Autumn is a good time of year for reading old favourites. In summer the days seem to go on forever, while in winter it’s the nights that don’t end. But in autumn there is only just enough of both. Hours scurry past and half the things I mean to do don’t get done. So I save new books for later in the year, when time starts to plod along again and I can linger over books, reading them slowly and wallowing in the words. In autumn, with everything in a rush, I pick up books I already know.
Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees is a golden book. Published in 1926, it’s a fantasy novel set in Dorimare, a country that has the bad luck – or good fortune - to share a border with Fairyland. It’s a blissfully bucolic place where everyone lives in peace and harmony, having declared in law that fairies don’t exist. The only trouble is that the fairies don’t seem to agree.
Mirrlees writes with one eyebrow raised, sharpening her pen on the faux gentility of Lud-in-the-Mist’s townspeople, with their elegant buildings and contrived parties. But she does it in a way that makes me to want to go there and walk along the cobbled streets, drop in to a party to drink wild-thyme gin and, more than anything, eat a Moongrass cheese. I love her description of that cheese as marble veined with jade, blending “the perfume of the meadows with the cleanly stench of the byre.” It is exactly what a cheese should be, and Lud-in-the-Mist spills over with beautiful, evocative descriptions of food that make me long for a flagstone kitchen and a copper pot to boil jam in.
Less pastoral, but just as fantastical to me is Ngaio Marsh’s Death and The Dancing Footman. It’s a classic country house murder mystery that begins with cocktails in the library and ends with a body in a locked room. I probably shouldn’t describe a book full of spite and bloodshed as cosy, but when I know whodunnit I can settle down and enjoy Marsh’s wry character sketches and dry wit. And, of course, I can daydream about having a country house of my own where I would throw weekend parties with swimming and tennis and dinner at 8. I’d hope for less murder, of course, but when evenings begin with martinis and gossip you can never be sure how they’ll end.