Continuing on from my previous post reacting to an Instagrammer’s take on “classics” we should read. No book can honestly be considered a “classic” if it has not stood “the test of time.” I rate that “test” as 100 years of widespread reading and influence minimum.
You can probably think of some you like. Here are six “classics” I have read that are also among my favorite books – I can read them over and over. If they run to your reading taste they may be worth your own reading time:
Pride and Prejudice (1813). Jane Austen’s novels are perhaps best read aloud. She wrote them clearly expecting them to be not just read individually, but as evening entertainment in the sitting room. Remember, there was no Netflix in the early 1800s.
It is also strikingly poignant to reflect on the fact that that young English woman saw four of her six finished novels published in her lifetime (Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park were published after her death), had had some success but not very much, and few knew her name because the books were published “anonymously” as was the norm for women writers at the time.
She died at just age forty-one in 1817 surely never even imagining that two hundred years into the future much of the world would know her name and uncounted millions would have read her books and continue to do so. She would likely have been even more stunned to learn that hundreds of millions around the globe had also seen on-screen adaptions (“What be those?” she might have asked) of them, that virtually an entire industry had arisen around her name and stories… and that her “Mr. Darcy” had become countless women’s “dream man.”
The Last of the Mohicans (1826). Fenimore Cooper produced here one of the first truly American novels. Given its subject matter – whites, Native Americans, and war on the pre-American Revolution “frontier” – it remains controversial (not helped by, among other things, the likes of his regular use of the now utterly unacceptable term “savage” for Native American enemies) and probably always will be. Yet Cooper also managed to have goodies and baddies among everyone – regardless of race… which was quite uncommon in 1826.
What is perhaps most remarkable about it is the main woman character, British “Colonel Munro’s” elder daughter, “Cora,” had a mother who was partly Black… in a tale set in 1757 on the New York and New England “frontier.”
In Austen’s and similar novels in that era a woman’s role was also limited mostly to the social space they were permitted as “ladies” amidst the tight norms of American and British society at the time. Also noteworthy is “gothic” tales, usually rooted in some perception of the supernatural, had become popular escapist “horror” reading by then in English language literature. Yet “Cora” (and her younger half-sister, “Alice”) repeatedly faces “real life” versions of peril, violence, and perhaps even death. Life in Mohicans for young ladies is not about “drawing room” banter or a remote stately home where the wind rushes in unexpectedly at midnight through the open window, extinguishes the candles, and the lady shudders as she thinks she hears a ghost; it is A LARGE MAN tying her up and threatening her life with a decidedly earthly knife or gun.
Cooper’s wife was his main proofreader, and he valued her opinions highly; so undoubtedly she had some uncredited input. “Cora” endures everything with bravery and dignity and is not passive in the least. She is a groundbreaking character and probably my favorite fictional woman in all literature.
War and Peace (1869). Balls. Aristocrats. Ladies. Gentlemen. Cads. Intrigues. Enlightenment. Faith. Frivolity. Greed. Infidelity. Uniforms. Bonaparte. Politics. Heroism. Love. Marriage. Separation. Confusion. Devotion. Despair. Destruction. Death. Renewal.
And that is all just in Chapter One. (I am wildly exaggerating, of course… but, uh, not by much. LOL!)
Seriously, if you are going to try to write romantic historical fiction, read this novel.
Whenever I so much as pick it up and skim a few pages, it depresses me in a way. I find I ask myself: Why the heck am I even bothering to write? LOL!
The American (1877). Henry James did not plan it this way, but he produced probably the first “American in France” romance.
After its publication, James disliked that it was seen as so “lightweight.” Late in life he tried revising it to make it harder-edged… and ruined it.
Fortunately, the original is considered the definitive version.
The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Volume One (1776). Yes, yes, I know it is history, not fiction. However, it is written in such a readable literary style, and is such a landmark work, it is worth forgetting it is “scary history” and should be read perhaps as literature.
At the very least in doing so, you will LEARN a lot. Like Jane Austen and Fenimore Cooper after him, Gibbon’s writing style was that of the era. By our standards he used lots of commas and LONG paragraphs.
Gibbon had also originally planned to write the history in French (in which he was fluent), but he was dissuaded from doing so by the Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume suggested to him that after France had recently been defeated (1763) in North America (see The Last of the Mohicans as a fictional account of a moment of that war six years before France’s final defeat) that the English language, not French, was going to be the language of the future. If not for the Scot Hume, this incredible history in English… might have been written in French.
The Age of Innocence (1920). Just makes it under the “century rule.” This book won Edith Wharton a Pulitzer Prize for literature – the first woman to win one.
It is short and actually a basically simple story about upper-class New Yorkers in the 1870s that focuses on a well-to-do man who is marrying a well-to-do conventional woman, while he is also falling in love with another woman who is far more of a “free spirit” (who is also separated from her own husband). All of that is made extra-special by Wharton’s incredible talent for (perhaps a tad too in-depth at times) description. You are rarely just, say, in a “sitting room” with her characters; she tends also to describe… the pleats of the curtains dressing the freshly painted Italianate doors, with their glass lately imported from Venice, of which the right hand one has a maddening imperfection in its lower left corner and madam wishes to replace it, but has as of yet been unable to source a quality new one. LOL!
Honorable Mention 1: The Great Gatsby will be 100 years old in 2025, so that deserves an “honorable mention” here. There is no doubt whatever Gatsby will be read four years from now.
Honorable Mention 2: The Sun Also Rises will be 100 in 2026. It too will no doubt be read on its 100th anniversary. It may be Ernest Hemingway’s best novel. (I have not read them all, so cannot say for sure it is. His “lack” of description also might be said to make him, in some ways, the anti-Wharton. Did Hemingway ever fully describe a “curtain pleat” in his life?) It was also his first novel.
Have a good day, wherever you are. 🙂