A few weeks ago, Trevor and Paul released a podcast on some of their favourite fall/autumn books, including a few they hope to read this year. It’s a fascinating discussion, which you can listen to at The Mookse and the Gripes podcast via the usual platforms. Their conversation got me thinking about my own seasonal reading, particularly books with autumnal settings or moods. So, with a nod to Trevor and Paul’s selection, here are a few of my favourite autumn reads.
A Sunday in Ville d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)
This beautiful, evocative novella is set in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story emerges, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man whom she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.
A Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff
During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. This premise seems simple on the surface, yet the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magic and charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for – a throwback perhaps to simpler times.
The Shooting Party by Isabel Colegate
Set on an Oxfordshire country estate in the autumn of 1913, The Shooting Party offers readers a terrific insight into the dying days of the Edwardian era, the beginning of the end of a time-honoured way of life for the English upper classes. The novel follows the final twenty-four hours of a three-day shoot, a landmark event in the social calendar of the Nettlebys and their immediate set. As the story unfolds, we learn more about the main characters, their distorted moral values and the rarefied world in which they circulate. What Colegate does so well here is to shine a light on the farcical nature of Edwardian society, the sheer pointlessness of the endless social whirl and the ridiculous codes that govern it. Fans of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Between will likely enjoy The Shooting Party, a superb novel that deserves to be better known.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
What can I say about this widely-acclaimed Gothic classic that hasn’t already been said before? Not a lot, other than to reiterate how brilliantly unsettling it is. The novel’s narrator, Merricat Blackwood – an eighteen-year-old girl with a distinctive, childlike voice – lives with her amiable older sister, Constance, in a large isolated house on the outskirts of a New England village. However, the girls have been ostracised by the local townsfolk, primarily due to an infamous poisoning in the family six years ago. As such, the book has much to say about outsiders – more specifically, how as a society we treat people who seem strange or different from the ‘norm’, and how our suspicions and prejudices can lead to fear – and ultimately to violence. An atmospheric, unsettling, magical book, shot through with touches of black humour, ideal for Halloween.
American Midnight – Tales of the dark short story anthology
Also making a strong claim for the Halloween reading pile is American Midnight is a wonderfully chilling short story anthology released in 2019. The collection comprises nine tales of the dark and supernatural, all penned by American authors and originally published in the 19th or 20th century. The featured writers include Edith Wharton, Edgar Allen Poe, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Shirley Jackson (again!). One of the best things about the selection is the diversity of styles across the ranger – from gothic folk horror to classic ghost stories, there’s something for virtually everyone here. American Midnight is a wide-ranging collection of unsettling stories, shot through with striking imagery and a palpable sense of unease, exploring some of the mystery and darkness in America’s chequered past. For more unnerving short stories, check out Shirley Jackson’s Dark Tales, Daphne du Maurier’s The Breaking Point and Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories – all come with high recommendations from me.
Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor
At first, this might seem an unusual choice; however, I’ve chosen it because the novel’s heroine, Mrs Palfrey – a recently widowed elderly lady – is in the twilight of her life. As the book opens, Mrs Palfrey is in the process of moving into London’s Claremont Hotel (the story is set in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, when this was not unusual for those who could afford it). Here she joins a group of residents in similar positions, each likely to remain at the hotel until they can no longer avoid a move to a nursing home or hospital.
To save face in front of the other residents, Mrs P persuades a kindly young man, Ludo, to play the role of her grandson, and an unlikely yet deeply touching relationship between the pair soon develops. This beautiful, bittersweet novel prompts the reader to consider the emotional and physical challenges of old age: the need to participate in life; the importance of small acts of kindness; and the desire to feel valued. Taylor’s observations of social situations are spot-on, and there are some very amusing moments alongside the undoubted poignancy. Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont is an understated gem – a wise, beautifully-observed novel that stands up to re-reading.
