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A Return to the Classics

I have found myself returning to the classics this year encouraged by former colleague and friend from St Paul’s Girls’ School, Dr Sarah Wah. She is a nineteenth-century specialist and I am constantly texting her and ringing her mid-novel, shouting about a character or having a weep about an ending. Some of the books on Sarah’s reading list have included re-reads (The Mill on the Floss, Bleak House, Villette) and some have been entirely new experiences. It astounds me that despite being so obsessed with the novels, poetry and lives of Emily and Charlotte Bronte as a teenager, I never actually read anything by Anne. I was astonished by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It’s a compelling mixture of a thriller, a sensation novel, a love story, and most strikingly a feminist account of an abusive relationship. That it was even published in the mid-nineteenth-century staggers me. I highly recommend this novel: I can’t say it is better than those of her sisters because they have been so formative in my life, but I absolutely loved it and read it very fast.

Not many writers top Charlotte Bronte for me. I read the first seventy pages of Jane Eyre when I was seven (stopping at the first sad bit) and have loved the experience of studying it and later teaching it, endlessly revisiting and reforming my impressions of Jane herself, and the author's attitudes. I actually think Villette is the better novel. Written later, it presents a more complicated character, Lucy Snowe. I have always got frustrated with her apparent acceptance of her lot and her self-deception; Sarah, interestingly, loves her, and we got into quite a few arguments when I re-read it this summer. The very fact that I can be so absorbed by this frustrating woman is testament to the brilliance of Bronte’s writing: Lucy is a curiously unreliable narrator, withholding vital information from both herself and the reader. I warn you that even the ending is open to dispute.

It is, I realised with a strange sense of surprise, a long time since I read George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss. In 1978, when Costume Dramas were just dramas and shown regularly without huge budgets on Sunday evenings on BBC1 at around 5.40pm, I watched the adaptation by Ronald Wilson. To me Maggie will always look like the actress who played the young girl (Georgia Slowe) - a dark-skinned wide-eyed rough and tumble girl whose hair never looked brushed. I first read it aged 15, then at university and again this summer, each time finding that my opinion of Maggie had shifted: I will always admire her but her urge to rebel seems, sadly, more idealistic now that I am older. It is a beautiful novel, particularly in terms of its descriptions of both landscape and social mores of East English folk. It is not a happy book and because I remembered my tears when I last read it, I felt oppressed by the inevitability of the story, evident even from the start. Middlemarch, a novel I know better and have taught several times, is much more sophisticated but no one quite beats Maggie Tulliver for a heroine.

After a re-read of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (a popular GCSE set text this year and a great introduction to the still familiar questions posed about the ethics of some scientific experimentation) and Bleak House (for the fun of it), I am now about halfway through Eliot's Daniel Deronda, a novel I have never read before. I began by disliking the heroine intensely but am coming round: she is a flawed women, a product of her time and social constraints and as challenges arise she becomes increasingly interesting. This novel deals directly with Jewish identity, and this is unusual in late nineteenth-century England. I am curious to see where Eliot will take me with both her heroine and this central theme. [NB: I have finished it and absolutely loved it. It is long and has stayed with me since: a strange and powerful story with a terribly sad heroine.]

Reading novels from the nineteenth century can feel daunting sometimes, especially for some of my students. The language seems old-fashioned, the words complicated, even the sentence structure unfamiliar. One has to switch modes when reading such novels: realise that the writer may take a little longer to deal with the subject in hand because she or he is also interested in portraying social difficulties or philosophical complexities of the time. This still happens in the best of our contemporary literature: my top two contemporary reads this year have been Joanna Kavenna’s A Field Guide to Reality and Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites, both of which engage with mortality and grief in striking ways. The difference between these novels and those written two centuries ago is the perceived difficulty which comes with a Penguin Classic. But, if you let go, adjust your reading speed a little, and are prepared to enter into an unfamiliar world then the reading of these novels is incredibly rewarding and entertaining. Dickens makes me laugh out loud, Hardy makes me cry, the Brontes and Eliot with their powerful, quirky heroines make me want to be a powerful, quirky woman and live the lives that Jane, Lucy, Maggie, Dorothea were not able to do 150 years ago. If you are new to this world, start with Great Expectations or Jane Eyre: the strong first person narrators pull you in from the start and are difficult to resist even when their lives follow unexpected routes.

And if you are in London and fancy an informed read or re-read of some of these novels, then check out Sarah’s Living Room Literature. Sarah's courses, which she runs from her own living room (or from your own), lie in that space between a book group and an evening class and focus on one or two texts a term. I have seen her notes for a current course on Jane Eyre and she will be encouraging discussion in areas I have never even thought about before! Really exciting.

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