What exactly makes a classic novel and why should we still be reading them years after they were published? The answer to ‘what makes a classic’ is a hotly debated topic, and there are varying answers to this question. Essentially though, a ‘classic’ is a piece of literature that has stood the test of time, and is widely considered to have contributed something exemplary or significant to society and culture.
A certain universal appeal, a representation of the context of the time period they hail from, and a sense of artistic excellence in their writing form are all things that you will find in this list of English novels that we consider to be essentials. Whether you are interested in reading for pleasure, to sharpen your skills in the English language, or to deepen your understanding of English culture, there are plenty of benefits to picking up one of these books on a rainy day.
Read on to find out our top picks, and why you should add them to your reading list.
Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen (1813)
“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”
With one of the most famous opening lines in literature, Austen’s tale of courtship among the landed gentry in 18th century England has continued to enchant readers since its first publication in 1813. With countless remakes and adaptations for television and film; the humour, wit and insightful commentary on relationships and society have most certainly stood the test of time. Through the delightfully modern character of Elizabeth Bennet, Austen shows us how the roles of women and family were beginning to change in England. We follow our heroine, along with her sisters and her parents, as they navigate through issues with morality, class and marriage. Considered by many as the quintessential romantic comedy, it has paved the way for many of the archetypes that are found in an abundance of contemporary literature today.
Jane Eyre – Charlotte Brontë (1847)
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”
A novel that was ahead of its time when published in 1847, Jane Eyre follows the emotions and experiences of its eponymous heroine. Remarkable for its intimate use of the narrative voice, we follow the character of Jane from an orphaned and isolated ten-year-old, as she grows and thrives within an oppressive society that she never allows to define her. Exploring ideas surrounding identity and women’s worth in Victorian society, Brontë redefined stereotypes and revolutionised the English novel, at a time when female characters were not expected to be independent and resolute. A cornerstone of English literature today, this novel blends gothic tropes and subversive themes whilst making use of the first-person narrative; a writing technique that has gone on to be used by many other great authors since.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy (1891)
“Tess Durbeyfield at this time of her life was a mere vessel of emotion untinctured by experience.”
A novel that, first and foremost, explores the hypocrisy of English society at the time, Tess of the D’Urbervilles was written when the country was going through a time of intense change – the industrial revolution. We follow the tragedies and betrayals in the life of innocent Tess Durbeyfield, as she falls victim to the sexual double-standards of English society. The daughter of a poor country peddler, Tess finds herself thrust into the destructive influence of the worldly Alec D’Urberville after her parents exploit a tenuous ancestral link to nobility. Hardy is well-known for his sympathies towards the underclasses, particularly through his portrayal of young women who suffered at the hands of the rigid social-morality in England at this time. Tess is perhaps his most famous and tragic figure, and this novel is a compelling portrayal of the unfairness that women in this period were often subjected to.
Mrs Dalloway – Virginia Woolf (1925)
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”
A powerhouse of the English literature world, Virginia Woolf is well-known for her experimental style of writing. Mrs Dalloway explores a day in the life of its protagonist; the upper-class Clarissa Dalloway, as she plans to throw a party. Set in post-World War I London, the novel focuses on seemingly ordinary tasks - shopping, eating dinner, going for a walk – but looks beneath the surface, with a writing style composed of inner streams of consciousness. Switching intermittently between the minds of its characters, we are privy to their deepest thoughts and feelings, a technique that highlights the depth of thought that lies beneath the most trivial of settings. Touching on themes of sexuality, warfare and mental health, the experimental nature of Mrs. Dalloway transformed the novel as an art form.
Nineteen Eighty-Four – George Orwell (1949)
“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”
One of the most famous dystopian novels ever to be written, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984) still serves as a stark warning against the dangers of a totalitarian society. The antagonist of the novel and inspiration for the now infamous television programme of the same name, is the omniscient Big Brother. The figure of Big Brother rules over the fictional nation of Oceania, where the hero of the story, everyman Winston Smith is a low ranking member of the ruling Party. The Party enforces the rules of Big Brother – forbidding rebellious thoughts, altering historical records and monitoring closely every one of its citizens. After witnessing first-hand the cruelties of fascism in Spain and communism in Russia, Orwell designed 1984 as a warning to the West against the rise of authoritarian governments. The central themes still resonate with the modern reader, as the dangers of censorship, manipulation and control by government systems are still a threat on the horizon of our times.