On Monday morning, a friend texted to see how I was managing with the new all-being-at-home regime. I replied, a bit too proudly (it was 11am), that it was going rather well: I was working at my desk, my six-year-old daughter was doing sums at hers, while her father was at the stove, cooking up a vat of stew for the freezer.
“It’s a bit like Little House on the Prairie only with Netflix,” I joked – and, as I wrote those words, I felt a sudden pang for the homely, self-sufficient domesticity of Laura Ingalls Wilder and her sisters, and the fortitude with which they approached their turbulent 19th-century childhood in the American Midwest.
The itinerant, make-do-and-mend life of the Ingalls family was nothing like my ordinary but comfortable upbringing in Sussex, which may explain why, as a child, I devoured all nine books Laura wrote, most of them based on her early years amid America’s isolated, rural homestead communities.
I remember Ma making her hats and poor Mary, with her fading eyesight. I remember the sisters hiding in the long grass that later would be razed to the ground by locusts, and I remember the long, hard winter that froze the breath of the bison on the prairies and glued their hooves to the earth. And I remember the occasional extreme lack of food – or rather, I remember its impact on Pa who, trudging through blizzards to get some grain, was too weak to hoist the sack on his back.
We are not, thank heavens, living through a time of exceptional food shortages and cold, although it definitely feels like we are living through a plague. Even so, recalling much-loved childhood stories of resilience can, during alarming times, feel as comforting as any prayer.
The books we read as children stay with us for life, settling inside our skin in ways we barely realise, ready to provide, whenever we need it, instant access to our childhood selves, when life felt simpler, more enchanted, and rich in possibility. Yet, looking back now on the stories I loved so much, it’s clear that many of them were also quietly providing me with templates for how to live.
Those templates feel all the more necessary and valuable now, in this extraordinary time. Yes, I’m sure during the enforced isolation of the coming weeks I will attempt many (well, at least one) of those big, important novels I’ve shamefully never got around to – Bleak House; Barchester Towers; A Dance to the Music of Time – but a large part of me wants to nestle back into the embrace of Louisa May Alcott, LM Montgomery and Enid Blyton, and their inspirational characters: clumsy, brilliant Jo March in Little Women, who approaches each challenge with such gusto; eccentric, spirited Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables, who understood the value of kindness; and the plucky school girls of Malory Towers and St Clare’s, so fabulously flawed, resourceful and brave.
In one St Clare’s story, Marjory makes a rope out of bedsheets and rescues Erica from a fire. Would I, I used to wonder, aged eight, be the type of person who would know what to do in a fire? To respond the right way in a crisis? A few decades on, I might be about to find out.
Of course, as children, we also read for sheer escapist pleasure; an escapism that in adulthood even the most perfectly plotted thriller never seems quite able to match. I adored The Famous Five for taking me away from my bedroom and into a world full of smugglers and treasure and girls called George who could row a boat all by themselves.
From that, I graduated to Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and the aquatic derring-do of Nancy, Peggy and the Walker children. In C S Lewis’s Narnia stories, I discovered yet more tales of children having adventures that I could only dream of, navigating dangerous, challenging worlds all by themselves.
I gobbled down Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking books with their colourful depictions of an extraordinarily rebellious, capable girl who didn’t seem to have any parents at all, and who instead had a simply marvellous time living all by herself. And let’s not forget the stories of children who suffered and endured. On my bookshelf sits a yellowing hardback edition of Susan Coleridge’s Katy Carr stories, about a 19th-century tomboy who is rendered an invalid by a terrible accident. How did Katy cope with the long months cooped up in her bedroom? I can’t remember. I intend to reread them to find out.
My daughter is too young for many of these stories, even though these dark, frightening days are quickening in me an impulse to press them into her as soon as possible. None the less, she has developed an extraordinary love for the old-fashioned tales of Milly-Molly-Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley and My Naughty Little Sister by Dorothy Edwards. Of course, it’s the reassuring family normality these stories present that she is latching on to – the domestic order of Edwards’s sparkling tales that, however disruptive the antics of the little sister, is always restored at the end; the pre-war rural idyll of Milly-Molly-Mandy and Little Friend Susan where almost nothing ever happens and is all the more absorbing for it.
Reading some of Brisley’s stories to my daughter again last week, I wanted to jump inside her lovely black-and-white line drawings of Milly-Molly-Mandy in her little striped dress in her mother’s kitchen, the map at the front of each book showing where everyone lived, such perfect little symbols of continuity and calm.
My daughter has only ever known domestic order in her lifetime and I hope that continues, but our need for it, all the same, runs very deep. Which may be why, as the world spins off its axis, rather than thinking of a few lofty lines from Shakespeare to help see me through, I might instead settle down with an Enid Blyton. Afterwards I might see if the cupboard yields ingredients to make a seed cake, as Ma Ingalls might have done, before setting the table for tea.