Looking over at my bookshelves, it’s interesting to see which books that I’ve read this year that I’ve really, really loved. So far my some of my top picks are:
The Mitford Girls by Mary S.Lovell (Abacus)
What fun! What larks! What drama! Those ‘mahvellous’, multi-faceted Mitford sisters. Not knowing much about this legendary family, I asked my local bookshop for a recommendation for where to start regarding learning about all things Mitford. With this suggestion I hit the jackpot. Equally fascinating (I am sure) for both Mitford aficionados and those being introduced to the Mitfords (like myself), I just loved it and fell into the world of Mitfords. Really you couldn’t have dreamed up a wider, more bizarre collection of personalities all growing up together. Eccentric parents (Farve and Muv) who had a son and six daughters; Diana marries fascist Oswald Mosley, Decca marries a communist, Unity is a very close friend of Nazi Hilter, Debo becomes the Duchess of Devonshire and lives at Chatsworth, Nancy becomes a novelist and whatshername keeps chickens and had a blue Aga to match her eyes!
Add crazy antics such as writing to each other in code, bizarre nicknames, quick quips, a lucrative chicken and egg home business, lots of laughs and tears, wondering why post-it notes don’t work when you lick them and stick them down, sending wrinkly British pound notes in to London banks to be exchanged for fresh ones please and mother, Sydney’s, extraordinary remarks, ‘Oh, why do all my daughters fall for dictators?’, this book reads like fiction. Enjoy the energy, joie de vivre and self-confidence that makes them the Mitford sisters.
Kick by Paula Byrne (William Collins; Harper Collins)
I had never heard of Kick Kennedy. Who knew that JFK had a sister, let alone 5 of them! This is the story of JFK’s second sister (Kathleen, known as Kick); her outrageously privileged life, family tragedy, becoming the heir of Chatsworth and terrible deaths. All rolled into one book. Strange stories of family wealth, bizarre antics of her childhood and dinner conversation, family dynamics and extreme religious conflicts are like being on a roller-coaster ride. I can’t imagine what it was like to live through them!
Based on newly released documents, this book includes Kick’s life for the Red Cross and a journalist. Her independence and sunny disposition are legendary. Favorite quotes? When her future mother-in-law, the Duchess of Devonshire, ‘had to put her arm in a sling because she had shaken so may hands’ at her son’s birthday party where 2,800 guests were invited! It has been said that Kick ‘kicked against family, faith and country’. Her story as a vivacious, forgotten sister is restored in this wonderful book with wit, energy and tragedy.
Queen Bees by Sîan Evans (Two Roads; Hachette)
A book about 6 remarkable women who became ‘society hostesses’? Count me in! I loved this brand new release about these women (three born in America, one in Scotland and two in England) who made a difference to English history. There’s Nancy Astor; first female MP to sit in Parliament, Mrs Ronnie Greville who was associated with the royal family and had a diamond necklace that once belonged to Marie Antoinette and a diamond ring that belonged to Catherine the Great (!) and Edith Londonderry who helped enforce much-needed midwifery improving maternal and infant mortality also campaigning for women to work outside the home. Then there’s Sybil Colefax who identified exactly what made an English country home just so and her fabulous initiatives of dyeing army blankets, using surplus parachute material and pyjamas for household furnishings during the war. Can you imagine? Laura Corrigan fostered the Bright Young Things, held outrageous themed parties and made the most hysterical spoonerisms. Emerald Cunard was a consummate fundraiser and friend of Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson. Intrigued? So was I. A great book that just gallops along. You’ll be fascinated by the life and times of these remarkable women. This book is enormous fun!
The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson (Doubleday; Transworld)
Oh, my goodness – laugh? Yes, I did. It’s one of those books that you find yourself laughing out loud amongst strangers on the train, waiting for meetings, lying on the beach. Bryson wrote his earlier book, Notes From A Small Island about his travels in Britain twenty years ago and I wondered whether I needed to have read that book to relate, but no need to worry – this book stands on its own. Born in Iowa, Bryson travels Britain for this book with wry, funny and hysterical commentary. His description of the joys of English bathing are priceless; sprinting in to the sea at Brighton he says ‘It was like running into liquid nitrogen’ and his story about asking for food court in H&M because he thought it was M&S is hysterical. Bryson introduces us to the bizarre societies the British enjoy such as the Water Tower Appreciation Society, a Clay Pipe Research and a Roundabout Appreciation Society. Who knew? Bryson reminds us of the wealth of history in Britain; ‘If you tried to visit all the medieval churches in England – just England – at the rate of one per week, it would take you three hundred and eight years’. Overall, Bryson’s love of the British landscape, the history and the idiosyncrasies of the inhabitants is endearing and inspiring. Read this book. You won’t be sorry! I’m off to find some more Bill Bryson books to read…
Charlotte Brontë; A Life by Claire Harman (Viking; Penguin)
This year marks 200 years since Charlotte Brontë’s (1816 – 1855) birth. What a fascinating woman she was. Descriptions of her trance-like writing style of her miniature books (and I mean books no bigger than the size of a thumb) are spellbinding! The Brontë family (motherless with 5 girls and 1 boy) never owned either horse or carriage, so most of their outings were walking or wandering in the nearby landscape and often on the moors. Most famous for her book Jane Eyre (1847) 20 years after her own terribly short schooling years, Charlotte’s book reflects the scary Northern England schools of the time and was the very first book to be written from a child’s perspective. Isn’t that wort thinking about! The effect of this narrative was electrifying. Charlotte’s sisters, Emily and Anne Brontë were also prolific writers and when you visit the Brontë Parsonage in Haworth, England it is humbling to see the dining table that the three sisters would walk around for hours at a time, composing or reading out their stories. The only son in the family, who traditionally would be depended upon, ended up being the one subsidized by his surviving sisters’ frugality and hard work. This book illuminates the difficulty for women trying to publish books in the era, the girls’ pseudonyms Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell (reflecting their initials) and the mystery that ensured. Such a fascinating book about the era, talented women and their obstacles. Would you like to see my photos of my visit this year to the Brontë Parsonage and exhibition? Please let me know by commenting below.