10 Wonderful Classics. Number 4 is Absolutely Stunning.
a classic is a book which which each rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first readingItalio Calvino
Literary critics, historians, authors and avid readers all have different opinions on which works of literature can be considered “classic”. Are they novels which captivate because of their lyrical, figurative language? Are they works that ask profound questions about our society and what it means to be human?
The answer is of course Yes and Yes.
I think of classics as works that are unforgettable as a result. Reading them is an intensely rewarding experience. And the initial joy on first reading never goes away. Each time you read the book you discover a new layer of meaning or a new question to consider.
Coming up with a list of just 10 classics makes Brexit negotiations seem like a piece of cake. There are easily twice that number I could have included. I’ll enjoy seeing your reactions and debating what should or should not have made the list.
A Seventeenth Century Classic
1. Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667).
I can remember sitting on my bed in my university room feeling daunted by having to read this for a tutorial.
It was a monster of a book because of the extensive notes that explained all of Milton’s references. And boy did I need those explanations since I was not blessed with a deep knowledge of the Bible (the price for not paying attention in Sunday School) or Greek and Roman myths.
But I still found this epic a gripping read with its rebel angels, the clash of good and evil, creation of the world and then the fall from grace of Adam and Eve. Yes it’s long and the prose is often convoluted but utterly memorable.
Nineteenth Century Classics
This was the century that saw the greatest change in the form and nature of the novel. Starting with the first realist texts of the early part of the century, and ending in the realm of stream of consciousness.
So many wonderful novels from which to choose that I could easily have just done a list of 10 favourite 19th century novels. But I’ve tried to pick ones that I never tire of reading.
2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)
There is no way that a list of favourites from the nineteenth century could ignore Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice can be read as a romance story which ends happily ever after. But as the title indicates Austen was more concerned about issues of social class and the precarious position of unmarried women.
3. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
This was one of the first classics I ever read and it’s still giving me pleasure 50 years later. Obviously my understanding and interpretation of Charlotte Bronte’s most famous novel has changed over those decades. But that’s one of the beauties of this novel, that it can be read in many different ways.
At it’s most basic level it can be a story of a put-upon orphan to finds love and happiness. Delve deeper however and you can find ideas about women’s right for independence and a fulfilling life; the unenviable position of governesses and 19th century attitudes towards science in the form of phrenology.
4. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871)
My all-time favourite novel.
I know many people who have started to read this book but struggled because it’s a bit slow to get going and has a very large cast.
One way to read it is to think of it like a soap opera with a few key relationships – the ‘eternal triangle’ of Dorothea, Casaubon and Ladislaw and the predatory Rosamund who snares Dr Lydgate and almost bankrupts him.
Look beyond that however and you’ll find a novel about ambitions for great medical discoveries, altruism and electoral reform. All are thwarted.
This is a novel about big ideas but one that also shows how gossip can bring a man down.
5. Germinal by Emile Zola (1885)
This was my first experience of reading Zola and, though I’ve gone on to read a few others by him (see my list here) , this is the one that has a special place in my affection.
It’s hard reading not because Zola’s prose is impenetrable but because of the subject matter – a struggle for survival by impoverished miners in France. They take strike action in the hope of a better future but their rebellion is violently crushed by the army and police.
Uncompromisingly harsh this is a novel that is absolutely unforgettable.
6. The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1898)
A novella about a woman who feels trapped in her role as wife and mother. It was castigated at the time of its publication but has come to be viewed as a key feminist text.
Edna Pontellier’s process of “awakening” and self-discovery that constitutes the focus of the book takes several forms: she learns to swim, has an affair and leaves her husband and children. But her freedom doesn’t provide her with happiness.
The ending is enigmatic – does Edna’s action represent a failure of her bid for freedom or is it a liberating triumph?
Twentieth Century Classics
8. A Passage to India by E. M Forster (1924)
Set against the backdrop of the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s, Forster’s novel traces the disastrous consequences when well-meaning but clueless representatives of the colonial class mix with those who are subjects of the Raj.
It features a tremendous set piece of an expedition to the Marabar caves where something happens (exactly what is a typical Forsterian ‘muddle’ that causes the disgrace of an Indian doctor and inflames the ruling Sahibs.
The novel might feel a bit dated at times but it’s on the ball in its depiction of the difficulties in bridging cultural divides.
9. Heart of the Matter — Grahame Greene (1948).
Few authors do a better job of portraying people undergoing a moral crisis and tortured by their consciences.
Greene himself didn’t care much for this book. But I love this story of a British police officer in an African outpost who becomes embroiled in a moral crisis In the end there is no way out for him, except one of eternal spiritual damnation.
10. Cry, the Beloved Country — Alan Paton (1948).
I’m staying in Africa for my final choice.
This novel is set in South Africa on the eve of apartheid. It features a clergyman who travels to Johannesburg from his home in a small rural village and discovers racial tension, economic inequalities between black and white and a breakdown of traditional values.
Paton uses multiple voices to expresses his love for South Africa and his fear for the future of his homeland.
This is a novel of protest in a sense but it is also an appeal for justice.
So there you have my choices. What would be on your list?
44 thoughts on “10 Wonderful Classics. Number 4 is Absolutely Stunning.”
My favorite is Dante’s Divine Comedy. Written much in the same fashion as Milton’s Paradise Lost, it’s more centered on love as a way to elevate one from its human condition.
I’ve read bits of Dante but not plunged into the whole….
Great list. I’ve read and agree with you about Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre and Middle March. For me I would have to add North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell, which I adore. I’d also have to add Persuasion and Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen.
North and South was my first Gaskell and still is my favourite
Hmm, I started typing a comment. Then answered Judy, so then I lost my comment and am starting again, I think! Apart from your first title, I wouldn’t have chosen these books I think. Sounds like I need to revisit Middlemarch!
There was a classics tag going last month, I have just answered the questions, and will post them next week, so I guess we’ll pursue the conversation on the topic.
Now I’m going to be curious about what YOU would have chosen 🙂
I’ve read “Jane Eyre” four times, once for fun, once for the dialogue, once to study foreshadowing, and once to study her descriptions.
It is fortunately a book I can never tire of reading
Cry, the Beloved Country is one of those I will need to revisit as I read it in High School and of course couldn’t appreciate anything from it because I was being TOLD to do so.
Also yay Austen and Brontë!
Being required to read something in school was often guaranteed to turn you off a book for life but then it did come down to the quality of the teacher
Being forced to read something is a sure fire way of turning someone off a book.
I was surprised I enjoyed paradise Lost, too. I have a big hardback edition with exceptionally helpful summaries and all the Dore illustrations. I also liked Germinal, but know exactly what you mean, I had planned to read the whole of Zola’s cycle, but don’t have the mental strength for that much misery right now! 😉
Thats the only downside of Paradise Lost – its a big heavy volume so not easy to transport.
I love the way you set this out and didn’t go for all the most obvious classics – I need to reread The Awakening as I read it years ago and I only vaguely remember it at all.
I suspect some people might think a few of my choices are a bit mainstream but I found it impossible for example to leave out Austen
An interesting selection of books from a range of different eras. It’s great to see E.M. Forster and Graham Greene on your list, two authors I’d like to return to in the future. Pride and Prejudice would make my list too, along with The Great Gatsby and Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep – my interpretation of the classics is fairly fast and loose.
Great Gatsby is one I absolutely don’t get – I know its a favourite of many people but it does nothing for me sorry Jacqui. Big Sleep is a great choice though
I re-read Jane Eyre relatively recently and was so disappointed. I loved it as a teenager but we haven’t grown together. But Cry The Beloved Country is a book that I can return to time and time again.
