“It is a truth universally acknowledged that every rainy day requires a very good book”

I wish I wrote this sitting in the kitchen sink but I don’t, I write it upstairs and I write it staring out onto a grey and rain spotted day. The sky’s a smudge of sadness and the roofs are slat-dark with the rain that’s pounded on them since first thing this morning.

So what do we do on such days? We read. Books are made for rainy days; for days where the only thing that matters in the world is you and a blanket and a sofa and time, time, time to wallow and read and to lose yourself.

Here’s five of my favourite recommendations for such days.

1. Roland Barthes – “A Lover’s Discourse”

A dipping book this, one to pond-skim and then to dive in wholly and hold your breath until the text releases you. This is a book that reminds you of the quality and power that language can yield. It is a book of constant inspiration for me; a book for breathing, in and out, and realising just what words can do.

2. Frances Hodgson Burnett – “A Little Princess”

There is a part of me that could populate this list with just repeated references to this book. Rainy day reads are reads that should transport you, that should take you to other worlds and times and places, and do so quite ferociously and fiercely and vividly. The tale of Sara Crewe and her attic is that book.

3. Dodie Smith – “I Capture The Castle”

Grace, bold and lovely and heartfelt and awful, this book is full of grace and of heart and of romance and of love. Read it slowly, read it richly, read it slowly and selfishly and when you’ve finished reading it, read it again and remember how perfect a book can be.

4. Michelle Magorian – “A Little Love Song”

To talk of Michelle Magorian and her work, is to talk of a writer who is simply very very good. A Little Love Song is lesser known, I think, than ‘Goodnight Mr Tom’ but it is, I think, better. Can books be better when they are all so good? I think so, yes, I think Rose and her seaside coming of age story is one of the most perfect books to ever dawn the world of children’s literature.

5. Susie Day – “Pea’s Book of Holidays”

A classic in the waiting, this series ; all of them are written so beautifully that I fall in love with them afresh each time I read. Day’s books and this one in particular sing of life and of warmth and of love and of people. What better to read on a rainy day than this book of sunshine and of humour and of Enid Blyton and of adventures and wish fulfillment in every sentence? These books are a constant, constant joy and ‘Pea’s Book of Holidays’ is a book that I am feverish with love for.

A Little Princess : Frances Hodgson Burnett

A Little Princess; being the whole story of Sara Crewe now told for the first timeA Little Princess; being the whole story of Sara Crewe now told for the first time by Frances Hodgson Burnett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Where to begin with Sara Crewe and her magical story of hope and dreams and imagination? Where to begin with this story full of richness, of sweetness, of grace, of aching tears that can’t help be shed by the reader?

Perhaps at the start, perhaps there, and then we shall have some sort of structure to this review other than my incoherent love for this book and as you may know, incoherent love is all very well and good but it is not structure nor is it perhaps intelligible at times.

Sara Crewe has come to England with her beloved father, all the way from India. She is to be sent to school and her father has chosen Miss Minchin’s Select Seminary for Young Ladies to serve as her home for the next few years. Just everything about the name of the school makes me tingle with satisfaction. The preciseness of that phrase. The tightness of it. The way it makes your mouth purse, just a little, when you say it loud. Perfection.

Sara is left at school and her father goes back to India. Initially everything goes splendidly for Sara. She lives the life of a Princess, wrapped in money and expensive things, but this all changes when something happens – something awful and almost unbelievable to dear Sara. (Dear Sara, how naturally I write that, god I want to adopt everyone in this book and hug them tight, but maybe not Lavinia). Sara is thrown into distinctly different circumstances than she began her life at school with and who knows what will happen to her?

One central motif in this book is the idea of imagination and of dreams and of the importance of this dreaming. Throughout the book, Sara’s ability to dream and tell stories is emphasised and beloved by the vast majority of her fellow pupils. One of her favourite pretends is to be a Princess and, as Sara herself puts it:

“”It’s true,” she said. “Sometimes I do pretend I am a princess. I pretend that I am a princess, so that I can try and behave like one.””

What is more perfect than that little painful quote of hers? You can almost see her jutting her chin out and flushing a little bit as she says it. You can taste the quiet fury in her words and the way that she’s holding everything inside of her and part of that everything is something so precious that she can scarcely even begin to talk about it.

It’s important to acknowledge in a review of this book that there are elements which have dated and are a little uncomfortable when read with a modern mindset. It’s also equally important to acknowledge that this book was written in a very different time and societal context and as such, those issues are very much contextually produced.

Also it’s equally important to acknowledge how beautiful this book is. It is edible. It is full of hope and sadness and joy and grief and it’s all written in such an accessible and graceful way that reading this is like being wrapped in a blanket of words. It is lovely. There are many, many classic children’s books out there which are rightfully still being read and savoured but not many, I think, which can pull a story like this out of the bag and make it accessible and believable and so ferociously lovely that the ending of it makes you cry and smile and sigh with contentment all at the same time. The Railway Children is one. The Secret Garden is another. A Little Princess is well up there with them.

Do note that there are a couple of different versions out there of this, due to the nature of it being originally serialised in a newspaper and then put together as a collected edition. The version I read was via Project Gutenberg and is available here. Go and have a look and swoon at that front cover.

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The Secret Garden : Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret GardenThe Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Secret Garden is a glorious, wonderful book. For a book published over one hundred years ago (1910), I am surprised at how readable and how genuinely heartwarming it is. There’s a richness to this story that survives and thrives even with the elements of the text that are perhaps more dated than others and the other elements that are just a little wince-worthy.

I won’t excuse the Yorkshire-isms present in The Secret Garden, though I will acknowledge this is a strong pet peeve of mine. I have such difficulty with stories that write accents and speech in the local dialect, and yet I think that I even forgive this of the Secret Garden. It’s important to remember the time it was written and the context of when it was written and to realise that stylistic tics like this are, perhaps, intended to create a very different effect.

So if you do not know of The Secret Garden, what can I tell you of it? It’s the story of spoilt, grumpy Mary Lennox who is sent to England following the death of her parents in India. To Mary, England is a foreign world and she doesn’t understand one iota of it. To be sent from India, where she had an ayah and servants, to Misslethwaite Manor, the most Yorkshire of Yorkshire establishments, is one that would affect the most ‘normal’ of children but to Mary, it is a baffling and confusing fate. She doesn’t understand the language, doesn’t know what a ‘moor’ is, and doesn’t even know how to dress herself properly.

Misslethwaite Manor is a difficult and confused place, hiding secrets of it own. Mr Craven, the lord of the Manor, is mourning the death of his beloved wife and has closed up a part of the garden that she used. One night, Mary wakens to hear screaming and crying coming from a part of the house. Upon exploring, she discovers that she is – well, I won’t spoil the rest of it, but her discovery is one of the things that helps to bring her back to the world.

There are a thousand, thousand themes and layers to this madly brilliant book. It reminds me of a cake sometimes, one of those gargantuan multi-layered things you see in a patisserie, being held together by air and cream and the arcane arts of a patissier. There’s space inside it, and maybe a layer of some sort of coulis, or some wafers, and every time you look at it, you wonder how it’s held together but then you realise that it is held together, and it just can’t be any other way.

This is The Secret Garden. It is a book that is different every time you look at it, and it is a book that gives you something different every time you read it.

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