Tuesday, January 05, 2010

In which I make up for not being an English major

This wasn't an official New Year's resolution, but I recently made the decision to incorporate more classical literature into my reading repertoire. I've felt for a while that I ought to make up for not having read so many classic novels in school, like so many others have done. I've been so occupied with review assignments over the past decade, also, that I haven't had time to read too much else.

I didn't particularly enjoy most of the novels I read during high school. All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, grossed me out and put me off war novels for years. I remember liking Scarlet Letter and To Kill a Mockingbird, but the fact that they were short probably had something to do with it. (Short stories held my interest the most.) I was an excellent student but didn't have a good appreciation for literature then. The read-three-chapters-and-answer-these-questions format didn't suit me. Also, I didn't take a single English lit course in college since my schedule didn't allow much time for electives. I left with a degree in French, but it meant that my education in my native language's classic novels was sorely neglected.

For some odd reason -- maybe because its quiet, rural setting appealed to me during the hectic holiday season -- I recently got the urge to read a Thomas Hardy novel. On our route back home, I picked up The Return of the Native at Half Price Books, began reading it on New Year's Day, and finished it tonight. It won't be my last. I found the story beautifully written and well-characterized; serious and tragic, yet romantic and gently humorous in places; and wordy and descriptive without being dense. It was also a brilliant portrait of social mores in rural Victorian England. (The characters have servants, but they're nearly invisible.) Thanks to PaperbackSwap, I have copies of Jude the Obscure and Tess of the D'Urbervilles on their way to me, as well as some other classics I haven't yet read but always meant to (The Moonstone, The House of Mirth). I'm avoiding detailed plot summaries, although I can guess the ending of some of them.

Right from the beginning (I'm getting back to the usual subject for this blog), it struck me as amusing how the novel's style broke so many of the rules to which historical novelists today are told to adhere. Namely:

- We begin not with an attention-grabbing moment, but with a four-page description of the bucolic wildness of Egdon Heath.

- Hardy sometimes tells rather than shows.

- He interrupts the storyline with lengthy historical digressions that explain concepts relating to the land and its inhabitants. Some might call them infodumps. I call them informative.

- It more than dwells on descriptive minutiae; it positively revels in them. If you ever wanted to know what it's like to cut furze for a living, or learn what furze is for that matter, this is a great place to start.

- There's some fairly obvious foreshadowing.

- There are many instances of passive voice, as well as some footnotes. I especially enjoyed the one where he apologized for changing the ending to suit public tastes.

Times change, and literature changes with them; we all know this, and that's not my point. However, despite all of the aforementioned issues (many of which are hallmarks of the Victorian novel, after all), the writing never bogs down. And despite the wordy, leisurely style, I never found it repetitive, and all of the asides, interruptions, and classical references served to enhance the plotline and characterizations. It worked for me, and I'd gladly read another like it.


  1. Hardy is good but he can get depressing after a while. Don't forget to try George Eliot and Elizabeth Gaskell as well. Lesser known but excellent also is Margaret Oliphant.

  2. Funny, I have an Elizabeth Gaskell novel on my shelf right here (Sylvia's Lovers), and I knew immediately where it was because it's in the background photo of my Twitter page. Victorian lit seems to have mostly passed me by, novels in particular, aside from Dickens and the Brontes. We learned a lot about 19th-c American lit in school, not so much British.

  3. I adore Thomas Hardy's novels despite (or more likely because of) never never having studied them at school. He has such a wonderful sense of time and place and as I have relatives living in Dorset, I know many of the places he describes - my mother in law lives in a village rifht in the middle of Tess of the D'Urbervilles' Vale of the Little Dairies (Blackmore Vale) and not far from the village on which Hardy based her birthplace. I can highly recommend Claire Tomalin's recent biography.

  4. Not that I need more to read, but I'm tempted to reread some of the novels I was forced to plow through in grade school (Remarque being the exception). Hardy does make it easy to picture the local geography, though I'd love to see it for myself one day. Thanks for the recommendation of the Tomalin bio, Sarah! My library has a copy so it may be coming home with me.

  5. Anonymous12:59 PM

    Mrs Oliphant (whose maiden and married names are the same) is fabulous, especially the Salem Chapel series!

  6. Far From the Madding Crowd. My favourite Hardy. I've read them all. Under the Greenwood Tree is bucolic and enjoyable. I, too, know the landscape...my husband's family are from Dorset, and whenever we're in Dorchester I'm consciously of walking the terrain of The Mayor of Casterbridge.

    Wives & Daughters is the place to start with Gaskell, imo. But I liked Sylvia's Lovers.

  7. Thank you all for the recommendations. I have a B&N gift card from Christmas burning a hole in my pocket... some of these I'll be buying, though others I'll get from the library. The Tomalin bio came home with me tonight.

  8. Like Margaret Porter, my favorite Hardy is also "Far From the Madding Crowd." A great book, moving story. Suzy

  9. I wasn't an English major either, and I've enjoyed the Victorian novelists more than just about anything else I've found in grad school. I haven't read much Hardy, but I LOVE Middlemarch. It's possibly my favorite novel ever. Deronda's not quite as good, but still interesting. And Henry James is just amazing. I'm trying to branch out a bit -- I'd like to read The Woman in White before I start my 1890s novel. So far my knowledge of Victorian melodrama/thrillers is mostly via Sarah Waters novels.

    Would love to hear what you think about Gaskell -- I've only read Mary Barton so far, and it fell into the category of "not great but interesting" for me.

    Also, have you read Claire Tomalin's Jane Austen bio? It's excellent.

  10. I now have Far from the Madding Crowd, Wives & Daughters, and Middlemarch in my B&N cart. Thank you, all. (The buy-two-get-one-free is a nice incentive.) The rest that I have are the B&N Classics editions, so I'm trying to be consistent, though if I move on to Mill on the Floss later on, I'll have to mix and match. I'm also taking the word of one reviewer who said that it's clear where Gaskell would have been ending Wives & Daughters; otherwise I'd be leery of beginning a 700-page novel that was left unfinished.

    I love Sarah Waters's novels. And while at Borders tonight I skimmed through Tomalin's Austen bio. Another one to grab from the library next week. I decided to buy rather than borrow the classics above because the library's copies were published a hundred years ago and/or were pretty ratty, plus I have a feeling they're going to be keepers.

  11. I love Hardy- he wrote some wonderful poetry as well. He certainly can be unremittingly tragic- "Tess of the D'urbervilles" is a good example. "Far From the Madding Crowd" is a bit lighter, and if you get a chance, watch the 1967 movie starring Julie Christie and Terence Stamp- beautifully done.

    John Galswothy (Forstye Saga) and Anthony Trollope (Chronicles of Barsetshire) are also amongst my favourite English authors from the Victorian period.