I have a confession to make…

The effect of nineteenth century literature upon Kate Winslet?

I am a wolf in sheep’s clothing; a traitor in the midst – I claim to be well read and I claim to love literature however, there is something I have to confess. I loathe nineteenth century literature. I despise the rambling and, seemingly, endless descriptive passages of not very much happening. I am a modernist through and through – give me someone’s interior monologue any day. Stream of Consciousness and I’m there, gripped. Modernist literature explores the very core of the human condition – it strips away the faff and exposes the raw, bloody nerve endings that are relationships, humanity, society etc etc (I could go on with my rant about the merits of modernism but will cease).

Anyway, I am conscious of the fact that I can’t write off a whole movement within the literary canon. I have tried to get on with the Victorians, believe me I have but I failed every time I opened anything containing a corset. Now, this is where it really gets to confession time – I am an English graduate who has never read an Austen. I got part way through Pride and Prejudice and decided that, frankly, life is way too short so I put it down; that lame experience put me off her other books. This is odd considering I like the TV and film adaptations but perhaps that is because they are mental chewing gum and I like to effortlessly watch the condensed versions of the novels where an end is in sight (cue massive backlash from all ye nineteenth century lovers).

There is one exception to my issue with the nineteenth century and it comes in the glorious form of Hardy. I adore Thomas Hardy BUT he is a modernist born before his time so that gets around that issue. Jude the Obscure is a work of sheer, unparalleled genius. Tess of the D’Urbervilles is one of the greatest feminist works that English literature has ever seen – Hardy is truly a modern man. I have read and re-read Tess, my copy is falling apart and I still weep when she tells Angel the truth. Angel betrays her everytime through his boyish ignorance and if you look in the dictionary for the word ‘hypocrite’ his name is EMBLAZONED there. Well, in my copy anyway.

And I enjoy the gothic, so devoured Frankenstein, Dracula, Wuthering Heights (gothic-ish) with relish. So, I can dance around the edges of nineteenth century literature but I can’t seem to plunge in. I tried Eliot, but dear lord does she prattle on. I made it through about seven pages of Adam Bede (dire) and I got a bit further through Middlemarch but it was doomed from the start as my mind slowly started to grasp at the twentieth century and I succumbed to a Rosamund Lehmann.

I am now going to embark upon another attempt to crack the nut that is Austen and the wider nineteenth century offering. So, I have got Jane Eyre in my bag ready and waiting to be opened. I will then (provided I can drag my way through it) tackle Austen. I refuse to let this beat me, I will read Emma all the way through. Even if I have to go and overdose on some Forster or Fitzgerald immediately after. I admit, I am dubious as to this whole enterprise but I am willing to read it from cover to cover and then we shall see if I have been converted.

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24 thoughts on “I have a confession to make…

  1. Gosh, I hope that you enjoy Jane Eyre… I guess I find it quite helpful to think of the more modern novelists as being the inheritors of the Victorian ones – they deal with similar themes but yes, i suppose that they do go on more. Since you like Hardy – have you read The Woodlanders? I love that one. Happy readingHannah

  2. Hm, I wonder if Emma is the best book to try and get through by Austen? But then, as someone who loves Austen, Emma has never been my favourite, so maybe it will work out well for you. (I really should reread Emma sometime). I would say try Persuasion: it is the shortest of her novels, for one, and my favourite.

  3. I can't believe you dared to admit this in public!!!! Obviously you are wrong in every respect and nineteenth century literature is far better than this modernist rubbish you love so much! You're going to LOVE Jane Eyre, I promise, apart from the boring bit I already told you about. And you'll love Emma too, because she is just like you, and you'll get what I mean when you read it. 🙂 Nineteenth century = amazing. You will learn this eventually.

  4. Don't tell anyone, butI had the same Jane Austen problem, but for some crazy reason, the long gone crazy english student in me, won't let me be, especially when my sister has read them all!

  5. Has Rachel been giving you a talking to about Jane Austen?! I loved Jane Eyre – it was the first classic book I ever read – my schoolteacher having waved a red flag at me and said that the classics would be wasted on me! I hope this experiment works out and that you keep us posted on it!

  6. I dont mind Austen as she is readable at least. I do stay away from Dickens and other victorian authors, it was painful just reading the turning of the screw and that was only 100 pages long.

  7. Gosh with a capital gasp! Naomi, few love Modernist lit more than me (though the two examples you gave bore me to tears, I must confess… oops!) but I also love Jane Austen to pieces! She is the anti-19th century writer, though – nothing remotely rambly in there. I'm sure you've read Rachel's latest blog post – if that doesn't spur on enthusiasm, nothing will!

  8. p.s. I have to confess to finding Jane Eyre a bit tiresome… but I did read it about nine years ago, so perhaps I should try again. If you're going to come to book group, we'll be doing Vilette soon…!

  9. Of Austen's novels I've only read P&P which I thought wasn't meaty enough, but I love the adaptations (so I've got a copy of the book and will be attempting to re-read it soon.) However, I loved Jane Eyre and I hope you do too! And Tess of the D'Urbervilles was also my favourite Hardy. What about Dickens?

