The season of good cheer is upon us, and not only because I am able to wear my reindeer hat without shame. For those engaged in a love affair with literature, bitter cold and biting wind mean an excuse for blankets and books. While many decry the seemingly-unending darkness, bibliophiles can rejoice in long evenings spent with a cup of tea in one hand and a favourite volume in the other. Winter is a season for taking refuge in bookshops and finding cafes with cosy reading corners. And lest we forget, it is an opportunity for those who celebrate Christmas to load their wish lists with their bookish desires. In summary, winter is gorgeous and I love it.
There is no end to the list of books suited to these dark and damp nights, but there are a number of fictional favourites that I will forever associate with cosy evenings curled up on the sofa. So, without further ado, here is a list of my five literary winter warmers:
1. Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
"On the bleak hill-top the earth was hard with a black frost, and the air made me shiver through ever limb. Being unable to remove the chain, I jumped over, and, running up the flagged causeway bordered with straggling gooseberry-bushes, knocked vainly for admittance, till my knuckles tingled and the dogs howled. 'Wretched inmates!' I ejaculated, mentally, 'you deserve perpetual isolation from your species for your churlish inhospitality. At least, I would not keep my doors barred in the day-time. I don't care - I will get in!'"
Wuthering Heights is, in my mind, one of the greatest winter reads. Its harsh prose and chillingly wild setting are the perfect complement to an evening spent fighting the ominous December darkness. Explore the devastating and all-consuming love of Heathcliff's love for Cathy against the backdrop of the Yorkshire moors, and be taken to confront some of the most terrifying extremities of the human experience.
2. Ghost Stories by Charles Dickens
"Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight; and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have often troubled patients, some of whom had become conscious of the nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments upon themselves. 'As to an imaginary cry,' said I, 'do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp it makes of the telegraph wires'."
Long time readers of The Book Habit know that I have a long-standing love affair with Mr. Dickens. Perhaps one of the authors best associated with the Christmas period, it is his wonderful A Christmas Carol that holds a place in the heart of many readers around the world. While this may be partly thanks to the Muppets (A Muppet's Christmas Carol is perhaps my favourite seasonal film), we must also credit the author with a little responsibility.
Straying from tradition a little, Dickens' Ghost Stories also has strong associations for me. A compendium of his ghostly short stories, the volume is a gloriously spooky winter companion. Perhaps more entertaining than insomnia-inducing, Dickens' stories are notorious for their ability to tap into basic human fears and desires. Read The Signalman and you will surely agree that this is a notoriety well deserved.
3. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J.K. Rowling
"Christmas was coming. One morning in mid-December, Hogwarts woke to find itself covered in several feet of snow. The lake froze solid and the Weasley twins were punished for bewitching several snowballs so that they followed Quirrell around, bouncing off the back of the turban. The owls that managed to battle their way through the stormy sky to deliver post had to be nursed back to health by Hagrid before they could fly off again. No one could wait for the holidays to start."
I really don't think I need spend much time going into the merits of this particular choice, since the Harry Potter series represents perhaps the greatest literary gift ever bestowed upon the world. This first book in the series is, for me, a Christmas favourite. Including Harry's first Christmas at Hogwarts, I have made a habit of re-reading this volume every December.
With a trip to the Warner Brothers Studios in November 2013, I got to experience first-hand the joy of a Harry Potter Christmas. Although this year has been devoid of a repeat trip, my Gryffindor scarf has been released from retirement, steeped in memories of Hogwarts at Christmas.
4. Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
" 'We feel cold, but we don't mind it, because we will not come to harm. And if we wrapped up agains the cold, we wouldn't feel other things, like the bright tingle of the stars, or the music of the aurora, or best of all the silky feeling of the moonlight on our skin. It's worth being cold for that'."
I am constantly surprised by the number of avid readers I meet who have never attempted to become acquainted with Philip Pullman's fantastic His Dark Materials trilogy. It was many, many years ago that I was given Northern Lights as a Christmas present, and the series has been a firm favourite ever since. Along with Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Northern Lights is a book that I return to each winter with fresh excitement. I highly recommend that anyone unfamiliar with Pullman's trilogy give it a go this December.
5. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie
I love a mystery and Agatha Christie is undoubtedly queen of the genre. It is largely through my work at Knebworth House that the association between her work and the winter season has become firmly established. I had the good fortune to oversee filming of an episode of Miss Marple at the House in the depths of winter and, ever since, I have been unable to get through the cold months without recourse to Agatha Christie's best works. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is undoubtedly my favourite, although any other would also succeed in filling that Poirot-shaped hole in my heart.