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English Classical Literature: favourite reading for a desert island.

Updated on July 27, 2014
Beautiful ... but lonely.
Beautiful ... but lonely. | Source

I must confess right now that the idea for this hub came from a reply I made to a comment by the excellent Jools99. I said 'Cider with Rosie' would definitely be a book I would want with me on a desert island and she pointed out that that would be a good subject for a hub.

So here it is, a hub on my choices for reading on a desert island, six books in all. Any more would be too cumbersome to transport around the island if I had to relocate to find food or water or avoid marauding animals.

Classic English Literature.

Another thing I feel I have to admit is that my favourite books are all English classics. So, no 'Catcher in the Rye', 'To Kill a Mockingbird' or 'For whom the Bell Tolls' for me, wonderful as those books are.

I would like to say I strove too for balance in that there are two fact, three fiction and one poetry book in this collection but I would be lying.

My choice is just the six books I love best, the ones I would rescue after the cat and the husband (in that order) if the house was burning down.

You may also notice that fact or fiction or poetry they all have something in common. They are, in the main, mostly about rural life in a bygone age. I make no apologies for this, they simply speak to my heart.


Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee.

This, my favourite book of all time, was written by a somewhat mysterious man, Laurie Lee. I have written at length elsewhere on HubPages about this book and, as I mentioned above, it was the starting point for this hub.

It is the true story of a large and rumbustious family who lived in poverty in rural Gloucestershire in the 1920s, a sort of English version of the Waltons if you like.

Despite the hardships they still found a great deal of magic and enjoyment and Laurie remembers so clearly both the fun and the pathos of their lives.

His lyrical and often startling descriptions of the lives of the villagers in this English backwater, just as the world started on its path to irrevocable change, has the power to clearly evoke that more innocent world.

His writing about the halcyon days of his childhood is both nostalgic and humorous. It is also warm and witty and often dark but it is never judgmental. It is a lesson in how much we have lost and I, for one, mourn the passing of this simpler time.

I have chosen it for its power to transport me into another place and another time with its carelessly vivid prose.


Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson.

In a similar vein 'Larkrise ...' is also a semi-autobiographical memoir of a life of poverty and hardship. This time we are taken to the countryside of Oxfordshire.

Written by Flora Thompson and first published just before the outbreak of World War 2, ‘Larkrise ...’ details the harshness of English rural life in the 1880’s.

Flora was born in 1876 when life for country folk was hard and their very existence was often precarious. Having survived through infancy, no mean feat in itself at that time, she also managed to rise above the crippling condemnation of her teacher, who called her a 'dunce', to eventually become a writer.

In this book, which was originally a trilogy, her clear voice describes every aspect of this bucolic life without sentimentality and with great affection, both for this lost way of life and the characters she once knew.

I have chosen 'Larkrise ...' for its ability to take me back to the time of my grandmother, my role model, for whom the Victorian way of country life still extended, even up to my own idyllic childhood.


Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

I am not a natural heroine. Being marooned on a desert island would strike terror into my heart and no doubt there would be a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth at my predicament however idyllic the surroundings.

I would need some sort of strengthening support from somewhere, hence my choice of the next book, Tess of the D'Urbervilles.

Hardy was very much concerned with what made women tick. Despite his appalling treatment of both his wives, he had a romanticised vision of womanhood and produced some striking heroines, of which I believe 'Tess' to be his best.

This work of fiction may in fact not be so far from truth as from being a small boy he listened avidly to the talk of grown-ups and must have mentally collected many tales of tragedy from his surroundings.

Although he was a Victorian novelist and poet his heroines were often regarded as somewhat outrageous in those times and 'Tess ...' is in fact the story of a 'fallen woman', as the Victorians would have termed it.

Initially, her story as a 'fallen woman' was felt to be too sympathetic to her and the book was refused for publication. The publishers, ever-mindful of their small-minded, puritanical public did not want to be associated with such a subject.

