January 11th, 2015

Young Mrs. Clarke

Women in Publishing

I'm sitting here looking through old copies of "WiPlash" -- the monthly newsletter of Women in Publishing -- from the 1980s, a time when I was an active member (indeed, often typed up much of the newsletter) -- trying to prime my memory in preparation for oral history interviews next week, and I came across Elizabeth Jane Howard's "Desert Island Books" -- a feature I had forgotten about.

I doubt this has ever been published elsewhere, and it seems a pity for it to be forgotten, so I thought I'd share it here.

"When I was ten, had very limited pocket money and not enough to read, I bought long books. Doomed to a desert island, I think length would again become a serious consideration. There are a great many wonderful short, or shorter, works that I should hate to be without, but assuming rescue to be uncertain or hopeless, I think bulk is what I should go for.

I should take nothing but fiction so that there would be no shortage of company.

I'd chose Bleak House because I think it is one of the two best novels that Dickens wrote, and it is certainly the longest. Then (but these books are not in order of merit) I'd take The Charterhouse of Parma because it is my favourite Stendhal and from years of enjoyment I know it stands endless re-reading. On the bulk basis, I should take War and Peace but I'd probably choose Anna Karenina instead. Again, with George Eliot I ought to take Middlemarch, but I think I should fall for The Mill on the Floss because I love Maggie Tulliver so much.

I would take a collected edition of Shakespear because he would last me better than anybody. Apart from absolutely needing to have some poetry around, he would remind me not only of other peoples' but my own human nature; I should know what I had escaped from as well as what I was missing. I think, more than anyone else, he would stop me from feeling lonely.

I don't know whether there is a collected edition of Jane Austen - I do hope so - but if there isn't, I'd have to take Persuasion (often published with Northanger Abbey which is unfortunately not one of my favourite novels of Austen's.

Provided there was any notice of exile, I would call Carmen Callil and tell her that the least she could do to ameliorate my fate would be to publish at lightning speed a collected edition of Elizabeth Taylor's short stories, Hester Lilly, The Blush, The Devastating Boys -- the lot -- in one volume. I love and re-read all of Taylor's novels, but all the short stories would give me the spectrum of her classical genius.

Finally, and this would be a bit of a shot in the dark because I've only read them once, I think I would take Paul Scott's The Raj Quartet because I admire it, enjoyed its construction, love reading any novel set in India, and found its people interesting enough to spend more time with them."

(By Elizabeth Jane Howard; first appeared in undated, unnumbered issue of WiPlash -- from internal evidence published October/November 1984)