  10. I love, love, love Thomas Hardy and tend to prefer the Victorians to the modernists, although the modernists are growing on me. If you like Gothic novels, Jane Eyre might just win you over. And perhaps Northanger Abbey would be an Austen to try as it's a parody of Gothic novels.

  11. Hahaha – this made me laugh so much. I am a modernist too and completely agree with you about Thomas Hardy. I've been reading a lot of his poetry over the past couple of days after hearing The Walk on Word & Music on Sunday night – I have been absolutely captivated by it all! Such wonderful stuff, and I didn't even really know he wrote poetry (ahem, in my defence, I am not an english lit graduate…).That said, I adore Jane Austen and Jane Eyre is one of my favourite novels ever – AND, here's an incentive for you if ever there was one, if you read it you can then zoom straight on to Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys' absolutely wonderful modernist prequel to it. Also one of my favourite novels – it's so good I almost wish it wasn't a prequel, because I think people get put off by the concept, and it really is wonderful. I shall look forward to hearing how you get on!

  12. Well, frankly my dear, I'm shocked ;o)I LOVE 19th century literature but it's those Victorians that I love. I am right there with you on Jane Austen – I can't get more than half way through P&P either! I have no desire to read any more of her books.As for Vic lit – yes, yes, yes, you must read Jane Eyre! It is nothing like Austen. It is genius! If you like gothic fiction you may also like authors like Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood and Wilkie Collins who write "sensational" fiction – you can imagie the "dun dun duuuunnnn!" and swishing curtains. Brilliant!

  13. Instead of Henry James go for Edith Wharton. I know her first novel wasn't published until 1900 but she definitely feels like Henry James–but much more interesting and easy to read. I love Trollope but don't like Dickens. I find Austen better on film although I do occasionally enjoy one of her books. Oddly enough I find Hardy very tough to read.

  14. This is hilarious! It is great to see how different people's tastes are. As for Hardy, i cannot abide him!! He ruins perfectly good stories with pages and pages of 'look at the countryside' rubbish!Once you have finished with the boring back catalogue we will have to fit you up with some modern writers like Morrison and Roth, now we are talking…! Abs

  15. Someone needed to say it. I got through Pride and Prejudice and definitely didn't love it, but Sense and Sensibility went better.Jane Eyre is just as gothic as Wuthering Heights (madwoman in the attic! Pre-Surrealism surrealist paintings!) and I agree with Jane, anything that leads you to Wide Sargasso Sea is worth reading.

  16. There are some areas of my reading that I simply cannot fathom why anyone would not like those authors or books; but the Victorians are not among them. I can perfectly well see how someone would not enjoy them. Except Jane Eyre–I really hope you like Jane Eyre! I love it absolutely passionately, and it is really far more like Wuthering Heights than it is like Jane Austen.

  17. I applaude your courage to admit things like that…especially in this crowd! I also admire your willingness to give these books another try. Jane Eyre is a wonderful read, I look forward to your review!

  18. I wasn't interested in this time period either until about a year ago. I know you're "supposed" to read the classics but they never appealed to me for the same reasons you mentioned – rambling, not a lot going on. Now I love Pride And Prejudice but it does ramble sometimes. If you want to give Austen another shot I'd recommend considering her teenage works. I haven't actually read them yet myself but they're nice and short, an idea to counteract rambling perhaps?

  19. Brava to you for confessing! I'll admit that I only just read P&P last year, after putting it off again and again. Frankly, I'm not a huge fan of reading books from the canon – the supposed classics that are considered to be the literature of our time. Its just not my bag – I'm more of a contemporary lit type of gal. Of course there have been times when I have fallen prey to some truly amazing books by authors such as Austen and Hardy and Woolf and Conrad – so go figure. Sometimes I think its just the English major in me – I had to read so many books in the literary canon that I just refuse to read them when I don't have to – its really rather childish, but c'est la vie! Good luck with Jane Eyre!

  20. Hmmm! Well I love 19th century literature! Hardy is my favourite author of all time with Jude being, I feel, his best work. Hardy has the ability to ramble but every word counts and his descriptive writing is superb. (I'm not suprised the person above who slagged him off has remained Anonymous!!) I am not a huge fan of Jane Eyre though so will be interested to see how you get on with that. Have you tried George Eliot's 'Silas Marner' (another favourite of mine).

  21. I have always enjoyed reading about Jane Austen and her books more than the actual books themselves. I tried P&P first and found Sense & Sensibility easier to get through. I also never had to read any Austen for any classes despite having a degree in English lit. I've taken a 2 year haitus from classic lit because I had gotten to the point where nothing was sinking in anymore. Now I'm ready to get back to it and was thinking about starting with Hardy.

  22. You're a brave soul to admit that. I imagine it must be practically a hanging offense in certain groups. :)I too love the modernists (wrote my graduate thesis on one), but I also love most of the Victorians. I'm going to differ from someone above and heartily endorse trying Emma as your first Austen. She is so deliciously nasty and self-satisfied that it's a really fun read.

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