains one of literature’s great love-scenes in the shape of a boating expedition on the Cherwell. There are two others equal to it, the letter-scene of Persuasion, and a subsequent Harriet and Peter exchange in Busman’s Honeymoon. There’s no murder, to the horror of some critics, but the still centre of this book is exactly where it needs to be, that is, at the core of Harriet and Peter’s relationship. Whoever said romances were only about courtship? At their most effective they’re about trying and wanting to understand each other. Sayers understood that.
Excellent Women- Barbara Pym. Mildred Lathery describes this as (and we paraphrase) one of those stream of conscience books about women at the kitchen sink, and she’s not completely wrong, this being her story after all. It’s also more than that, because only Pym could make an identity crisis out of a refusal to put the kettle on. Often accused of lacking a plot, Mildred is one of those passive and observant protagonists whose narrative motivation is to gain agency. The first of many excellent women made excellent not by their virtues but by their perpetually falling short of the standards they set themselves, Mildred Lathery is one of literature’s great heroines, even if she doesn’t mean to be.
The Essence of the Thing -Madeleine St John. We’ve been told it’s cheating to prize this particular book above St. John’s others because it’s the one that was noticed, shortlisted for a booker prize in 1997. We don’t think it too egregious of us though, considering that we know entirely too many well-read, intelligent people who have never read or even heard of it.This is a shame; the book is rife with literary gems. Our favourite, taken from Johnathan’s reflections on the collapse of his relationship to Nicola is the observation that they ‘are no longer in a state of marmalade-sharing existence.’
Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald. What can we say that we haven’t said previously? It’s a brilliant modernisation of the Gothic. It’s devastatingly good. It is possessed of a landscape that is alive, almost as much so as the characters who inhabit it. It’s an under-appreciated book by a Canadian writer that deserves to be better known. Go read it.
The Way the Crow Flies – Anne-Marie MacDonald. As is becoming apparent, we like her lots. We also hold her and this book responsible for our love of all things Cold War related.
The Inn at Lake Devine – Elinor Lipman. More even than L.M.Montgomery, this novel captures the spirit of summers we spent by the lake. At once thoughtful and idyllic, Lipman writes with lightness of touch and devastating sincerity. We were told once she wasn’t taken seriously, but we think -and hope -that’s changed, because if not it’s a sin. Few writers can equal her for her fluency in the foibles and faults of humanity.
My Turn to Make the Tea- Monica Dickens. She is, if you’re curious, related to that other great Dickens. Her books are shorter though, the humour different. This one is set in a newsroom, and reflects (we’re told with terrifying and timeless accuracy) the perils of a local newspaper.
Momento Mori – Muriel Spark. Only Muriel Spark could make the making of a cup of tea gothic. We read this book for the first time while on the Isle of Iona, determined to discover the identity of the voice on the ‘phone insisting ‘remember you must die.’ With a hook like that, it can’t have been only us?
The Town in Bloom –Dodie Smith. At the risk of heresy…this is better than I Capture the Castle. Mouse is our favourite of Smith’s heroines, before even Cassandra Mortmain. We’re not sure how or why The Town in Bloom went out of print, but we’re glad it was rescued. Partially autobiographical (if Look Back with Mixed Feelings is any account to go on) it’s all about the London theatre life, and four young girls trying for the stage. The moment at which it absolutely won our hearts was Molly’s exasperated declaration on arriving at their new home, ‘they said this flat was converted, but I think it’s still a heathen!’
A Far Cry from Kensington – Muriel Spark. We like her lots too. This slice-of-life book is set in the Kensington of the 1950s, so abandon any anxiety about it being overly posh. The world of Church End Villas is no such thing. What it is, is delightful, and strange, and all the many things we’ve come to cherish about a Spark novel. This one is partly satire on Spiritualism, notes on Catholicism and on the London publishing industry. It is also our favourite of all her novels.