12 Essential English Novels Everyone Should Read
The classic novels on this list are my (non-exhaustive) selection of ‘must-read’ books for anyone who wants to gain a better understanding of English literature. What counts as English literature spans over a thousand years, but you’ll find most of the great classics that well-educated people are often expected to have read – what’s known as the ‘canon’ – were primarily written in the 19th century or a little after, so this list focuses on that time period. Whether you’re a native English speaker or just learning, add these books to your reading list and make it your mission to read them all before the year is out.
1. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
This tumultuous tale of life in a bleak farmhouse on the Yorkshire moors is a popular set text for GCSE and A-level English study, but away from the demands of the classroom it’s easier to enjoy its drama and intensity. Populated largely by characters whose inability to control their own emotions leads to violence and revenge, it’s a tale that spans two generations and two families. At the heart of the story is the mysterious ‘gypsy’, Heathcliff, adopted as a ragamuffin child into the Earnshaw family to live at Wuthering Heights. As he grows up, he becomes close to his adopted sister Cathy, falling in love with her only to be met with crushing disappointment when she marries Edgar Linton, a kind and gentle man from neighbouring Thrushcross Grange. Heathcliff disappears and returns a rich, educated man bent on revenge.
2. Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Middlemarch, subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”, is the story of the inhabitants of a Midlands village in the 1830s. Masterfully weaving together several plotlines, the novel charts the fortunes of an interesting cast of characters, exploring their motivations, delusions and preoccupations. The remarkable thing about Middlemarch is the detail and realism with which George Eliot describes emotions. Feelings you thought were unique to you are described here in a way that could be describing your own thoughts. It’s one of the reasons why Middlemarch has been described the likes of Martin Amis and Julian Barnes as one of the greatest English novels ever written; read it and you’ll soon find yourself agreeing with them.
3. Nineteen Eighty-Four, by George Orwell
Nineteen Eighty-Four makes depressing but essential reading. Published in 1949, it’s the author’s vision of a dystopian future dominated by totalitarian state surveillance, mind control and perpetual war. At the centre of the novel is Winston, whose job is to rewrite old news stories so that they toe the party line, whom we follow in his quest for rebellion against the government he works for. Its memorable opening line sets the unsettling tone for the rest of this uncomfortable novel: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” You probably already use phrases from this influential book without necessarily knowing it; “Big Brother” and “Room 101” are both references taken from this novel. As you read Nineteen Eighty-Four, ask yourself: how close do you think Orwell’s vision is to how society is today?
4. The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien
If you haven’t read the book, you’ll almost certainly have seen Peter Jackson’s epic three-part movie adaptation of it. Incredible though the films are, there’s inevitably a lot missing from them and it’s well worth persevering with the book’s slowish start to follow the journey of Frodo and friends more closely. If you’re not familiar with the story, The Lord of the Rings tells the story of a hobbit, Frodo, who must undertake a dangerous mission to the dark land of Mordor to destroy a powerful ring – a weapon that absolutely corrupts those who come under its power. As you’ll soon find out, that’s a highly simplified plot summary!
Reading the book, you’ll be hard-pressed not to gain a deep admiration for the detail and thought Tolkien put into creating his imaginary world; languages, detailed family trees, maps, rich histories and backstories – all add to the sense of realism one feels when absorbed in Tolkien’s work. You’ll also spot some of Tolkien’s influences, such as Nordic mythology and the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf (read this poem alongside Tolkien and you’ll notice where his inspiration for the Golden Hall came from). If you’re new to Tolkien, you might like to read The Hobbit beforehand; it’s a lighter read than The Lord of the Rings and it sets the backdrop for the events of the tome that follows it.
5. Diary of a Nobody, by George and Weedon Grossmith
If you’ve ever in need of a little gentle comic relief, you can’t do much better than the delightful Diary of a Nobody. It’s the (made-up) diary of a self-important Victorian lower-middle class gentleman, Charles Pooter, in which he details the day-to-day household quandaries and social embarrassments we can all relate to. It was serialised in Punch magazine in Victorian times, and it’s a charming insight into what the Victorians found funny – but in many places, it’s still laugh-out-loud funny to the modern reader.
6. His Dark Materials, trilogy by Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials is comprised of three novels: Northern Lights (known in the US as The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. The story is set in a fantasy world that contains numerous parallel universes, some of which bear some resemblance to real-life Oxford. Lyra, the protagonist, inhabits the fictional Jordan College, Oxford, in a world in which human beings are accompanied by animal embodiments of their souls, called daemons. The initial similarities and intriguing differences between Lyra’s world and real life will draw you in right from the start, and you’re sure to be gripped as you accompany Lyra on a journey that sees her coming of age and discovering that space and time are not what she expected. If you want to do some background reading, try Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, of which Pullman’s trilogy is a partial reinvention.
7. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
This novel by Emily Brontë’s elder sister Charlotte has inspired numerous film adaptations, and tells the tale of a young governess, Jane Eyre, who goes to live and work in a foreboding country house with an eccentric master, Edward Rochester, who hides a dark secret in a remote wing of his sprawling home. The story focuses on Jane’s transition to adulthood, told from her perspective in the first person. Throughout the novel we observe her sense of morality, which is tested by the situations she finds herself in – first during her abusive childhood and then in her response to the passionate feelings she experiences towards Mr. Rochester.
8. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
Here is another coming-of-age story, and arguably one of the greatest ever told. If you think Charles Dickens is boring, or you’ve been put off him by studying him at school, please give him another chance. Like all his novels, Great Expectations is full of humour and populated by an entertaining cast of brilliantly-named characters. It tells the tale of Pip, an orphan from a poor background who learns a valuable lesson in life after his acquisition of personal wealth proves an unsatisfying experience that changes him for the worse, driving him away from the only people who’ve ever loved him.
Along the way he meets the enigmatic Miss Havisham, an old lady jilted at the altar decades ago, who has frozen everything in her house at the moment at which her life was so tragically altered. The image of her wedding cake, still on the table but covered in cobwebs and mould, is one of many enduring and vivid scenes in this brilliant novel, which explores a number of moral themes including what it means to be a gentleman.
9. Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
Even if you’re not normally into the Gothic, Rebecca is sure to have you gripped. Its nameless narrator tells the chilling tale of her experiences at Manderley, the house at the centre of the story, after marrying Maxim de Winter, its owner. Manderley proves to be haunted by memories of Maxim’s previous wife, Rebecca, who drowned the previous year; and the creepy Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, is determined to show Maxim’s new wife that she is no replacement for her beloved Rebecca. We follow the second Mrs. de Winter as she struggles to fit in at Manderley and uncovers the truth behind who Rebecca really was and what really happened to her. Its opening lines will haunt you as they’ve haunted the millions of readers who’ve enjoyed Rebecca since its publication in 1938: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again…”.
10. Any Jane Austen novel
It was impossible to choose just one Jane Austen novel for this list, as they’re all absolutely brilliant and packed full of interesting and sometimes amusing characters – and heroines you can’t fail to love. As well as being entertaining stories in themselves, Jane Austen’s novels are recognised for their historical importance thanks to their social commentary on the Georgian aristocracy. Austen herself was on the outskirts of the aristocracy, well-placed to write about the people and situations she undoubtedly met with in real life. Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Persuasion, Northanger Abbey; take your pick, but if forced to choose, my personal favourite is Emma, the tale of a well-meaning but headstrong young woman who makes it her mission to act as matchmaker to local villagers – with disastrous consequences both to them and to her own chances of romance.
11. Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy’s evocative novel Far from the Madding Crowd is set in ‘Wessex’, an early region of south-west England that no longer exists but is used to conjure up a sense of a place neither real nor made-up – an agricultural England that, during Hardy’s lifetime, was under threat from industrialisation. Rural life is a central theme in a story that follows the shepherd Gabriel Oak and his love for Bathsheba Everdene, a beautiful and independent newcomer to the local farm she’s just inherited.
Unfortunately, Oak isn’t the only one with his eye on the wilful Bathsheba, and two rivals appear on the scene in the shape of another farmer, Mr. Boldwood, and a dashing but rakish soldier, Sergeant Troy. Love and its sometimes dangerous and destructive power are explored among a number of other themes, including luck and tragedy.
12. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh’s portrayal of the trials and tribulations of an aristocratic family and their friend, the narrator Charles Ryder, has been an inspiration to plenty of Oxford applicants, who hope to recreate the evocative Oxfordian scenes described in the early parts of the book – complete with Sebastian’s famous teddy bear, Aloysius. But there’s a lot more to Brideshead Revisited than idyllic Oxford life and decadent scenes involving Champagne and quail eggs. At its heart is the tale of a young man’s struggle with Roman Catholicism and with his own family, but there are many other themes running through it, including the decline of the English stately home after the two World Wars and a longing for the bygone era of the English nobility.
Brideshead Revisited was adapted into a landmark television series with Jeremy Irons in the role of Charles Ryder; once you’ve read the book this makes wonderful viewing, sticking closely to the book. With Irons’ velvet tones vividly bringing to life Waugh’s words, this is one television adaptation that, in my opinion, will actually help you gain a deeper appreciation of the book.
These remarkable novels have all left their mark on popular culture and embedded themselves into the English psyche. Once you’ve read them all, you’ll have more of an idea of where your own literary tastes lie and you can make up your own list by taking from this one and adding your own. To explore great literature even further, join us on ORA’s English Literature Summer School.
Images: Winslow Homer Painting