Because Nicola is amazing, as well as her guides to the graphic novels, she’s put together a guide to the ‘classics’. The notion that a book can be ‘classic’ is a contentious one. The term puts a group of books above everything else. But how is that possible when what makes good literature is so subjective? We do have a section devoted to ‘classic’ novels, which really means the ones that you’re likely to be asked to read for an English assignment. That being said, these novels are famous for a good reason; well written, sometimes funny, sometimes sad portraits of a particular time and place. Often, the ones we have classed as ‘classics’ are there because they’ve stood the test of time (another contentious term) in that they’ve been loved by several generations. Here are Nicola’s picks for the best of the best:
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
Jane Eyre is definitely one of the great female characters of pre-feminist literature. Stroppy and headstrong, intelligent and self aware, she conquers not only dreadful relations and a dire school, but the heart of Mr. Rochester, a man equally as difficult as she is. But please don’t mistake the book for a sappy romantic novel; Jane has to make hard choices and refuses to compromise on her sense of ethics, even if it means losing the man she loves. The Brontë family is pretty incredible as all three sisters (Charlotte, Emily and Anne) wrote novels that have become widely classed as ‘classics.’ Emily wrote Wuthering Heights and Anne wrote The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. All three sisters were popular for the passion and originality in their writing.
Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
This was actually written as a companion piece to Jane Eyre. It’s no spoiler to say it deals with the life of Antoinette, Mr. Rochester’s first wife. Written in 1966, almost 120 years after Jane Eyre, it has a very different take on the world that Jane Eyre lived in. It mostly takes place in the Caribbean after the end of slavery and looks at race, class and sexism – themes unexplored in Jane Eyre.
Works of Charles Dickens
Where to begin? We’ve got almost all of his major works in the YA section. My particular favourite is Great Expectations (closely followed by Bleak House and Oliver Twist). Charles Dickens’ writing style can be a little hard to get into at first, but the first few are well worth persevering through. Despite my love for his novels, I will admit to finding his main characters a bit straightlaced; but the secondary characters sparkle with life. His books often take a satirical but realistic depiction of his society and its problems. He was regarded as the literary colossus of his age. A Christmas Carol, is one of the most influential works ever written, and it remains popular and continues to inspire adaptations in every artistic genre.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Victor Hugo
If your only knowledge of this classic comes from the 1996 Disney movie, then you’re in for a shock. But like so many screen adaptations, the book is much better (but librarians would say that). In the vaulted Gothic towers of Notre-Dame lives Quasimodo, the hunchbacked bellringer. Mocked and shunned for his appearance, he is pitied only by Esmerelda, a beautiful gypsy dancer to whom he becomes completely devoted. Esmerelda, however, has also attracted the attention of the sinister archdeacon Claude Frollo, and when she rejects his lecherous approaches, Frollo hatches a plot to destroy her that only Quasimodo can prevent. This novel is a dark picture of life in pre-reformation Paris, depicting cruelty, passion, lust and jealousy, all centred around the eponymous cathedral.
The Count of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
“Epic” doesn’t even begin to describe this book. It starts rather simply; Edmond Dantès is thrown in prison for a crime he hasn’t committed. There he learns of a great hoard of treasure hidden on the Isle of Monte Cristo and he becomes determined not only to escape, but also to unearth the treasure and use it to plot the destruction of the three men responsible for his incarceration. But that simple premise also encompasses stories of debt, class, love, illegitimate children, murder… and that’s about half of what happens before the end of the book. Certainly not a light read, but a breathtaking saga that encompasses years.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien
Some would baulk at including The Lord of the Rings on this list. It has numerous imitators, and has been a massive influence on the fantasy genre since it was published. But a good story is a good story, and these books also have truths to tell. After all the hero is not the warrior Aragon, or Gandalf, or the elves. The hero is a shy hobbit who leaves his bucolic existence for a dangerous mission. At its heart it’s a story about ordinary people faced with doing extraordinary things.