I loved this list of comfort reads on India Knight’s blog that Nicola Beauman mentioned in the latest Persephone Fortnightly Letter. I was amazed to realise how many readers out there loved the kind of books I would call comfort reads. I stopped counting how many I’d read quite soon as it turned out to be nearly all of them. I own quite a lot of them too as you can see.
But, it got me thinking about what I really consider a comfort read. I’ve read lots of the books on the list, but mostly only once. So, they don’t count as true comfort reads for me. A comfort read is a book I go back to over & over again. Or, if not the same book, one of the series like the Miss Read books. I’ve only recently discovered Georgette Heyer & P G Wodehouse but I think they will be comfort reads in that sense. They wrote so many books & they’re in the same vein – romance or humour – that I can see myself reaching for a Heyer or Wodehouse knowing exactly what I’ll get. I also think Joyce Dennys’s books about Henrietta will become comfort reads. The books I’ve read so far that have been published by Greyladies in Edinburgh also have the qualities I think of as comforting & some of those could become comfort reads in the future. But, the books I’ve read many times & that I always know will satisfy me no matter how often I read them are far fewer.
Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights & Persuasion are always at the top of the list. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain isn’t exactly a comfort read if you consider the subject matter but I first read it over Easter in about 1980, & I was so totally absorbed in Vera’s story that it led to many more books about WWI, especially the experiences of the women involved. Nicola Beauman’s A Very Great Profession was a favourite book long before Persephone was dreamed of. It’s wonderful to be able to read so many of the books mentioned in AVGP thanks to Persephone Books. The Sherlock Holmes stories have always had a great appeal for me. I’ve read them so many times & seen many adaptations although nothing beats the atmosphere of the original stories.
The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey inspired my fascination with Richard III &, although I’ve changed my views on Richard himself, my love for this passionate book has not diminished. Carol Shields was one of my favourite contemporary writers & The Republic of Love is my favourite of her books. The story is told by Fay & Tom in alternate chapters & it’s romantic & funny about relationships & mermaids. One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes is a perfect jewel of a novel, set on just one hot summer day just after the end of WWII. Barbara Pym’s novels conjure up London or village life in the 50s, church fetes, clergymen & genteel spinsters with disconcertingly sharp thoughts.
So, what are these comforting qualities? Familiarity, definitely. I know chunks of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights & Persuasion almost by heart. Phrases pop into my head all the time when something reminds me of a character or a scene. Every time I clean the bath, I think of Mildred Lathbury in Excellent Women. Atmosphere can be important. The Sherlock Holmes stories conjure up a foggy London, late Victorian or Edwardian, with muffins for tea before a fire in that sitting room that’s so familiar from the stories & the illustrations by Sidney Paget. The Daughter of Time conjures up the 1950s, in a hospital system where you could stay in a private room for weeks waiting for your back to heal. I’m especially attracted to the period between the wars. It’s a very definite period with its own flavour of melancholy. The mourning for the war that had passed & the growing apprehension about the war to come. I feel nostalgic for a period I never experienced. I suppose that when I need comfort reading, I want to be taken away from today & whatever is worrying me, & visit people & places I feel I know. And then, there are comfort movies. Brief Encounter, The Enchanted Cottage, Waterloo Bridge – but that’s a subject for another day.
* I’m very pleased that, with the help of Blogger’s new Post Editor, I can now sprinkle my photos through the blog instead of all of them appearing at the top. I’m sure there must have been a way to do this before but I never worked it out. It’s made me feel quite technologically competent!