When it comes to choosing good books to read on holiday, I am a great believer in selecting reading matter to match the destination. What better to read in Sicily than Giuseppe Tomasi de Lampedusa’s The Leopard, for instance? And how wonderful to read Laurie Lee’s beautiful As I Walked Out one Midsummer Morning while in Spain. This school of thought can be taken to extremes — I even have a friend who chooses her holidays based entirely on what she wants to read.
The only downside to this approach is that when summer stretches ahead of you with no sunny holiday on the horizon, then you feel not only like you’re missing out on a lovely trip, but also on the chance for some exotic reading. Those — like me — who find themselves ‘staycationing’ this summer, are liable to feel more than a little miffed.
I suppose you could take the lot of the armchair traveller and spend your time in a chilly country cottage reading A Room with a View and pretending to be in Florence. Far better, I think, is to choose some wonderful books set in the specific bit of England to which you’ve ventured. After all, if it’s cold and rainy and the thought of going outside fills you with shivering dread, you can at least read about it, preferably seated by a fire with a scalding cup of tea and a crumpet.
So here are a few suggestions for books to take with you on your English staycation. We may have rather a lot of appalling weather, but luckily we also have rather a lot of wonderful literature.
The West Country
No trip to Cornwall would be complete without reading something by Daphne du Maurier. I’d go for Rebecca, Frenchman’s Creek or Jamaica Inn, all of which are steeped in the landscape and are terrific books too. Patrick Gale is a talented contemporary writer who lives in Cornwall, and his Notes from an Exhibition is a good choice for something more up-to-date. And could there be a better excuse to read some Agatha Christie, the doyenne of Devonshire?
Yes, this is the perfect place to read masses of Thomas Hardy, but it is also a good spot for Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and childhood classics Moonfleet by John Meade Falkner and Watership Down by Richard Adams. Finally, no trip to ‘The South Country’, as Edward Thomas called it, would be complete without a collection of his beautiful poetry.
Sussex country life is brilliantly parodied in Stella Gibbons’ Cold Comfort Farm, a novel as hilarious today as doubtless it was in the thirties when it was written. Indeed, this part of England seems to be especially well served by fiction of the 1930s — Elizabeth Bowen’s mesmerising The House in Paris has a startling episode at Hythe, and a great deal of Elizabeth Jenkins’s nightmarish Harriet, recently republished by Persephone Books, takes place in Kent. And don’t forget Brighton Rock, Graham Greene’s enduring classic.
My favourite book for Norfolk is L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between, in which young Leo carries illicit messages between the beautiful daughter of ‘the Hall’ and a rough tenant farmer. Set in 1900, when class was a boundary not to be crossed, it can only end catastrophically … but it’s utterly gripping nonetheless. A wildly modern book, singing with energetic, playful prose is Ali Smith’s The Accidental, which revolves around a Norfolk holiday home, rented by the incredibly dysfunctional Smart family. The rather more lovable eccentric Marchmain family features in I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith — a blissfully comforting and enchanting Suffolk read.
Laurie Lee is a welcome companion to Spain, but his earlier volume of autobiography Cider with Rosie is also a well-loved record of life in the Cotswolds. A treat from childhood, The Wind in the Willows, bears rereading at any age, both for the idiosyncratic characters and the wonderful descriptions of nature. There’s also Flora Thompson’s Lark Rise to Candleford — watching it on telly doesn’t count — and Arnold Bennett’s Anna of the Five Towns. If you want something racy then leave Fifty Shades of Grey behind and pick up something by Nottinghamshire’s finest, D.H. Lawrence. If you’d rather something funny, then treat yourself to a dose of Nancy Mitford’s wicked humour in The Pursuit of Love.
Any trip to the Lake District absolutely must be accompanied by a volume of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons — it may be for children, but their exciting adventures will inspire even the most po-faced grown-ups to sail across the lakes, or at least dream about doing so. A more sober option is Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, which was based on Knutford, Cheshire. Perhaps best of all is Jeanette Winterson’s classic autobiographical novel, Oranges are not the Only Fruit.
I could happily be persuaded just to read Jane Eyre again and again and again, but as well as the Brontes, there’s J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country, Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave and Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. What a lovely chance to re-read The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett too. Finally, although Iris Murdoch doesn’t give a specific real location, so long as you’re somewhere near the ‘blessed northern sea, a real sea with clean merciful tides, not like the stinking soupy Mediterranean’, then you could happily get stuck in to her very funny The Sea The Sea.
These are just a few scattered and very personally biased suggestions. I’d love to know your own favourites. For many more ideas, do have a look at the British Library’s Writing Britain exhibition, which features a ‘pin-a-tale’ map, where all sorts of literature is pinpointed to various places in Britain.