Three Sloe Reads for the Darker Months
The evenings are drawing-in, and – when we aren’t outside enjoying the autumn colours – the lure of an armchair and a good book becomes hard to resist. Here are three great reads we think would be perfect for these darker months.
While none of these books are about autumn, they all feel right for this season: books that somehow feel like a walk outside in wellington boots to watch the leaves fall, or an evening inside with candles lit and curtains closed against the drizzle.
Nick Hayes, The Book of Trespass: Crossing the Lines that Divide Us
This beautiful book on the history of trespass and land ownership is a perfect book this time of year. Nick Hayes travels throughout the UK and beyond to explore a concept that is so ingrained in modern Britain that most of us never stop to think about it: almost every square inch of the country’s land (92%) and waterways (97%) is privately owned.
Looking at the history of landownership – especially the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century land appropriation during called ‘enclosures’ – Hayes highlights that this hasn’t always been the case. Until then, more than half the land in England and Wales had been ‘common’ land, meaning rural individuals – ‘commoners’ – could access and use this land for themselves, allowing economic security and a level of self-sufficiency. A series of Acts of Parliament and landowner appropriations, however, effectively brought all of the UK under private ownership, depriving people of their livelihoods. Trespass became the only way many people could continue to survive.
During the course of the book, Hayes commits his own acts of trespass, and we follow the progress of these throughout each chapter. These acts of trespass are more than just a gimmick: The Book of Trespass is a political book, and is therefore as much about action as it is about words. It is sweeping, encompassing both traditional definitions of land-owner and less conventional perspectives: national borders, waterways, local councils.
However, the book is also a beautiful meditation on the joys of being on – and of using – the land. Hayes’s stunning illustrations – made using a technique he created to ‘mimic linocut’ that he calls ‘lie-no, or li-not’ – punctuate the book, and really highlight the author’s love of the outdoors, landscape and horizons. The chapters highlight that the even the acts of trespass as more about exploration, companionship and natural beauty than they are about wrongdoing.
Over all, The Book of Trespass is a vastly rewarding and important book that gets to the root of what feel like very British problems: class, privilege, and our relationship with the land. Find a quiet spot outdoors – ideally somewhere you shouldn’t be – to read this one.
Daphne du Maurier, My Cousin Rachel
Many of Daphne du Maurier’s novels have an autumnal atmosphere. It may have something to do with the sense of opposition between indoors and outdoors in her books. The houses are often dark, lit only by bright patches of candlelight or roaring fires, simultaneously cosy and claustrophobic, with neglected rooms and draughty corridors.
Meanwhile, outside the walls, the elements rage: almost all of the outdoor scenes set in England in du Maurier’s most famous novels are either autumnal or wintery. The woodland walks are blustery and the carriage rides are stormy; a ‘cold and grey’ ramble across Cornish moorland in Jamaica Inn is made ‘treacherous’ by flooding, while a pheasant shoot in The Scapegoat takes place during a ‘light and dismal patter of rain’.
For some reason, My Cousin Rachel seems even more autumnal than du Maurier’s other books. After the Italian summer heat in the opening chapters, Philip Ashley returns to England in ‘the first week of September’ to begin his life anew following the death of the relative he had been living with: a death that occurred in mysterious circumstances shortly after marrying a woman called Rachel, who had been living in Italy. When Rachel appears in England, she throws Philip’s world into disarray, and his feelings towards his cousin swings between suspicion and infatuation, with disastrous consequences for everyone.
My Cousin Rachel is a perfect autumnal book, and with its combination of beauty, embarrassment and tension that only de Maurier was able to achieve, it is ideal company for the long hours after sunset.
Ann Radcliffe, The Italian
Classic gothic literature is also perfectly suited to dark evenings. I have loved eighteenth-century gothic fiction ever since I discovered Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey at university, which mercilessly satires the genre. Despite Austen’s contemptuous tone, though, the idea of the gothic appealed to me, and I had soon moved to the novels of Ann Radcliffe, which seem to capture the mood of this season: sinister happenings in ancient, neglected ruins and dramatic journeys through stormy landscapes.
The Italian follows the tumultuous relationship of Vincentio de Vivaldi and Ellena Rosalba, whose romance is thwarted by the machinations of Vincentio’s mother and her confessor, the mysterious Father Schedoni. Each time the young couple think they have escaped the clutches of the sinister conspirators, some new plot threatens, from imprisonment and exile, to torture and assassination.
The settings in which The Italian is set seem particularly appropriate for these darker months: the gloomy dungeons of a crumbling castle, the enforced silence of a monastery, the terrifying dungeons of the Inquisition, and the eeriness of a dilapidated coastal mansion. These places continue to haunt, long after I read the book, but especially at this time of year.
However, despite the often-ghostly settings, Ann Radcliffe’s mysteries are rarely supernatural in origin. Instead, the real danger threatening her – mostly female – protagonists is all-too-human: the hazards that come from being a woman in a world where the rules are dictated by men who may not have their best interests at heart.
The Italian is not depressingly gloomy, however: it is also touching, exciting and often very funny. The relationship between Vincentio and his loquacious attendant, Paulo, for instance, brings much needed comedy to even the bleakest of moments. It is certainly a book I will be returning to again in the dark weeks before Christmas.