Dame Esther Rantzen: ‘I relate most to Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre’

Childline founder Dame Esther Rantzen discusses her favourite books. Photo: NSPCC/PA.Childline founder Dame Esther Rantzen discusses her favourite books. Photo: NSPCC/PA.
Childline founder Dame Esther Rantzen discusses her favourite books. Photo: NSPCC/PA.
Childline founder Dame Esther Rantzen speaks to Gabrielle Fagan about the books she loves – and one she pretends to have read as she supports an NSPCC appeal for funds.

With unexpected time on her hands due to the lockdown Dame Esther Rantzen is indulging in a ‘book-fest’.

The broadcaster and charity campaigner, who founded Childline, has re-organised her library – she’s given away hundreds of books – and is enjoying leisurely reading sessions at her home in the New Forest, Hampshire.

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“I decided it was the perfect time to scale down my library and re-organise 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 young people that desperately need someone to talk to, especially when home isn’t a safe place.

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She reveals her favourite reads – and the one book she pretends she has read.

“I’m 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 at 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 consistently behave like real people.

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

It was Austen’s Pride and Prejudice that made her fall in love with reading.

“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 the perfect love stories.

“I used to love the Victorian books my grandmother had on her bookshelves. I particularly remember The Cuckoo Clock, a fantasy novel by Mary Louisa Molesworth, The Secret Garden and A Little Princess both by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

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“They all featured little girls doing really well which, of course, appealed to me.”

As for literary characters, she says she most relates to is Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre.

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“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.”

Next on Rantzen’s reading list is Elizbeth is Missing, a book she added to her collection after seeing the TV drama of the same name.

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“It’s about dementia which anyone of around my age worries about,” she says. “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.”

One book she’s never quite managed to finish is 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.

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“I have this fantasy that one day I’ll read the whole thing but I don’t think I ever will.

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.

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