To all the books I’ve loved…

To all the books I’ve loved before
Who traveled in and out my door
I’m glad they came along,
I dedicate this song,
To all the books I have caressed
And may I say I’ve held the best,
For helping me to grow, I owe a lot I know,
To all the books I’ve loved before.
To all the books that stayed with me,
Which filled my nights with ecstasy,
They live within my heart
And I’ll always be a part
Of all the books I’ve loved before.
(With apologies to the original songwriters: Albert Hammond / Hal David)

There are books that have stayed fixed within me since the first time I read them. I have been inspired by them, moved by them, learned much from them, and have returned to them again and again throughout my life. These books are not necessarily classified as romance. They cover topics such as war, politics, society, but they are romances of a kind nevertheless.  Here is my list of those books, in alphabetical order because I couldn’t possibly grade them. Suffice to say that I highly recommend all of them, with equal passion.

A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute

Town Like AliceA Town Like Alice falls roughly into three parts, though they are not sequential. We start in London, after World War 2, when Jean Paget finds herself a wealthy woman after inheriting money from an uncle she didn’t know. The uncle being an old-fashioned man, with a low opinion of young women, has arranged for the money to be held in trust until she is 35. Solicitor Noel Strachan is her trustee, he acts as her advisor, and they become friends.  Jean wants to build a well in the Malayan village where she lived and worked until the end of the war.   We move to the second part of the book which takes us to Malaya and the Japanese invasion. Along with a group of women and children, Jean is marched by the Japanese from village to village, suffering illness, hunger, and all manner of hardships, until their guard dies. They remain in one place then, until the war ends. It is during this period they meet some prisoners of war, one of which is an Australian called Joe Harman.  The third part of the book concerns the time after the well is build and what happens to Jean. I’m giving no details about parts two and three because I do NOT like spoilers. It is an unusual romance, and proves that we may find love in the most unlikely and unusual places, and in the strangest of circumstances. Shute was quite a prolific writer, and one of my favourite authors, so do look at his other books.

Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks

BirdsongBirdsong is a book of parallel narratives. The first is Stephen Wraysford’s story, starting in 1910 and with his passionate love affair with Isabelle, a married French women. We then move to the war, and Stephen’s experience of the Somme, Messines, and tunnelling to lay mines. We meet the men he fights with, like his friend Michael Weir, and miner Jack Firebrace, in one of the Royal Engineers tunnelling companies. An encounter with Jeanne, Isabelle’s sister leads to a meeting with his former lover, where he discovers that she is now in a relationship with a German soldier. After a brief leave in Norfolk, he meets Jeanne again before returning to the front, and expresses his fear of going back to the front line.   The second is Elizabeth Benson’s story all set in the 1970s. She is Stephen’s grand-daughter, and is embroiled in a romance with a married man. She finds Stephen’s journals, written in code, and sets out to find out about his experiences during the war by taking to veterans who knew him. It is a deeply moving novel, about love and relationships as much as it is about men and war. It made my heart ache.

Little Women – Louisa M Alcott

Little WomenLittle Women is the story of the domestic lives of four teenaged girls and their mother, living in Massachusetts at the time of the American Civil War. Their father, away from home serving in the army,  lost his money so the family circumstances can be best described as ‘genteel poverty’. The book opens at their first Christmas without their father. Meg the eldest is beautiful and working as governess; Jo is a tomboy with a great imagination, who works as a companion to her crotchety great-aunt; Beth, a pianist,  is gentle, kind, and loving, and very much a ‘home body’; Amy is the youngest, an artist, and can be vain and self-centred.  The book takes the reader through their domestic lives, their relationship within the society that they are now the poor members of, including that with their neighbour Mr Laurence and his grandson Theodore, and their kindness in looking after the poor Hummel family. Great Aunt March acts as a mirror to the prevalent opinions of their peer group, and the narrative takes us through the ways the girls deal with and overcome all the difficulties they face as they each grow up. This is my favourite book from childhood, and I still have my original copy even though it is in pieces. Identifying deeply with Jo, at the age of nine, this book had a profound effect on me. I recognised that these girls were living a century before me, and yet Jo taught me that I could and should reach for my dreams.  A wonderful, wonderful book.

