For a long time, Elizabeth Buchan led a double life as a publisher and author, successfully pursuing both careers simultaneously until she became a full-time writer in 1994. Her latest novel, The Second Wife, is published by Michael Joseph this week, priced £12.99. Here she chooses her top 10 books guaranteed to give comfort during the ending of a relationship.
1. Footsteps by Richard Holmes
I first read this many years ago and it has stayed with me. Every so often, I return to it in order to immerse myself in its wonderful prose and insights. It combines travelogue with biography, detective work with a probing inner exploration, and is both an account of a physical journey and a remapping of the writer’s imagination. The book opens with an homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey, in which Holmes describes his own trek over the Cevennes, during which he abandoned his ambition to become a poet, having been led “far away into the undiscovered land of other’s men and women’s lives … towards biography”. It is the turning point of his life and for the remainder of the book – as he hunts down subjects that include Mary Wollenstencraft, Shelley, Gerard de Nerval and Gautier – he goes on to explore the nature of the relationship between biographer and quarry. The book so enraptured me that I myself walked in the company of friends over the Cevennes in his footsteps. It was one of the best journeys of my own life.
2. Flowers and Their Histories by Alice M Coats
The perfect book to dip into without worrying about having to maintain perfect concentration. The flowers are arranged in alphabetical order – from acanthus (often the flower chosen to decorated borders in illuminated manuscripts) to santolina and tanacetum (also known as ostmary) – and the book is stuffed full of botanical detail and historical anecdote about the origins, medicinal uses and the literary airings of the older plants that feature in our gardens. If it thrills you – as it did me – to discover that the dahlia originally came from Mexico or that tradescantia is also known as “spiderwort, trinity-flower, widow’s tears or Moses in the bulrushes”, then this book will beguile and divert. The author’s relish for her subject is infectious and quietly persuasive. At a time when friends are important, Flowers and their Histories would be a friend of sorts.
3. The Mantelmass Chronicles by Barbara Willard
Revisiting childhood favourites can be a disastrous mistake but, equally, can sometimes allow you to recapture a flavour of the innocence and delight of that time. As a child, I loved the eight novels that make up the Mantlemass Chronicles and revelled in their realism and robust writing – as well as their love stories – which seemed to me to build a bridge between my world and adulthood. Spanning the period between the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War, the individual novels trace the fortunes through the centuries of a small community in a Sussex forest and the families who come and go. Barbara Willard’s research is superb, and her skill at reflecting the wider world of politics and war and the ways in which they impact on the continuing struggle to survive and thrive, is masterly. She never patronizes her younger readers, she loves her characters and her subject and her sense of place is terrific.
4. The Brontes by Juliet Barker
Juliet Barker’s monumental biography falls into the category of tried-and-tested books that won’t let you down. A fiercely revisionist, meticulously researched reassessment of the background, landscape and events that shaped and formed the lives of Patrick Bronte and his children, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne, it breathes fresh air and commonsense into the dark myths and fantasies that envelop the sisters in particular. I love it for the hard work that the author invested in it, her detail, her scrupulous integrity and her determination to get at the truth about the individuals and the family as a whole. She argues well and powerfully that “without this intense family relationship, some of the greatest novels in the English language might never have been written”.
5. The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier
As a teenager, I gorged on the novels of Daphne du Maurier, revelling in their gothic thrills and partially comprehended hints of darker compulsions. On rereading a few not so long ago, Rebecca was toppled from my personal number one spot by The House on the Strand. A time-travel story written long before such things were voguish, it manages to strike a delicate balance between a traditional (albeit far-fetched) romantic love story and a more troubling consideration of perception and identity. This is not a peaceful novel: it is suffused with longings and restlessness, and there is a powerful vein of anger and disgust hovering below the surface. But it is both gripping and resonant and, for the purposes here, cathartic.
6. The Yellow Cross: The Story of the Last Cathars by Rene Weis
These days any book that takes the Cathars (or the Holy Grail) as its subject appears to have a magnet attached to it. So what is it about the former that triggers such interest? And what was it that they did that was so wrong? Concentrating on the twilight years before the Catholic church ruthlessly and bloodily extinguished the heresy, this accessible and deeply felt narrative by a professor of English traces the events of those last years in the Cathar strongholds up in the mountains of southern France. He is very good on telling detail – describing homes, meals and relations between husbands and wives as well as desperate flights over the hills. I like very much the freedom he gives himself to write about his personal experiences of – and responses to – the landscapes and sites of their communities. Such is his percussiveness that I could picture myself walking with him along the cols and tracks over which the Cathars fled. It is a reminder of how savage Christian history has been, and an insight into how a faith can grip so tight that its believers go willingly to their deaths.
7. Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes
Mayes struck gold with her account of buying and restoring a Tuscan villa when it was first published. It is a book that plugs into the contemporary fantasy of giving it all up to live out an idyll in a sun-kissed foreign spot. I confess I’m a sucker for it, and to read of her patient and loving restoration of Bramsole, the house she bought near Cortona, is to indulge in a ridiculous, but highly potent, daydream. She neglects nothing in the confection of the fairy tale that hangs around the beautiful, neglected house longing for the restorative touch. There are funny, and occasionally almost disastrous, battles to make the house habitable again, luscious descriptions of meals, a fascination with the local topography, history and landscape, and a selection of authentic recipes. All in all, it offers irresistible escapism – a necessary pleasure at a difficult time.
8. Gagged and Bound by Natasha Cooper
This should be a moment for striking out into new reading territory. In this novel, Natasha Cooper steers a path between ‘cosy crime’ and the stronger meat of noir. I was full of admiration for her deft plotting, her thoughtfulness and the care she takes to construct a novel that works both on a narrative and emotional level. For those who want diversion, it offers unshowy, intelligent respite, a good puzzle and the fictional reminder that things are never simple.
9. The Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
In an atmosphere of post-divorce reflectiveness The Pursuit of Love could be considered an exercise in masochism. But it is not. Granted, the laughter engendered is often rueful and Linda Radlett’s hit-and-miss search for love is sometimes heartless, but that is to ignore the pure comedy and high-spirited wit that streams effortlessly from Mitford’s pen. It is also to undervalue her clearsightness, her obvious acquaintance with grief and failure and the deep comprehension of human nature that runs through the light, polished story of the Radlett family and the beautiful Linda in particular. If one has to be down, Nancy Mitford’s clever, satirical comedy about a world that has more or less vanished does an excellent job of bracing the spirits – something of which she would no doubt approve.
10. Persuasion by Jane Austen
Finally, of course, there is recourse to the enduring classic. Austen’s Persuasion has to be the favourite. The opening chapters, which depict the lonely figure of Anne, the middle sister who has lost her bloom, struggling to live well at time when her future is precarious, have all the melancholy of lost hope and neglected chances. This is a novel in which the spectre of autumn hovers, but as the plot progresses, the spectre is chased away and Anne moves towards a late blossoming. As a young woman she was persuaded to turn down marriage to Captain Wentworth. Now, her good sense, her good qualities and her experience and intelligence persuade her otherwise. The Anne who emerges is hardly passive and she grasps her second chance with both hands. Woven into this portrait of a woman’s renaissance is Jane Austen’s deliciously acerbic observation, an uncharacteristic tenderness and a deal of sharp, brilliant social comedy. All in all, Persuasion is as irresistible, life affirming and nourishing as chicken soup – which, under the circumstances, is exactly what is needed.