Where to Begin with Classic Literature—The Brits

I read a lot of classic literature.  I’ve been obsessed with it since I was a kid, and it’s the main reason I’m here at Athabasca University pursuing an English degree.  So, as an obsessive reader of classic literature who is pursuing an English degree, there is one question I hear more than any other, “Where should I start if I want to read classics?”

This question used to leave me flummoxed, because there are hundreds of amazing classics out there, and who am I to decide which ones should get bumped to the front of the line?  However, after years of encountering this question everywhere I go and studying the reactions of people I have guided on their classics quest, I have settled on a pretty solid set of recommendations.  With apologies to everywhere else in the world, my recommendations usually begin with British literature, since those are generally the most well-known and easily read, yet still somewhat challenging classics for beginners.  So, without further ado, I present to you the seven classics every classic-lit newbie should read.

The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett

You might think it’s strange that I begin this list with a children’s classic, but if you haven’t read The Secret Garden as an adult, you haven’t really read it.  There is so much in this book for a discerning adult mind, and I will forever stand by the opinion that it is one of the most beautiful and inspiring books ever written.  I also believe that it is the perfect way to prepare your brain for the marvellously rich writing of the nineteenth and early twentieth century classics.

Synopsis: Mary Lennox, an English girl born and raised in India, finds herself transformed overnight from a spoiled little rich girl to a somewhat neglected orphan on a boat back to England.  She is taken to live with her elusive uncle, Archibald Craven, in his creepy manor on the Yorkshire moors, where she becomes intrigued by the mystery of a secret, walled-in garden.  Originally published in 1910.

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

I debated for years which of Dickens’ works should be read first, but then I realized how few people have actually read A Christmas Carol.  This is hands-down the best place to start if you have never read Dickens before (or if you were forced to read one of his longer novels in high school and hated it).  It’s a novella that was designed to be read aloud in one evening, so it won’t take up much of your time, but it is also hugely entertaining and moving and wonderful, so you might find that it leaves you wanting more.  The story is exactly what you think it is, since most Scrooge adaptations stick fairly close to the source material, but it will give you a sense of Dickens’ writing style and show you that he is not to be feared but to be enjoyed.

Synopsis: Much-loathed miser Ebenezer Scrooge spends one memorable Christmas being visited by several spirits who teach him that there is more to life than money and meanness.  Originally published in 1843.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

If you have never read Pride and Prejudice, approximately half of the pop culture references you have ever heard have gone over your head.  Okay, maybe that’s a slight exaggeration (is it, though?). However, this is undeniably one of the most popular, beloved, referenced, and retold classics in existence, and for good reason.  Its wit and satire have inspired countless authors in the 200+ years since its publication, and the entire romantic-comedy genre owes many of its tried-and-true tropes to this novel.  The prose is also very approachable for a beginner.  It’s a must-read for anyone who is interested in the classics.

Synopsis: Elizabeth Bennet is the eldest of five sisters, all of whom are under significant pressure, especially from their mother, to marry well.  When a rich bachelor moves into the neighbourhood, he and his friend, a certain Mr. Darcy, cause a bit of a stir among the local unmarried ladies, but Elizabeth is having none of it.  Or is she?  Originally published in 1813.

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte

I love Jane Eyre.  I really, really love Jane Eyre.  I have read it many times, and I will read it many times more.  It was one of the first “adult” classics I ever read, and I largely credit it (along with Charles Dickens) for my love of Victorian literature.  I think it has one of the most gripping plots ever written, and some of the best characters ever created.  However, there are parts of this book that seem to be unimportant and drag on forever.  Please stay with it!  I promise, those parts are not unimportant, they do come to an end, and the book as a whole is wonderful and very much worth the effort.  I firmly believe that this should not be the first classic that anyone tries to read (I struggled with it myself the first time around, but it was smooth sailing when I went back to it a couple years later), but if you have read my first few recommendations and feel you’re ready for a meatier literary diet, this is a must-read introduction to intermediate-level classics.

Synopsis: Jane Eyre has a rough childhood between an abusive aunt and a neglectful school, so when she becomes a woman, she is determined to be independent and content with whatever comes her way.  But what comes her way is a position as governess at the mysterious Thornfield Hall and an ill-advised attraction to its brooding master named Edward Rochester.  Originally published in 1847.

Dracula, by Bram Stoker

This one can be a bit controversial, but I personally love Dracula.  It’s quintessential Victorian gothic horror, which is enough of a draw right there, but it’s the focus on the teamwork between the main characters that makes this book the standout classic that it is.  Forget everything you know of Dracula from the movies and TV adaptations, and definitely forget everything you know about modern vampire stories.  This is a story of Good vs Evil, of friends becoming family, and of Abraham Van Helsing being the coolest nerd in history.  The story plays out through letters, diary entries, and newspaper articles, so you as the reader are able to piece together what is happening long before the characters do, which adds an extra level of tension to an already creepy tale.

Synopsis: Jonathan Harker unwittingly aids the mysterious Count Dracula in leaving Transylvania, the country he has terrorized for centuries, and finding his way to England, where the Count begins to prey on Harker’s fiancée, Mina, and her best friend, Lucy.  It will take the courage and moral fortitude of a motley crew to take Dracula down.  Originally published in 1897.

Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

This is another gothic novel, but it was written a few decades after the Victorian era.  The most fascinating and genius thing about this book is that the title character is technically not even in it, yet she is present on every single page.  Are you intrigued?  You should be!  I have no hesitation in saying this is one of the best books ever written, and every book lover should read it.  It’s one of those books that stays with you long after you’ve put it down, and you will always wish you could read it again for the first time.

Synopsis: A young woman known to us as simply Mrs. de Winter tells us the story of her days at Manderley, her husband’s country estate.  She is newly married and doesn’t know much about her husband’s past, but she soon comes to realize that his late first wife hasn’t lost her hold on her husband or his household quite yet.  Originally published in 1938.

Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy

If you’ve made it this far down the list and feel in need of a bigger challenge than I have yet presented, you might be ready for some Thomas Hardy.  Hardy is one of the greatest British writers of all time, many of his books are in the classics “canon,” and few male writers of the period gave such an empathic insight into the plight of women, but I feel I should warn you that he has a tendency to rip a reader’s heart out, stomp on it for a while, and just when you think he is picking it up to mend it and apologize for being so cruel, he feeds it to you.  And it’s delicious.  And you can’t wait for him to do it again.  That said, Far from the Madding Crowd is one of his best but also one of his least heart-ripping novels, so it’s a fairly gentle place to start with this sadistically wonderful writer.

Synopsis: Bathsheba Everdene is a headstrong, independent woman to whom men would rather propose than have as a boss when she inherits her uncle’s farm.  Gabriel Oak is a shepherd who has vowed never to propose to her again after being turned down the first time.  Naturally, their paths keep intersecting while she experiences one disastrous relationship after another.  Originally published in 1874.