Recent surveys have suggested that up to two-thirds of Britons may be carrying a ‘lockdown load’. The weight gained during the first national lockdown in the spring is largely attributed to comfort eating. All the sourdough and banana bread that flooded Instagram in the early days of the pandemic has, it seems, had a more enduring influence than Joe Wicks.
With lockdown 2.0 in full swing and a difficult, stop-start winter ahead, we all need to find solace somewhere other than the biscuit tin or the gin tray.
When the dreariness threatens to overwhelm, retreat to bed, switch on the electric blanket and sink into one of these books — they’re the literary equivalent of buttery mashed potato and as soothing as sucking a thumb…
I Capture the Castle — Dodie Smith (Vintage Classics, £7.99)
From its opening line — ‘I write this sitting in the kitchen sink’ — this quirky, effervescent novel about love, sibling rivalry and growing up is an utter joy. Rather like us, the narrator, Cassandra Mortmain and her bohemian family are reluctant isolators. Home is a ‘crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud’ on which her father, a struggling writer, has taken a long lease.
It’s also full of sage advice. ‘Noble deeds and hot baths are the best cure for depression,’ Cassandra declares, though the arrival of two wealthy American brothers in the neighbourhood has a similar effect…
The Pursuit of Love — Nancy Mitford (Penguin Essentials, £8.99)
A truly comforting read needs to be at once familiar yet transportive, witty and amusing whilst lightly profound. Most Mitford novels fulfil the brief, but Pursuit is arguably the best (despite Linda’s fate). Uncle Matthew, the Bolter, the Hons’ linen cupboard et al combine to provide a punchy restorative tonic.
Mrs Miniver — Jan Struther (Virago Modern Classics, £9.99)
Just before the Second World War, a column by ‘Mrs Miniver’ appeared in The Times, chronicling the life of an upper middle-class family in Chelsea. What elevated it from the mundane was the author’s acute observations (‘a day without a chunk or two of solitude in it is like a cocktail without ice’) and evocative descriptions of every day life.
Some of the parallels with our own strange times are uncanny. Readers may empathise with Mrs Miniver’s assessment of a smart neighbour ‘bleating’ that nothing will be the same again, ‘when all she means is that she’ll have to serve two courses instead of four’.
The Code of the Woosters — PG Wodehouse (Arrow, £8.99)
‘Anything by PG Wodehouse’ was a common response when asking around for people’s comfort reads. It’s very hard to pick just one, but this — with Roderick Spode, Aunt Dahlia and plenty of sneering at cow creamers — is fairly close to perfection. Or try The Luck of the Bodkins, which is vintage Plum right from the get-go: ’Into the face of the young man who sat on the terrace of the Hotel Magnifique at Cannes, there had crept a look of furtive shame, the shifty, hangdog look which announces that an Englishman is about to talk French.’
Strong Poison — Dorothy L Sayers (Hodder & Stoughton, £9.99)
A friend who has sought comfort in around 150 Golden Age of detective fiction novels since March keeps coming back to this one. Strong Poison is the sixth in Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey series, and the first to feature Harriet Vane.
The plight of Vane (another reluctant isolater; she’s in prison for murdering her former lover) may resonate. ‘I will give the footman orders to admit you,’ said the prisoner, gravely, ‘you will always find me at home.’
Crampton Hodnet — Barbara Pym (Virago Modern Classics, £8.99)
Gossip and scandal in 1930s north Oxford — one of the dons of Randolph College has been seen in Fuller’s tea rooms with a student! — with a familiar cast of curates, spinsters and academics. One of Pym’s earliest novels (though published posthumously), the humour is less subtle than the sly wit of her later books. But it’s by far the funniest. ‘Everyone who has read the manuscript has laughed out loud,’ wrote its editor in 1985 — ‘even in the Bodleian Library.’
Heartburn — Nora Ephron (Virago Modern Classics, £9.99)
As hilarious as it is heartbreaking, this account of the breakdown of a food writer’s marriage (based on Ephron’s divorce from the Watergate journalist, Carl Bernstein) is peppered liberally with caustic one-liners, universal truths about love, food and marriage plus many of Rachel, the narrator’s favourite recipes. Cheesecake, linguine alla cecca, bread pudding, Key lime pie and, of course, mashed potato — ‘because there’s nothing like mashed potato when you’re feeling blue’. Just resist the temptation to cook along as you read.
The Grand Sophy — Georgette Heyer (Arrow, £8.99)
Sophia Stanton-Lacy’s good-natured machinations are the acme of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. Escapsim of the highest order, this book cries out to be consumed whilst lying on a chaise-longue and applying a box of Prestat Rose and Violet Creams to your face, which won’t help the lockdown load, but hey-ho.