Henry Eliot, author of The Penguin Classics Book, picks 12 suggestions for gripping classic summer reads, from Austen and Alcott to Arnim and Alderman
Relax in the shade of these evergreen classics, still casting long shadows after more than a hundred years.
Anne Elliott was persuaded, eight years ago, to break off her engagement with the handsome but poor Captain Wentworth. They are given a second chance at happiness, however, when they meet again in the fashionable resorts of Lyme Regis and Bath. In one particularly memorable scene, Anne’s sister-in-law Louisa leaps playfully from a harbour wall in Lyme Regis and has a nasty fall; intrepid readers can visit the spot and scale the pock-marked granite steps known as ‘Granny’s Teeth’.
There was no summer in 1816, because the massive eruption of Mount Tambora caused a global volcanic winter with heavy rainfall and freezing temperatures. Mary and Percy Shelley holed up in Switzerland, on the shores of Lake Geneva with Lord Byron, who suggested they pass the time with a ghost story competition. Mary based her contribution on a terrifying dream, in which she’d seen ‘the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.’ Her iconic novel has since become the archetypal modern myth.
Louisa May Alcott
The vivacious March girls are full of zest for life: the beautiful Meg marries young; the tomboy Jo, based on Louisa May Alcott herself, is courted by the boy next door; the gentle Beth contracts scarlet fever; and the artistic Amy goes on a European tour with their eccentric and indefatigable Aunt March. These much-loved ‘little’ women, on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, are based on the real-life Alcott sisters, daughters of the vegan transcendentalists Abby May and Bronson Alcott.
Charity Royall is a young librarian, living with her alcoholic and abusive foster father in the rural New England village of North Dormer. Suffocated by her claustrophobic existence, she blossoms when she meets the handsome architect Lucius Harney, and the pair embark on a passionate love affair. Harney seems to be offering Charity a means of escape from her repressive life, but as the sultry summer days run into autumn they bring a series of increasingly devastating revelations.
Bask with one of these colourful titles from the last century, the perfect accompaniment to a balmy summer’s day.
The Garden Party and Other Stories
In ‘The Garden Party’, Mansfield recalls her childhood home in Wellington, New Zealand. Amidst the bustling preparations for a luxurious garden party, news arrives that a poor neighbour has died; after the party’s superficialities, Laura visits the neighbour’s family with a basket of leftovers and finds herself confronting her own mortality for the first time. Other stories in this volume include ‘At the Bay’, an impressionistic evocation of the seaside, and the heart-breaking ‘Miss Brill’ about a lonely woman whose spirit is brutally crushed.
The Enchanted April
Elizabeth von Arnim
‘Small medieval Italian Castle on the shores of the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April,’ runs an advert in the Times. Four very different women take up the offer and escape to the Italian Riviera, abandoning rain, marriage and their sad memories. Initially uncomfortable together, the four women eventually blossom in their beautiful new surroundings. It ‘sounds as if it would be an appallingly cloying cream puff of a fairy tale,’ wrote the Times Literary Supplement, ‘but that would be to ignore that the author habitually kept a pot of lemon juice mixed with vinegar beside her ink-pot.’
A Room of One's Own
Woolf delivered two lectures at Cambridge University in 1928, under the title ‘Women and Fiction’. From these she developed A Room of One’s Own, an iconic extended essay that ranges through the history of literature, discussing Aphra Behn, Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë and Judith, Shakespeare’s imaginary sister. Woolf famously concludes that ‘a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.’ Hermione Lee called it ‘probably the most influential piece of non-fictional writing by a woman in this century.’
Reflections in a Golden Eye
In a stiflingly hot army base in Georgia, complex adulterous, sadistic, and homosexual passions start to simmer dangerously. Private Williams spies on naked Leonora Penderton. She’s having an affair with Major Langdon, while her husband discovers that he’s physically attracted to Williams. ‘I am so immersed in my characters that their motives are my own,’ wrote McCullers; ‘[. . .] when I write about Captain Penderton, I become a homosexual man.’
Indulge in something new or undiscovered from the last few decades, potent creations that we predict will still be read for years to come.
The Driver's Seat
Lise is fed up of life. She’s worked for a sexless, Nordic accountancy firm for the past sixteen years so she decides to transform herself into a temptress and travel to Rome for the ultimate summer holiday. We learn in chapter three that she’s going to be murdered, however, and the book becomes what Spark calls a ‘whydunnit’, gradually revealing the of events that lead to Lise’s demise. It’s ‘an extraordinary tour de force,’ writes David Lodge, ‘a crime story turned inside out.’
Territory of Light
‘This exquisite and poignant novel,’ writes Shami Chakrabarti, ‘[. . .] will resonate with single mothers always and everywhere.’ The novel spans the first year of a woman’s separation from her husband, as she struggles to support herself and their two-year-old daughter in Tokyo. It is full of light: sunlight streaming through windows, dappled light in the park, distant fireworks, dazzling floodwater, streetlamps and explosions. The cumulative effect is disarmingly powerful.
Pauline spends the summer in a rustic, idyllic cottage with her daughter Teresa and her baby grandson Luke. Maurice, her son-in-law, is engrossed in both the book he’s writing and his female copy editor. As the temperature soars and Maurice’s actions start to threaten the fragile family, Pauline becomes increasingly angry and the narrative hurtles towards a violent climax. It is ‘extraordinarily good,’ writes Susan Hill, ‘intelligent and perceptive.’
Electricity crackles as you read this riveting contemporary fable in which women around the world discover a long suppressed power at their fingertips. Initially thrilling and liberating, this newfound power turn the tables on men, and women come to dominate the worlds of politics, religion and crime, but with great power comes the danger of corruption, abuse and violence . . .