I used to avoid the ‘classics’ like the plague. I was stuck in the realm of YA and whilst of course there are some great YA books, an aspiring English graduate and author has to read widely.
So, when I got to university and was suddenly bombarded with books that were written anywhere between the 1000s and the 2000s, I was dreading it. But three years later I can now look back and safely say that some of the books I’ve enjoyed the most were written centuries before I was born.
I’ve picked out 5 of my favourite classics that aren’t as well known as the staples like Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice. From romance to crime to horror, there’s a bit of everything here for all kinds of readers, so get stuck in!
Roxana by Daniel Defoe
Synopsis: Defoe’s last and darkest novel, is the autobiography of a woman who has traded her virtue, at first for survival, and then for fame and fortune. Its narrator tells the story of her own ‘wicked’ life as the mistress of rich and powerful men. A resourceful adventuress, she is also an unforgiving analyst of her own susceptibilities, who tells us of the price she pays for her successes. Endowed with many seductive skills, she is herself seduced: by money, by dreams of rank, and by the illusion that she can escape her own past. Unlike Defoe’s other penitent anti-heroes, however, she fails to triumph over these weaknesses.
The novel’s drama lies not only in the heroine’s `vast variety of fortunes’, but in her attempts to understand the sometimes bitter lessons of her life as a `Fortunate Mistress’.
Why I loved it: Roxana isn’t always the nicest of characters, but she’s definitely ahead of her times. She’s determined to make something of her life and to better herself, and her headstrong personality is captivating. An early feminist narrative, the plot is gripping, and although Defoe attempts to undercut the inherent feminism he has weaved into Roxana (be prepared to read the word ‘wicked’ often), it’s a really interesting read.
The Monk by Matthew Lewis
Synopsis: Ambrosio, a pious, well-respected monk in Spain, is lustfully tempted by his pupil, Matilda, a woman who has disguised herself as a monk. Having satisfied himself with her, he is overcome with carnal desire for the innocent Antonia. With the help of Matilda, who is actually Satan in disguise, Ambrosio seduces Antonia, a seduction that would ultimately lead to his downfall. Recognized as one of the first novels of the gothic genre, “The Monk” is a classic tale of the tragic ruin that may befall one tempted by desire.
Why I loved it: This book is just all kinds of deranged. I’m pretty sure I read most of it with a look of shock on my face, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a really enjoyable novel. You have murderous monks, Satan and ghost stories; what more could you want? Don’t expect to be bored.
Armadale by Wilkie Collins
Synopsis: When the elderly Allan Armadale makes a terrible confession on his death-bed, he has little idea of the repercussions to come, for the secret he reveals involves the mysterious Lydia Gwilt: flame-haired temptress, bigamist, laudanum addict and husband-poisoner. Her malicious intrigues fuel the plot of this gripping melodrama: a tale of confused identities, inherited curses, romantic rivalries, espionage, money – and murder. The character of Lydia Gwilt horrified contemporary critics, with one reviewer describing her as ‘One of the most hardened female villains whose devices and desires have ever blackened fiction’. She remains among the most enigmatic and fascinating women in nineteenth-century literature and the dark heart of this most sensational of Victorian ‘sensation novels’.
Why I loved it: Another headstrong female, love or hate Lydia you can’t deny that she’s an excellent character and powerful in her own right. Though the narrative is slow at the beginning, it soon picks up with the arrival of Lydia and turns from a plain old mystery to an exciting thriller.
The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad
Synopsis: Mr Verloc, the secret agent, keeps a shop in London’s Soho where he lives with his wife Winnie, her infirm mother, and her idiot brother, Stevie. When Verloc is reluctantly involved in an anarchist plot to blow up the Greenwich Observatory things go disastrously wrong, and what appears to be ‘A Simple Tale’ proves to involve politicians, policemen, foreign diplomats and London’s fashionable society in the darkest and most surprising interrelations.
Why I loved it: This is actually quite a sad and harrowing novel of oppression and deceit, but it’s masterfully written. It’s full of dark humour and with intriguing characters, but don’t expect to feel very happy by the end of it…
The Well of Loneliness by Radclyffe Hall
Synopsis: Stephen is an ideal child of aristocratic parents – a fencer, a horse rider and a keen scholar. Stephen grows to be a war hero, a bestselling writer and a loyal, protective lover. But Stephen is a woman, and her lovers are women. As her ambitions drive her, and society confines her, Stephen is forced into desperate actions. The Well of Loneliness was banned for obscenity when published in 1928. It became an international bestseller, and for decades was the single most famous lesbian novel. It has influenced how love between women is understood, for the twentieth century and beyond.
Why I loved it: At times this novel could be a little boring, but you can’t deny the guts Hall must have had to write and publish such a book when homosexuality was still deeply frowned upon. With bleak, beautiful prose, you really do feel sorry for the hardships that Stephen (and Hall) have had to face. Though it may be a little tough to get through, it’s worth a read when you compare it with the contemporary debates of gay and transgender rights.
And that concludes another ‘A Novel Round-Up’. Have you read any of them? What did you think? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!