There's nothing like the feeling of stumbling upon a book that you love. And that satisfaction is somehow multiplied tenfold if it's a writer others are yet to discover. Lockdown is the perfect time to acquaint yourself with these underrated novels, some of which were celebrated during their own time but have largely been forgotten by today's readers:
The Rector’s Daughter by F. M. Mayor
The Rector’s Daughter by F. M. Mayor, first published in 1924, explores the life of Mary Jocelyn, a 35-year-old unmarried woman who lives with her father and invalid sister, who sadly dies. Shy and alone, with ‘the weight of the family’ on her, Mary finds brief happiness when she falls in love, but it is not to be. Her desperate need to take control of her life is obvious. She just needs to discover how to go about it. Throughout the book, characters struggle to express themselves, and awkward silences and loud thoughts abound. The reality of Mary’s loneliness strikes a chord with our current circumstances. Her success in becoming ‘more able to face loneliness,’ is a small but significant achievement.
The Italian by Ann Radcliffe
Open almost any page of The Italian by Ann Radcliffe, and you would think it was written last week, not in 1797. This much overlooked novel follows the story of Vivaldi, who falls in love with Ellena, but faces a challenge when his mother seeks to prevent their marriage through disapproval of the match. What ensues makes for a very gripping tale: arrests for false crimes, narrow escapes from assassins, imprisonments and, mercifully, a happy ending.
The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
Domestic drudgery can be a burden during lockdown, but it needn’t be, if you follow in the footsteps of the protagonist of E. M. Delafield’s The Diary of a Provincial Lady. Written in clever, concise note-form – like a real diary – this is a witty housewife’s hilarious fictitious account of her daily battles with the smallest of tasks. An old school friend, Cissie, comes to stay, and chaos is inevitable: ‘Ethel returns, ten minutes late, and says Shall she light fire in spare room? I say No, it is not cold enough—but really mean that Cissie is no longer, in my opinion, deserving of luxuries. Subsequently feel this to be unworthy attitude, and light fire myself. It smokes.’
Let me tell you by Shirley Jackson
Shirley Jackson’s observations written from indoors are just as pitch-perfect in Let Me Tell You. Jackson’s descriptions of the curious effects that boredom can have are amusingly familiar: ‘My two forks are insanely jealous of each other, and I find that I must take a path of great caution with them, something I would not do for many of my friends.’ Nestled in this collection of short stories are some previously unpublished works, amid the writings with which Jackson made her name: stories of a spooky and haunted nature (a businessman’s walk home leads to a frightening ordeal in the aptly named short story ‘Paranoia’) and stories with a fairy tale sentiment.
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees
If you are in the market for a more allegorical fairy tale, Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees is, as Neil Gaiman has described it, ‘The single most beautiful, solid, unearthly, and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the twentieth century’. Set in the fictional country of Dorimare, the story takes place in a realm where bizarre rules and rituals dominate. It is unsettling yet beautifully strange - the perfect fairy tale for adults.
We Think The World of You by J.R. Ackerley
‘A fairy tale for adults’ is precisely how J. R. Ackerley described his novel of 1960, We Think The World Of You, a story about Frank, a middle-aged civil servant who falls in love with a young man called Johnny, who goes to prison. In the course of the story, Frank finds himself struggling to negotiate with Johnny’s family as they all hope to visit him. A short and powerful novel.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim, and other travel novels
There are plenty more titles to uncover from the backlists. You might invite spring into your living room with Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April, for instance, a bright and beautifully written novel about four women on holiday on the Italian Riviera. Or if it’s France you hanker for, Guy Maupassant’s collection of short stories, A Day In the Country, should quench your craving. Nairn’s London by Iain Nairn is a poetic ode to the capital if you seek to stay closer to home, while A Month in the Country by J.L. Carr offers a short and sweet stay in Yorkshire.
The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold by Evelyn Waugh
Having read the above, you might enjoy delving in to some lesser known or forgotten classics. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is remarkable; The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold gives you Evelyn Waugh as you’ve never read him before; and, if you can find a copy of the now out of print The Rock Pool by Cyril Connolly, you’ll enjoy a decadent trip around the South of France. We can all dream, or, indeed, read, for now.