Do let me know what you think of these books if you’ve read some of them already or if you’re thinking of reading any of them in the future. Perhaps you have a favourite autumnal book or two? Please feel free to mention them in the comments below.
Of these it’s the Barbéris that most appeals. Happy reading, Jacqui!
An excellent book that’s strong on atmosphere and mood. I think you’d like it, Susan.
Two of my favourites are here – the Shirley Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor. I heard part of Fortnight in September when Radio 4 serialised it recently, just wonderful. So now of course I had to buy the book to get the whole experience.
I hope you enjoy the book. I loved the Radio 4 serialisation and Adrian Scarborough read it really well but, inevitably, they missed bits out. I love the Stevens family and the book has something which tugs at my heart strings. It’s one of the cherished volumes on my shelves.
I agree with you about Adrian Scarborough’s reading on Book at Bedtime. The quality of the narrator can make or break an audiobook or serialisation, but in this instance the reader did it proud!
The serialisation was tantalising because I never heard a complete episode, just loved what I did hear
There’s something very comforting and nostalgic about it, especially given the trauma of the last 20 months.
Absolutely. No luck getting it in the bookshop today though so have had to order…
Oh, it’s a fantastic book, well worth getting experiencing in full! Like Philip (below), I really enjoyed the R4 serialisation, but reading the unabridged novel is pretty hard to beat.
I tried to get a copy in the bookshop today but no luck. Will have to order it now and hope stocks haven’t run out
Good idea. I’m sure it’ll be reprinted if has run out of stock, especially after the boost from Book at Bedtime.
Mrs P is one of my favourites too
A charming list and all with a touch of melancholy. I still haven’t read anything by Shirley Jackson and this one sounds like a good place to start.
It’s where I started with SJ, and I haven’t look back since, A wonderful writer with a unique tone of voice. I think you’d love We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Plus it’s short, so you could probably read it in a day, other commitments permitting of course!.
It was thanks to your review Jacqui that I read We Have Always Live in the Castle earlier this year. I hadn’t heard of Shirley Jackson before then and have gone on to read The Missing Girl and other stories. Her writing is dark but mesmeric and compelling.
Mrs Palfrey was the first Elizabeth Taylor book I read many years ago and I’ve been a fan of hers ever since – as I know you are. It’s more comedic in places than many of her novels but her eye is ever drawn to the mundane and shabby – the malodorous dustbins at the back of the pub, train tickets blown under hedges, dandruff on people’s shoulders and chipped nail varnish. I still recall the miserable emptiness of Mrs Palfrey’s room at the Claremont on a wet Sunday afternoon with its view of the fire escape. It’s time for me to read it again.
But one read for me this autumn will be The Hundred and One Dalmatians. It was read to me in junior school one autumn nearly sixty years ago and I’ve retrieved my old Puffin edition ready to read it in late November/early December. I want to revisit the wintry Sussex country, the Twilight Barking and the scene where the old man is having afternoon tea by his coal fire and giving toasted crumpets to Pongo and Missis thinking they are the ghosts of his old dogs. In doing so I shall be revisiting a cherished memory of my childhood.
What a lovely series of comments, Philip! I’m so glad to hear that you’ve been enjoying Shirley Jackson this year. She is indeed dark but mesmerising and compelling. There is something very beguiling about her fiction despite the disturbing nature of the world she explores. She is so skilled at exposing the darkness lurking beneath the veneer of suburban society, particularly in her short stories.
As for your forthcoming autumn reading, The Hundred and One Dalmatians sounds wonderful. I remember loving the Disney film as a child, but I don’t think I’ve ever read the book. Something to remedy one day, for sure I really hope you enjoy revisiting a much-loved classic next month – and that it lives up to your cherished memories!
Thanks Jacqui. The Hundred and One Dalmatians is well worth reading. As it happens in late autumn and culminates on Christmas Eve when they arrive back in the Darlings’ flat in Regents Park it’s the perfect time of year to read it. As with I Capture The Castle, Dodie Smith could be a magic writer at times. Alas, she wrote a sequel to the Dalmatians called The Starlight Barking which was awful – don’t want to read that one again!
