With the second lockdown upon us, we have never been more in need of books to cheer and charm. As both reader and writer, I have waged a lifelong battle against the kind of novel that makes you feel worse at its end than you did when you started it. Happy endings are not always trite: consider how Tolstoy balances Anna Karenina’s suicide with the happy marriage of Levin and Kitty.
PG Wodehouse’s comedies, set in an idealised milieu of butlers, country houses and chorus girls, are a balm for all seasons. The work of Eva Ibbotson, which shares many of the same features, should be far better known. As well as great children’s stories, such as Journey to the River Sea, she wrote six adult novels that are sophisticated, brilliantly plotted and gloriously funny. The Morning Gift concerns a secret marriage of convenience between a Jewish academic’s daughter and an aristocratic visiting British professor, which enables our heroine to escape Nazi Vienna. Of course, they fall in love but can’t admit it. When they are plunged into wartime London, with its snobberies and privations, the plot is hilarious and filmic. A Jewish refugee herself, Ibbotson underpins her romantic comedies with an apprehension of evil, which gives their comforts more depth than most.
Escape from misery is always a powerful tonic. Frances Hodgson Burnett is another writer well known for children’s novels, but The Shuttle is one of her best adult works. A gentle American heiress is ensnared and abused by her aristocratic English husband. Cut off from her loving family, Rosy and her fragile son are imprisoned on Sir Nigel’s ruined estate. Her confident, clever younger sister, Bettina, turns up to rescue her; she also restores the estate’s workforce, currently suffering in the grip of typhoid, and finds a wonderfully tough and unusual husband of her own.
The jokes in James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking With Fernet Branca begin with its title. Its narrator is an effete English ghostwriter who whiles away his isolation on a Tuscan hilltop inventing such disgusting delicacies as garlic ice-cream. Into his retreat explodes Marta, a composer on the run from crime-ridden Russia. Brilliant gags, perfect pacing and an unlikely romance ensue in a comedy of errors.
Although golden age cosy crime novels are always a comfort, it was Antonia Hodgson’s picaresque 18th-century Tom Hawkins mysteries that got me through the first lockdown. Start with The Devil in the Marshalsea, when our hero, an engaging young rake in Hogarthian London, is thrown into the Marshalsea debtor’s prison and has just one week in which he must solve the murder of the man who previously occupied his bed – or die of hunger and disease in hellish conditions. Very funny and full of unpredictable plot twists, Hodgson’s recreation of Georgian England offers riotous, good-hearted release.
The other escape many long for is country life. James Rebanks’s English Pastoral, the sequel to A Shepherd’s Life, is one of the most captivating memoirs of recent years. It recounts how he fell in love with sheep farming thanks to his grandfather in the Lake District, but was persuaded by his father’s poverty and a spell in Australia that traditional farming should cleave to modern techniques, including pesticides, fertiliser and gigantism. The account of how he realised the error of being “slaves to consumerism” and returned his land to vitality and health is written with the passionate clarity of a poet and the shrewd good sense of an honest man. The traditional pastoral is about retreat into an imagined idyll, but this confronts very real environmental dilemmas. Like the best books, it gives you hope and new energy.
• Amanda Craig’s novel, The Golden Rule, is published by Little, Brown (£16.99).
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