How to Read and Enjoy the Classics

Tag: George Eliot

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

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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.

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Dorothea’s Brook in Middlemarch: Moral Streams and Ripples

Shows large gray stone mansion Arbury Hall, its estate managed by George Eliot's father.*

Arbury Hall. George Eliot’s father managed Arbury Estate, giving his daughter ample opportunity to observe people from every background.

A Monumental Saga

The Wall Street Journal says we should read Middlemarch. In 2014, the Guardian’s Robert McCrum chose it as one of the top 100 novels written in English, ever. I have told friends for years it’s like a soap opera for smart people–or to update the comparison, let’s say it’s a binge worthy Netflix “town and family” saga. George Eliot’s Middlemarch is bursting with yearning, beautiful young people, dysfunctional marriages, bemused mothers and fathers, business people both honest and shady, medical men of various skill, clergy, manipulative rich uncles, politicians, newspaper publishers, innkeepers–people from every social class and background whose fates and choices form an interconnected web of mutual cause and effect.

The telling of this giant tale is liberally interlaced with gentle humor, empathy, psychological penetration, and philosophical discussion by one of the wisest narrative voices in literature. For these and other qualities, both the light and the deeply philosophic, I have loved Middlemarch for over 30 years. I love it for its humane and intricate presentation of the psychology of so many kinds of people. I love it for its careful analysis of how communities function—how opinions form and spread, whether well-founded or no, and how individual choices impact the larger social network. I love it for understanding how the petty daily-ness of life can chip away at our ability to achieve great and ideal goals, and yet, paradoxically, that’s all right.

Above all, I love Middlemarch for showing us that our individual moral choices matter. Our smallest moral acts, both good and ill, can spread like ripples in a stream, affecting others far beyond ourselves.

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