I was given this book – a sky-blue hardback with gold lettering on the spine – by my mum, who had in turn been given it by her sister as a birthday present at some point in the 1950s. I must have been about eight or nine when I first read it, and as a ballet-obsessed kid growing up in a moorland Lancashire village, it’s fair to say it rocked my world.
In A Dream of Sadler’s Wells Veronica Weston, a ballet student in London, is sent to live in a Northumberland manor house after the death of her father. While there she has to put up with her ghastly cousin Fiona and be exiled from the city and the ballet classes that she loves. But there she learns to love the wild countryside and meets the delicious Sebastian, the rightful heir (of course) to the manor, a young man who longs to be a conductor, and who longs as much for the big wide world as she does…
If the plot sounds clichéd, it probably was, but the writing, as far as I remember, was often lovely, conjuring Northumberlands’s woods and rivers, curlews and moors. It was also the book in which I first encountered romantic love. Sebastian, with his passion, his wit and his abiding love for Veronica, remained my ideal man for most of my adolescence. Many of Lorna Hill’s later books travel to the Highlands of Scotland, where there’s a particularly memorable romantic laird who wears kilts, climbs mountains, and speaks to his ballerina lover in Gaelic. I mean seriously, what’s not to love?!
Oh this book! In this, her first novel, Barbara Trapido tells of the encounter of Katharine, a shy adolescent desperate to break away from her suburban upbringing, with the Goldmans, a huge bohemian family living in a Sussex farmhouse. The father, Jacob is a lefty Jewish philosophy lecturer, the mother Jane is an Anglo-Irish aristocratic beauty, and Katharine falls in love with all of them, but especially their two eldest sons, Roger and Jonathan.
To say this book made an impression on me is an understatement; I first read it when I was seventeen and teetering on the edge of my own coming-of-age. The Goldmans were at once familiar (I come from a big, loud-mouthed, lefty family myself) and utterly, glamorously foreign (Jane plaits onions in the garden and the children sing four-part harmonies on the lawn).
I re-read this book recently and found it as fresh and funny as ever, but it was much more melancholy and moving than I had remembered. I had forgotten all the sad bits, it seemed, or perhaps, when I was seventeen and untouched by real sadness, I had hardly noticed them. A true modern classic.
The story of the Chance twins, Dora and Nora, ex-chorus girls and illegitimate daughters of the great Shakespearean actor Melchior Hazard – this was Angela Carter’s last novel. I had never read much magical realism – a funny old literary term if ever there was one – until reading this, and when I finished it I was giddy with delight at the possibilities of fiction. This is one of those books you can love as a reader, and marvel at as a writer. Guess what, Carter seems to be saying, there are no rules! Write whatever the hell you like. Only never, ever be boring. A slim book that speaks multitudinously to the human condition, packed with Shakespearean insights, shot through with the magic of fairy tale, and a lusty, gutsy, love of life. Utterly glorious.
I love Woolf’s fiction, but I really, really love her essays. She’s such fantastic company, and if her fiction can sometimes be tricky, her non-fiction is wonderfully inclusive. She swoops from the physical to the metaphysical in a heartbeat and she’s funny too. The essay, A Room of One’s Own remains as essential now as when it was written. Walk the streets of London with her in Street Haunting, a London Adventure, and you’ll never see them in quite the same way again. Fabulous, transporting stuff.
For years, if I was ever stuck for a book, my mum would tell me to ‘read a Hardy’, and invariably press The Return of the Native or Tess into my hands. I’d manage a few pages and then cast it aside in favour of something modern, something that took a little less concentration.
I eventually capitulated and read Tess when I was researching for The Ballroom- looking for books that evoked rural life at the turn of the 19th century. What a fool I was to wait so long!
Even now, I find it hard to put into words quite how wonderful I found this novel; to read it is to travel in time to a society on the brink of modernity, to a world in flux, but apart from all that, it’s so, so beautiful. The scenes in the dairy when Angel is wooing Tess are some of the most exquisite I’d ever read. It influenced my own writing hugely when I was writing The Ballroom, especially the scene where Ella and John have their meeting in the harvest-shorn fields. And it’s a relentless, devastating tragedy. Astonishing how much you can love something so very sad.
Which just goes to show you should always listen to your mum, particularly when she’s recommending books.
Click here to read Richard and Judy’s reviews of Anna Hope’s The Ballroom