North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell

North and SouthNorth and South, as the title suggests, novel hinges on the differences between the north and the south of England, which to this day remain embedded in the national psyche. Written in the middle of the 19th century, the novel cleverly addresses many of the social, political, and religious issues of the day. The heroine is Margaret Hale, who from the comfort and relative prosperity of London society and the beauty of an English village rectory, to a harsh and brutal cotton mill-town in the north. This is the middle of the industrial revolution, and Margaret is witness to the clash between workers and owners and the beginnings of organised strikes. Her family is here because her father’s conscience has made him a Dissenter, so he leaves the Church of England. The move north is because a family friend has provided a home for them. Margaret makes friends with a poor family, she clashes with mill owner John Thornton, and her relationships with both are complex but educational. The novel is an inspirational light on themes such as rebellion versus authority, the gradual shifts in power between the old orders and the new, male and female roles, and the changes in relationships, both familial and social. Throughout all this, of course, is the burgeoning relationship between Margaret and John. If you haven’t read it before, try it now; it a fabulous novel. And one more thing – I’d have Thornton over Darcy any day of the week and twice on Sundays!!

Persuasion – Jane Austen

PersuasionPersuasion is the story of Anne Elliot, the daughter of Sir Walter, and sister of Elizabeth and Mary. Her has a very high opinion of his place in society, and does not care to mix with those he believes to be of an inferior status. Elizabeth, her older sister, has the same airs and graces. Her younger sister Mary is married to Charles Musgrove, of Uppercross Hall, and Anne is much-loved there. Sir Walter’s extravagance has forced him to rent Kellynch Hall and move to Bath until his finances improve. Admiral and Mrs Croft rent the hall and we discover that seven years previously, Anne was briefly engaged to Mrs Croft’s brother, naval Captain Frederick Wentworth. Frederick was not wealthy and had no family connections to recommend him, and the Elliot family did not consider him worthy to marry an Elliot of Kellynch Hall. Though she was in love with him, being 19 years old at the time and impressionable, Anne was persuaded by Lady Russell, a family friend and mentor,  to break the engagement which was not known of outside the family circle. When Wentworth visits his sister, he meets the family at Uppercross, including Anne. Both Anne and Frederick are single and unattached, and through a series of encounters, over-heard conversations, accidents, and a touch of jealousy, they renew their acquaintance. There are many themes in this book, but I love the notion of second chances. Clearly Frederick and Anne have a second chance, but so too does Captain Benwick. If you haven’t read the book, then to find out what happens you must. I love Jane Austen’s books, but this is my favourite, and it still makes me all soft and misty eyed every time I read it.

Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain

TestamentTestament of Youth is the first in what was meant to be a three-part memoir. The second is Testament of Friendship, and the third was planned but unfinished at the time of Vera’s death.  This is one of the most moving and profoundly inspiring books I have ever had the privilege of reading. It charts Vera’s life, with her parents and brother Edward, in the years before the outbreak of WW1. Her fight to go to university and forge a career,  her close relationship with her brother, and getting to know Edward’s friends from school, and one in particular, Roland Leighton. Once war is declared, she becomes a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, and is posted to France. From here we have the first-hand female experience of the war, through the hospitals, the injured, and the maimed and dying men, and of their courage and endurance.  It shows us love in its many forms, including romantic, and shines a light on the lives of middle-class women in a Britain that is barely tolerant of an educated woman, or indeed women’s education.  We see the deep impact the war had on people and society, and how that impact continued for many years afterwards.  It is compelling, powerful, and should be compulsory reading in school. If you decide to read this book, have tissues on hand just in case.

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