Victoria Connelly grew up in Norfolk and studied literature at Worcester College. Three of her magical romances have been published in Germany and the first - about a group of tiny guardian angels - was made into a film. Her first UK novel, Molly's Millions, came out last summer. It's about a lottery winner who gives it all away, and it's already caught the attention of a Hollywood film company. Victoria is now working on a trilogy about Jane Austen addicts. She lives with her artist husband in London. Below she writes about H.E. Bates's The Darling Buds of May.
Victoria Connelly on The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates
It's really difficult for a writer to pick just one favourite book but the one I keep returning to – the one I endlessly quote from – is The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates.
I'm sure many people are familiar with the books, adapted by Yorkshire TV in the early 90s. But, if you aren't, The Darling Buds of May is the first in a series of five novellas, set in Kent during the 1950s and 60s. They centre around Pop and Ma Larkin and their ever-expanding family of children.
H.E. Bates wrote 23 novels and published several collections of short stories, but it's the Larkin books I turn to time and time again. They are feel-good fiction at its most voluptuous. You know you're going to get a happy ending. And a happy beginning and middle too! But this isn't to say that the books are lightweight. The final book in the quintet, A Little of What You Fancy, deals with Pop Larkin's heart attack. But, whatever the problems faced by the Larkins, you know that family and community will knit together and find a solution.
I think what draws me to the books, and what seems to be a recurring theme in my own writing, is the need to escape. In The Darling Buds of May, Mr Cedric Charlton, the stuffy civil servant, is sent to Home Farm to find Pop Larkin in order to get him to fill in his tax return but, instead of completing his oh-so-important buff form, he finds himself falling in love with Pop's eldest, Mariette, getting drunk on Pop's Rolls-Royce cocktails, and taking sick leave so he can go strawberry picking. Mr Charlton, soon rechristened 'Charley' by Pop, cannot fight being seduced by this place and, just like him, I found myself never wanting to leave.
Having worked for both the Ministry of Agriculture and the Benefits Agency, I can completely identify with this need to escape from the office environment - the clock watching, the paper cuts from an excess of filing, and the tedium of the photocopier. So, when Charley stumbles into the golden world of the Larkins, I felt an immediate connection with him.
These novels give me hope: paradise, it seems, is possible to find. You can escape from your life. So what if it's fictional? It still gives us hope, and I want to give my readers the same sense of hope when they read my books.
It's hard not to fall in love with the England of H.E. Bates and to believe that the world is a beautiful place. There is joy in everything. A field is described as being 'thick with buttercups [shining] brighter than a bank of sovereigns'. And each meal seems to be a celebration in the Larkin household:
Pop watched with great relish the first strawberries of the year come to the table. They were fat, shining as if enamelled, and half-drenched in cream.
And, always, there is a sense of optimism and Pop is described as being somebody who 'tried to find some good in everybody, even the worst of stinkers'.
But enough of the Waltonesque. These books aren't as squeaky clean as I'm making them out to be. In fact, they're really rather sexy. Each of the characters is drawn with distinct physical precision. Ma has a 'splendid bank of a bosom' and a laugh 'like a jelly'. The second-oldest daughter, Primrose, is described here: 'like the rest of the family, she hadn't the shadow of an inhibition in her whole being. You could fairly hear her thinking with the pores of her skin.'
In Oh! To Be in England, Mariette poses in the nude for her mother's painting, her father looking on and commenting on the dubious shade of blue with which Ma has chosen to paint their daughter's breasts. There are more bikinis in these books than in FHM. And I dare not tell you how Pop and Ma tell if it's going to rain or not - you'd best find out for yourself! But there's nothing smutty about these books: sex and sexuality, like food, are to be celebrated and enjoyed.
I want, desperately, to live in Larkin land - where the woods are stuffed with bluebells and the air is full of birdsong. It's a world I immerse myself in with acute regularity because, most of all, these books burst with love: love between Pop and Ma, Mariette and Charley, and Primrose and Mr Candy.
But, more than anything, it's a love affair that H.E. Bates has with the English countryside that stays with me. There is such a strong sense of place and of his pride in being English. For me, these books are simply perfick!
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]