Janet Ellis at The Books That Built me

Janet Ellis and I met at the Club at Cafe Royal for the latest in the Books That Built Me salon series to talk about the books that inspired her to be a writer. The Butcher’s Hook is often described as her debut – I have done so myself on these pages – but Janet actually wrote her first book at the precocious age of ten yet became rather distracted from her vocation by the allure of a career on television, acting and presenting before the Curtis Brown writing programme lured her back to her path. Ellis has a two book deal with Two Roads, and I’m sure they won’t have to wait quite as long for her next novel – which, as Janet told guests, involves adultery and the 1970’s.

Guests drank Champagne Bollinger and ate Prestat’s fabulously creamy white chocolate (possibly the nicest white chocolate I’ve tasted – the kind the Milky Bar Kid might collapse from joy after tasting) and Janet told us why poetry fired a love of how language sounds on the tongue and on the page, why National Velvet turned her into a voracious reader, how the fifties ‘nature/nurture’ best seller, The Bad Seed, and Patricia Highsmith’s Strangers On a Train, gave her a fascination with the fine line that divides ordinary people from transgressive acts, and why Candia McWilliam’s heartbreaking memoir is a love letter about loss.

Here are the Books That Built Janet Ellis

The Golden Treasury of Poetry, selected by Louis Untermeyer

National Velvet, Enid Bagnold

The Bad Seed, William March

Strangers on a Train, Patricia Highsmith

Good Behaviour, Molly Keane

What to Look for in Winter, Candia McWilliam

You can listen to Janet talking about her Books That Built Me on the podcast (below on soundcloud, but it’s also available on as a podcast on iTunes here )

The next Books That Built Me is with Jilly Cooper on 22nd November 2016.


Podcast: Sarah Churchwell on The Ambassadors: Henry James


The Ambassadors is arguably the greatest of Henry James’ late works, and his own favourite of his novels. In it, Lambert Strether is sent by his wealthy fiancée to Paris to rescue her son from what is presumed to be the clutches of a gold-digging temptress. When he arrives, he discovers Chad needs very little rescuing, and far from being a den of iniquity, Paris – and the people he meets – is sophisticated, cultured and charming.
I met with Sarah Churchwell to talk about Henry James,her introduction to the new Everymans Library edition of the novel, Americans in Paris, and why reading Henry James is infinitely less daunting than one might suppose.

The Ambassadors, Henry James. With an introduction by Sarah Churchwell. Everymans Library


Event: Literary Bad Boys with Samantha Ellis

samantha-ellis-at-the-books-that-built-meLiterary bad boys ….Who hasn’t fallen headlong for a romantic rotter in a book? Looking back, I can’t imagine how brusque, brutal Heathcliff got my pulses racing, much less see how Catherine could describe him as ‘more myself than I am’, but when I was reading it for A’level, none of my clean-cut boyfriends had a glimmer of Heathcliff’s Byronic glamour. In my early twenties, I had my share of Daniel Cleavers, a mistake I repeated more than once – such is the allure of the type. I spent far too much time longing for Captain Troy rather than Gabriel Oak and for Rhett Butler to spurn me with a ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ before finding my Darcy.

On Wednesday 9th November at 6.30pm, Samantha Ellis, author of How to be a Heroine, and I, will be talking about the appeal of the cad, from Rupert Campbell-Black to Rhett-Butler, and why we all eventually learn that a Colonel Brandon will love us much, much more than a Willoughby ever could.

Sam was one of my favourite Books That Built Me guests – How to be a Heroine is her memoir of re-reading all her favourite heroines from Catherine Earnshaw and Jane Eyre to Anne of Green Gables and Lolly Willowes, and ever since, I’ve been trying to tempt her back – I can’t wait to talk about the allure of the anti-hero…

The salon takes place in the beautiful surroundings of the Amanda Wakeley townhouse on Albermarle Street and tickets (£30) include a copy of Samantha Ellis’ brilliant book, How to Be a Heroine, a glass of Ayala Rosé Champagne and a goodybag. There is also an exclusive shopping discount for anything purchased from Amanda Wakeley on the evening.

Capacity is very limited (only twenty places), so I do recommend prompt booking. Tickets are available by clicking here or the button below.


Dorothy Richardson and H.G Wells – Louisa Treger’s The Lodger (Podcast)

Dorothy Richardson is one of modernism’s unsung heroes: a pioneer of Stream of Consciousness, her experimental approach to writing was driven by desire to express a specifically female experience. This impressed Virginia Woolf, who, in 1923, wrote that Richardson ‘has invented, or if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender‘. Her greatest literary achievement is a sequence of thirteen novels, Pilgrimage, of which the first, Pointed Roofs – the first complete stream of consciousness novel in English – was published in 1915.

In 1907 she began a relationship with H.G.Wells, and it’s this period in her life that Louisa Treger chronicles in her novel, The Lodger. Wells was a notorious if rather unlikely philanderer – in addition to Richardson, his literary lovers include Rebecca West, Martha Gellhorn, Violet Hunt (on whom Ford Madox Ford modelled Sylvia Tietjens in Parade’s End), and Elizabeth Von Arnim, and you can hear Louisa and I talk about H.G.Well’s surprising role in their literary lives, and about the strange genius of Dorothy Richardson in this podcast, either here on iTunes, or on soundcloud.

Trump’s America – the podcast


With less than a month to go to the US presidential election, Donald Trump is barely seven points behind Hilary Clinton in the polls. How do you explain the astonishing rise of an unlikely demagogue like Trump? How much does he reflect signs of a deeper division in America – one which has possibly been there since the country was founded ? And how much is he simply an anomaly, whose popularity will dissipate once the first woman president of the United States is in the White House?

