Searching for Howards End one day in her seemingly infinite Gloucestershire farmhouse, the novelist Susan Hill encounters a mountain of unread Booker prize winners and Richard and Judy recommendations. She resolves thenceforth to stop buying books for a year and to explore her own voluminous bookshelves instead.
It’s a purely personal exercise. After a year, Hill has drawn up a list of 40 titles that “I think I could manage with alone, for the rest of my life”. This is not a list of the 40 best books ever written. It has essentially the same quality as an inventory of favourite puddings, and is similarly comforting. Trollope and Wodehouse have two titles each on the list, which tells us something about Hill’s tastes, as does the absence of any European authors. What we are left with is a mind-map of a novelist in her late 60s who has spent her life reading and writing books.
That this is not a list of the best new writing is apparent from her conservative poetry choices: late TS Eliot, WH Auden (whom she studied at A-level) and the Heaney-Hughes anthology The Rattle Bag. “I do not read much poetry now, and rarely anything new,” she admits. “I know I should. Should. Ought. But I don’t and that’s that. Perhaps I don’t need to. I can recite the whole of ‘The Lady of Shalott’, after all.” Eliot and Virginia Woolf are, in fact, subversive Modernists who have somehow made it under the radar of Hill’s traditional tastes. She doesn’t like it when “linguistic or stylistic obscurity is a hindrance to understanding”. She opts for To the Lighthouse rather than The Waves, because the latter “always reminds me of the sort of highbrow radio play they used to broadcast on Radio 3”.
Hill’s old farmhouse is a major character in the book, with its aged wood beams and elm-wood stairs, “the Aga in the kitchen, the wood burner in the sitting room”. It’s a snug, warm, relaxing place where one might open a random volume and find a Christmas card from Penelope Fitzgerald. She excels at creating an autumnal, “throw another log on the fire” atmosphere; a cosy world of “doing crosswords and answering quizzes at Christmas”. Meanwhile, lurking about the house is the shadowy presence of the “Shakespeare Professor”, her husband Stanley Wells, whose bookshelves include long-forgotten Elizabethan plays with intriguing titles such as an Interlude called Lusty Juventus. Hill gives these a wide berth.
The autobiographical elements in the book are often delightful — Hill devoured detective stories as light relief from Beowulf while reading English at King’s College London — and it is hard not to agree with her when she waxes lyrical about the Oxford World’s Classics series (“printed on fine paper and published in demy octavo”) or the Observer books of Moths, Birds’ Eggs, Churches; or the beauty of some typefaces (Hill is a publisher too, and appreciates such things). There are also touching reminiscences of Charles Causley, Patrick Leigh Fermor, and the dying Bruce Chatwin. Hill’s novelist’s eye perfectly captures EM Forster in the London Library (“He seemed slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable”).
This might have been a smug and indulgent book, but Hill manages to keep it charming, aided by the quality of her writing. Her legion of fans will love it; the rest of us might also enjoy its gently whimsical, self-effacing tone, even if, lurking beneath, are the steely prejudices of Middle England.