Desert Island Books: Sarra Manning

As a teenager, I obsessively reread Jilly Cooper’s early girl’s name novels (and still prefer them to her bonkbusters) and Harriet was the one I loved best. Not just because I completely over-identified with awkward, bookish Harriet but also because I thrilled to the caddish Simon Villiers. Of course, reading it as a grown-up (and not so much reading it but looking down at the page and realising that pretty much ever line is commited to memory,) emotionally unavailable playwright Cory Erskine is much sexier. Between the two of them, I think they’ve provided the blueprint for every male lead I’ve ever written. Also, Sevenoaks is the best Jilly Cooper dog.


Sarra Manning has been a voracious reader for over forty years and a prolific author and journalist for twenty five. Her eight novels include Unsticky, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, The House Of Secrets and her latest, Rescue Me, published in 2021. Sarra has also written over fifteen YA novels, and light-hearted romantic comedies under a pseudonym.
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Sarra Manning started her writing career on Melody Maker and Just Seventeen, has been editor of ElleGirl and What To Wear and has also contributed to The Guardian, ELLE, Grazia, Stylist, Fabulous, Stella, You Magazine, Harper’s Bazaar and is currently the Literary Editor of Red Magazine.

Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild

Sarra Manning Desert Island Books

Harriet by Jilly Cooper

Sarra Manning

Sarra Manning lives in London surrounded by piles and piles of books. You can buy Sarra Manning’s new book, London, with Love here.

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

Sarra Manning Desert Island Books

Fabulous Nobodies by Lee Tulloch

I held off reading this for so long when it first came out because it looked like a common or garden crime novel with the dreariest cover. Finally I succummbed and I literally could not put it down – I nearly got run over as I walked down the street reading it. An immersive literary thriller and murder mystery set in the small, closeted world of an elite New England college and told through the eyes of Richard, who doesn’t quite belong, and I’m always drawn to novels where the narrator, like the reader, is an outsider. I’ve read The Secret History at least ten times now over the last thirty years or so and every time, I discover something new in the story. In recent years, I’m struck by the similiarities between Bunny and his grasping, grabby family and a certain Boris Johnson and clan…

I first read A Room Of One’s Own at university and it absolutely blew my mind in the way that it opened me up to a world where women’s voices had been hidden for so long. It was something I hadn’t even considered before and I love the way she traces the echoes of these lost women, of Shakespeare’s Sister. But looking back now, I see that this is the book that made me realise that I could be a writer. Even if I didn’t have a room of my own and £5000 a year (or the modern day equivalent!) to live on, A Room Of One’s Own made being a writer feel like something I could achieve, when up until that point I’d believed that people like me didn’t get to be writers.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt­

If you enjoyed reading about Sarra Manning’s eight Desert Island Books, you might also like to read Sarra Manning’s new book. Find our more about London, with Love by Sarra Manning here.

Diary Of A Provincial Lady by EM Delafield

Subtitled a novel about a girl who’s in love with her clothes, Fabulous Nobodies, which I first picked up in Edgware library during my lost years between university and getting a proper, full-time job, was so ahead of its time that it never properly arrived. Without it, I doubt there’d ever be any Sex And The City.  It’s the story of a girl called Reality Nirvana, all of her friends call her Really, who’s a door whore at a New York club and had a closet full of dresses that talk to her. At the time I read it, I recognised that world (thought I wouldn’t get to go to NYC for another five years) and now it’s a love letter to a world, to a New York, that no longer exists. When it wasn’t out of print, I always had spare copies to give to new friends. On the surface, it’s a joyous frothy book, but one that has real heart and is all about the people that we pretend to be as well as they people that we actually are.

The first four books of The Cazalet Chronicles (I’ve expunged the fifth and final book from the record) are my literary platonic ideal. Starting with The Light Years, the series follows three generations of women in an upper middle-class family through the second world war and their friendships, marriages and affairs. They’re literary enough that I feel smart for reading them but are also stuffed full of all my favourite things: Posh aristocratic family, big country house, eccentric patriarch, saintly matriarch, precocious children, flighty young women, sardonic older men, love, love affairs, even more love affairs. Be still my heart!. I first read them one year in the hinterland between Christmas and New Year, binging on one book after the other, unable to believe that I’d never come across them before. Later, when I told a group of bookish friends about my new discovery,, it turned out that they’d already read them. “We just assumed you’d read them because it’s like they’ve been written just for you.” I’m still fuming about it.

The Cazalet Chronicles by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Of all the books I loved as a child, most of them revolving around boarding school, ballet and horses, Ballet Shoes is the one I come back to. The one that I still reread. The one that is so seared into my DNA that every time I go to the V&A on Cromwell Road, I always think about the Fossil Sisters saving the penny and walking. How when I wish someone good luck I hold my thumbs as the Fossils did when any of them had an audition and how I used to call my dog Betsy Pretty Toes in honour of Posy Fossil. (It’s the done thing to say that Petrova was the Fossil that you most wanted to be like, but actually Posy was always my favourite.)

The Idea Of You by Robinne Lee

The four books that make up the Diary Of A Provincial Lady series are my sure-fire antidote for a reading slump or bad case of the blues. They are always in my reading rotation and, like Fabulous Nobodies, I always have spare copies to foist on  people. Unlike her slightly snobby contemporaries, Angela Thirkell or Nancy Mitford, EM Delafield is far more simpatico and her most famous fictitious creation started life as a column in the distinctly left-wing Time And Tide magazine. Although they were written over seventy years ago, the travails of the Provincial Lady, woman of letters, harassed mother, frequently socially awkward, are as dryly funny as a vodka martini. It’s so easy to empathise with her problems whether it’s if she dare wear her tired blue frock to another soiree, nasty letters from the bank about her overdraft or how hard it is to get good staff. (NB: I have no staff.) Sarra Manning Desert Island Books
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Something a little more contemporary, The Idea Of You came out last year and I wasn’t sold on the premise of a sophisticated older woman having a hot love affair with a much younger man in a boy band. I cut my teeth on my mother’s Mills & Boons and I’m a sucker for an older man, younger woman pairing so I was surprised that I fell so hard for The Idea Of You. It helps that it’s really well written, sharply observed and super hot. Solene is clever, funny, beautifully dressed, deliciously aspirational and yet the kind of woman you’d want to be friends with. And Hayes Campbell, from her twleve  year old daughter’s favourite band, August Moon, is um, Harry Styles by any other name. I went from thinking of Harry as a rather aesthetically pleasing young man to listening to Fine Line on repeat, poring over pics of his Vogue shoot and rereading The Idea Of You another three times. This book and Harry Styles got me through last year!