I adooored Jane Eyre, much more than any Jane Austen novel <3
A nice list, but I agree very hard to choose favourite classics. Oddly enough I picked up a copy of Middlemarch today, but who knows when I’ll be able to commit to it! 🙂
After the marathon effort of War and Peace Middlemarch will feel like a pleasant stroll in the park Karen
I couldn’t possibly do this but I do like your choices, particularly including books like The awakening and Cry the beloved country. As an Aussie, I’d have to include Patrick White’s Voss. I’m pretty hopeless at French classics but I’ve read a lot of Camus, and would include The Plague (La Peste). Trouble is I’m almost at 10 and of course I’d have to have Jane Austen, and I wouldn’t I think leave out Dickens (though would probably go for Bleak House)
And here, I’m going to stop because this is getting ridiculous!!
I think what I posted was about version 5 because I kept changing my mind. I had Dickens in there as well as Camus and Flaubert at one stage. I want to read Voss but my copy has gone walk about
That’s an average excuse for not reading it!!! I’m sure you could find another one. If not, ask me! 😁
But I rather like the cover of that edition she splutters…… Ok I will do a deal, if I haven’t found it by end of this month I will buy another one
Haha … judging aka loving a book by its cover now are we. You’re just digging a deeper hole. I’m going to get airport immigration to not let you in next year if you haven’t read it or, ok, got it in your bag 😉
If I keep digging that hole though I might reach you and without all the hassle of airport security ….
You can always try!
Goodness ten favourite classics! I love your list though I haven’t read Paradise Lost or Heart of the Matter the others are all books I have read and loved. My list would definitely include Jane Eyre (I went to a play of it the other which I wrote about on my blog) at least one Jane Austen (but which?) Madame Bovary, Jude the obscure, the A Room with a View, To the Lighthouse perhaps. Then I am stuck – so so many to choose from.
Bovary was on one of my versions but not Jude (superb book but I just hate the character)
I found your blog through another blog, either Jessica Bookworm or She Reads Novels. I am happy I visited! I love the way you write and the books you write about. I have read and loved five of your 10 favorite classics. (I am an American from the Los Angeles area, so I used our spelling.) I invite you to visit me and see what you think of my blog.
Thanks Judy for those kind comments and lovely to meet you.I’ll let you off the hook over the spelling this time….
Judy, so glad you discovered this blog, one of my favorites!
That’s so sweet of you. thank you
Great selection I love Greene just record old film of heart of the matter
If its the one I’m thinking of with Alec Guiness it’s a pretty good version though not as dark in morality as the book
*snap* *snap* and *snap* again and again! I have read and loved every one of these, and I am delighted that you love Paradise Lost because I read it at uni too and fell in love with its sexy Satan and its wonderful prose. It, along with Ulysses by James Joyce, are books which I would never have read if I hadn’t gone to uni and I consider myself so lucky to have had great teachers who helped me love the books the way I do.
There were parts of Paradise Lost that had me holding my breath. It was like reading a thriller.
I also love Pride and Prejudice, although I think Sense and Sensibility is still my Austen favourite 🙂
I enjoyed Jane Eyre, Pride and Prejudice, and Cry, the Beloved Country. I have been eyeing Middlemarch.
Thanks for sharing.
Hope you get to read Middlemarch at some point and do enjoy it
Great choices! I have yet to read Graham Greene even though he’s sitting on my shelf. Glad to see him on here so I know to look forward to it!
This is a pretty impossible tasks – as I read your ten I’m thinking ‘yes I’d have chosen that too’ and ‘oh I’d have chosen this as well’ and I’m thinking both thoughts at the same time!!!! I’ve read 8 of your 10 ( not the Chopin or the Zola) and loved all of them though I have a special place in my affections for Jane Eyre and Middlemarch!!
i could have easily listed 20 and still not captured everything. I missed out Dickens (Dombey and Son) for example as well as Madame Bovary and Tess of the D’Urbevilles. Oh this was hard