Read part 1, my top 25-11 books, here.
The following ten novels are deeply treasured and massively loved books of mine. Having counted, I can safely say that only seven out of ten are nineteenth century novels… Oh dear.
10. Villette, by Charlotte Brontë (1853)
While Jane Eyre is Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novel, Villette is in my opinion the better book. It tells the story of Lucy Snowe, a destitute English teacher who travels to the French town of Villette to gain employment. Not only does this novel deal with human psychology on a very deal and complex level, especially considering when it was written; not only could I not predict what was going to happen from an early stage, as so often with Victorian literature (much as I absolutely love it); but also, the characters are brilliant, and the ending hauntingly superb. Ignoring the slight irritating fact that half the dialogue is in French and you may want to read it near a computer/dictionary, it’s just a brilliant book. Any slight qualms or niggles I have about Jane Eyre are resolved in Villette; what Charlotte Brontë was trying to do in the first she really achieves in the second.
9. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1813)
Jane Austen certainly had to make my top ten somewhere. In terms of historical interest, or which I think is genuinely the better book, Mansfield Park certainly rivals Pride and Prejudice, but for sheer enjoyment factor it is near unbeatable. I just like books that make you grin as you read them, thus showing you up in public. It’s a good sign if a book can do that, and Austen certainly can. I like her biting wit and subtle social commentary. And Lizzy and Darcy’s dialogue is brilliant. Jane Austen is particularly and wonderfully skilled at writing flirting. In short, it’s just a lovely delightful story.
8. The Way We Live Now, by Anthony Trollope (1875)
It’s been a good five or so years since I last read this, but it has to remain here. I’m a big fan of Trollope’s work; he tackles Dickensian-scale plots, but his social commentary, especially when directed towards the upper classes, has a little bit more precision than Dickens’s (not that I am criticising my favourite author ever here; I would not dream of such a thing). Trollope is less of an idealist than Dickens. I quite like how even Trollope’s heroes and heroines are quite deeply flawed, how his entirely moral characters meet sad endings. The Way We Live Now has too many interweaving plots for me to attempt to sum it up, but it’s basically a comment on (then) contemporary Victorian life, especially amongst the social elites. It begins with an extraordinarily wealthy businessman, Melmotte, moving to London, and the novel is basically the slight madness that ensues as everybody tries to get close to and into his wealth. It’s a book about money, and a book about people. And it’s just brilliant.
7. North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell (1855)
North and South is basically just Pride and Prejudice with industrialisation and class struggle. What’s not to love? But in all seriousness, this is one of my favourite books ever. As with Hardy, it’s not Gaskell’s narrative style that I admire so much as her characterisation, and her social commentary. North and South is historically fascinating, and a real joy to read (although, be warned; it is not a happy book; apparently Gaskell considered the alternative title: ‘Death and Variations’). Nicholas Higgens, Mr Bell, Mrs Thornton, Margaret herself – there are so many brilliant characters. And there’s Mr Thornton, possibly my favourite hero in any Victorian novel, battling fiercely for first place with Our Mutual Friend’s Eugene Wrayburn.
6. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë (1847)
I will always admit that Wuthering Heights is a bit of an acquired taste, but I love it for its strangeness, for its intensity of feelings, its odd form, its often hateable but somehow always unnervingly sympathetic characters. It’s an exceedingly clever book, and it’s also an exceedingly violent, angry, passionate book, and one that seems deeper than I can ever reach. I think you could read it a thousand times (I’m on about twenty) and still read new things into it every time. It’s just such a thoroughly brilliant book. I love the ending especially, and I think the second half of the book is always underrated. A lot of film adaptations cut it out, which infuriates me. The whole point of the novel is in the second half, to my mind. Wuthering Heights is not a love story; it is so much more.
5. The Remains of the Day, by Kauzo Ishiguro (1989)
I just love this novel, although I find it hard to explain why. I suppose it is primarily the poignancy, the subtly, with which Ishiguro tells the story, and the control he exerts over language. Besides, I always do have a soft spot for unreliable narrators, and Stevens the butler, on whom the story focuses, goes beyond even that. He is an unreliable narrator to the point that he can hardly trust himself. The way in which the novel plays with the inconsistency of memory is just brilliant. It’s both historical and deeply personal. Ishiguro takes a stock figure – the reserved and eternally dignified English butler – and makes him into as human a character as you can get. It’s such a wonderful and truly beautiful piece of writing.
4. The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield (2006)
Few words can express how much I love this book. I think it’s already been mentioned quite a few times across my blog. I love it because to an extent it’s a book about books, and specifically about old books. It follows Margaret Lee, a biographer whose father owns an antique book shop; Margaret is enlisted to write the biography of the enigmatic author Viva Winter, whose life remains a complete mystery to her readers. It’s one of those novels I not only absolutely love but every time I read it just sit there wishing desperately that I’d written it. It’s a perfect novel. I can’t think of one single flaw with it – it’s just so thoroughly darn good. It’s got everything I love best in books: stories within stories, brilliant characters, unreliable narrators, and unpredictable yet convincing mysteries. It’s absolutely my favourite modern novel. Go read it at once.
