Books / Book Reviews / Desert Island Books

Desert Island Books: Emily Rhodes


Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

When I first found out about writer Emily Rhodes and her walking book club, I loved the concept of fusing monthly walks on Hampstead Heath with a mutual love of literature. And so, when I heard that she was partnering with The Lygon Arms – one of my very, very favourite hotels – to offer a literary walk around some of the crème de la crème of the Cotswolds countryside, suffice it to say I was tempted to book a flight back to the UK in order to attend.

If, like me, geography dictates you’ll be unable to attend, make do with the following selection of reading recommendations from Emily Rhodes, whose Desert Island Books picks are rich with charm, nostalgia and memories of days gone by.

Emily Rhodes

Cider with Rosie by Laurie Lee

Laurie Lee’s lyrical evocation of his Cotswolds birthplace would successfully transport me off the Desert Island, and straight back home to England – mentally at least! Although the England captured in this first volume of his brilliant memoir trilogy, is very much a vanished world, where children carried their lunch to school in buckets, and potent wine was concocted from whatever was found in the fields, Lee’s dreamy prose would be a perfect companion for lazy island days.

A Long Way From Verona by Jane Gardam

Every time I read this funny little book about  13-year-old Jessica Vye, who’s determined to become a writer, I’m overcome by its charm and resolute cheerfulness. Jessica feels misunderstood by her school, her family, and the rest of wartime Yorkshire, but finds solace first in reading, then in writing. Jane Gardam has cleverly written the book as though Jessica herself has written it, so it comes with all the eccentricity and silliness that you might imagine from a precocious 13-year-old – in a good way. 

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Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Occasionally I pick this up, just to see if I remember some passage or another quite right, and I never manage to put it down again until I’ve finished the whole book. Woolf’s momentous novel, which takes place over a single June day, is a wonder. I’d love to spend that day, again and again, with Clarissa Dalloway, as she walks through London, listening to Big Ben’s leaden circles dissolving in the air, treading the line between the celebration of living and the all-too-palpable threat of death.

All Passion Spent by Vita Sackville West

I adore this book about 88-year-old Lady Slane, who rebels against her terrible children when her husband dies by choosing to live on her own in a little house in Hampstead, entertaining an eccentric coterie. Sackville-West was Virginia Woolf’s lover, and the book was written as a fictional counterpart to Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own – showing how it is never too late to find your own space. I always enjoy spotting how the author’s love of gardens sneaks into her prose.

The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald

Somehow Fitzgerald writes these slim books that one motors through, without really noticing what a genius she is. It’s only when you stop to think that you realise that every last detail has been meticulously researched, so is exactly right; how the characters are fascinatingly morally ambiguous; how she creates these bizarre little worlds; how she captures a moment in time so perfectly; and how she often throws in a totally bizarre moment that throws the whole thing off course – intentionally. This is set in Moscow, 1913, and I think it’s my favourite of her novels, especially the brilliant passage describing the opening of windows, sealed up all winter, bringing in the spring wind ‘fresher than it felt in the street, blowing in uninterrupted from the northern regions where the frost still lay.’

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All Passion Spent

Slipstream by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Much of this doorstop of a memoir will be familiar territory for those who loved The Cazalet Chronicles, as Elizabeth Jane Howard drew heavily on her life for this series of novels. The telling of her life itself is fascinating, and exciting – and, of course, very well captured on the page. She had affairs with many of the literati (there’s a brilliant anecdote about being whisked off to Spain by Laurie Lee, including an  awkward toilet situation), but above all, it’s about struggling – and eventually succeeding – to make time to write: I’d say it’s essential reading for any writer.

The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd

This astonishing prose-poem is about the Cairngorm Mountains in Scotland, where Shepherd spent her life. Each line is like a riddle, dense with ideas about time, space, science and the beauty and wonder of the natural world.

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

I’m ashamed to say I’ve only read Volume One, Swann’s Way, of this 8-volume classic of modern fiction. I loved luxuriating in Proust’s languid serpentine sentences, as he followed Swann into his love affair with Odette; to have the time to read the whole set would be a treat.

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