We all know the names… Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope… The ones that when people talk about “books you should have read” the names always always crop up.
Well I have a confession to make; I have never read a book by any of the above authors in it’s entirety. This isn’t something I’m proud of – as someone who would class themselves as a book worm, I find this omission to be somewhat embarrassing. It’s also not that I haven’t tried – I have. I have tried to read many of these novels time and again, thinking that I should fill this void in my literary education. But I just can’t.
I recently picked up Great Expectations by Dickens, thinking that if I tackle any Dickens, then it should be this one, because this is the one that appears on all those “must read” lists. Within the first three chapters I was so frustrated I just couldn’t keep going. I’m going to say it outright; Dickens’ characters annoy me. To me they seem really flat and two-dimensional. There is no nuance to them. They almost come across as parodies of themselves; so-and-so is fat and loud, and is never anything else; Mr such-and-such is thin and mean, and is never seen acting in any other way. It find it very tiring and it wears thin extremely quickly for me. The same fate occurred when at various times I have tried Oliver Twist, Bleak House, and A Tale of Two Cities.
As for Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles was on my A-Level English Literature syllabus, and I confess that I never actually read the thing from cover to cover. I read the bits I figured were important, various chapters and extracts and stuff, but I couldn’t face reading the whole thing. I still got an A* (probably more to do with the fact that I did enjoy many other texts on our syllabus, rather than anything else!). I have the whole collection of Hardy novels from the Folio Society sitting on a shelf in my flat, all beautiful bound and printed, and I haven’t touched any of them (I didn’t buy them – they technically belong to my father).
Other than those forays, I have, at various times, attempted to read Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Middlemarch, Les Miserables, Vanity Fair… and just… nope. None of them grab me enough to want to wade through the pain and stick with them. I’m sure they all have beautiful language and nuance deep within, but I find them such a slog that it ceases to be enjoyable.
One thing I do find strange, however, is that I do have time and a penchant for Gothic Literature with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein being one of my favourite books. I also enjoyed The Picture of Dorian Grey, Dracula, and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (okay, so that’s a poem, but hey). So why do I struggle so much with “traditional” Victorian Literature? I genuinely don’t have an answer to this, and if you’ve got any tips or ideas as to how I might break the back of this genre, as it were, and actually read some of these supposedly “must-read” texts, then I would be delighted to hear them. For now, these works remain out of my reach, and I have learned of their stories either through popular culture references, film, or other means.