English Novels Everyone Should Read

This tumultuous tale of life in a bleak farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors is a popular set text for GCSE and A-level English study, but away from the demands of the classroom it’s easier to enjoy its drama and intensity. Populated largely by characters whose inability to control their own emotions leads to violence and revenge, it’s a tale that spans two generations and two families. At the heart of the story is the mysterious ‘gypsy’, Heathcliff, adopted as a ragamuffin child into the Earnshaw family to live at Wuthering Heights. As he grows up, he becomes close to his adopted sister Cathy, falling in love with her only to be met with crushing disappointment when she marries Edgar Linton, a kind and gentle man from neighbouring Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff disappears and returns a rich, educated man bent on revenge.

Middlemarch, subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”, is the story of the inhabitants of a Midlands village in the 1830s. Masterfully weaving together several plotlines, the novel charts the fortunes of an interesting cast of characters, exploring their motivations, delusions and preoccupations. The remarkable thing about Middlemarch is the detail and realism with which George Eliot describes emotions. Feelings you thought were unique to you are described here in a way that could be describing your own thoughts. It’s one of the reasons why Middlemarch has been described the likes of Martin Amis and Julian Barnes as one of the greatest English novels ever written; read it and you’ll soon find yourself agreeing with them.

Nineteen Eighty-Four makes depressing but essential reading. Published in 1949, it’s the author’s vision of a dystopian future dominated by totalitarian state surveillance, mind control and perpetual war. At the centre of the novel is Winston, whose job is to rewrite old news stories so that they toe the party line, whom we follow in his quest for rebellion against the government he works for. Its memorable opening line sets the unsettling tone for the rest of this uncomfortable novel: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” You probably already use phrases from this influential book without necessarily knowing it; “Big Brother” and “Room 101” are both references taken from this novel. As you read Nineteen Eighty-Four, ask yourself: how close do you think Orwell’s vision is to how society is today?

If you’ve ever in need of a little gentle comic relief, you can’t do much better than the delightful Diary of a Nobody. It’s the (made-up) diary of a self-important Victorian lower-middle class gentleman, Charles Pooter, in which he details the day-to-day household quandaries and social embarrassments we can all relate to. It was serialised in Punch magazine in Victorian times, and it’s a charming insight into what the Victorians found funny – but in many places, it’s still laugh-out-loud funny to the modern reader.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is comprised of three novels: Northern Lights (known in the US as The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. The story is set in a fantasy world that contains numerous parallel universes, some of which bear some resemblance to real-life Oxford. Lyra, the protagonist, inhabits the fictional Jordan College, Oxford, in a world in which human beings are accompanied by animal embodiments of their souls, called daemons. The initial similarities and intriguing differences between Lyra’s world and real life will draw you in right from the start, and you’re sure to be gripped as you accompany Lyra on a journey that sees her coming of age and discovering that space and time are not what she expected. If you want to do some background reading, try Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, of which Pullman’s trilogy is a partial reinvention.

This novel by Emily Brontë’s elder sister Charlotte has inspired numerous film adaptations, and tells the tale of a young governess, Jane Eyre, who goes to live and work in a foreboding country house with an eccentric master, Edward Rochester, who hides a dark secret in a remote wing of his sprawling home. The story focuses on Jane’s transition to adulthood, told from her perspective in the first person. Throughout the novel we observe her sense of morality, which is tested by the situations she finds herself in – first during her abusive childhood and then in her response to the passionate feelings she experiences towards Mr. Rochester.

Thomas Hardy’s evocative novel Far from the Madding Crowd is set in ‘Wessex’, an early region of south-west England that no longer exists but is used to conjure up a sense of a place neither real nor made-up – an agricultural England that, during Hardy’s lifetime, was under threat from industrialisation. Rural life is a central theme in a story that follows the shepherd Gabriel Oak and his love for Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful and independent newcomer to the local farm she’s just inherited.

Unfortunately, Oak isn’t the only one with his eye on the wilful Bathsheba, and two rivals appear on the scene in the shape of another farmer, Mr. Boldwood, and a dashing but rakish soldier, Sergeant Troy. Love and its sometimes dangerous and destructive power are explored among a number of other themes, including luck and tragedy.

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