Saturday, 5 May 2012

Are you sitting comfortably?


Then I'll begin...
It's a bank holiday weekend. The weather is terrible, the husband is tetchy and the boys are bickering. They're squabbling over the new cross-training machine I bought on Ebay to tackle the condition known as 'Writer's Arse'. I'm hoping it might also help with my 'Malingerer's Back' and  'Biscuit-Eater's Waistline'.  Who knows - I haven't been able to get near it yet.
It feels as if there's only one sensible way for me to spend the (long) weekend. As per the picture (which is actually me) - it's tucked up with a comfort read.
Comfort reads are the ones I've read before. Hundreds of times. I can hear the familiar words in my head almost before I read them on the page. They give me the same feeling as a hot bubble bath, a handful of paracetamols, a cup of strong coffee and a chocolate orange - all taken together!
So, in no particular order, here's my top ten...

Rebecca. I think this was the first adult book I ever read. My mum suggested it when I was twelve or thirteen and every so often I would pick it up and read halfway through the "Last night I dreamed I went to Manderley again..." pages, before putting it back down and wandering off to do something else. All my Enid Blytons had started with instant action, so I didn't have the patience for an endless description of an equally endless driveway. One night when I was having trouble sleeping, I thought I'll read that driveway scene with all the nettles and rhododendrons one more time. I had no expectation of getting any further than that, but the next thing I knew it was 4am and Manderley had burned down - and I was still sitting up in bed with eyes as round as dinner plates. God knows how I managed at school the next day. It was one of those moments when it wasn't enough to have been transfixed by the story - I wanted to be Daphne du Maurier.



Persuasion. There was a time when I wouldn't have believed I'd ever prefer any other Jane Austen to Pride and Prejudice - and it's still a close run thing. But oh - all that quiet longing in Persuasion! "You pierce my soul, I am half agony, half hope. Tell me not that I am too late, that such precious feelings are gone for ever. I offer myself to you again with a heart even more your own, than when you almost broke it eight years and a half ago. Dare not say that man forgets sooner than woman, that his love has an earlier death. I have loved none but you." (Answer - 'Fuck, yes!')



Stardust. Well, what could be more comforting than a fairy tale for grown-ups? I love all the vivid descriptions - the colours, the scents, the sounds of Faerie. I especially love the little hairy man who isn't entirely human. "I knowed a man in Paphlagonia who'd swallow a snake every morning, when he got up. He used to say, he was certain of one thing, that nothing worse would happen to him all day. 'Course they made him eat a bowlful of hairy centipedes before they hung him, so maybe that claim was a bit presumptive." (Shortly after telling this tale, he and Tristan narrowly escape being killed by a forest of murderous trees. Brilliant.)



Venetia. I must have at least fifty Georgette Heyers, but I think Venetia is my favourite - closely followed by Black Sheep - for all the same reasons. They are later books, with older and wiser heroines and far more easy-going heros. Although there is less melodrama (fewer highwaymen, duels and abductions) the characters are more subtly drawn (Aubrey and the despicable Mrs Scorrier are so good) and their relationships to each other achingly believable.
As a sub-category -  my favourite Heyer Heroine is golden toe-nailed Bad Bab from An Infamous Army. And my favourite hero is the irresistible Freddie from Cotillion.



Enchanted April. Well, who doesn't appreciate Wistaria and Sunshine...? This one's particularly good for reading in wet weather because it tells of four women's escape from "extremely horrible sooty rain on the hurrying umbrellas and splashing omnibuses" to a "mediaeval Italian castle on the shores of the Mediterranean". (My other favourite story to read in cold, wet weather is Treasure Island - for obvious reasons.) Here, Lottie also escapes from her husband Mellersh - who is a wonderful character... "Mr Wilkins, a solicitor, encouraged thrift, except that branch of it which got into his food. He did not call that thrift, he called it bad housekeeping. But for the thrift which, like moth, penetrated into Mrs Wilkin's clothes and spoilt them, he had much praise." I'm going to have to include the bit where Mrs Wilkins opens the shutters on her first morning in San Salvatore. "All the radiance of April in Italy lay gathered together at her feet. The sun poured in on her. The sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring. Across the bay the lovely mountains, exquisitely different in colour, were asleep too in the light; and underneath her window, at the bottom of the flower-starred grass slope from which the wall of the castle rose up, was a great cypress, cutting through the delicate blues and violets and rose-colours of the mountains and the sea like a great black sword." The only thing more beautiful than the descriptions of Italian scenery is the actress who plays Caroline Dester in the film (Polly Walker, I think.)



Cold Comfort Farm. Yet another story with a fairy tale quality to it. It's sunny and funny and charmingly rustic."So muttering, Adam crossed the yard and entered the cowshed, where he untied the beasts from their hoot-pieces and drove them across the yard, down the muddy rutted lane that led to Nettle Flitch Field. He was enmeshed in his grief. He did not notice that Graceless's leg had come off and that she was managing as best she could with three."  The Starkadders are all more or less mental, but Flora, the young heroine goes to Cold Comfort Farm and calmly sorts them all out. Alongside all the sarcasm, there is romance, a transformative dress, a ball and a wedding at the end!



