A Better Book List: Classic Novels Worth Reading

A Better Book List: Classic Novels Worth Reading

We’ve written before in a Required Reading post that Ann enjoyed Robert McCrum’s “100 Best Novels.” He’s been working through his recommendations for The Guardian for the past two years or so. It’s an interesting list, though I’m much less a fan of it than Ann is.

It’s not that I expect perfection. I know that Mr. McCrum is one person itemizing the novels he likes best, and I accept that. We are all partial. None of us are blessed with unlimited time or perfect taste. What appeals to one may not appeal the other, etc. But one of the greatest gifts literature has to offer us is the temporary ability to dip into another person’s perspective, and this works better and is more enjoyable when those perspectives are not the same old thing, over and over. We hear this a lot from our seminars, too – that the opportunity to read a variety of authors is refreshing and compelling, that it helps people learn about their coworkers and think about their life experiences in new ways.

What really bothers me, then, is the title: “100 Best Novels.” Not “Robert McCrum’s 100 Best Novels.” Or “100 Favorite Novels.” “Best” seems so objective, but this list is not.

One flaw is McCrum’s treatment of writers from diverse racial and cultural backgrounds. Though I don’t feel I have enough expertise to correct this entirely, I do have the wherewithal to point out that James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, and Zadie Smith (to cite someone more recent) are conspicuously absent from it.

Portrait of Frances Burney by Edward Francesco Burney, 1782 (Public Domain) via The Burney Center at McGill University

Portrait of Frances Burney by Edward Francesco Burney, 1782 (Public Domain) via The Burney Center at McGill University

McCrum’s treatment of women writers is similar. The Guardian has, admittedly, posted a remedy, “100 Best Novels: One in Five Doesn’t Represent over 300 Years of Women in Literature,” in which Rachel Cooke offers an account of 20th and 21st-century women’s novels that’s worth looking over. But Cooke herself stumbles when it comes to earlier periods; she gives McCrum an out for the “for the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, when women writers were relatively rare.”  

Her statement is more than a bit incorrect. Since Sandra Gilbert and Susan M. Gubar published The Madwoman in the Attic in 1979–a book for which they recently won the National Book Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award–scholars have been working hard to undermine the notion that women novelists were ever a rare thing. I’ll quote just one, Jane Spencer, from The Rise of the Woman Novelist from Aphra Behn to Jane Austen (1986):

“Eighteenth-century periodical reviewers, who tended to have a low opinion of the novel, emphasized and even exaggerated its connection with women writers, but modern critics, whose respect for the form is so much greater, usually concentrated on the five male ‘greats’ – Defoe, Richardson, Fielding, Smollett and Sterne.”

In other words, eighteenth-century people gave the novel about as much credence as General Hospital and associated it with women writers. Now that we think of the novel as High Literary Art, we associate its rise with five male authors who, though certainly worth studying, were by no means alone in creating the novel.

We can do better than this, I think. In brief, here’s an admittedly partial take on how I would rearrange McCrum’s list and add to it:

For the 17th- and 18th centuries, McCrum lists Paul Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones and Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy. Get rid of Pilgrim’s Progress and Gulliver’s Travels – these aren’t, strictly speaking, novels, anyway. Replace them with:

Oroonoko performed at the Southerne Theatre in 1776 (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

Oroonoko performed at the Southerne Theatre in 1776, Public Domain

  • Aphra Behn’s Oronooko (1688): Widely considered the first novel in English, written by the first English woman to make her living as a writer. It’s also about an early slave rebellion.
  • Frances Burney’s Evelina (1778): A satirical coming-of-age story that certainly influenced Jane Austen.

For the 19th century, McCrum already includes many favorites (Emma, Frankenstein, Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, Little Women), and Cooke does a decent job of filling in his gaps, suggesting Elizabeth Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden.

I’d also suggest:

  • Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801): Another influence on Jane Austen, who described this as a “work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed” in Northanger Abbey. It’s interested in female education and good marriages – and it’s a bit of an exposé of Edgeworth’s family friend, philosopher Thomas Day.
  • Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899): A masterpiece that deals with issues of children and family still relevant (if hopefully less bleak) today.

Finally, I’d also suggest at least one sensation novel – though I’m torn as to which. Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862)? Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861)?

Oh, just read them both–or neither. After all, the beauty of an admittedly partial list is that it makes no pretense to completion.

And – I’m interested – what would you add or take away from my list or McCrum’s? What are your favorite novels?

Further Reading:

Celebrating Banned Books Week by Celebrating Diversity

A Text at Work: Tristram Shandy

The End of Summer Reading: Our 5 Favorite Books

Image: Thomas Gainsborough, The Mall in St. James’s Park, 1783, The Frick Collection, NY (Public Domain) via Wikimedia Commons

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Erin Hill

Cecily Hill is the Project Director, NEH for All at the National Humanities Alliance and former member of the Books@Work team.