Books for a Desert Island

“Desert Island Discs is on the radio. I think there should be a Desert Island Books where the guest tells us which books he/she would take … “

As soon as I read those words in Ann Kelly’s The Bower Bird I began to wonder what books I would take.

It wasn’t easy. Some beloved authors – including Thomas Hardy, Margery Sharp, George Eliot, Sarah Waters, Wilkie Collins – had to be dismissed because I couldn’t pick just one book from many wonderful works, and because I knew that whichever one I took I would regret leaving another behind.

There had to be a good range of books. I could easily have picked eight Victorian novels, but I had to allow for different days, different moods needing different books.

And I wanted books that could give me everything – beautiful prose, engaging characters, wonderful stories, thought-provoking ideas ….

Books to engage all of my emotions, and books to make me think and ask questions.

Books with so much to offer that I could happily read them over and over again.

And now, finally, I think I have my list:

South Riding by Winifred Holtby

The perfect picture of a community and the people who make it. Such wonderful characters, such wonderful ideas and emotions, and a green Virago Modern Classic to remind me of so many others.

Skallagrig by William Horwood

If I could take just one book, this would be the one. A book that speaks to me personally and says all that needs to be said about what makes us human.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë

My favourite Brontë sister, and a wonderful Victorian novel that I know I could read over and over again.

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

It’s a long time since I read this one, but I still remember it so well. I can’t quite explain what makes it so special, I just know that it is, and that I want to take it with me to read again.

Love in the Sun by Leo Walmsley

I did wonder whether I should take a Cornish book. Would reading of Cornwall allow me to travel home in my head or would it just make me homesick? I don’t know the answer, but I do know that Love in the Sun is just too lovely to leave behind.

The Gormenghast Books by Mervyn Peake

When I want to escape sun and sand, this is the book that will take me into a completely different world. To wander down dark castle corridors and watch extraordinary stories unfolding …

Tea With Mr Rochester by Frances Towers

Perfect short stories take me back to an England that has long since gone, but that I have visited so many times in books. And a Persephone book so I have the bookmark, the endpapers, the sheer beauty of the book as an object to enjoy.

The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Penman

I would definitely want a big historical novel, and this is definitely the right one to take. The first one I read, the book that made me realise that history can be questioned, and a book so rich in detail that I could lose myself for days and days ….

Yes, I think that those eight books and I could live happily together for a long, long time.

And now please tell me, how would you pick your desert island books? Which ones would you take?

15 responses

  1. I was thinking about this very topic earlier today (because that’s what I do when work is very, very slow) and I’m still not decided on my books. Definitely something to happily ponder for the next few days.

    I do love your choices though. I haven’t read South Riding but am eager to and any Sharon Penman would suit me just fine!

  2. Oh, now I’ll lay awake tonight trying to decide! I’d have to bring one Dickens, one Harry Potter, one Jane Austen. . . and which Persephones? May I borrow this meme? Great idea!

    I think I need to break my TBR-only rule and read South Riding! Everyone’s talking about it and I know there’s a copy at one of the college libraries in town. I got a reciprocal borrower card so now I don’t even have to wait for Inter-library Loans. (They have some Persephones too, though in the original editions).

    • I thought about Jane Austen but I just couldn’t decide which one … South Riding is a gem and I would definitely say read it before you see the new BBC adaptation, which looks lovely but has to make cuts given the running time.

      And please do borrow the idea – I’d love to see your choices.

    • I’m sure I’ll think of something else I really want before too long, but it’s lovely to ponder those special books, isn’t it?!

  3. Very nice to see Tea With Mr. Rochester on your list, it’s got to be my favourite Persephone (just beating out Miss Buncle’s Book though!) and one not many other bloggers have read. I bought the Gormenghast trilogy for myself at Christmas, then was wondering if it was a bit too dark for me, so good to see that you like it, maybe you’ll inspire me to try it.

    • I’m not usually a lover or darkness and fantasy, but there’s something about Gormenghast that I just can’t put my finger on the makes it something very special.

      And Tea With Mr Rochester is, quite simply, heaven. Though in my case it was Marghanita Laski who just missed the trip.

  4. Interesting list! I haven’t read many of them, but I have a copy of The Gormenghast Trilogy here. Also Skallagrig. I haven’t heard anyone rave about them – I just picked them off the shelf because they looked interesting. They’ve gone right up my TBR pile now 🙂

  5. Excellent! Skallagrig is long and rambling but emotionally it is stunning, and the ending – which I don’t want to give away – resonates with me for particular reasons. Not a big secret, but I don’t want to give the game away. It’s out of print for some reason, which may be why it’s not blogged about too much. Gormenghast seems to be a little unfashionable right now, but I’m sure you’ve seen it on must read type lists a few times. And the BBC adaptation is very watchable if you ever get the chance.

  6. I recently bought a copy of South Riding so I’m pleased to see it on your list. I’m really looking forward to reading it. Of your other choices, I love The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, The Sunne in Splendour and the Gormenghast books (the first two in the trilogy – I didn’t enjoy Titus Alone, though I realise Mervyn Peake wasn’t well when he wrote it). And you’ve made me very curious about Skallagrig!

  7. I haven’t read any from your list! The Tenant of Wildfell Hall was just added to my wish list this week, and I know there’s a copy of Oscar and Lucinda around here somewhere.

    Have a feeling I’ll be thinking about my ‘desert island’ books all day now 🙂

  8. I’ll have to think this one through, but this is the second reference to Desert Island Discs that I’ve come upon is as many days, the program being part of the plot in The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson. I am presuming this is a British radio show?

  9. What a great post! I probably would never be able to decide on only eight books, but I loved your list and am going to check into a few of those I’d never read before. I’m an American but I love Brit lit and just finished rereading for about the fifth time Possession, by A.S. Byatt. I love the way the story unfolds, the range of characters, the visit to the world of academia, and the mystery itself. Possession would definitely be on my list of Desert Island books. I’ll have to have some time to think about what others would join it. But great blog!

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