This next question is from Angie:
So what are your favorite classics?
Oh, I love this question! Any opportunity to talk about my favorite classic novels is an opportunity I cannot resist!
Angie asks this in the context of my Question #2 post in which I said that I learned the most about creative writing by reading the classics. Because I could spend forever writing up a list, I’m going to limit myself to six authors and my favorites of their works.
Please note: This is not a complete list . . . I could (and probably will, someday) write up ringing praises of so many more brilliant authors! But this is a good smattering with which to start.
1. The Princess and the Goblin by George MacDonald. I just recently reread this children’s novel and was amazed by how many little aspects of it have influenced my work—both consciously and unconsciously. Some details, like the opal ring given to Princess Irene by her great-great-grandmother, are more obvious connections (Una has an opal ring given her by her mother). Others were much more subtle. More stylistic choices than anything, perhaps. Written in a lyrical and highly readable omniscient narrative, this book is a joy . . . as is the sequel, though I have only read that once (so far!)
2. Charles Dickens. Especially his brilliant A Tale of Two Cities, but I enjoy much of his other work as well. Again, he writes in a brilliant omniscient narrative, creating some of the most vivid characters in all literary history! He writes with a sense of humor that is unexpected in the context of his often dark storylines (A Tale of Two Cities is centered on the bloody French Revolution, and even his more friendly A Christmas Carol is about a haunting!). Dickens understood human nature and wrote it with flare. His plots are fantastic, but his characters carry the stories. You’ll not find any characters in modern writing who can hold a candle to Mr. Dickens . . . except perhaps the inimitable Sir Terry Pratchett’s.
3. Persuasion by Jane Austen. You knew there would be some Austen on this list! But I like to think that I read Austen a little differently than many of her modern readers do. For one thing, I don’t read her as a Romance Book writer. Austen herself would not have considered herself such. There were plenty of (forgettable) romance writers penning their forgettable romances back in that day. Jane Austen, however, wrote something far more lasting. While each of her books contains a romance (some more developed than others), the characters carry the stories far beyond the realm of romance. She writes real people. Eccentric, unusual, unexpected . . . but real, with depth of emotion and real motivation coming from the inside out, never dependent on outer circumstances. Again, I think it is her omniscient narrative that does the trick for her. Gives her voice life. It provides an outlet for Jane Austen herself to speak to her readers with the full force of her wit and insight.
4. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, though I honestly think I might prefer her lesser-known novel, Villette. I can’t say that for certain because I have only read Villette once, and it does seem silly to put a book on your “favorites” list that you have read only one time. Favorites are re-readers. Jane Eyre I have read twice now. I am not a fan of modern-day uses of the first-person narrative . . . so when I recently read Jane Eyre for the second time, I was blown away by the beauty and power and richness of her first-person narrator! Bronte filled her protagonist with so much life, possibly because the protagonist was a vivid replica of herself. Ultimately, that’s what all of our characters, good, bad, or indifferent. But Bronte seems to realize this on a deeper, more complex level than most of us mere mortals. This is why her Jane Eyre will last through the ages long after most gothic romances (of her day and ours) have been forgotten. My money is on Jane Eyre outlasting Rebecca. How about you?
5. War and Peace by Tolstoy. Now this one is a heavy read, make no mistake! Not because the storyline is difficult or the characters are unrelatable . . . quite the contrary! Tolstoy is brilliant in the truest sense of the word. I found myself relating to every one of his characters—from the most prosaic to the most extreme—on some level. That is true genius! To pepper a novel THAT HUGE with so many universal and real people? I read that book in awe, true, unabashed awe.
That being said, Tolstoy does love to wander off down rabbit trails of philosophy and historical musing. Which, yes, is interesting in its own way. But it can be mighty frustrating when you’re breathlessly caught up in the intrigue of several dozen plot twists and suddenly—“We interrupt this broadcast to bring you ten chapters of authorial speculation on the ultimate depravity of mankind in the context of such-and-such battle and all the philosophical implications that might be made by so-and-so’s reaction . . .”
Um. Tolstoy? Can we get back to Natasha and Andrea and Pierre now? I mean, not that I’m not interested. It’s just, well . . .
6. And for my number 6, let me throw things off a little and give you . . . Edith Nesbit and her brilliant Five Children and It. Another genius. Another children’s writer. Another artist proficient in the omniscient narrative medium. Peter Glassman says of her: “E. Nesbit single-handedly invented the modern adventure story for children.” Did I mention she is a genius? Seriously, if you are interested in writing fantasy—be it epic, fairy tale, children’s, romantic, whatever!—you should read some Nesbit! She was “just a children’s book author,” and yet, when she was alive, her list of admirers included names like George Bernard Shaw, William Morris, Laurence Houseman, Rudyard Kipling, and H.G. Wells. For me, this would be the equivalent of having Sir Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Megan Whalen Turner, and Diana Wynn Jones write and tell me they were huge fans. Not going to happen to this little YA author . . . but it happened to Nesbit! She’s not read nearly enough these days.
Okay, I must stop. I don’t have time to keep writing this list, you don’t have time to keep reading this list. So, I’m stopping. Right now.
Wait a moment, while we’re on the subject of “Ediths,” can I just throw in . . .
7. Edith Pargeter and her Heaven Tree Trilogy. No one is reading it these days. I don’t know if it can even count as a “classic” since it is not well known. But it is, without question, one of the most brilliant series I have ever read. Medieval historical/romance. If it doesn’t catch you within the first few chapters . . . don’t worry. Read a little more. It will completely captivate you before you know what’s happened!