But to my mind 'Tess...' is the very embodiment of a heroine rising through naiveté and betrayal to become resourceful and self-reliant. Only the cruelty of an implacable Fate working through the weakness of man and the self-serving mentality of her widowed mother combine to engineer her ultimate destruction.

In the book Tess undertakes an epic walk to seek the parents of the husband who has abandoned her.

It is the memory of that walk pushed by that indomitable spirit that would sustain me as I trekked around my lonely island.


Cakes and Ale by W. Somerset Maugham.

This novel appeared in the 1930s and was Somerset Maugham's personal favourite of all his works.

It has a certain lightness of touch which seems indicative of the times and the subject again is an ostensibly disreputable woman. I wonder why I feel drawn to such women … you must draw your own conclusions.

It starts with the narrator being badgered by a would-be biographer to remember his connection to a great literary figure who is recently deceased. The author of the biography is writing on behalf of the great man's widow, the second wife, whose has hopes of rising high on her deceased husband's literary memory.

The only problem is how much the deliberately evasive narrator has to divulge about the apparently amoral first wife, the great man's true muse, the warm and large-hearted barmaid, Rosie.

One almost gets a feeling it is being written from memory … that the narrator is Maugham himself and that we are hearing his own way of thinking.

The unfolding story of the 'great man of literature' and Rosie and the tragic reason for her apparent defection is a moving revelation. Despite this Maugham imbues the book with a great deal of dry humour as well as taking a sharp stick to poke at the snobbishness of the society of the time.

It is a book whose subject I have never been able to forget and I would like to take it to keep me grounded, to help me remember what is real and what is merely society's puffery.

Why this should help me on a desert island I don't know, I only know that for me the writing is both clever and sublime.


Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons.

It had to come, the backlash against all my books on rural nostalgia and this book is it even though it too has a countryside setting. This time with a noticeable difference.

Although 'Cold Comfort Farm' was only published in the early 1930s it could not be more removed from the books of factual memoirs I have already chosen.

The book is a delicious, often malicious, lampoon of how the novelists of the time depicted country people.

The no-nonsense, and occasionally briskly repellant heroine, Flora Poste, finds herself at her Great-aunt Ada Doom's isolated, and half-derelict farm, in deepest Sussex.

It soon becomes obvious that Ada Doom and the rest of her outrageously dysfunctional farming family are all as mad as a bag of frogs.

What can Flora do but organise them and bring them kicking and screaming into the 'modern era' of the 1930s? A task which is not at all as straight-forward as it at first seems.

This novel parodies the style of many of the popular romantic, bodice-ripping novels of the time and even some of the literary greats such as Thomas Hardy and the Brontes do not escape Stella Gibbons' scrutiny and wit.

Even the Foreword to the copy that I own is amusing and may well be a spoof in itself.

I have loved this novel and its amusingly ludicrous characters for a very long time and I have chosen it to accompany me into exile to lift my spirits and make me smile when I am down.


A Shropshire Lad by A.E Houseman.

For my final choice I would select ‘A Shropshire Lad' by A.E. Houseman.

This is the only book of poetry I would take with me to my desert island and I do it for a very clear reason. It is simply some of the most accessible poetry I have ever read.

There is no opacity here, no striving to understand, no reading and re-reading in some doomed attempt to fathom it out.

Unsurprisingly 'A Shropshire Lad' is also about all the aspects of country life and is both unashamedly romantic and deeply melancholy. Despite being published in 1896 and mentioning plough teams (ploughing with heavy horses), Houseman's poetry still seems strikingly modern in its simplicity.

I have chosen this selection of poems so that as I relax for the evening beside my driftwood fire I will be inspired to think of 'those blue remembered hills', and the spires and farms of England.

Only then, I think, will I perhaps realise that

This is the land of lost content,

I see it shining plain,

The happy highways where I went

And cannot come again.

… and I will weep for the countryside I miss.


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