This week I was joined at Mark’s Club by  best-selling author Lionel Shriver, and writer, broadcaster and academic Professor Sarah Churchwell to talk about Trump’s America: why post-truth politics is stranger than fiction.

Lionel Shriver’s latest novel, the Mandibles, at once satirical and dystopian, maps an isolated America in 2029, on the cusp of a financial apocalypse as the world switches to a new global reserve currency, backed by a coalition of countries led by Russia’s ‘ruler for life’ Vladimir Putin. In 2029, there’s already a ‘great wall’ – built by the Mexicans to keep the US economic migrants out, and the Republican party has imploded, leaving the US as a single party democracy. Is this simply fiction, or the likely consequences of the current political crisis in the US?

Sarah Churchwell’s book, Careless People, is an exquisite analysis of the politics, economics and social context of F.Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby. As Sarah has said, ‘the America Trump inhabits is actually the one that Fitzgerald predicted in Gatsby, where we slip by unknowing degrees into accepting what once we would have deplored….Jay Gatsby is redeemed by his idealism: Donald Trump is what Gatsby would have been if he had no soul to corrupt in the first place.’The question is, how did we get here from there? And, if the 1920’s hold a mirror up to where we are now, what lessons can be drawn as we reflect on what the future can hold?

Listen to the podcast on iTunes here or below on soundcloud

Jilly Cooper at The Books That Built Me

I have adored Jilly Cooper almost since I can remember first reading grown-up books. I still have the very tattered copies of Emily, Harriet, Imogen, Octavia, Prudence, Bella and so on that I fell in lomount-2ve with when still a schoolgirl for the novels’ racy glamour and wonderful heroines for whom the bumpy course of true-love eventually runs smooth.

I’m old enough to remember Riders’ sensational launch – what did the Telegraph call it? ‘Fetlocks and Fornication’ – and to have had it confiscated by a prefect when caught reading it during prep; wrapping it in the cover of my biology textbook was evidently an inadequate disguise. Rupert Campbell-Black is surely one of the most desirable romantic rotters of the last thirty years?

A considerable part of my home library is dedicated to her many subsequent novels, all of which are my ‘go-to’ comfort reads.

But for me, Jilly Cooper is more than just comfort reading or escapism: her books have built me as a reader: one of the many enchanting things about her work is that it wears its learning very lightly, and her own immensely satisfying novels kicked down a door to a magical literary world in a way that my teachers at school never could. I would never have discovered the delights of Mitford, left to my own devices, and remained entirely immune to the many charms of Yeats until captivated by Declan O’Hara in Rivals. There are many, many more examples – she has shaped my own taste in books to a very satisfying degree.

Anyway, I can’t tell you how beside myself with joy I am to welcome Jilly Cooper to The Books That Built Me on 22nd November. We will be in the elegant surroundings of Gieves and Hawkes, No.1 Savile Row – I can’t help feeling that Rupert Campbell-Black would have his suits made there – and in addition to a hardback copy of Mount! Jilly’s latest novel (in which R C-B returns), each ticket comes with a glass of Champagne Bollinger and a bar of Prestat chocolate, in addition to a subscription to Town and Country Magazine.

Tickets are £45 and are available here



Book Club: The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry, 27th October

October’s book group choice is Sarah Perry’s second novel, the Sunday Times bestseller, The Essex Serpent, an atmospheric, eerie, fin de siècle tale set in the Essex marshes.

fullsizerenderSarah Perry’s PHD was in the Gothic – she also has a creative writing MA – and her love of “a strangeness and a darkness in things… a feeling that brimstone is never far from the soles of my feet” suffuses The Essex Serpent. Set between London and Essex towards the end of the 19th Century, Perry’s book successfully captures a high-Victorian Gothic sensibility within a novel of ideas, and conjures a world in which the reader becomes so embroiled, one can’t help but continue reading long after one should have gone to bed, which is for me, always a sign of a brilliant book.

It’s a beguiling and compulsive read, and I am dying to talk about it at the Books That Built Me book group on October 27th at Waterstones High Street Kensington. We start at 6.15 and there is no charge to attend, but it’s helpful if you let me know you’re coming so that I know how much wine to put in the fridge….and if you’d like to talk about it, or can’t make it to High Street Kensington, then please join the conversation on Facebook from 6th October.

It is still in hardback, but at £14.99 it’s less punchily priced than many, and the design of the dust-jacket is so beautiful, it’s worth the investment (and if you buy it at Waterstones HSK, you can get 10% off if you say you’re coming to the Books That Built Me book club – please ask at the upstairs till.)

Plot summary:

London, 1893. Widowed Cora Seaborne leaves London with her son Francis, a curious, obsessive boy, for a new life in Essex where she hopes fresh air and open space will provide the refuge they seek. Rumours reach them of the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, said to have returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, is immediately enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a previously undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar, who shares Cora’s suspicion of the rumours, but he thinks they are founded on moral panic, a flight from true faith. As he tries to calm his parishioners, he and Cora strike up an intense relationship, inexorably drawn together and torn apart, eventually changing each other’s lives in entirely unexpected ways.

Read the FT review by Books That Built Me alumni, Alex Preston, here.

[approximate time to read: 8 days at a reading speed of approx 40 pp a day – whilst Perry’s writing is literary and beautifully crafted, she is generous and kind with her reader – no endless Henry James style sentences – added to which, her plotting is sharp and pacy and her characters compelling, all of which keep the pages turning]

The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry. Published by Serpents Tail, price £14.99.