Ten Books That Changed Me with Jackie French
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
She was poor, homeless, alone, and no one cared about her. ‘But I care for myself,’ she said.
I was only seven when I first read Jane Eyre, neglected, scared, and would be homeless at 15. But Jane Eyre gave me the courage to keep my integrity, without hope, without witness, without reward.
There was also the most gorgeous hero in all of fiction, Mr Rochester, but the book doesn’t end till they can meet as equals, and on Jane’s terms. Looking back, I doubt I could have had a better guide to adulthood.
The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
I also fell in love with Socrates when I was seven. If you’re wondering why I was able to read books so unsuitable for a child, see the ‘neglected’ bit above. No one noticed, nor were there many books for young people around.
The Last of the Wine is set in 400 BC Athens. It’s a love story of two men and it didn’t occur to me at seven to question men in love with each other.
It is still one of the greatest love stories I have ever read, each in love with the excellence in each other, each trying to be a better person for the sake of the one they love. It foreshadows the ‘Company of Lovers’: the Corinthian regiment of lovers who all died, rather than shame the men they fought with by surrender. Alexander the Great had them all buried in a hero’s grave when they died defending their city against him.
I had conversations with Socrates on and off for years. He too gave me guidance in philosophy, and in love. I am married to a man who is proud of what I do, not nervous of my intelligence. I settled for less than that, for years. But eventually I knew that Socrates was right.
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Of course! But it’s not just the love story.
Jane Austen taught me that a book doesn’t have to have a plot where one man saves the world with a hundred bystanders killed along the way by Chapter 4.
Domestic life, closely observed, gives more drama than James Bond. You don’t need bodices ripped for passion.
Thank you, Miss Austen.
Karalta by Mary Grant Bruce
This is a spy story, set in Australia in 1942. A young soldier and a 14-year-old girl evacuated from England capture a German agent.
There were few books set in Australia when I was young, and fewer still for young people. And this novel was historical, too, although it wasn’t meant to be. It was written in World War 2, and extremely topical, which is still the historical fiction I most enjoy, books written at the time that still speak to us, but also let us see the lives and values of the time.
Karalta has a hint of romance, a deep joy in Australian landscape, and a heroine who will face enemy submarines.
It’s a great read, if you can find it.
These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer
Twelve years old this time and I needed to escape.
There is no better companion to escape with than Georgette Heyer.
The layers of history and romance are impeccable; the heroines are feisty and the heroes wonderfully variable.
For decades whenever I needed to escape – in hospital, with flu, or the bills piling up- I’d head to my shelf of Georgette Heyer’s. She’s cured more case of lurgy than penicillin.
Murder Boogies with Elvis by Anne George
See above. Anne George has saved my life with the glorious ‘five foot 12 admits too 250 pounds’ Mary Alice and her ‘Sister’.
They live in Birmingham, they solve murders, and pick up dinner from the Piggy Wiggly. In Murder Boogies with Elvis Mary Alice finally finds husband number 4 – a man strong enough to dip her when they dance.
Grab the series. When in trouble or in doubt, one book, a box of chocolates, a few apples and a cup of tea will see you through anything, or at least through the night till you can phone a friend.
Island, by Aldous Huxley
Our society, even humanity, can be better than it is.
Island is a piece of utopian literature that I devoured as a child, and still hunt out now. This was the first book I ever read that said ‘Life can be different, and good.’
There’s romance too, but the real love story is in the joy of living a good life.
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula le Guin
I took Le Guin’s novels into the delivery room with me – and needed them.
They show us our society and our humanity by creating civilizations that are entirely, extraordinarily different.
In this world people are both male and female, but the hero sees his companion in adventure as a male – decisive, intelligent and a statesman – until in a blizzard on the ice he realises she is a woman.
Carve her Name with Pride: the story of Violette Szabo by R.J.Minney
This was a birthday gift from my far off grandmother when I was 8.
Violette Szabo was a spy in World war 2, parachuted into enemy France, an extraordinary and indomitable heroine. I practiced parachute landings on my bed for months, then rigged up a parachute to drop my three year old brother from the veranda. Luckily we were only 2 metres off the ground.
Decades later, plotting out the Miss Lily series where Downton Abbey meets James Bond, this is where it possibly began – with a large slice of Jane Austen’s bonnets and Georgette Heyer’s romance and, come to think of it, Mary Renault’s refusal to bow to convention.
The Tummy Trilogy by Calvin Trillin
Back in the 1970’s Calvin Trillin was a US political correspondent. But he also liked to eat, and eat well (he probably still does).
He began to write about the food of the USA as a way of explaining its society. It’s hilarious, clever, delicious, addictive and possibly the best journalism ever.
But it also taught me that the best way to convey an era is with its food.
Miss Lily elicits secrets with crumpets, toasted by the fire in the intimacy of her parlour, dripping with butter and honey that has to be licked off fingers, and then….
Without the authors above, there would be no ‘and then.’
Jackie’s latest novel, The Lily and The Rose is out this month.
The Lily and The Rose
The war is over. But can there ever truly be peace?
Australian heiress Sophie Higgs was ‘a rose of no-man’s land’, founding hospitals across war-torn Europe during the horror that was WW1.
Now, in the 1920s, Sophie’s wartime work must be erased so that the men who returned can find some kind of ‘normality’.
Sophie is, however, a graduate of the mysterious Miss Lily’s school of charm and intrigue, and once more she risks her own life as she attempts to save others still trapped in the turmoil and aftermath of war.
But in this new world, nothing is clear, in politics or in love. For the role of men has changed too. Torn between the love of three very different men, Sophie will face her greatest danger yet as she attempts an impossible journey across the world to save Nigel, Earl of Shillings – and her beloved Miss Lily.
In this sequel to the bestselling Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies, Jackie French draws us further into a compelling story that celebrates the passion and adventure of an unstoppable army of women who changed the world.
‘The story is equal parts Downton Abbey and wartime action, with enough romance and intrigue to make it 100% not-put-down-able.’ – Australian Women’s Weekly on Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies