I can only take five books to a desert island? Just five? And I presume one of them can’t be an exceptionally large map book, with tidal currents and shipping lanes and a handy pair of semaphore flags? No? Alright then, just five books to while away the hours.
Sounds rather fun, actually.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I always have a copy of Jane Eyre. I have five print copies and three ebooks of Jane Eyre. No, I don’t know why I need three ebooks of it either, but there you are. Jane Eyre changed my life when I read it, for school, when I was fourteen. Finally, a heroine like myself, poor and plain and obscure, but she wasn’t content to be quiet. She was strong and passionate and she demanded her rights. Every time I read this I discover something new, and I am always inspired by Jane’s fierce independence, and her courage, and her desire to do what she thinks is right, not what she is told is right. If I’m to survive a desert island, Jane is a fine example to follow.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
I admit, I nearly went for Emma. But while Emma glitters fascinatingly, Persuasion is the more deeply felt book. The story of Anne Elliot practically breaks my heart. But, like Jane Eyre, she too comes to believe in herself. Against what all prose and poetry say (all written by men, as she points out) she asserts the right of a woman to love longest whilst all hope is gone. And that inspires Captain Wentworth to write what I believe to be the finest love letter in English literature. The ending makes me cry every time, but it’s tears of joy.
Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
With the E.H. Shepherd illustrations of course. I first read this when I was about five, and loved it, though I didn’t really understand quite a lot of it. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn chapter confused me until I was a teenager, and then it opened up to me. When I was little, I felt like I was Toad, always being told to stop doing fun things. When I got older, I felt I wanted to be Ratty, sensible and jolly. Now I feel like Mole, a quiet person who longs to drop the housework and go for adventures on the river. No doubt when I get older I’ll feel like Badger. As long as I never turn into those awful weasels!
The Worst Journey in the World by Aplsey Cherry-Garrad
Cherry, as he was known to his friends, was fitted by nature to be a country vicar. He was incredibly short-sighted, he, like me, suffered from ulcerative colitis, and he was a self-effacing, nervous sort of chap. But Cherry decided to defy nature, and try to do something wonderful with his life. He decided to join Scott’s trip to the Antarctic. Of course, it all went horribly wrong, and Cherry was tormented by the expedition his whole life. This is the story of that expedition, and of a side trip he and two others took, to collect penguin eggs to prove a theory. It’s often forgotten that, unlike Amundsen, Scott’s trip to the South Pole was meant to be a scientific expedition. The story of the deprivation, the difficulties and the downright hell Cherry and the others went through to collect these eggs, and then later to try to save Scott is wonderfully written, gruelling, fascinating and very moving. No matter how bad things get on my desert island, I doubt the tent will ever be torn off my back by an Antarctic gale.
A Caribbean Mystery by Agatha Christie
There had to be a crime story, and that crime story had to be a Christie and that Christie had to be a Miss Marple. She is the very embodiment of the quiet, unassuming woman everyone overlooks, until she turns out the be the cleverest – and possibly the most dangerous – person in the book. Her very success as a detective lies in the fact that everyone ignores her. I was tempted by The Moving Finger, with its intriguing poison pen plot, and its unusual love story at its heart. But in the end, it had to be this book, because of the wonderful scene where Miss Marple, burning with anger, presents herself in Mr Rafiel’s room, her white hair wrapped in a pink woolly nightcap, and announces herself as ‘Nemesis!’. It’s always been my favourite Miss Marple moment, and I always give a little cheer.
There, my five desert island books. I hope I won’t be rescued until I’ve read them all – and then I hope I’ll be left alone with another ten books…
Michelle Birkby is the author of The House at Baker Street, the first in a series written from the point of view of Sherlock Holmes’ housekeeper, Mrs Hudson, that follows Mrs Hudson and Dr Watson’s wife, Mary, as they team up together to do some detective work of their own. The second in the series, The Women of Baker Street, is out on 9 February.