Friday, 29 January 2016

Responding to an Upstart Wren

Thinking about the classics

A close friend has just started a new blog which can be found here, and is well worth a read. She is much more erudite than 'wot i is' but we often end up debating books and the arts world in general and so when she posted her take on reading what are deemed 'classic books' it made me think a lot and here is my partner post to the Wren's.

Reading the classics
Although attending the same school as the Wren I don’t have quite the same recollections regarding English lessons, the fruits of being in a different form and then following an arts track through the years perhaps?
I don’t think we had to keep a book journal, but I feel that if I had done so similar comments about reading age appropriate books would have come my way. The TARDIS may not have featured on my list (I confess I was scared by Doctor Who as a child and so would never have sought out books on the topic) but there were certainly books set in schools, space and an awful lot of teen books with a didactic environmental message. 
There weren’t any classics however. 
I don’t know why.  As a younger child I raced through books such as Black Beauty, Heidi, Little Women, Pollyanna, Wind in the Willows, The Railway Children, The Secret Garden etc., and then I repeatedly borrowed the more modern classics, by authors such as Arthur Ransome and Laura Ingalls Wilder, from the library. The language and style of these is as complicated as any contained in an adult classic novel so I don’t know why I didn’t naturally move on them.
When I did graduate on to books published for an adult market (not adult books, that’s another whole can of worms) I moved onto authors such as John Wyndham, and R F Delderfield before the more traditional teenage fare of Jilly Cooper and Virginia Andrews.  
I missed out the classics.
Like the Upstart Wren my GCSE English course didn’t introduce them to me, although my teacher did pick drama as our topic and I did meet Shakespeare (although I now realise that this was an abridged version and not the full play) and J B Priestley. 
Interestingly on asking my English teacher for book recommendations when stuck in a reading rut I don’t recall being pointed towards the classics at all – Gerald Durrell is the author who I know I discovered at this point. 
I didn’t continue with English past GCSE, focusing on languages – in which I enjoyed reading French and German classics, occasionally in the original language. 
Fast forward twenty years and I am now nearing completion of an MA in Shakespeare Studies. More interestingly I still haven’t read that many of what are considered classic novels. I always intend to but then get side tracked.  
So to many my reading does have a big hole in it. 
I love reading translations of classical Greek and Roman works, and also Elizabethan/Jacobean drama but then I skip forward about 300 years to my next love – rediscovered books from the early twentieth century. Publishers like Persephone Books and Virago are just made for me.  They  republish books, or authors, that were hugely popular in their day but have since slipped into obscurity. I don’t mean people like Nevil Shute (who I also like) but people like Elizabeth Bowen, R C Sherriff and then the well-known authors of children’s books like Richmal Crompton and Noel Streatfeild who also wrote for adults. 
I read an incredible amount of translated fiction, literary fiction and also narrative non-fiction. I  like reading historical books set in all eras so my avoidance of the classics seems even odder.  I’m not even that keen on TV adaptations of them, but the reasons for that is a post for another day! 
I do feel guilty for having this gaping hole in my literary life, I know I should read more of the classics and I don’t even have the excuse of ever being expected to read them and so rebelling against this edict.  But – and here is the big but READING SHOULD BE FUN, and although I do read a lot for improvement/education I do expect to enjoy what I read and so far that hasn’t been many of the classics. 
I will keep trying new ones but I feel my split personality when it comes to books will keep me either in antiquity or the near past, for some reason I seem to empathise with both settings far more than the period 1700-1900.

As my studies come to an end in the next few months I am hoping to have more time to respond to thought provoking blogs and statements from friends as well as statements in the press, but for now it will just be the Wren and the Bookworm replying to each other!


  1. I studied Romeo and Juliet in full at GCSE and loved it. At A-level, I didn't click with Dickens (verbose), Webster (gory) or Keats (allusion over comprehension) but enjoyed Chaucer (like learning a foreign language). Twelfth Night was a great second Shakespeare play for me, but the best book by far was Wuthering Heights. After our discussion on Twitter, I thought I'd set out a bit more here...
    Yes it's overblown.
    Yes Lockwood is the height of tedium.
    But it's a book of passion - and a study in how high emotion and abuse can be two sides of the same coin. It's also about love in the teenage sense, written by someone that had never been in love, with the only choices on offer illicit and rebellious or settling for the inferior.
    Love as a grown up is complicated, sometimes it takes work, and the first flush of passion which is I feel held up as the epitome cannot be a constant (so on one hand Catherine and Heathcliff would've killed each other within 20 years, but on the other would you really want the love that Catherine junior develops with Hareton?).
    It's also a novel to make your feminist hackles rise - it shows why we are lucky to be in an age where we cannot imagine not being allowed to own property and being at the mercy of male relatives. That would've been a high risk business if they were as emotionally illiterate as those in WH, but childbirth without antenatal care or antibiotics was also a pretty big risk too.
    It's a dark, muddy, gothic mess of a novel and doesn't have a happy ending. What's not to like?

  2. I so agree that reading is for pleasure; this was my raison d'ĂȘtre as a librarian. There should be no 'should' or ought when it comes to choosing books. I've had a quick look at your friend's blog and am appalled at her English teacher!