Comfort reading in the time of COVID 19

I used to be one of those people who always finished a book, even if they weren’t enjoying it. These days I regard it in the same light as eating everything on your plate: some meals just aren’t worth the calories.

Today’s post was meant to be a review of Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence, a beautifully written paean to nature’s ability to inspire awe and wonder. But five chapters in, I’d read enough to sustain me. 

I’m just not that much of a nature lover. 

My eyes are fixed on the horizon – I love a good sunrise or sunset, wild storm-tossed oceans (from a safe distance) and billowy cloud formations – but I miss altogether the minutiae of nature’s gifts. The wild orchids or native heath at my feet pass me by completely. Or more accurately, I trample blithely over the top of them. I love a bracing walk outdoors as long as there’s a decent coffee at the end of it.

I’m not proud of it. But there’s something liberating about publicly owning one’s shortcomings. It seems to come with age and the  corresponding better understanding – and forgiveness – of one’s own nature. Much as I might wish I was one of those doughty mountaineers with their wiry frames and alpine walking sticks, I’m not. And looking down from a great height gives me vertigo. Give me a cobbled road, comfortable walking shoes and an object in the distance to aim for – like a really good apricot Danish – and I’m happy.

Comparing notes on Phosphorescence recently with a friend led us down various reading rabbit holes. Our conversation ranged from misery memoirs – we are over them! – to comfort reading. We concluded that this time of lockdown might be better spent nurturing our inner child than improving our minds. For my friend, that meant a return to the Chalet School series by Elinor Brent-Dyer. For me, Barbara Pym.

Barbara Pym sets her novels in villages with saints’ names.

She wrote them mostly in the 1950s, at a time of jumble sales and high teas at the vicarage. They were populated by single women in sensible brogues, roguish elderly gentlemen and the occasional young rake. Any whiff of sex always came from outside – a clergyman’s widow, good-looking and ‘rather too nicely dressed for her role’, or a naval officer’s wife with a largely absent husband – new to the village and in need of masculine protection.

Pym’s Excellent Women features one of each. The narrator Mildred – ‘an unmarried woman just over thirty, who lives alone and has no apparent ties’ – had no such whiff about her, but she describes the exotic newcomers beautifully. Her understatement – a Pym trademark – leaves the reader to fill in the blanks.

I have managed to find Mum’s copy wedged between the Mary Wesleys and the Anita Brookners, both of whom would feature near the top of my comfort reading list.

I’d been thinking about what appeals to me about the writing of these three authors when I found the email below. I had sent it to my mother during a six month house-minding stint in France in 2015. It encapsulates my feelings about all three authors, and gives an insight into where I got my love of reading. (Speaking of whom, you will need to know that my mother was infamous for falling asleep in the bath and drowning whichever book she was reading at the time.)

Dear Mum

It seems that we are both travelling down that old memory lane with our reading and enjoying it equally well. It is quite possible that I have ‘Hotel du Lac’ at my place. And it may be of dubious providence. Because let’s face it, no one in their right mind would loan you a book in your bath days. On the other hand, I was always quick to borrow those of your recommended reads which had survived the rigours of dunking and subsequent mould. 

I’m definitely bringing ‘A Misalliance’ home from France. I spent my first 2 mornings here lying in bed reading for an hour or two as my host and hostess are not early risers and my habits as house guest must be guided by theirs I think. With the result that I finished ‘A Misalliance’ yesterday. Such an exhilarating ending after pages and pages of nothing much at all. By which I mean pages and pages of exquisite detail of the mundanity of some people’s lives. How I love Anita Brookner. 

Comfort reading – an old paperback titled A Misalliance by Anita Brookner

What makes you think Barbara Pym is too slow moving for me? I’ve read most of her books and enjoyed them in the past. She takes small incidents and holds them to the light and polishes them for the reader to see. I love all that. I must reacquaint myself with the Mildred of whom you speak. As usual I will not recognise any of her traits in you. You have a jaundiced view of your character whereas I have a ridiculously inflated opinion of it. 

By the way, the first Mary Wesley was ‘Jumping the Queue’ but I don’t remember birds. Or maybe I do – there was an incestuous elderly couple in it who may have had an interest in birds. I must hunt it up and read it again. I love the fact that Mary Wesley’s books have characters that cross over. Sometimes as bit parts, sometimes as the focus, and often in different eras. So the elderly couple become a young brother and sister in another of the books. Do you remember all that? 

Mum’s favourite book as a girl was The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West.

I took my mother’s copy with me to France. Its teenage narrator Rose was a knowing observer of her family. I remember devoting one overcast day in my self-contained loft – built over a barn – to reading it from start to finish.

A Juliet window built over a barn looks out over a gravel path and garden.
My loft in France

The voice of Rose was perfectly pitched – less innocent but reminiscent of Scout Finch’s in To Kill a Mockingbird . I spent a hugely enjoyable day in the company of Rose and her eccentric family. It was comfort reading of a different kind. I was drawing solace from the connection to my 84-year-old mother from 16,000 kilometres away, holding her book in my hands and no doubt laughing in the same places.

Her copy of Excellent Women – lying next to my laptop as I type this – has managed to avoid the pitfalls of a soak in the bath but is falling to pieces in my hands with every turn of the page. I fear I will be the last person ever to read it. But I won’t be throwing it away. I’ll slip it back between the Mary Wesleys and the Anita Brookners until the next time I’m in need of comfort. I won’t need to read it – just holding it in my hands should do the trick.

10 thoughts on “Comfort reading in the time of COVID 19

  1. I enjoyed this piece liz. A few insights there about you – and good to note encouragement towards accepting ones short comings. Thank you.

  2. Great to know you’re enjoying the posts and taking the time to write in. I think that accepting our shortcomings is one of the privileges of growing older/better.

  3. It was such a relief to read your post. In the lockdown I have developed readers block and after struggling through 2 of my book club books changed direction to try to halt the rot. I picked up The Wind in the Willows and a Daniel Silva spy thriller. Both are working well towards solving the problem. We don’t always need to read “ clever” or “difficult” books. In these trying times a bit of comfort reading goes along well ( and gives my cook books a break!)

  4. There are no medals for persevering with books that don’t draw you in Kaylene. I’m not sure why it took me so long to understand that. Sometimes the hype surrounding a book makes you feel like there’s something wrong with you – the reader – if you don’t love it. These are strange times and I think we are allowed to cut ourselves some slack. Now I just have to go and find that copy of Wind in the Willows…

  5. I’ve sometimes felt there’s a lot of hype about Shakespeare. But I think it’s imprudent of me to share this particular shortcoming.

    As for Anita Brookner, she has her own chapel in my reading cathedral.

    Thanks for this post, on this topic.

  6. I think we may belong to the same tribe. I’m delighted you share my love of Anita – and I have similar feelings about Shakespeare. Let’s keep that our little secret.

  7. All so true. Books are a comfort and a joy. And guess what- I couldn’t finish a Phosphorescence either- no patience. Instead I’m reading a potboiler set in 1930s India! And I take comfort in the fact that I have so many of mum’s books. Some I will never read but that’s okay. I have a little bit of her with me by the books on my shelves- gardening mum, historical thrillers mum, UFO Mum….!

  8. I’m glad you liked the story Erica. It was inspired by a phone conversation we had on a long self-isolation self-exercising walks. Thanks for keeping me company that morning and for the inspo xx

  9. Hi Elizabeth, from someone that normally enjoys a book on physics, you write in a very enjoyable way with great images. Like… “She takes small incidents and holds them to the light and polishes them for the reader to see.” Martin

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