Love in a Cold Climate or The Pursuit of Love. I find it almost impossible to choose between them. The characters are all wonderful, glamorous and completely insane. In the end, I opted for Love in a Cold Climate because of the wonderful Cedric Hampton. "There was a terrible scene on Oxford platform one day. Cedric went to the bookstall to buy Vogue, having mislaid his own copy. Uncle Matthew, who was waiting there for a train, happened to notice that the seams of his coat were piped in a contrasting shade. This was too much for his self-control. He fell upon Cedric and began to shake him like a rat; just then, very fortunately, the train came in, whereupon my uncle, who suffered terribly from train fever, dropped Cedric and rushed to catch it. 'You'd never think,' as Cedric said afterwards, 'that buying Vogue Magazine could be so dangerous. It was well worth it though, lovely Spring modes.'"  Nancy Mitford writes in her own delightful language and it's impossible to read her books without going about for weeks afterwards exclaiming 'Don't tell me!', 'Sharpen your wits!' and 'Do admit!'



The Man in the Brown Suit. Agatha Christie's stories are probably the ultimate in comfort reading. They include characters you can recognise immediately (country doctors, bluff colonels, maiden aunts, vicars and fast young men in sports cars) lots of sumptuous country houses or exotic foreign locations, shocking amounts of skulduggery and plots that are fiendishly twisty!  You can feel proud of yourself if you guess anything before Agatha chooses to reveal it. I think there's something particularly safe and comforting about the village-green-England of the twenties or thirties - I've no idea why, but most of my comfort reads are set there! (I love Dorothy L Sayers' Peter Wimsey stories and the Margery Allingham's of this time too!) "Something hard and unfamiliar in my sponge-bag puzzled me greatly. I untied the string and looked inside. To my utter amazement I drew out a small pearl-handled revolver. It hadn't been there when I started from Kimberley. I examined the thing gingerly. It appeared to be loaded. I handled it with a comfortable feeling. It was a useful thing to have in a house such as this. But modern clothes are quite unsuited to the carrying of fire-arms. In the end I pushed it gingerly into the top of my stocking. It made a terrible bulge, and I expected every minute that it would go off and shoot me in the leg, but it really seemed the only place."



The Secret History. Can a study of blackmail, murder and guilt really be comforting? Yes, I think so. After all, there are murders in all the Agatha Christies. And Rebecca. Oh, and Stardust too. (Murder is practically a prerequisite for being on my list it seems.) I always look forward to the scene in which a substitute teacher, whose Greek is crude and inferior, attempts to teach the five elite classics students. "He was one of those language teachers who rely heavily on mnemonics ('Agathon. Do you know how I remember that word? "Agatha Christie writes good mysteries."') Henry's look of contempt was indescribable. The rest of us were silent and humiliated. Matters were not helped by Charles stumbling in - obviously drunk - about twenty minutes into the class. His appearance prompted a rehash of previous formalities and even, incredibly, a repetition of the agathon embarrassment. Henry said, quite coolly, and in beautiful Attic Greek: 'Without your patience, my excellent friend, we should wallow in ignorance like a sty full of pigs.'"



I Capture the Castle. More yearning - I can't get enough of the yearning. This time a young girl is yearning, not just for romance, but for change. She wants to be older, wiser and more sophisticated. She wants money and clothes and nice food and...life. (And she wants to be a writer!) I remember wanting all the same things just as badly, when I was Cassandra's age. "The taxi drew up at a wonderful shop - the sort of shop I would never dare to walk through without a reason. We went in by way of the glove and stocking department, but there were things from other departments just dotted about; bottles of scent and a little glass tree with cherries on it and a piece of white branched coral on a sea-green chiffon scarf. Oh, it was an artful place - it must make people who have money want to spend it madly! The pale grey carpets were as springy as moss and the air was scented; it smelt a bit like bluebells but richer, deeper. 'What does it smell of, exactly?' I said. And Rose said: 'Heaven.'"



One thing they all have in common - apart from being brilliant - is that they all made me long to write a book that could make someone else as happy as these have all made me!

My wordcount (around 71,000) has actually gone down this week. Although I'm not officially editing yet - I've been tinkering with it a bit. I've cut and pasted the first chapter into my scrap folder and used a prologue instead. And I've been trying (unsuccessfully so far) to rewrite chapter three. Sigh. There are two important scenes that I haven't found a place for yet. And I've mentioned the Bristol riots of 1830 three or four years before they actually happened. So I've had to change an awful lot of dates. It has felt like a fairly unproductive week, but I was beginning to feel that if I didn't make some changes soon, I'd be in danger of forgetting to make them at all.
I like the way this book feels much more mouldable than my first one - which I plotted extremely tightly because that felt safest. This one's like clay - I can lop bits off, stick extra lumps on...and squish it a bit if I want!

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