ChawtonFabulous blogger Edith ONuallain, having written about her own favorite five books, tagged me to write about mine. Please visit Edith here and see the end of this blog for other participants whose choices you will want to peruse.

So many books and so few slots for them to fill! I have to go with the books that most shaped my life and that have stayed with me the longest.  Four of them are from the British nineteenth and  twentieth centuries.

 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (that’s her home above).

What I still love about this book is the fantasy of Elizabeth Bennett.  Although men in the novel have far more money, mobility, and power to choose than women,  men’s sense of power and their real pomposity are basically a set up by the author, a preparation for poetic justice, a license to enjoy the spectacle of men witlessly betraying their legacy of power and demonstrating impressive capacities for turning their potential control into ineffective action or submission to the control of others.  Although Elizabeth marries at the end, and although marriage demands resignation even as it prompts rejoicing, initiates new life while confirming a flickering suspicion that the best is already over, what we take from the novel is not a sense of Elizabeth’s untimely decline, but a tonic impression of her intelligence, her wit, and her power. It is a further tribute to Austen’s skill that we believe in Elizabeth’s power and do not perceive it as fantasy.  (We need more fantasies like Elizabeth!)

Middlemarch by George Eliot

I have always loved this book for its celebration of moral passion and of the desire to make the world a better place. The celebration comes through even though much of the novel is devoted to showing how moral ardor can be led astray by egoism, failures of vision, and a web of social relations that denied women, especially, much freedom to act.  (Dorothea’s uncle reminds her that, “Young ladies don’t understand political economy.”)  In the absence of religious faith, in which Eliot no longer believed, the novel suggests that feeling for others, a toleration of their limits, a sympathetic view, much like Eliot’s own, can prompt us to acts of  generosity, caring, and social reform. Dorothea may wonder at the end if  there wasn’t something better with her life that she should have done, but Eliot affirms that even a “middle” march can have a good effect upon the world.

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens.

This is a novel for the times. It gives us a world in which buying and selling –orphans, lime, bones–dominates almost all relationships and in which living for profit and acquisition have come to seem natural and right.  It is a world in which  institutions act like bad parents and in which dominant values are as polluted as the Thames River, which flows though the city full of corpses and sludge, providing a living for those who make a business from robbing the dead. The very wind is full of dust and waste.  People who would appear only in the background of an Austen novel—turkey poachers or gypsies, for example,– are main characters  whose view of the world we are invited to understand.  The figures we  see as separate and isolated  at  the beginning of the novel turn out to be intimately related, a strong message that we are responsible for each other, this despite society’s widely shared assumption that pursuing our own self-interest is all we need to do. Although at the end of the novel the Voice of Society continues to drone on,  Dickens believes that unexpected flowerings of love and energy are still possible, along with good parenting, generosity, and love.

Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence

Ok, I know there are so many things about Lawrence I shouldn’t like. But the book had such an influence on me that I named my favorite cat after its heroine, Ursula.  The cat had golden eyes, and Ursula has a golden light.  The light is her capacity for wanting to be whole, for having passion, for being able to change, grow, and overthrow convention  despite living in a world which Lawrence thought of as dead and death giving, a victim and an instrument of industrial capitalism..

 Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

This book had a powerful influence on me and is one reason I wrote a food memoir, Tasting Home.  As a feminist, one of the things I love about it is its affirmation of the importance of women’s labor in the home. (Not that I would “save” that labor for women–it should be shared.) A takeoff on nineteenth-century Mexican romance, Like Water for Chocolate is about love and politics, the latter being represented by the Mexican Revolution and the ongoing struggle of Tita and her sister Gertrude against patriarchal culture.

Each chapter is organized around a recipe, and the process involved in making the chapter’s dish-—the grinding, the toasting, the chopping, the boiling, the frying, the cracking of eggs—is so thoroughly woven throughout the pages that cooking, an often invisible form of labor, becomes as central to the story as romance and revolution. Cooking, indeed, becomes an emblem of the domestic work that makes romance and revolution possible. It is the force that keeps women and men alive not just physically, but emotionally, spiritually, and politically as well.

I think cooking is like that, always there, and if it is as it should be, it not only nourishes our bodies but gives us the comfort of feeling loved, cared for, and secure. Eating what is cooked and served with good will evokes one of our first experiences of feeling at home in the world, the experience of being fed by another being. That is one reason that cooking and eating with others can heal the adult self, one reason that it can so easily make us feel connected to another person, a family, a culture, a political community.

What are your favorite five?

Please check these bloggers for their own favorites!

Edith ONuallain, In A Room of My Own

Brenda Moguez, Passionate Pursuits

Tracy Fells, The Literary Pig

Betsy Graziani Fasbinder, Art Finds a Way

Based in the Bay Area, Judith is an author and Professor Emerita at U.C. Davis


  1. Great choices, especially Dickens and Lawrence. Lawrence’s “Studies in Classic American Studies” is also a classic. Middle march is a great metaphor; I’ll put Eliot on my list.

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