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Esther Rantzen: The books that she just can't put down

The literary character the broadcaster most relates to is 'plain and put-upon' Jane Eyre, but fellow bookworms will understand why, writes Gabrielle Fagan


Dame Esther Rantzen

Dame Esther Rantzen

Press Association Images

Dame Esther Rantzen with her late husband Desmond Wilcox

Dame Esther Rantzen with her late husband Desmond Wilcox

The Mirror & The Light

The Mirror & The Light

Elizabeth is missing

Elizabeth is missing

Dame Esther Rantzen

With unexpected time on her hands due to lockdown, Dame Esther Rantzen is indulging in a book-fest. The broadcaster and charity campaigner has re-organised her library - she has given away hundreds of books - and is enjoying leisurely reading sessions at her home in the New Forest, Hampshire.

"I decided it was the perfect time to scale down my library and reorganise it. I think I've whittled my collection down to around 1,000," says the 80-year-old.

"My favourite place for reading is in my garden on a sunny day, sitting in a beautifully comfortable chair that Desi (her late husband Desmond Wilcox) and I bought together.

"It's been wonderful rediscovering old favourites that I can re-read and others that I've always meant to start and can now dip into. Time flies when I've got a good book and it's so relaxing."

Rantzen is supporting the NSPCC's emergency We're Still Here for Children appeal, urging the public to donate £10 to help fund vital services like Childline, so that young people who desperately need someone to talk to have support, especially when home isn't a safe place.

Here, she reveals her favourite reads - and the one book she pretends she has read.

What are you currently reading?

"The Mirror & The Light, the third book in the trilogy by Hilary Mantel. I'm immersing myself in it and it's brilliant to have endless time so I can read whole chunks of it in one go.

"I love history and Mantel is extraordinary because she just drops you into that world where the people portrayed are so individual and real and the situations so vivid.

"They're all complicated characters, but they consistently behave like real people.

"Mantel ranks as one of my three favourite authors, alongside Jane Austen and Charles Dickens."

What's next on your reading list?

"I adored [the TV drama] Elizabeth is Missingand I now have the book. It's about dementia, which anyone of around my age worries about. I check myself all the time - every time I try to change channels with my mobile phone, I panic. If I ever find myself putting the kettle in the fridge, I'll really worry."

What book have you read more than once?

"I've read all of Bill Bryson's books more than once. I particularly love A Short History of Nearly Everything. What I think is absolutely wonderful about it is that you can come to the end, start again and still feel you're discovering new things. It's so full of stuff that you can't possibly take it all in on one read."

Which book made you fall in love with reading?

"Pride and Prejudice. I'd been an enthusiastic reader for some time as a youngster, but hearing a radio version of that book made me go straight to the library to get a copy to read it for myself. I regard that and Cinderella as perfect love stories."

What were your favourite books as a child?

"I loved the Victorian books my grandmother had. I particularly remember The Cuckoo Clock, a fantasy novel by Mary Louisa Molesworth, and The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, both by Frances Hodgson Burnett. They all featured little girls doing really well, which appealed to me."

What do you prefer to read, fiction or non-fiction?

"I'm fascinated by biographies and autobiographies and have shelves full of them. My favourite is a wonderful autobiography called The Song of My Life: My Memories, about Yvette Guilbert. She was a French chanteuse and actress who performed at the Moulin Rouge, knew all the Impressionists and often featured in Toulouse-Lautrec's work. She lived in Paris during the 1890s and was a brilliantly naughty and fascinating character."

What book have you never managed to finish?

"Stephen Hawking's A Brief History Of Time. Embarrassingly, I have to admit I've sometimes pretended I've read it because I started and think I should've been able to finish it. I have this fantasy that one day I'll read the whole thing, but I don't think I ever will."

Which literary character do you most relate to?

"Jane Eyre. She was plain, put-upon, ignored and generally bullied, but she's so brilliantly described that, even though my life has been the exact opposite of hers in every way, I identify with her because Charlotte Bronte allows you to enter her soul."

The NSPCC's We're Still Here for Children emergency appeal is urging the public to donate £10 to help fund vital services like Childline, so the charity can be there for young people who need someone to talk to, especially when home isn't a safe place

Belfast Telegraph