21st Jan 2013
New Year, Old Books: (Re)Visiting The Classics
Did you make New Year’s resolutions this January? Many of us will go down the tried, tested, and often failed route of aiming to lose a stone (boring!), trying out a new look (expensive!), or taking up a new hobby (scary!).
I’d like to suggest a New Year’s resolution that is certainly not boring, expensive, or scary. How about discovering the classic literature you always meant to, but never got around to?
How about challenging your perspective of what classic literature actually is? Here are some suggestions of classic novels that you have to read and reasons why they’ll challenge your preconceptions to their very core.
If you think classic romances are all about sipping tea under strict guardian ship with men of £500 a year, and ending with a triple sister wedding, Wuthering Heights is here to show otherwise. That’s if you can call Wuthering Heights a romance at all.
Heathcliffe and Cathy are two of the most compelling, complex, and downright infuriating characters born to narrative and no other novel will challenge your perspective of love and obsession with such intensity.
Death and despair are major players in this novel, and not since Romeo and Juliet got a bit heavy handed with the poison have two characters been so tragic.
There is a theory that as the reader, Brontë intended us to be drawn to Heathcliffe as a romantic figure, and thus are ultimately betrayed by his actions as much as the characters in the book.
We are compelled to both love and hate him with equal measure. I can’t think of any other novel of this genre, modern or otherwise, that is as emotionally and mentally challenging as Wuthering Heights.
I wouldn’t suggest that this is the first piece of feminist writing to have been published, but I’m willing to go out on a limb and say it’s the most significant. Feminism hadn’t even taken form when Wollstonecraft penned this incredible piece of 18th Century non-fiction.
Responding to the political voices that suggested women don’t need education beyond the domestic, Wollstonecraft points out that women should not just be the ‘wives’ but the intellectual equals to their partners.
She highlights the manner in which women could progress from their position in society by gaining an education, and how this would not only improve the lives of the women themselves, but also their husbands and children.
It’s an absolutely fascinating piece of writing for anyone with any kind of feminist leanings, and provides a compelling insight in to the lives of women in the 18th Century.
It is so refreshing to read something from the era that challenges perspective, and serves as a useful reminder that feminism didn’t start in the 20th Century.
The majority of Modernist writing will challenge every idea you may have about what literature should be, but few pieces are as significant as Mrs Dalloway. Here Woolf has given birth to a whole new form of writing, and opened doors for most of the alternative writers working today.
It is both the form and the subject matter that makes this piece so important. Constructing a novel which takes place within the space of 24 hours was a concept unrecognised in the Victorian era, especially one which utilises the internal monologue so thoroughly.
The fluidity of time in the novel will challenge your own perspective of time as a fixed concept, which is a pretty impressive thing for a relatively short piece of writing to do.
The actual content itself was also shocking at the time of publication, with lesbianism and suicide amongst the many controversial issues to be approached in the narrative.
The way in which Woolf manages to show she is aware of the controversy behind the subject without ever feeling self-conscious means as a modern reader, we can fully appreciate what she is doing here. It’s also a really bloody good read.
And The Rest…
Those are the three books I insist everyone has to read at some point in their life, but the real list is exhaustive. Once you’ve finished Wuthering Heights, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, and Mrs Dalloway, why not take a few others for a spin?
The real beauty of all the novels here is that they are classics for reasons that transcend their popularity. They may be old, they may be well known, but they all have the capability to shock you.
Which classics novels do you feel should be added to the list? What have you always intended to read, but never got around to? When were you last surprised by classic literature? Let us know in the comments!
Image via Moyan_Brenn