How to create a classic English library for your home

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Having admired many a quintessentially English house, both in person and in picture, I have come to notice that one is never truly complete unless it has an extensive and much loved library.

In the age of the Kindle and fast-paced living, never before has it been so imperative to fill ones home with the joy of books to balance the mind. Not only does the humble book serve as an education, and respite from the world, but if you buy one right, it can be a most decorative and loved backdrop to the best ‘home’ memories.

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My Grandparents are bookworms, and though settled in a modest 1930’s semi on the outskirts of London, nothing akin to a palatial country house, it has nevertheless always been filled to the rafters with books. Adorning every wall is a living, breathing, wallpaper of glorious fiction and informative reading, ready and willing to cure all boredom, or answer any burning question. My Morfar especially, insists on buying everyone a book for Christmas, he’s done this for as long as I can remember, and is something I have embraced when shopping for children’s birthday gifts (this book helps with inspiration if you’d like to adopt the same idea).

Lest we lose the joy of the paperback, not only should we bestow a love of real books on the younger generation, we must do all we can to preserve the industry and keep words in print by making the joy of owning and reading physical books an important part of our home life!

There is no man who echoes this sentiment more than my friend Michael Gibbs. Former proprietor of The Bolingbroke Bookshop, Michael sold books in his charming Battersea cornerstore for over thirty years. It was something out of one of those ‘London made charming’ romantic comedies. Independent stores like his are the stuff of Britain, iconic places that make a landscape more about community and integrity than economic monopoly.

Bolingbroke Libraries Michael Gibbs credit Alex-Lentati

Sadly this romantic ideal hasn’t been widely adopted by a younger generation of readers, and due to the rising popularity of Kindles, ebooks and online retail, Bolingbroke was recently forced to close.

Not one to let that stop him sever his passion and suspend his work with the book trade, Gibbs now provides a Bespoke Library Service whereby private clients can hire him to curate beautifully tailored libraries based on your personal tastes and reading preferences.

Lucky for us, Michael has agreed to share ten not-oft thought of books that make a great starting point for your own library. When I asked Michael to share some of his suggested titles with me, I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer variety, but shocked that this self-professed book lover hadn’t heard of them before.

As a woman, I know I can often be persuaded by the ‘classic choices’ with girlish themes, and as much as it is good to cover the old favourites, one can be too tempted to fill bookshelves with stories everyone is familiar with.

It’s refreshing to get an expert opinion, one that will help to expand your reading experience, not to mention help you to enjoy vicarious experiences you might otherwise miss out on. As such, these suggestions will be a pleasure in helping one step out of a reading rut or comfort zone, and without a doubt - all titles will be great conversation pieces.

A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one. George R.R. Martin

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Start with beautiful British Literature titles

The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy

The three novels; ‘The Man of Property’, ‘In Chancery’, ‘To Let’, and the the two interludes: ‘Indian Summer of a Forsyte’, and ‘Awakening’, form the famous Forsyte Saga. These sweeping stories are about a quintessential English family at the turn of the nineteenth century, every book as compelling and timeless as human nature itself.

The Forsyte Saga Damian Lewis

The Forsyte Saga chronicles the ebbing social power of the commercial upper-middle class Forsyte family between 1886 and 1920. The leading character Soames Forsyte, a Victorian who outlives the age, and whose passion for his beautiful but unresponsive wife Irene echoes throughout the saga.

There are a number of editions about, and you can take your pick. It’s a lovely collection to source from a vintage dealer if you can, or for modern print editions The Wordsworth Classics and Penguin Modern Classics are lovely options.

Joanna Godden by Shelia Kaye-Smith

Set in the Romney Marshes in Kent around the appealing Joanna Godden and her life and loves. Published in 1921 to much acclaim, it is a beautifully written novel.

Joanna is a ‘damn fine woman’, big and blue-eyed with a brown freckled face and a weakness for fancy clothes. On the death bed of her father all her neighbours expect her to marry, for someone (moreover, some man) must run Little Ansdore, the Sussex farm she inherits. But Joanna is a person of independent mind, she decides to run it herself. Her strength as a woman and a lover, as a sister, and a farmer, are all broken by her defiance of convention and the exhausting demands of the land itself. But nothing can finally defeat Joanna. She bounces off the page triumphant, making her one of the most attractive country heroines in literature.

Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith

Virago offer a nice edition of this which I would recommend, though it is somewhat hard to source. Leopold Classic Library have an edition Joanna Godden. Or source from Blackwell’s.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa

This wonderful novel set in Sicily is about how the charismatic Prince of Salina has to come to terms with Garbaldi’s unification of Italy. There are various editions, paperback readily available, however luxury editions make nice gifts. This edition of The Leopard available at Blackwell’s is a rather handsome paperback cover.

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Lose yourself in wonderful British memoirs

A Late Beginner by Priscilla Napier

A gentle recall of how it was to grow up, away from England, in Egypt at the turn of the 19th century and recalling the people and domestic events that governed her life, Pricilla Napier’s A Late Beginner is evocative of childhood spent in the the golden years of the Edwardian Age. Currently published by Slightly Foxed Editions and highly recommended.

Blood Knots by Luke Jennings

Vintage Fisherman

A beautifully crafted story about the author’s love of fishing, of family affection, and the tragic loss of brave friends.

Blood Knots is a wonderful observation of historical and recent acts of valour by those he loved, and how they shaped his own life - not something you’d think could be linked to the activity of fishing, but then again, fishing does help one to think.

Again, a title readily available in paperback. A brilliant review of this book was published in The Guardian.

Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby

This is a wonderful tale of how the travel writer escaped and met his wife, Wanda, in war time Italy, beautifully recounting the generosity of the Italian peasants towards British POW’s. An immensely warm heart portrait of what it was like to live during that time. Readily available in paperback, or via Slightly Foxed.

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Explore the best of British travel

Last Days in Old Europe by Richard Bassett

A memoir of living and experiencing Trieste, Vienna and Prague in the eighties and nineties; the social grouping, history and observations are sympathetically recalled. During the 1980s Richard Bassett was The Times’ “man” in central Europe, and a good old time he appears to have had. Last Days in Old Europe is his memoir of that period, and those places, it is nicely crafted and would happily accompany you on a couple of quiet evenings.

The South Country by Edward Thomas

Edward Thomas Poet

Of the poet, Edward Thomas, perambulating around the southern counties of England. Lyrical, passionate, acutely sensitive to life in the countryside and the rhythms of the seasons, it brilliantly merges landscape, folk culture and natural history into a record of what Edward Thomas saw and felt as he wandered the old ways of southern England.

One review boldly states that this book “should be compulsory reading for all those who love England”.

Available in a lovely paperback edition by Little Troller Books.

The Natural History of Selborne by Gilbert White

This classic records the curiosity of nature in and around White’s home in Hampshire before the French Revolution. White was a naturalist and ornithologist, this book being a most charming read. Some volumes are illustrated with the woodcuts of a wonderful artist, Eric Ravilious, which fall so easy to the eye. Available from Oxford World’s Classics, or consider this beautiful edition by The Folio Society from Abe Books.

A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne

This is a wonderful travelogue of Mr Yorick‘s adventures through France and Italy during the latter part of the 1700s. The novel was extremely popular and influential in its time, and helped establish travel writing as the dominant genre of the second half of the 18th century.

Unlike prior travel accounts which stressed classical learning and objective non-personal points of view, A Sentimental Journey emphasises the subjective discussions of personal taste and sentiments, of manners and morals over classical learning. Available from Oxford World’s Classics.

Stick that nose of yours back in a book...

I believe that a healthy diet of good books, consumed regularly, can significantly enrich your life. Not only in expanding the mind and allowing you to travel to the far ends of the earth (less the expense), but they also provide you with the opportunity to see life from the point of view of another person.

The symphony of words printed in a paperback offer an almost free education on what’s truly important in this world. Compassion, understanding, and keeping an open mind.

Reading is a priceless pleasure. I highly recommend stepping out of your comfort zone to select a book that you may not have chosen before. It may ignite a passion in you that until now, was sadly undiscovered.

Consider picking up a copy of 1001 Books to start off your library, or if you would like a bespoke service, Mr Gibbs is waiting to help you find your perfect page-turners.

A big thank you to Michael for sharing these beautiful classic titles with us.

Happy reading!

Alena x

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