We all have favourite books that we return to throughout our lives. As comforting as a cup of tea and a slice of cake, but without the calories, these novels have cheered me up time and again.
The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford.
Light and delicious as a mille-feuille from a Parisian patisserie, Nancy Mitford’s novels set between the wars and based on her eccentric family are a comic delight, but this, the first in a trilogy, is my favourite. The characters have become as familiar to me as family over the years, from Linda in her romantic but doomed pursuit of love to mad Uncle Matthew and his child hunts and chub fuddling, to the hilariously unscrupulous Bolter and wickedly charming Fabrice de Sauveterre.
Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
Inspired by Rhys’ childhood in the Caribbean, this novel is the prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, telling the story of Rochester’s mad wife in the attic, Antoinette Cosway, a Creole heiress. I first read this when I moved to Scotland from South America and was transfixed by Rhys’ evocation of the colours, smells and sounds of the tropics.
Mapp and Lucia by E F Benson
Another brittle comedy set in the 1930s, I love E F Benson’s waspish observation of the two rival snobbish queens of the not-so-sleepy town of Tilling. The formidable women each have their admirers and foot soldiers, from Quaint Irene to Major ‘Benjy’ Flint, Georgie and Diva. The six novels in the series are a delight and have been turned into a TV series by both Channel 4 and the BBC.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
The image of the teenage Cassandra Mortmain writing her diary with her feet in the kitchen sink of the crumbling castle she shares with her eccentric but poor family stayed with me long after I finished this wonderful novel. The characters stayed with me too: Cassandra’s father, who suffers from writers’ block and shuts himself up in a tower reading cheap detective books; his second wife Topaz, an artists’ model who likes to commune with nature in nothing but a pair of boots; and noble Stephen who is quietly in love with Cassandra.
The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy
This is another coming of age novel that features a spirited teenage heroine. Tess lives in genteel but cheerful poverty in the Austrian Tyrol with her bohemian and eccentric musical family, the Sangers. A bestseller when it was published in 1928 and made into a film in 1943 with Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer, it doesn’t seem to be that well known now. I’ve bought countless copies over the years after lending it to friends.