If you are an English Literature graduate, or if you have attended higher education in the UK for that matter, the chances are that you will have come across a reasonably broad range of so-called literary classics. Moreover, if you are an avid reader, you might have discovered even more significant works by a range of international authors that have helped shape the different genres of literature over the years.
The Oxford Royale Academy has compiled a list of essential English novels that they say everybody should read in their lifetime. The list includes, but is not limited to, the following:
- 'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Bronte
- 'Middlemarch' by George Elliott
- 'Nineteen Eighty-Four' by George Orwell
- 'The Lord of the Rings' by J. R. R. Tolkien
- 'His Dark Materials' trilogy by Philip Pullman
- 'Jane Eyre' by Charlotte Bronte
- 'Great Expectations' by Charles Dickens
- 'Far from the Madding Crowd' by Thomas Hardy
- All of Jane Austen’s novels
While the list covers a good range of novels, many of which are indeed recognised as classics by the various English exam boards (including AQA, OCR and Edexcel), who decides which works are labelled classics of the world? Who is qualified enough within the field to have earned the authority to distinguish a classic from a basic piece of prose? Are lists ever reviewed as society moves forward and the majority's opinions adapt to the times? This is something that will be explored below.
In the meantime, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that all of the above featured writers were born in either the 19th century or in the very early 1900s, with the exception of Philip Pullman. Pullman, in fact, is the only 'current' author from the above list, and thus is the only individual who could possibly have drawn anything from modern society during his ongoing writing career.
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‘His Dark Materials’, is one of just a couple of collections of works from the list that focuses on relatively modern fantasy elements like witches and mystical creatures, in addition to its scientific and philosophical themes.
The other is J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘Lord of the Rings’ series, with ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ being published in 1954. Looking back, this masterpiece was clearly ahead of its time and marks one of the first times that an author successfully experimented with fantasy fiction, at a time when this was purely imagination-driven.
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With hi-tech gadgets readily available and television programmes being digitally enhanced, sci-fi and fantasy themes seem less far-fetched than in previous decades. Perhaps readers' imaginations are so advanced in this modern technological era that they feel that they can relate to these types of stories, hence their continually growing popularity?
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What Is 'Classic' English Literature?
When we think of the word 'classic', we think of 'old' or 'vintage' which is why so many people come up with works from far in the past when faced with the question of the best English Literature classics. However, many works of our time are now also being referred to as classics so is this the right way of thinking? Does a text really need to have stood the test of time to be labelled a classic, or can it simply be a book that inspires readers on a wide scale?
The Learner’s Dictionary cites that a classic is ‘something that has been considered to be excellent for a long time’, which again takes us back to the idea of Time playing a big part in literature being perceived as classic. If we were to be very picky, though, we might ask ourselves how much time has to pass before a period of time can be classed as long ago? (As you have probably gathered by now, most theories surrounding literature and the Arts are very subjective!)
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That said, The Guardian explored the idea of literary classics at the start of this decade and came to the conclusion that many classics are old as a result of more people considering them to be great over a span of several decades or even centuries, meanwhile it quite rightly pointed out that not all old books are classics.
It additionally highlights that children’s literature is a genre that is read and re-read by nature, but puts the label of ‘classics’ down to a question of quality as well as popular taste.
So, what is a classic book, in your opinion? Is it a novel that you have read as part of an English course, a story that was read to you as a child and that you still get excited to read or is it a book that you find yourself wanting to experience again and again?
Despite what the critics and English teachers might say, your perception of what a classic should be all that matters on the subject.
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Some Classic Novels At A Glance
The Great Gatsby
While I agree with the choices made by the Oxford Royale Academy, I would nonetheless add this key novel which I feel has stood the test of time and is continuing to influence generations with its lively party scenes and complicated characters.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, written in 1925, must surely be described as a timeless classic. Despite focusing on society of that time, Fitzgerald’s novel is as relevant today because the themes are universal and immortal. The fact that this novel is as popular as it is today speaks volumes about its relevance in modern society.
With several adaptions having been produced after the author’s death (in fact, he died thinking he was a failure as 'The Great Gatsby' was yet to have its day), the success of the most recent Hollywood movie by Baz Luhrmann only goes to show that Fitzgerald’s characterisation, plot and themes depicted a wonderful insight into the roaring 20s, a period that many of us are so fascinated by to this day, yet it also strikes a chord with its tragic storyline.
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Focusing on yet another list compiled by literature enthusiasts, the website Interesting Literature suggests ten plays of Shakespeare that you must read. Top of the list is, by no surprise, the tragic ‘Romeo and Juliet', with its famous balcony scene that captured the hearts of readers from one century to the next.
Next, is 'Macbeth', a slightly more sombre play with its themes covering monarchy, conspiracy and deceit. Then, the site suggests ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream' to finish bottom of the podium of Shakespeare greats.
The remaining seven texts are 'King Lear', 'Hamlet', 'The Tempest', 'Richard III', 'Othello', 'Henry VIII' and, finally, 'Twelfth Night'. Most, if not all, of these texts are classed as classic tragedies or comedies and appear in secondary school syllabi as well as further education courses where literature is a prime focus.
If reading ten plays seems like a bit too much of a challenge, I would encourage you to pick up an anthology of William Shakespeare’s plays and to read even just one of them. Seen as one of the greatest writers of all time, his interesting characters and his timeless themes are why his literary works are still so popular.
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Jane Austen’s Novels
Jane Austen has become world-famous thanks to her six published novels, which have spoken to readers across the globe for more than two centuries. Although they were set during her time, Austen’s characters still display traits that are visible in modern society while highlighting values and circumstances that are eternally in existence.
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Of the six novels, ‘Northanger Abbey’ is the one that stands out from the rest due to its gothic theme, yet Austen still hangs on to the crucial elements that make her writing so influential: her characters and their sentiments.
Her two most famous novels, however, must be ‘Pride and Prejudice’ and ‘Sense and Sensibility’, both of which have been adapted for TV many times with a great response from members of the public of all ages. The stories, meanwhile, vividly capture individuals in situations of social and romantic conflict and develop strong relationships between friends and lovers.
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Classic Books of The Future
Having considered some of the recognised literary greats, it begs the question of whether any popular works of our time will eventually enter the esteemed list, or indeed if any of them are already displaying signs of literary grandeur.
Books that stand out as having become inarguably popular amongst people of all ages and of all backgrounds during the 21st century are the 'Twilight' series, written by Stephanie Meyer, the collection of Harry Potter stories by J. K. Rowling and the somewhat controversial erotic 'Fifty Shades of Grey' trilogy by E. L. James.
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Perhaps the question we should be asking ourselves is which novels are classic of their time, as opposed to which texts are examples of classic literature, seeing as what was typical in literature historically may not be as popular today or as we head into the future.