Top Ten Classics You Should Read…

“I think we are in rats’ alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.”

T.S. Eliot

…if you’d like to get a general flavour of English Literature Through Time (my opinions only). So, chronological order!

  1. Morte Darthur – Thomas Malory (pub. 1485). There’s stuff before this that’s pretty great, but this is probably around the earliest thing you can read without having to learn Middle English. Read for the chivalric romances, which are fairly typical of literature of the time, for the French colouring (lots of French people around in the 1400s), and, of course, for the tricksy, slippery set of stories that is the myth of King Arthur.
  2. The Faerie Queene – Edmund Spenser (first pub. 1590). Or some of it, anyway – it’s approximately a bazillion pages long and quite hard going. Read for the complex allegory and religious overtones, both very common in this period, and Spenser’s rather delightfully old-fashioned verse. Oh, and Arthur crops up again.
  3. The Shoemakers’ Holiday – Thomas Dekker (first performed 1599). I’m skating over Shakespeare here because it’s too difficult to pick one of his plays, but Dekker’s anarchic rough-around-the-edges drama of city life is a half-decent substitute. Read (or watch) for its evocation of the troubling democracy of the city and its deft defanging of that democracy.
  4. Paradise Lost – John Milton (pub. 1667). Pretty much the exact opposite of Spenser’s work – Milton’s verse is as clear and ringing as a bell, and his dramatic religious conflict isn’t obfuscated by clinging allegory. It’s very accessible to a modern reader (I recommend the Longman edition if you can get it – the spelling is modernised throughout and the font is very readable). Read for the Biblical overtones, and because its story covers pretty much every concern seventeenth-century poets had, and because it’s generally awesome.
  5. Pamela – Samuel Richardson (1740). I actually intensely dislike Pamela. But it’s really where the modern novel begins: a deeply psychological tale emphasising felt experience over empirical truth. Read for its heavy moral overtones and its revolutionary placing of importance on the honour of servant girls.
  6. Evelina – Fanny Burney (1778). Burney isn’t as good a writer as her contemporary Jane Austen, but Evelina is nevertheless a funny and rather enjoyable example of the mannered romances of the period. Read for its broad social satire, its rather emotionally overwrought scenes of familial reunion, and for its close focus on the trials and tribulations of female experience.
  7. In Memoriam A.H.H – Alfred Tennyson (1849). A long and elegiac poem about a dead friend of the poet’s. Read for its Romantic focus on the processes of grief and the tension between its individual lyrics and the narrative whole.
  8. Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens (1865). Serially published, Our Mutual Friend is an enormous, baggy, sprawling book, a state-of-the-nation novel, Victorianly sentimental with a core of bitter anger. Read for its wide cast of characters and its social commentary.
  9. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad (1899). An atmospheric and deeply chilling novella about a journey into the depths of Africa. Read it for its almost Impressionist descriptive style, its thoughts on story and narrative and its stirrings of post-colonialism.
  10. The Waste Land – T.S. Eliot (pub. 1922). Possibly the seminal poem of the 20th century. Read for its string of abstract fragments, its tapestry-work of old stories and its magnificently apocalyptic overtones.

(The theme for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

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