3. A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell (1951-1975)
I wonder if this is a slight cheat, as it’s technically twelve books, but as it’s a series and they’re all short novels that could sort of be squashed together into one massive gigantic novel, I’m going to count it as one. It is one literary work, after all, and a brilliant one at that. The series follows one narrator through his observations and life, tracking the history of the twentieth century from the 1920s to the 1970s. As someone really interested in this period in history, it’s just amazing. As someone interested in books and writing, in characterisation and form, it’s spectacular. The cast of characters is absolutely huge and absolutely brilliant. I dread to think how many characters there are in the series as a whole (surely well over a hundred), and yet each one is distinct, human, alive. Characters not seen since book one turn up in book eight. The books are both moving and incredibly funny; they combine Dickensian and Waughian humour (Waugh should be happy; I’ve just given him his own adjective). The novels explore time and memory in a brilliant way. What I also love is that although it is to an extent a story about Nick, the narrator, it is also very much not a story about him, but about those around him. We never find out the names of his children. The only individuals not subject to rigorous character analysis are Nick and his wife. I find this sort of wonderful, because many novels are, in an odd way, self-centred. And I just love that the one person (the narrator) that you’re supposed to know best of all is the one you almost end up knowing least. These novels are truly, truly, brilliant works of fiction. I recommend them to everybody.
2. Dombey and Son, by Charles Dickens (1846-8)
Well naturally my top two would be Dickens books. I can’t get enough of Dickens. I love his extravagant style, his bizarre similes, his complicated plots, his passionate social criticism, and best of all his eccentric and thoroughly unique characters. As for Dombey and Son in particular, there are so many reasons: Captain Cuttle is hilarious, Mr Toots just eternally marvellous, and the story of Paul Dombey is to me perhaps one of the most moving in all of Dickens, if not all of literature. James Carker is one of my favourite villains in Dickens (I’ll get to my actual favourite in number 1). Dombey is a detestable yet brilliantly crafted character. I love the way the novel is in effect a sort of battle between emotion and money. Like so many Dickens books it is funny and beautiful and thoroughly just a great read.
But the real reason that this Dickens novel earns the second place in my favourite novels is this: Edith Dombey. There is a dichotomy of womanhood set up in this book between Edith and Florence. Dickens attempts to present angelic, selfless, long-suffering, ever-loving Florence Dombey as the ideal, rather than her step-mother – and yet it is headstrong, independent, cold Edith who comes out as the stronger character, who you remember when the book has closed. It’s almost as though Dickens was at war with himself in writing the book. He seems to have intended to make Edith a villain, a fallen woman, but instead she becomes a heroine. Ultimately Dickens was a Victorian through and through, but there’s a moment, in chapter twenty-seven, when Edith speaks to her mother about her place in society, and a sort of feminist Dickens emerges. He disappears pretty soon, but it still pleases me. Beyond even that, she is simply a brilliant character. To me she makes the novel.
1. Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens (1864-5)
This is and probably always will be my favourite novel of all time. I’m not saying it’s the best novel in all the history of the world, but it is my favourite, and that’s that. It’s my favourite partly because of subjective reasons. It was the first Dickens book I ever read, at the age of thirteen, and reading this started this strange descent into a complete love of and minor obsession with Dickens novels. Our Mutual Friend is to blame. It made up the bulk of my undergrad dissertation and I’ve read it so many times that it’s cemented into me. It’s probably no coincidence that it’s also one of my mum’s favourite books. I have such a strong attachment to this novel that I’ll never give it up.
It’s Dickens’s last completed novel, and to me one of his best. It’s certainly the most interesting (and most, for want of a better word, nice) of his novels in terms of the presentation of gender, which was the subject of my dissertation and always one of my main interests. The characterisation is superb, the humour brilliant. Jenny Wren is one of my favourite Dickens characters, as is Lizzie Hexham and as is Bradley Headstone, Dickens’s most sympathetic and human villain and a thoroughly brilliant character. Eugene Wrayburn is fascinating, the Boffins glorious, Rokesmith sometimes lovely and sometimes unsettling, Bella wonderful and her cherub father enchanting. Fascination Flegeby is hilarious (especially in his interactions with Jenny Wren), and the Lammles are brilliant characters. And there’s brilliant Betsy Higden (ah, happy days when Dickens finally declares an independent woman working for nothing and no one but herself to be a ‘heroine’). And I love Mr Venus. And everyone, basically. There are too many fabulous characters in this novel to count. I love the title too. It’s his last completed novel, and the title could in a way stand for all of Dickens’s works. All of his novels are about coincidences, the odd interweaving of characters, the multitudes of crossing mutual friends. And I’ll admit the plot is a bit contrived at times, and there are too many coincidences, and at least one plot element relating to the Boffins does make you stop and think, what on earth just happened?!, but perhaps that’s just part of the Dickensian charm. I always say that what I love most about Dickens is that he can make you laugh and cry in equal measure, and this brilliant wonderful lovely book is no exception. I genuinely cannot help grinning even writing about it.
Next week: I shall be reviewing The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen