How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Tag: Charlotte Bronte

Reading English Victorian Literature: A Brief Guide to the Classics

Archery was popular with Victorian women, one of the few sports considered proper for women. “The Fair Toxophilites” (lovers of archery) by William Frith.

The English Victorian era, dating from about 1832 to 1901, gave birth to many of the works we now call “classic,” some of the best literature ever written in English.

Now we think of the Victorian Age as quaint and old-fashioned, but in reality it was the era in which our own modern age began. The Industrial Revolution kicked into high gear, bringing rural workers from small villages to gather in big cities, shifting an economy formerly based on agriculture and handicraft industries into one based on high-volume manufacturing. The development of the Steam Railway system and the telegraph and, later, the telephone, connected people formerly divided by great distances, enabling the spread of modern culture.

In literature, the harvest of this period is rich. Victorian novels such as Middlemarch, Bleak House, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles still appear on critics’ lists of all-time best English novels. The last third of the century brought a flowering of new fictional genres: “sensation” fiction, science fiction, supernatural fiction, detective fiction, and adventure “lost world” fiction—genres that writers and readers still enjoy today.

Victorian poetry is no less famous, with works like Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” and Browning’s “My Last Duchess” still anthology staples. Many poets continued the Romantic era focus on Nature and the Middle Ages, while adding a new fascination with the Italian Renaissance. Other poets focused on raising readers’ awareness of social problems, or pushed back against an over-mechanized and coarsening age, singing the glories of hand craftsmanship and “art for art’s sake.”

The end of the era brought great dramatists and playwrights, especially Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, who used side-splitting humor and irony to challenge over-earnest Victorian values they thought to be hypocritical.

Sunset by Samuel Palmer

What were the major “must-read” works of the English Victorian era, and what were they about? To see my picks, check out my annotated reading list (link below). It has comments and descriptions of major literary works of the English Victorian period.

Before you do that, however, you can click “read more” to stay with this post to learn a little more about the Victorian Age, its literary themes and forms, and the culture that informed its literature. This background will help explain the themes, ideas, and problems with which Victorian writers were concerned, all to help you read with more pleasure and understanding.

English Victorian Literature: An Annotated Bibliography

(Click “Continue Reading.”)

Continue reading

Is Now the Time to Read That Beefy Classic 19th Century Novel?

Time to Read? Pick up a Beefy 19th Century Novel!

Here’s a list of great 19th Century Novels to try. You can find inexpensive copies, or download and read for free!

With a pandemic raging, many of us are in official or self-imposed quarantine. I send you prayers and hopes that you and your loved ones are well, or soon will be, and that this epidemic will soon pass. If you are well but stuck inside, maybe now is the time to pick up one of those beefy classic novels you always meant to read.

But what to go for first?

Here I offer a smattering of my suggestions for best overall Big Reads that, for me, offer not just classic status, but also engaging stories and characters, worthy and thought-provoking ideas, and immersion in other times and places in western cultural history.

The great thing about choosing Classics for reading is that you can find many of them online for free, or pick up inexpensive second-hand copies from online booksellers. If you have a Kindle or other e-reader, you can even download copies of many classic works from Gutenberg.org in the correct format. The listings below provide links to Gutenberg download pages for each.

Here is the link to Gutenberg’s Book Search page, where you can search for any other out-of-copyright book you’d like to read.

A word to the wise: be patient when first starting your Classic Read. It might take a chapter or two to become accustomed to the more elaborate language and leisurely pace of fiction written in bygone years. But if the experience of most of my students is any indication, you won’t read far into these great books before you are wholly absorbed in the story-line, captivated by the characters, and stimulated by the thoughtful commentaries about being human that these great authors can offer.

Here are my picks for some great classics I think you would like to meet.

Note: If you want to choose readings from other eras, visit our Literature Lists and Timelines category page for ideas. Make a choice then search the Gutenberg link above for online copies.

Continue reading

How Characterization Makes Characters Live: How to Read Fiction Step 4 Part 1

20th century typewriter in turquoise, shown with paper inserted and cup of coffee to the left--writer's characterization tools!

Words are the writer’s only tools for characterization in fiction. Just 26 letters can bring hundreds of characters to life.

Yours could be any one of thousands of great literary characters–Atticus Finch, Jo March, Sherlock Holmes, Elizabeth Bennet, Janie Crawford, Clarissa Dalloway, Jane Eyre, Holden Caulfield, Huckleberry Finn, Emma Bovary, Jay Gatsby, Raskolnikov, or the Artful Dodger; all serious readers have their favorites.

The characters in a novel or story are usually the first thing everyone wants to talk about. When I talk to excited readers about fiction they like, most people speak about the fictional characters as if they are real people:

“I love Lizzie Bennett’s independence, and she’s funny!”
“Holden Caulfield is a brat but I like the way he sees through all the fakiness.”
“Gatsby seems so romantic and so lonely.”
“I like watching Janie search so hard for her identity.”
“My heart goes out to Jane Eyre, she’s so mistreated!”

But of course, literary characters are not real people. Writers only make us feel as if they are. How do writers convey to readers the sense that their characters are actual human beings?

Writers use a multitude of clever methods to bring their characters to life. These characterization techniques sometimes vary according to literary fashion, and some endure through every era of storytelling. Learning to spot methods of characterization in fiction helps us come to a deeper understanding of the personality and psychology of a character as the writer conceived it. It also helps us see and enjoy themes or plot conflicts.

Even more, recognizing characterization techniques points out the degree of a writer’s skill, so we can see how one writer differs from another and appreciate excellent fictional artistry all the more.

Woman in Bookshop. Books are lining the walls and woman, wearing skirt, jacket, and light pack, is scanning shelves.

In one bookshop alone are thousands of characters for readers to meet and get to know through clever characterization techniques.

Continue reading

Why Does “Jane Eyre” Still Matter?

Black and White movie still showing Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine as Rochester and Jane in Jane Eyre, 1943*

Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine as Rochester and Jane in Jane Eyre, 1943*

Readers still love Charlotte Bronte’s  Jane Eyre—and why not? The novel has every quality needed for total story immersion: a sympathetic heroine in plain, mistreated, brilliant, independent Jane; a dashing mysterious sexy romantic lead in Mr. Rochester; a spooky Gothic atmosphere and a chilling mystery; a host of villains in Aunt and John Reed, Mr. Brocklehurst, Blanche Ingram, and more; aides to the heroine, such as Helen, Mrs. Fairfax, and Jane’s  cousins Mary and Diana; moral temptations, thrills, fires, courageous escapes, sorrow, and suspense. But beyond joyful immersion in a wonderful, well-told story, why would readers return to it again and again? Is it just a pretty romance? Today, Jane’s moral dilemmas and particular set of problems seem outmoded; so why does Jane Eyre still matter, in a more serious intellectual sense?

More than just a fun read, Jane Eyre is a subtle, intelligent discussion of the difficulty of choosing among competing value systems. What values and principles should underpin our choices in life? What forces motivate us to choose and adhere to one set of values over another? These are the important questions Jane Eyre asks us to consider. We watch Jane struggle with these questions, and gain insight into how we struggle with values of our own. That is why Jane Eyre still matters.

Continue reading

DON’T MISS A POST!

Get EMAIL ALERTS with links to OUR LATEST.

An open book lying on the grass, surrounded by fallen leaves, brings to mind the widespread focus on nature in the works of many writers during the American Romantic era.

Delivered no more than once per week.

First and Last Name Optional. Unsubscribe at any time.

CLICK HERE for SIGN-UP FORM

Link to Privacy Policy in Website Footer.