The best books to soothe and console after a love affair, divorce or Covid

The Books I Picked & Why

Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

By Richard Holmes

Book cover of Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer

Why this book?

I first read this many years ago and it has stayed with me. Every so often, I return to it in order to immerse myself in its wonderful prose and insights. It combines travelogue with biography, detective work with a probing inner exploration and is both an account of a physical journey and a remap of the writer’s imagination. He begins with his homage to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey and describes his own trek over the Cevennes. He starts out with the idea that he will be a poet and finishes his walk having been led "far away into the undiscovered land of other’s men and women’s lives. It led towards biography."

It is the turning point of his life and for the remainder of the book – as he hunts down his subjects which include Mary Wollstonecraft, Shelley, Gerard de Nerval, and Gautier – he goes on to explore the nature of the relationship between the biographer and the quarry. The book has so enraptured me that I found myself walking in the company of friends over the Cevennes in Stevenson’s and Holmes’s footsteps. It was one of the best journeys of my own life. 

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The Brontes

By Juliet Barker

Book cover of The Brontes

Why this book?

Juliet Barker’s monumental biography, The Brontes (Abacus), certainly falls into the category of the tried and tested which will not let you down. A fiercely revisionist, meticulously researched reassessment of the background, landscape, and events that shaped and formed Patrick, Charlotte, Emily, Branwell, and Anne, it breathes fresh air and common sense into the dark myths and fantasies which envelop the sisters in particular. I love it for the hard work that the author invested in it, her detail, her scrupulous integrity, and her determination to get at the truth about the individuals and the family as a whole. She argues well and powerfully that "without this intense family relationship, some of the greatest novels in the English language might never have been written."

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The House on the Strand

By Daphne du Maurier

Book cover of The House on the Strand

Why this book?

As a teenager, I glutted on the novels of Daphne du Maurier, and revelled in their Gothic thrills and the hints of darker compulsions and ambiguity which I did not fully comprehend. On re-reading a few not so long ago, I discovered that Rebecca was toppled from my personal number one spot by The House on the Strand. A time-travel story written long before it was voguish, it manages to achieve the delicate balance between the traditional, (albeit far-fetched) romantic love story and the more troubling question about perception and identity. This is not a peaceful novel as it is suffused with longings and a restlessness – there is also a vein of anger and disgust hovering below the surface - but it is both gripping and resonant and, for the purposes here, cathartic.

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Under the Tuscan Sun

By Frances Mayes

Book cover of Under the Tuscan Sun

Why this book?

When it was first published, Frances Mayes struck gold with Under the Tuscan Sun. It is a book that plugs into the contemporary fantasy of giving it all up to live out the idyll in some sun-kissed spot abroad. I confess I am a sucker for it and to read of her patient and loving restoration of Bramsole, the house she bought near Cortona, is to indulge in a highly potent daydream of a beautiful, neglected dreaming house longing for the restorative touch – and she is the one to bestow it. There are the funny and, occasionally, almost disastrous battles to make it liveable again and the triumphant finale. There are descriptions of luscious food and meals, her fascination with the local topography, history, and landscape, plus a selection of authentic recipes. All in all, it is irresistibly naughty but nice escapism – a guilty and, at this time, a necessary pleasure?

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By Jane Austen

Book cover of Persuasion

Why this book?

There is recourse to the enduring classic and Jane Austen’s Persuasion has to be the favourite. The opening chapters depict the lonely figure of Anne, the middle sister of three, who has lost her bloom, struggling to live well at a time when her future, and her family’s, is precarious has the all the melancholy of lost hope and neglected chances. This is a novel where the spectre of autumn hovers. Yet, as the plot progresses, the spectre lifts and is chased away and Anne moves towards a late blooming. As a young woman, she was persuaded to turn down marriage to Captain Wentworth. Now, her good sense, her good qualities, and her experience and intelligence persuade her otherwise.

The Anne who emerges is hardly passive and she grasps at her second chance with both hands. Woven into this portrait of a woman’s renaissance is Jane Austen’s deliciously acerbic observation, an uncharacteristic tenderness, and a deal of sharp, brilliant social comedy. All in all, Persuasion is irresistible, life-affirming and nourishing which, like chicken soup, is just what is needed.

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