Saturday, September 4, 2010

Comfort reading

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!


  1. One of the nicest things about discovering so many new (to me) reading blogs is feeling a reading kinship! I reas A Very Great Profession years and years ago and never realized the connection with Persephone until a couple of weeks ago!

    I find I don't re-read books that often (too many new ones or old new ones!) but I have comfort authors! I definitely re-read Barbara Pym and Jane Austen. I think the funniest thing is that a good cozy murder mystery (set in the past, probably in England) is one of my favorite kinds of comfort reading.:)

  2. What a lovely post - I probably comfort read, books which are easy to read! I agree you cannot go wrong with Wodehouse, I am a fan of them from a fairly early age and also Agatha Christie.

    I love the pictures as well - to me there is something reassuringly comfortable about a pile of books just waiting to be read.

    I recommend Nicola Upson as an author, she uses Josephine Tey as a character in her books, in the inter war years quite effectively.

    I will be stopping by again.

  3. Comfort reads, what a great topic. In the beginning, I thought I was the only one. But now I know there are many, MANY of us. There are just times in my life when nothing but a good, comfortable read will do. My favorites are cozy mysteries set in England. (Exception: the Nero Wolfe books. I love visiting that brownstone on West thirty-something street.) When I'm ill, nothing but Agatha Christie will do. Though Josephine Tey and Rex Stout come in a close second. Next up are the Amelia Peabody books by Elizbeth Peters and the Holmes and Russell books by Laurie R. King. Though the original Holmes stories always work well, too.

    I kind of like all my pictures appearing at the top of my blog...but maybe I'll have to check out Blogger's Post Editor, just to see what's what.

  4. Audrey, I agree with you about rereading English mysteries. It's odd because usually mysteries are the one type of book that there's no point in rereading as you know the ending. But, I can always reread the best of the Golden Age mysteries because I'm reading them more for the sense of place & the atmosphere than just for the solution to the mystery.
    Thanks for commenting, Jo. I quite enjoyed the first Nicola Upson but I must admit I couldn't get into the second one at all. I think I have some problems with her use of Josephine Tey as a character. I'd rather reread a Tey.
    Yvette, sometimes only a comfort read will do! I've read & enjoyed the Amelia Peabody books (but Ramses drives me mad)& I read the first few of the Laurie R King series. I like her contemporary series better though. Set in San Francisco, I think the main character is Kate Martinelli?? Hasn't been one for a few years.

  5. What a lovely, lovely post! Two years ago, this very weekend, I bought The Diary of a Provincial Lady on a whim and knew I'd found the sort of book I'd been searching for. It lead me to Simon's blog who then told me about Persephone...sheer reading bliss ever since!

    I laughed when I read about your cleaning the bath and thinking of Mildred Lathbury. Louise, from Someone at a Distance, takes up far too much time in my head. I keep wanting to give her a slap!

  6. I have to admit I couldn't get very far into the Nicola Upson book featuring Josephine Tey as the main character. I just didn't think it was very well writen. I was really expecting to like it, so I was doubly disappointed. I too would rather just read an actual Tey book.

    Lyn, I have read a couple of the Kate Martinelli books and like them, but I'm on the opposite side of you. I LOVE the Russell and Holmes books much better. By the way, they are fun to listen to on audio as well. At least for me. ;)

    Another comfort read I'd meant to mention: COLD COMFORT FARM by Stella Gibbons. Have you read it, Lyn?

  7. Darlene, I only allow characters I love (like Mildred) to linger in my head. Louise from SAAD passed through & left long ago. The PL pops into my head quite often as well - usually when I'm planting bulbs.
    Yvette, I love Cold Comfort Farm. I recently bought another copy just because I loved the Penguin format. I think it's an American paperback, slightly bigger than a normal p/b with lovely cartoony pictures of the characters on the front. You can see the spine of it in one of the photos above. I might start an occasional series of posts about favourite comfort reads & when I do CCF you can see the cover properly. Just thinking of phrases like "Robert Poste's child" or Adam washing the dishes with his little twig makes me smile. I loved the movie too, which doesn't always happen. Vintage are going to reprint lots of Gibbons next year including the 2 sequels, Christmas at CCF & Conference at CCF. I haven't read either so I can't wait.

  8. Thanks for posting this meditation on comfort reading. I think re-reading a well-loved book is quite on par with cooking and eating comfort food. You know all the flavours, start anticipating passages a page before you get to them, and know some passages by heart, yet you somehow never get bored by it.

    I have a number of comfort reads. Some go back to my childhood, such as The Hobbit, My Family and Other Animals, and Anne of Green Gables, while others are more recent, like Bet Me and a couple of other Jennifer Crusie books, and some of the Discworld books by Terry Pratchett.

  9. Ooh I want that Rose Macaulay! Loved your post - I think I Capture the Castle is my favourite comfort read.

  10. Bibliophile, I agree with you about comfort food as well. Sometimes the two go together eg drinking tea or eating chocolate while reading a favourite book. There's something about Sunday afternoons & comfort reading as well. It's a lovely relaxed time of the week just before the working week begins again. Vintage Reading, I'd like to read more Macaulay. I have the new Capuchin reprint of her Non-Combatants & Others on the tbr shelf. I'll get to it one day.