5 comforting books to read in times of adversity

Sometimes we just need to escape reality and lose ourselves in another – simpler – world. Here are five comforting books that celebrate nature, family, friendship, and the good things in life

I was going to write about grammar today, but I feel the need to put out a more joyful post this week. So here are five comforting books that might help you forget the outside world for a while. Yes, they are a little schmaltzy and nostalgia driven but, hey, sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered…

Cider With Rosie by Laurie Lee

Still from the film Cider with Rosie for a post on comforting books

Set against a backdrop of the First World War, rural hardship and ill health, “Cider With Rosie” is not the obvious candidate for a feel-good read. But it’s the joy that Lee finds within his resilient village community that makes this book such a pleasure. Based on his childhood in the beautiful but poverty stricken Slad Valley in Gloucestershire, he recalls a world of physical suffering, early death and a sometimes sinister code of silence among the locals. Yet the days are also celebrated with the unbridled enthusiasm of those who know they are lucky to be alive. From carol singing to seaside outings, from ice skating on the village pond to moonlit hikes on summer nights, Lee and his friends wring every drop of pleasure possible from what they find around them: “Summer was also the time of these: of sudden plenty, of slow hours and actions, of diamond haze and dust on the eyes… of jazzing wasps and dragonflies, haystooks and thistle-seeds, snows of white butterflies, skylarks’ eggs, bee-scouts’ bugles; of sweat running down the legs; of boiling potatoes on bramble fires, of flames glass-blue in the sun… All this, and the feeling that it would never end…”  “Cider With Rosie” is an ode to nature, to the seasons, to family, to freedom, to youth, and to an innocence we can never recover.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Photograph from the film Cold Comfort Farm for a blog post on comforting books

Published in 1932, “Cold Comfort Farm” is a delicious parody of late-Victorian rural fiction and is probably one of the funniest books ever written. Tongue firmly in cheek, it is packed full of deliberately overbaked characters, comic set-pieces, hilarious dialogue, “country” vocabulary, and unforgettable lines, including the ravings of Aunt Ada Doom, who has never recovered from seeing “something nasty in the woodshed” as a child, and of Amos Starkadder’s hellfire preacher, who likes to remind his congregation that, “There’ll be no butter in hell!” The heroine, 19-year-old Flora Poste, is a girl after my own heart – well educated and efficient but reluctant to commit to actual work, she dedicates herself to clearing up the messy lives of others, believing that, “unless everything is tidy and pleasant and comfortable all about one, people cannot even begin to enjoy life”. When both her parents die, leaving only a small inheritance, she decides to “send a letter to the relatives… explaining the situation and asking them if they are willing to give me a home in exchange for my beautiful eyes and a hundred pounds a year,” resolving that whoever agrees will be taken in hand and gently brought up to her standards. However, this turns out to be something of a challenge when she goes to stay with the extended Starkadder family, distant cousins who live in and around a freezing, gloomy stone farmhouse in deepest Sussex and whose lack of education, parochial beliefs, weird emotional issues, and utter lack of refinement prove quite the match for Flora’s sophisticated meddling.

But meddle she does – impressively so, and with deeply satisfying results. Despite the Starkadders’ questionable lifestyles, and a smattering of unpleasant characters, there is no darkness here – it is pure comedy from start to finish and, as Flora wrestles order from chaos, light from gloom, and cleanliness from filth, you cannot help but feel that all will be right with the world again.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Photo of Hobbiton for a post on comforting books

OK, so “The Lord of the Rings” is more of an escapist read than a comforting one – what with all the battles and freezing marshes and giant spiders and so forth – but it’s still the ultimate tale of good overcoming evil. The trilogy continues Tolkien’s tale of a fantasy world in grave danger from the dark lord Sauron, a reformer whose initial desire to reconstruct and reorganise the kingdoms of Middle-earth has turned into a thirst for total power; this has lead to war, the corruption and enslavement of men, and rule through oppression and fear. Ahem. In a last ditch attempt to destroy Sauron and restore peace, the wizard Gandalf sends pure-hearted hobbit Frodo Baggins to destroy the One Ring of power that would give Sauron absolute control, charging a loyal crew of elves, dwarves, hobbits and men with his protection. Essentially, a group peoples of varying origin, if that’s the right word, put aside their differences to come together against a sinister power… just saying. And – SPOILER! – it has a super happy ending in which the good guys not only save the day, but also have their stories wrapped up in lengthy and satisfying detail. You can truly lose yourself in “The Lord of the Rings” and, in three pretty lengthy volumes, it will probably keep you going for a good while.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Still from the film I Capture the Castle for a post on comforting books
Perhaps because of Dodie Smith’s “The Hundred and One Dalmatians” fame, or perhaps because of its 17-year-old narrator, “I Capture the Castle” is often categorised as a children’s book. But although it’s perfectly suitable for teenagers I don’t think it was written for a young audience at all. Yes, it’s a coming-of-age tale, but this dreamy narrative is possibly best appreciated by those looking back on those formative years with that mixture of nostalgia and relief that it’s all over.

In the 1930s English countryside, bright, witty Cassandra Mortmain lives with her family, including older sister Rose and eccentric stepmother Topaz, in a crumbling castle leased from wealthy Americans the Cottons. Her reclusive father is an author with writer’s block whose failure to work has plunged them into poverty, and their prospects are bleak until the Cottons – complete with handsome twentysomething sons – come to visit the family estate. The novel is Cassandra’s diary, in which she records how their lives are shaken up by their dashing landlords, who take great interest in this curious family.

Cassandra is spirited and observant and her narrative voice is engaging and delightful to read. The book has a happy but non-definitive ending – you are left to imagine exactly what the future might hold for this charming girl on the cusp of adulthood – and that’s no bad thing.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Still from the film Little Women for a post on comforting books
I must have read “Little Women” when I was around ten and, as a fairly serious child, I was enchanted by the four March sisters and their attempts – not always successful – to be decorous, dutiful and selfless. And, despite their poverty, I also loved the sound of their cosy New England home and their domesticated 19th-century lives, which seemed charming and romantic compared with the brashness of modern culture. Each sister is at a different life stage – Meg and Jo, in their mid-teens, have small-time jobs, while 13-year-old Beth helps at home and Amy, the youngest, goes to school. Each girl also has a very distinct personality and their interactions both with each other and their neighbours provide plenty of drama.

Despite the pressure to conform, Alcott allows each girl to find a place in the world in which they feel comfortable enough to be true to themselves, which was a pretty radical idea in the 1860s. In fact “Little Women” is semi-autobiographical and Alcott, like her character Jo, wished she could have had the same opportunities and freedom as men of the time. Brought up in a progressive household, amongst a community of transcendentalist writers (including Emerson, Hawthorne and Thoreau), she was free-spirited and creative, with little desire to settle down. She even worried that “Little Women” was “moral pap for the young”  – but it was a huge success at the time and, 150 years on, has lost none of its charm.

So what are your most comforting books? Is there one you always return to, like a old friend? I would love to know, so please do comment below!

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