I love Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle, so if Dalmatians has even a sprinkling of that magic, then I really ought to read it. On the list it goes, maybe as a treat for Christmas!
What a great selection of books, Jacqui. I have only read Mrs. Palfrey, though I have a copy of A Fortnight in September. Mrs. Palfrey wasn’t my favorite Taylor – it’s as masterly as her other books, but just so sad! American Midnight sounds great fun, though it would be one I would definitely have to read in daylight – I’ve recently read a collection of ghostsly stories and spooked myself by reading the first in bed. The rest were read in the cold light of day!!
Ha, yes – and I remember your experience with Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories and The Lady’s Maid’s Bell! American Midnight is great, especially given the range of different writers and styles. Definitely one for you to read a story at a time, maybe in middle of summer when the days outlast the nights!
A Fortnight in September, We Have Always Lived in the Castle and Mrs Palfrey and The du Maurier stories are all fantastic choices. I really want to read The Shooting Party, no idea why I haven’t.
Oh, I think you’d love The Shooting Party! It’s such a good novel, and the class dynamics are brilliantly observed. There’s a very fine film adaptation of it too, one of those wonderful all-star-cast productions from the 1980s.
What a lovely selection; the perfect autumn book will probably come to mind sometime in January. The Shooting Party looks intriguing and Shirley Jackson would be perfect for a rainy autumn evening. Philip’s suggestion of One Hundred and… is wonderful. I loved that book when I was young!
I think I’m going to have to get hold of a copy of The Hundred and One Dalmatians at some point. All this talk of it is making me feel very nostalgic!
I’m glad to read these recommendations. It feels more than ever like a gaping hole in my reading that I haven’t read more of some writers mentioned here. For example I’ve never read Dodie Smith! I’m always appreciative of hearing your thoughts on books, and of how well they are conveyed. Bon dimanche, Jacqui!
Ah, that’s very kind of you to say Jennifer. Thank you! Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle is wonderful – ideal for a miserable, rainy afternoon, especially if you’re in need of something escapist.
Do watch the film of Mrs P if you can. The Shooting Party is a wonderfully melancholy read capturing not just the end of summer but the passing of an era. You might also like The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen
Ah, The Last September is a great suggestion on more than one level! Funnily enough, I tried to read it a few years ago, but my timing was off and I ended up putting it aside. One to go back to, for sure, as I know I’ll enjoy it when I’m in the ‘right’ mood!
Great selection Jacqui! The three I’ve read are among my favourites. The Dominique Barbéris and Colegate are both very tempting.
I think you’d probably like both of those. The film adaptation for The Shooting Party was an inspiration for Julian Fellowes’ screenplay for Gosford Park. So if you’re a fan of that film (or L. P. Hartley’s novel The Go-Between), chances are you’ll enjoy Colegate’s book!
The only one I know is The Fortnight in September but that’s one of my favourite reads of all!
A favourite with many readers, I think!
I loved A Fortnight in September and it remains with me even though I read it a while back!
Yes, I think the Stevens family will definitely stand the test of time. It’s such a comforting, nostalgic read.
I didn’t know/remember that they have a podcast. Has it been running for ages, like backlisted, and now I’m about to feel ridiculous? :)
The latter two books/rec’s are special faves of mine too. Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn comes to mind for me.
No, not ridiculous at all! It’s only been running a few months in this current format (with Trevor in discussion with fellow book-lover, Paul). But there was a previous incarnation several years ago (maybe 5 or 6?) with Trevor and another chap whose name currently escapes me. Anyway, the new episodes are great, partly because the dynamic between the two hosts feels so natural and engaging. Quartet in Autumn is a terrific suggestion. In fact, Paul mentioned it on the podcast as one of his personal favourites!
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