When it comes to searching for the perfect nostalgic read, there are three places I look: the ancient bucolics, the late 18th Century rural settings, or the early part of the 20th Century. These are my comfort reads and I was (still am really) very much in need of them these past ten days being snowed in, cold, and exhausted from the vast amount of snow I had to shovel. I was drawn, this time, to the early part of the 20th Century, pre-war or inter-war, a time that just seemed better even when it probably wasn't. So, I went through four books in search of a nostalgic read, beginning first with George Orwell's Such, Such Were the Joys.
Such, Such Were the Joys was first published in 1952 after Orwell's death and it is a long autobiographical essay on Orwell's schooldays from September 1911 to December 1916 at St. Cyprian's School in Eastbourne, Sussex. The title comes from a poem by William Blake, The Echoing Green from his Songs of Innocence (1789)
"Such, such were the joys
When we all – girls and boys —
In our youth-time were seen
On the echoing Green."
Nostalgia was not to be found here, this is not the book. Orwell details his experience at boarding school rife with abuse and class prejudice where, like the other poor boys, Orwell was bullied for essentially being "common". The teachers were of no help (Orwell notes that children whose fathers earned over £2,000 a year were rarely if ever whipped) and his main goal was to survive in a claustrophobic atmosphere of hypocrisy where the children were taught to be good Christians but acted like anything but. It's a great and forceful essay where the fear, shame, and discomfort, the foul smells and grubby towels becomes, whilst reading, very real. It's Orwell at his best, and I enjoyed it a great deal though not for the reasons I thought I would have done. It is a far cry from his novel Coming Up for Air (1939).
So I moved on to Brideshead Revisited, The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder by Evelyn Waugh, first published in 1945 and set between the 1920s and early 1940s. It's very much like In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust in its mix of beauty and melancholy. It follows the life of Charles Ryder who was an undergraduate at Oxford studying history where he meets the flamboyant, hedonistic, and eccentric Lord Sebastian Flyte, who hails from Brideshead Castle in Wiltshire. The two strike up a friendship and Charles comes to be involved in Sebastian's world. The first part of the novel, Et In Arcadia Ego (In Arcadia I am), lives up to its subtitle and is a perfect exercise in nostalgia. It's whimsical, beautiful, almost gentle and summery, and we learn more about Sebastian, Aloysius (the teddy bear from whom Sebastian is rarely separated), and his family, Julia, Cordelia, and his mother and father, who are estranged. One of the major themes of Brideshead is Catholicism and divine grace, and each character shows a struggle with the Christian faith and faith in general. The novel, however, takes a darker turn when Sebastian's lifestyle all but destroys him and Charles has unhappily moved away from the Flytes, though, despite the emotional and physical distance, he can never forget and move on from them.
Having been dragged to somewhere a little darker and more challenging than I was hoping for, I then returned to an old favourite: The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield, first published in 1930. The basic plot is right there in the title: it is the diary of an unnamed woman living in the late 1920s in the south west of England. It is everyday and ordinary, and that is its genius. It's a hilarious account of the relatively mundane: our lady is married to Robert, invariably behind a newspaper or either just dozing off or waking up, two children, and a great circle of friends and acquaintances. We see her very middle class struggles - under-performing hyacinth bulbs, financial woes, trying and not always succeeding to keep up with her circle, servants who may or may not be helpful, children who can on occasion bring about acute embarrassment, even the universal struggle of finding a dry patch on one's last remaining handkerchief during a cold. It is wonderfully and most perfectly dated in some aspects, the period, the way of life, but in others it still rings true. Above all else it is hilarious and still remains one of the funniest books I've ever read. It is a firm favourite of mine and a pleasure to return to it. It was exactly what I was looking for.
But I didn't stop there: I went for one last nostalgic read, the ultimate in fact - Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne, first published in 1926. It is perfect for the crushed soul, and follows the events of Christopher Robin's teddy bear Winnie the Pooh and his friends Piglet, Rabbit, Owl, Eeyore, Kanga and Roo. It's very gentle and warm, and exceptionally sweet (perhaps too sweet for some). We see Pooh and Piglet track a Heffalump, Eeyore lose his tail, the introduction of Kanga and Roo to the Hundred Acre Wood, Piglet's flood, and, among many other things, an "Expotition to the North Pole", which is entirely successful! A wonderful book.
The question remains, have I had enough nostalgia to be keeping me going, at least for a while? Not quite. I'm reading the first volume of Virginia Woolf's letters (1888 - 1912) which is for as much love of Woolf as it is the time period, and I want to read the next Provincial Lady - The Provincial Lady Goes Further along with the next Winnie-the-Pooh - The House at Pooh Corner. I'm also thinking that it's time to revisit Three Men in a Bummel by Jerome K. Jerome and try Contre Sainte-Beuve by Marcel Proust, simply because Proust is always beautiful. After those, perhaps I'll be ready to get back into some of the tougher stuff (though I've no doubt Proust will be a challenge!).