I have long had a difficult relationship with two genres: nonfiction and the classics.
The former, I’ve come to like in certain guises. Memoirs and biographies, because I’m fascinated by people. Also, more prosaic books on trends, business and society, if for no other reason that I occasionally review them for my job.
Meanwhile, I’ve always turned my nose up at anything written, well, before my lifetime. When told we needed to include one classic on our reading list in a high school English class, I asked if VC Andrews counted. Worryingly, I seem to recall that the answer was affirmative.
And in the last month, I went back even further to the English literary greats. Three of them, to be precise.
I started with Great Expectations. Now, I’m pretty sure I missed a lot of the second-layer meanings, especially around Havisham and her creepy old house. English was always my best subject, but I never particularly cared for diving into deep literary analysis. I just wanted to be left alone to read what I wanted.
Nonetheless, I found it a true-blue page turner and tore through it in a couple of days. Dickens’ prose was clear and spare and Pip immediately stole my heart, as did Joe. While a lot of it was predictable, for sure, and many coincidences too tidy by far for my liking, I really couldn’t find much fault with the storytelling or the plot itself.
By contrast, Jane Austen’s Emma was laborious, to say the least. The endless exposition! My word. The obsession with class and marriage, the inane dialogue, the lack of any real depth to the characters and their lives, I could understand. There may not have been much of a plot as such, but I quite enjoyed the characters with all their flaws, and seeing just where they all ended up. It’s Gossip Girl, really, set in a different time.
The actual narrative, though, was so fussy, so overwrought I could not help but revert to skimming of the worst degree (a friend suggested Austen by Twitter might agree with me more. Sounds like a fantastic idea, actually). And I don’t think I missed much in doing so.
Ditto for Jane Eyre. My complaint about Charlotte Bronte is similar; I loved the story itself. I do like a heroine with a backbone and while sad misfit Jane starts out a bit of a wimpy child, she’s quite the iron woman by the time she’s, well, my age. Forget Mills and Boon, this is a romance for the thinking woman.
Again, though, while an enjoyable tale of love, life and hardship, the prose was a real slog to get through at times. I’ll admit, I don’t have much patience for long-windedness. When younger, I hated reading books that had no illustrations at all. Today, I don’t require pictures in my novels, but I do prefer at least some dialogue on every double page spread. When it comes to beautiful prose, less is more in my view – it stands out more that way.
What are some of your favourite classics?