Written by Anna King
Reading a novel dubbed with the distinguished title, “classic”, is a luxurious experience; one can enjoy refined vocabulary, lengthy description and a portal to a time long gone – not to mention the guilty satisfaction felt in being able to show the book to others and toss misquoted Dostoevsky and Hemingway about in conversation like confetti. These novels, however, are so much more than their reputation; having made a sizeable impact from the beginning, they have stood the test of time, striking a chord in generation after generation and are discussed in classrooms across the world. These novels are the elite of literature, and haven’t been dethroned, despite their age. Here are five novels which I believe to be particularly relevant, even hundreds of years on. Authors of the past – we salute you.
1. LITTLE WOMEN BY LOUISA MAY ALCOTT
Many of us were encouraged to read this book as children and have fond memories of this story of growth. While, on the surface, Little Women is quaint and homely – a pleasant book but not one that is particularly political pertinent – the novel’s contemplation of issues such as class, charity, declining wealth and the status of women, are as relevant as ever. These aspects of life are widely explored through the March family, along with ideas of self-growth and the desperate desire in all of us to be better people. Painfully relatable subject matter such as uncontrolled vanity and the allure of conformity roam across the pages of this book through Alcott’s alarmingly real characters.
2. GREAT EXPECTATIONS BY CHARLES DICKENS
“Better…to have left her a natural heart, even to be bruised or broken” – is this not Dickens at his finest? A deep examination of social mobility, Great Expectations is an exquisite reflection of Victorian mentality, which – above all – places emphasis on the importance of love. The injustice of class restrictions is portrayed beautifully and Dickens’ balance of political comment – and the enduring humanity of even the most wretched – is perfection. This book leaves readers in awe, and has done since 1861.
3. JANE EYRE BY CHARLOTTE BRONTЁ
A gorgeously vivid work, Jane Eyre depicts feminism before feminism existed. Jane is a narrator with strength enough to define her own moral code, a powerful protagonist and a humble character. Seeing from her perspective allows us to challenge ideas of conscience and what it means to be good. Equally impressive is Brontë’s fearless portrayal of protest. Invariably indignant when her ‘superiors’ think she ought to be submissive, Jane acts as a role model for women everywhere, firing the imagination of countless subsequent female authors. Interestingly, faith and spirituality are seen in many different lights in this novel, which draws attention to religious hypocrisy while also presenting faith as a means of achieving goodness and contentment. Christianity – along with all religions today – continues to be debated over endlessly, and therefore Jane Eyre is a decidedly relevant novel still.
4. THE STRANGE CASE OF DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE BY ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
A ridiculously well-written piece of gothic science fiction, Jekyll and Hyde is a wonderful exploration of human psychosis and restraint. Written by a loyal Scot, the novella challenges the English mentality of the time: the unceasing concealment of one’s true self in favour of an idealised image of perfection. While society is perhaps more open now, there still exists the notion of a hidden “true self”, a darker caricature which exists alongside the version of ourselves we present in public. Jekyll and Hyde expresses the idea that to hide one’s identity is more damaging than it is to display it. It’s a book which made a huge impact at the time of its publication, and keeps thrilling readers with its sinister plot and careful metaphorical observation of society more than a century later.
5. LES MISÉRABLES BY VICTOR HUGO
Having already sung this book’s praises in Cuckoo, I hesitated in including it on this list – but ultimately decided that the genius that is Les Misérables is worth repetition. Class divide is, and always has been, an issue in human society and this is encapsulated by Victor Hugo. France’s turbulent history is compelling and Hugo’s characters demonstrate the strength of the human spirit. In terms of faith, the novel is inspiring, depicting the positive effects of discovering God. It also demonstrates that doing good is worth far more than grand orations or pedantic rule-following. Politically charged and emotionally cathartic, this book is a triumph, inevitably restoring belief in love, time and time again. Its themes will, I think, never be viewed as insignificant, so I would recommend that everyone read it as a matter of urgency.