Looking back through my notes, I realise that I have read quite a lot of books over the last few years of university. One of the benefits of Oxford has been the sheer breadth of its English course, and I’ve been lucky enough to read works ranging across the entire history of English literature, from Old English to Postmodernism and beyond.
As I have been in a rather reflective mood of late, I’m intending to write a few pieces on my three-year stint as a Literature student. To start off, I thought that I might irreverently categorise a few of the texts and authors that I read as apart of my degree, and highlight a few notable examples that stood out to me for one reason or another. The categories are totally arbitrary and based on personal whim rather than anything more substantive, of course, but I hope they serve to amuse:
A text that I really didn’t expect to like but did:
Aurora Leigh (Elizabeth Barrett Browning): This was a close tie with In Memoriam (which is also beautiful) – both are (very) long Victorian poems that I was expecting to hate but instead found myself really enjoying them. I plumped for Aurora Leigh however, as the idea of an epic poem about the life of a Victorian gentlewoman really did not sound appealing to me at first. However, it turned out to be fantastic – beautiful verse, genuinely interesting characters and some fascinating scenes; a sterling example of the ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ proverb.
‘This is living art/ Which thus represents and thus records true life’
A text that I really expected to like but didn’t
Mansfield Park (Jane Austen): I absolutely loved Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, so I was expecting the same reaction to Mansfield Park. However, it just didn’t happen – I found the novel to be more of a struggle and far less engaging than I had hoped, probably because I went in with the wrong assumptions. Austen’s third book is quite different from her first two – less amusing, if still incredibly witty, with a rather limp protagonist and an ending which in some ways is quite dark. Still an excellent novel, it nonetheless caught me off guard and I enjoyed it far less than I expected.
‘I longed to do it—but there was such a dead silence!’
A text that I radically changed my opinion of:
The Wasteland (T.S Eliot): Eliot’s masterpiece has confounded and frustrated many English students, including me. When I first read it, I couldn’t make head nor tail of it, and I dismissed it as pretentious waffle. Further study helped enlighten me significantly, and I grew to appreciate it for the fantastic work of art that it is – a masterful interweaving of ancient and modern, myth and mechanisation, speech and sound. It is still undoubtedly pretentious, but at least Eliot earned it 😉.
‘HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME’
A ‘classic’ that is also crap:
Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole): Even my tutors agreed that this text is rubbish – hilariously melodramatic, faux-Shakespearean and not scary at all. However, as the forerunner to the Gothic novel, it has made its mark on literary history, despite its crappiness. At least it’s short, I guess.
‘Oh! the helmet! the helmet!’
An amazing text that was hell to read:
Middlemarch (George Eliot): Eliot’s celebrated work is as close to ‘objectively good’ as you can find in a novel – a masterpiece of realist fiction. However, at over nine hundred pages, it is also so, so LONG. I had to read it as a part of a huge reading list, taking notes all the while, and getting it done quickly was exhausting. Definitely a book to read at leisure when you have a lot of time on your hands – though it is certainly worth the effort.
‘It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view’
The text that I hated the most:
Desmond (Charlotte Turner Smith): Oh God, Desmond. What a load of bollocks. One of the most irritating texts I have ever read – essentially a half-baked political treatise disguised as a crappy novel, full of gross, flat stereotypes and a turgid plot. I gave up halfway through and skimmed the rest.
‘Where the politics are obnoxious, recourse is always had to personal detraction’
The most unusual text that I read:
Beware the Cat (William Baldwin): There was a lot of strange literature I read for my Renaissance paper, from satirical religious pamphlets to scurrilous printed tales of the London underworld. However, Beware the Cat probably takes the biscuit. Sometimes called (erroneously) the ‘first novel in English’ it is a weird prose fiction from 1554 involving speaking cats, magic, dastardly papists (😉), stupid scholars and a lot of crude humour. It is quite short, so if you have the time it is worth reading for the weird novelty if nothing else.
‘A M A R V E L O V S
Hystory intitulede , Beware the
Cat. Conteynyng diuerse wounder-
full and incredible matters.
Uery pleasant and mery to read.’
An author that I grew to love:
E.M. Forster: Knowing very little about Forster beforehand, I fell in love with him during my first-year modules. His novels are charming, funny, and intelligent, providing beautifully well-rounded and complex portraits of human life; invested with an admirable sense of sympathy and understanding, they do not shy away from human flaws but do not outright condemn them either. I read three of them, and can’t wait to finish the rest. If you haven’t read any Forster yet, please do.
An author that I grew to hate:
Virginia Woolf: I’ll admit, Woolf is a great writer, but I couldn’t stand her novels – pretentious, self-absorbed, and highly dull. It was a feat of will not to fall asleep when ploughing through her writing (I’m looking at you, The Waves). Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf? You bloody well bet that I am.
‘No, the other was also the Lighthouse. For nothing was simply one thing. The other Lighthouse was true too’
I just couldn’t decide on a single text or author for this category, so I went for three, all of which are very much worth reading.
Thomas Browne: Browne was completely unknown to me beforehand, but I soon came to admire him. His works – I mostly read Pseudodoxia Epidemica, Religio Medici, and the Garden of Cyrus – are fascinating insights into the – not necessarily antagonistic – relationship between religion and science in the seventeenth century, and very much dispel the myth that all our ancestors back then were intolerant, ignorant fanatics. Furthermore, Browne’s prose is simply beautiful, and his evident charm shines through despite the archaic language. If this sounds remotely interesting, I certainly recommend having a browse through Religio Medici or Pseudodoxia Epidemica at some point, just to get a feel for him.
‘We are only that amphibious piece between a corporal and spiritual essence, that middle frame that links those two together and makes good the method of God and nature, that jumps not from extremes but unites the incompatible distances by some middle and participating natures’
The Turkish Embassy Letters (Lady Mary Wortley Montagu): This is a collection of letters sent by Lady Montagu while she was abroad as the wife of the English ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in the early eighteenth century. She was possibly the first European woman to write back about her experiences in the Muslim world, and her perspectives on the Ottomans are fascinating. Furthermore, her (often barbed) wit and easy prose makes her a joy to read.
‘Thus you see, my dear, gallantry and good breeding are as different in different climates as morality and religion. Who have the rightest notions of both we shall never know till the day of judgement’
The Wanderer (no not that one): I had to get some Old English in there somehow! This is a fantastic poem, whether read in the original or in translation. It is strange, almost ‘alien’ in some ways, yet the moody anguish of the poem still comes through strongly today, over a thousand years after it was written. It is also quite short, so if you are interested in Old English at all I recommend having a look at it in translation – especially if you are a Tolkien fan, as you will recognise a certain passage as being startlingly familiar….
‘Where is the horse gone? Where the rider?/Where the giver of treasure?/ Where are the seats at the feast?/ Where are the revels in the hall?/Alas for the bright cup!/Alas for the mailed warrior!/Alas for the splendour of the prince!/How that time has passed away,/ dark under the cover of night,/as if it had never been!’
So there we have it. A snapshot of some of the nonsense that I filled my head with at university, from the worst to the best with all the oddities in between. Some of these are more unusual texts – not really ‘canonical’ at all – so if you have read them I would be fascinated to hear about it. If not, I would suggest you have a look at one or two of them (apart from Desmond, obviously); there is so much fascinating literature that has been written in English over the last thousand years, and much of it is available for free online (try Project Gutenberg).
I doubt I will have the chance to study such a fascinating array of literature again, but who knows? Wyrd bið ful aræd.