I’m well aware that when choosing five books for a desert island, the most sensible choice would be a bushcraft manual by Ray Mears or Bear Grylls. But, frankly, I’m going to be relying on low-hanging fruit for my survival (the chances of me wrestling a caiman are zero). I’m also hoping there’s enough dry kindling for me to avoid despatching any of the following books to the flames. Pass me a straw and a coconut, and we’ll get going.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
To keep in touch with the richness of human experience, I would take Middlemarch by George Eliot, a book you can read many times, finding something new each time. Set in the late 1820s and early 1830s, it was written forty years later as a historical novel, but is also a timeless guide to human nature. In Eliot’s depiction of a provincial town and its inhabitants, she guides us through matters personal, historical and political. She writes about the range of human experience, applying the same empathy whether she is creating love affairs or financial scandals. Eliot’s formidable intellect was matched by her emotional investment in the book; her partner, George Lewes, said Eliot sobbed as she wrote the final chapters. She provides such a flawed and interesting cast of characters, I would not feel alone on that island.
Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit: and other stories, by P G Wodehouse
To keep my spirits up (very important in isolation), I would take a collection of Wodehouse short stories with me. This is a varied collection of stories, some involving Jeeves and Wooster, but many of them not; one of my favourites is ‘Honeysuckle Cottage’, the story of a man who inherits a romantic novelist’s house and then finds himself – unwillingly – in the middle of a romance plot from which he is only saved by a dog. The stories are incredibly cleverly constructed, with the best jokes emerging seemingly out of nowhere. They have made me laugh out loud on the train, in front of fellow commuters, on a Monday morning. I know these stories would give me the good cheer to keep looking for a ship on the horizon.
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
For my wistful days I would take Persuasion, Jane Austen’s last published book, and (I believe) her greatest achievement. The heroine is Anne Elliot, who is dutiful, unappreciated, and regrets the loss of her past love, Captain Wentworth, a suitor she was once persuaded to reject. When he returns unexpectedly to her life, she believes he is barely aware of her, but before long we realise that the Captain has never forgotten Anne, despite his intention to. In turns sad and funny, regretful and romantic, Persuasion is about the reality of love, and the possibility of getting a second chance in life. Most importantly, for island purposes, it has a happy ending, so I won’t end up sobbing by the campfire.
The Secret Rooms, by Catherine Bailey
To pep me up when I’m bored during those long island days, I would take The Secret Rooms, which reads as a kind of non-fiction thriller. Catherine Bailey initially began researching in the Belvoir Castle archive because she was planning to write a straightforward history book on the First World War and its impact on the estate. Then she discovered mysterious gaps in the record, and was drawn into the story of John, 9th Duke of Rutland, and his many secrets: the Duke had died in the archive room, seemingly in the process of destroying family papers. It combines the merits of a page-turner, a thriller and a history, with the added poignancy that it is true. It also reminds me of the joys of research, and the unending, thrilling mystery of real life.
Giving Up the Ghost, by Hilary Mantel
For days when I need to transcend my circumstances, and for the transporting beauty of the writing, I would take Hilary Mantel’s memoir Giving Up the Ghost. As much as I love her historical fiction, there is something about this book which haunts me – the moment I begin thinking about it, her phrases return to me. Written in Mantel’s unsentimental, precise prose, the book covers her youth, her illness and her struggle to be published despite the sapping nature of her ill health and its terrible consequences. Mantel writes with lyrical power whether she is tackling migraine, the nature of evil, or the central importance of creativity. This is a book about suffering and redemption, regret and hope. It manages to be both deeply personal and also universal.
They might not be the most practical choices, but I’m hoping these five books will keep my spirits up until rescue comes.