Reading preferences are an extremely personal thing. And while a lot of us are pretty sure we know what we like, sometimes a book recommendation can take you utterly by surprise. This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is all about books that you never would have read if someone (or even something) hadn’t recommended them to you. I’m going to count not just personal recommendations from family and friends here, but also recommendations from other authors, TV, and of course the good old internet (because I spend way too much of my time browsing through Goodreads these days).
Samantha Ellis’ How To Be A Heroine has certainly opened up doors for me when it comes to 1930s and 40s English literature. The literature of the twentieth century has always eluded me before now, mostly because I was convinced that it would be, based on my limited experience with it, either a) depressing, or b) mad, confusing, and experimental. Or possibly both.
But one thing I’ve found, reading Cold Comfort Farm and re-reading I Capture The Castle, is how contemporary these texts can feel. And they’re so easy to read, flowing like Victorian novels – only with telephones and cars thrown in. The same can be said of South Riding, another of the books that Ellis discusses in How To Be A Heroine.
South Riding is set in the fictional South Riding of Yorkshire, and its main character is a forty-year old spinster called Sarah Burton, who comes up from London to become the headmistress of the girls’ high school. She brings with her boundless energy and a desire for reform. She’s a character who believes that “The proper technique of headmistress-ship was to break all rules of decorum and justify the breach” (Book I, Chapter V).
Of course you do. It’s a fantastic idea. Forget great parties at Gatsby’s, I want to see an old English lady drop her drop-waisted dress and do Satanic dances on top of a hill. I want to see her chat with the Devil over tea and biscuits. I want it to be kind of like The Master and Margarita only less confusing.
And who knew that in between the two World Wars such a book was actually written? I couldn’t believe that this book existed, but I knew the minute I read about it in Samantha Ellis’ How To Be A Heroine that I had to find it. Quite how Lolly Willowes came into existence I have no idea. But I’m glad it did.
Frankly, I wasn’t sure whether to write a review of Cold Comfort Farm. It piqued my interest because I’d read about it in Samantha Ellis’ How To Be A Heroine, and thought it sounded fantastic. Considering it has been dubbed “Probably the funniest book ever written”, and emerged in the period of inestimable comic talents like P.G. Wodehouse, I decided I’d give it a go.
The reason I didn’t know whether to write a review or not was probably because I didn’t know what to make of the book itself. Lest I show my ignorance (or my poor sense of humour, often inclined to the banana-peel school of comedy, if I’m honest, despite my best efforts to cultivate it), I put off writing anything about it.
But Cold Comfort Farm is a strange book, and I hope that writing a little bit about it will allow me to puzzle it through. If not – well, hopefully one of my lovely readers will help me out.
Every avid childhood reader remembers the heroes and the heroines that defined their young lives. They’re almost like close friends, those Lizzie Bennets and Lucy Pevensies and Harry Potters. They taught us how to laugh, to love, but perhaps most of all, how to be. How to be children and – to a great extent – how to be adults. How to be individuals, to be principled, to be strong.
But our heroes and heroines don’t just change us. To a large extent, we control them. We get out what we put in, and it’s hardly surprising that the best-loved books stay with readers throughout their lives, each time offering the reader something slightly different.
Heroes and heroines offer us a template for how to be – funny, brave, clever, whatever the author thinks is most important – but whether we, as readers, chose to accept these templates is a different matter altogether. This is perhaps particularly true of heroines, because the social roles imposed on women (mother, wife, daughter) are echoed in fiction, and reading anything published more than a few decades ago (and, regrettably, sometimes even just a few days ago) seems to offer women a pretty narrow scope of templates to accept. So there’s often a debate about whether we should give girls books like A Little Princess or Little Women, while offering boys Treasure Island is scarcely ever thought quite so problematic (presumably there’s no issue with giving girls Treasure Island, and no possibility of giving boys Little Women).