On a Dark November Night: Reading in the Cold

Midwestern winters are like bad performance art–long, self-indulgent, and performed against a chicly dark backdrop. When we first moved here, it snowed in early October.  Soon it thawed, but of course it snowed again.  There was snow continually on the ground from December through the end of March.  One day I had to crawl up an icy hill to reach the bus stop.  That was the ultimate humiliation.

Well, it is only November, but it is very cold and dark.  Persephone has gone to the underworld. How do we survive till spirng?  My personal secret is to wall myself up  between stacks of books and bright electric lights.  The 150-watt bulb in the floor lamp sparks memories of natural sunlight, while the books provide an  escape from the gloom.

Although some of my friends like to read hot-weather books in the cold, I strive to generate warmth through more adventurous reading.  Reading about the cold while I lounge in my living room gives me a sense of cheating the elements without actually braving them.  But I’m an eclectic reader, shamelessly curling up with a Regency romance one day and a bone-chilling mountain-climbing novel the next.  In the following list of books for reading in the cold, I’ve tried to compile a judicious blend of cozy comfort reads with stark adventure lit.

For the Cozily Inclined

Everyone loves Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.   There are three movie versions of Little Women, to my knowledge, and a new BBC adaptation is coming to PBS in 2018.  I llong to see the BBC series, but I also wonder, Why doesn’t someone make a TV series of Alcott’s better, shorter novel, An Old-Fashioned Girl?

An Old-Fashioned Girl is one of my favorite books, and for many years I thought I was the only one who had read it. Then,, a friend and I discovered our mutual fondness for this classic.  Both of us read it for the first time at the age of nine, when we wanted to be just like Polly, a poor country mouse who is not swayed by fashion when she visits her rich friend Fanny in the city.  We reread the book and enjoyed a brief revival of “Polly”-ism.

Feminists will approve Polly’s questioning of gender restrictions:  “[One] thing that disturbed Polly was the want of exercise.  To dress up and parade certain streets for an hour eery day, to stand talking in doorways, or drive out in a fine carriage, was not the sort of exercise she liked, and Fan would take no other.  Indeed, she was so shocked when Polly, one day, proposed a run down the mall, that her friend never dared suggest such a thing again….  She longed for something more lively than a flock of giddy girls, who tilted along in high-heeled boots, and costumes which made Polly ashamed to be seen with some of them.”

Polly’s struggles with poverty and loneliness six years later as she tries to earn her living as a music teacher give this novel an edge over some of Alcott’s more sentimental stories.

Adventure Lit

As a woman who has never undertaken what I’m told is the ultimate female adventure, i.e., childbirth and motherhood, I retain my lifelong fondness for boys’ adventure stories. Thomas Wharton’s Icefields is one of the most haunting and strange of these.

The novel begins on August 17, 1898, when Doctor Edward Byrne slips on the ice of Arcturus glacier in the Canadian Rockies. He sees a shape in the ice–is it man or angel?–which determines the course of his life.  Wharton’s style is stark, cool, and icily poetic.  He invents a cast of almost mythic Canadian characters, drawn with a few bold strokes:  Elspeth, the genteel manager of a glacier chalet, Freya Becker, the sexy but androgynous journalist, Hal Rawson, the poet who falls in love with Freya, and Trask, the guide who hopes to turn the glacier into a tourist attraction.  Yet the glacier represents an impersonal, mysterious force that transcends human ambitions and desires–and changes them forever.


A friend calls Victorians “the plot-masters of the universe,” and I have to agree no living writer can rival Anthony Trollope’s convoluted plots.  The Way We Live Now, often hailed as Trollope’s masterpiece, is a fat, juicy potboiler that is entertaining and elegantly written.  I curled up on the couch reading far into the night because I couldn’t bear not to know the answers to pressing questions like, “Will Marie Melmotte elope with the drunken Sir Felix?  Will the American divorcee Mrs. Hurtle get her man?”  Scandal buffs will be fascinated by the financial maneuvers of Marie’s father, the richest man in London.

Golden Age Detective Fiction

Reading  Golden Age Detective fiction is at the top of my list for escapes from the first glimmering of wintry weather.  There is something soothing about a murder investigation,  especially with a discerning English detective at the helm.  The detective interviews people and finds clues, but all violence is off the page.  There are cottages, manors, London flats, fens, helpful butlers…and other elements that make it relaxing.

I recommend the following, and have provided links to my posts about them:

Margery Allingham’s The White Cottage Mystery

Freeman Wills Croft’s Antidote to Murder

Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time

Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly

Happy Thanksgiving!  Don’t catch a cold!

16 thoughts on “On a Dark November Night: Reading in the Cold

  1. I agree with all of these – hooray! I love to curl up with a big classic over Christmas, not that we have much show here in the British Midlands nowadays. It’s really cold up in my study today, though, if that helps. The bright sun hasn’t warmed the house yet!


  2. I started out to read Margery Allingham chronologically earlier this year but haven’t got past the first one. She is clearly absolutely perfect for cold winter nights (and although we don’t have snow here yet, the forecast is for plummeting temperatures from tonight onwards) as is Trollope. In fact I feel a re-reading if the Palliser novels coming on.


    • The White Cottage Mystery is Allingham’s first mystery, a standalone, which I had never heard of till it was published as an ebook a few years ago. It is different from her Albert Campion books, which do get much better after a while.
      I love the Pallisers, too.


  3. I’m with you on An Old Fashioned Girl. It is much better than Eight Cousins, the one in which the know-it-all uncle instructs Rose how to be a girl.

    Also cheers for The Way We Live now and The Daughter of Time. Did you see the TV series with David Suchet as Melmotte?

    I am currently fending off cold weather with Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines. In the introduction it says that he wrote to win a bet after reading Treasure Island. I can believe it because it reads like Treasure Island meets The Jungle Book. Very warming.


    • Yes, Eight Cousins is a letdown! I did recently watch the Trollope miniseries and David Suchet was superb.
      Oh my goodness, I saw the movie with Deborah Kerr but haven’t read King Solomon’s Mine. I did read “She “and loved it, so should go back to my Dover edition of Haggard, which has three books in it.


  4. Great books for winter! I’ve read and liked several of them. I agree about Trollope and the Victorians. Give me a good story! A good mystery! I have my late mother’s copy of An Old-Fashioned Girl, which I think was a favorite of hers. Have you read The Worst Journey in the World by Apsley Cherry-Garrard? It’s a chunkster, but it’ll have you grateful for any warmth in your favorite reading chair.


  5. Great entry to your always wonderful blog. I’ve been lazy about commenting lately, but wanted to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving. I too am in the midwest and truly appreciate your comparison to performance art. Yes, it’s the perfect metaphor.


    • Happy Thanksgiving! It warmed up today, and apparently will be a balmy weekend. It’s hard to keep up reading blogs and the commenting is just one more thing!


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