Coming to Cambridge, I realised the best way to stay sane through the hectic terms was through books. From the hundreds of books in my room back home, I whittled down a handful that really meant something to me. I wanted my bookshelf to be a paper version of myself, and I wanted to be able to find some respite from the compulsory reading with some that made me feel at home. Tucked up in bed, hot chocolate topped with whipped cream in hand, these are the books that make me feel ‘me’ again.
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
This amazing woman is half of what is possibly the best comedy double-act, ever. Starting, as any other autobiography does, with her childhood and rise to fame, Poehler doesn’t limit herself to the conventional forms – fitting for someone who breaks the mould herself. Frank, funny and inspiring, I smiled the whole way through reading Yes Please, and I still do every time I flick through its pages. It’s a wonderful book that encourages you to leave your comfort zone, to not be afraid to say ‘yes please’. I’m not generally a reader of autobiographies, but I just had to say yes to this one.
North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Gaskell was once described to me as ‘Jane Austen with chest hair’, and to this day I think it stands true. The Victorian Gaskell’s works had a social conscience, focussing on the plight of the worker during the Industrial Revolution in Manchester. Of course, North and South has a romantic thread, throwing tough mill-owner John Thornton against the morally upright southerner Margaret Hale. Unusually, the romantic focus is on Thornton rather than Hale, who gives him little thought (a character who might pass the Bechdel test!). Unfortunately, its ending is too abrupt; serialised in Dickens’ ‘Household Words’, he cut the number of editions as he found it ‘wearisome to the last degree’, meaning Gaskell’s planned ending had to be cut; fortunately, the BBC TV series makes up for this deficiency (I would highly recommend the adaptation, available on Netflix, if you need a break from work).
Persuasion by Jane Austen
Of course Jane Austen had to pop up: Britain's best-known (and best-loved?) female author, every student has felt the reach of her witty prose. Persuasion, however, is one of her later works, published posthumously, and by far less well-known than Pride and Prejudice. Persuasion fits convention better than Pride and Prejudice since the female protagonist is not outspoken, but it leaves its reader so much more entranced than the earlier works. Admittedly, there is less sarcasm and less obvious wit, but it is unnecessary in the story of Anne Elliot, middle daughter of a spendthrift baronet, who, at eighteen, is persuaded to give up the man she loves because of his lack of fortune. When he makes a surprise return to the neighbourhood, seven years later, his fortune made, downtrodden Anne must face the possibility that now past her prime (of 27!!) she may never marry. The novel is much more sensible, reflective and personal than Pride and Prejudice, as though Austen has come-of-age as an author.
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
In spite of the brevity of this novel, it packs a punch. Influenced by French authors such as Guy de Maupassant, it is the first book I’ve read with a wholly feminist protagonist, even by today’s standards. There’s a beautiful sense of individual female suffocation, trapped by the demands of society, but who finds release in the wisdom of other women and – scandalously – an amorous relationship. Of course, there is no happy ending, but the novel speaks to its readers, both male and female, and remains with them. This is my favourite book, and I would make it obligatory reading for any person wanting to explore the history of feminism in literature.