Famous Novels to read
This tumultuous tale of life in a bleak farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors is a popular set text for GCSE and A-level English study, but away from the demands of the classroom it’s easier to enjoy its drama and intensity. Populated largely by characters whose inability to control their own emotions leads to violence and revenge, it’s a tale that spans two generations and two families. At the heart of the story is the mysterious ‘gypsy’, Heathcliff, adopted as a ragamuffin child into the Earnshaw family to live at Wuthering Heights. As he grows up, he becomes close to his adopted sister Cathy, falling in love with her only to be met with crushing disappointment when she marries Edgar Linton, a kind and gentle man from neighbouring Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff disappears and returns a rich, educated man bent on revenge.
2. Middlemarch by George Eliot
Middlemarch, subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”, is the story of the inhabitants of a Midlands village in the 1830s. Masterfully weaving together several plotlines, the novel charts the fortunes of an interesting cast of characters, exploring their motivations, delusions and preoccupations. The remarkable thing about Middlemarch is the detail and realism with which George Eliot describes emotions. Feelings you thought were unique to you are described here in a way that could be describing your own thoughts. It’s one of the reasons why Middlemarch has been described the likes of Martin Amis and Julian Barnes as one of the greatest English novels ever written; read it and you’ll soon find yourself agreeing with them.
3. Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four makes depressing but essential reading. Published in 1949, it’s the author’s vision of a dystopian future dominated by totalitarian state surveillance, mind control and perpetual war. At the centre of the novel is Winston, whose job is to rewrite old news stories so that they toe the party line, whom we follow in his quest for rebellion against the government he works for. Its memorable opening line sets the unsettling tone for the rest of this uncomfortable novel: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” You probably already use phrases from this influential book without necessarily knowing it; “Big Brother” and “Room 101” are both references taken from this novel. As you read Nineteen Eighty-Four, ask yourself: how close do you think Orwell’s vision is to how society is today?
4. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
If you haven’t read the book, you’ll almost certainly have seen Peter Jackson’s epic three-part movie adaptation of it. Incredible though the films are, there’s inevitably a lot missing from them and it’s well worth persevering with the book’s slowish start to follow the journey of Frodo and friends more closely. If you’re not familiar with the story, The Lord of the Rings tells the story of a hobbit, Frodo, who must undertake a dangerous mission to the dark land of Mordor to destroy a powerful ring – a weapon that absolutely corrupts those who come under its power. As you’ll soon find out, that’s a highly simplified plot summary! Reading the book, you’ll be hard-pressed not to gain a deep admiration for the detail and thought Tolkien put into creating his imaginary world; languages, detailed family trees, maps, rich histories and backstories – all add to the sense of realism one feels when absorbed in Tolkien’s work. You’ll also spot some of Tolkien’s influences, such as Nordic mythology and the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (read this poem alongside Tolkien and you’ll notice where his inspiration for the Golden Hall came from). If you’re new to Tolkien, you might like to read The Hobbit beforehand; it’s a lighter read than The Lord of the Rings and it sets the backdrop for the events of the tome that follows it.
5. Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith
If you’ve ever in need of a little gentle comic relief, you can’t do much better than the delightful Diary of a Nobody. It’s the (made-up) diary of a self-important Victorian lower-middle class gentleman, Charles Pooter, in which he details the day-to-day household quandaries and social embarrassments we can all relate to. It was serialised in Punch magazine in Victorian times, and it’s a charming insight into what the Victorians found funny – but in many places, it’s still laugh-out-loud funny to the modern reader.