Ah, tis that time of year! A new term begins. The Freshers are coming and quite a few of them are in Waterstones picking up the ‘classics’ off the English lit reading list – they’re the ones staring in abject horror at the size of Middlemarch – ready for the inevitable course on The Victorian Novel.
Now, we all know the BBC, and therefore the world, loves a good costume drama. But not many of these Sunday night staples are actually Victorian novels (okay, except Dickens at Crimbo – Gillian Anderson – weirdest Miss Havisham ever!) At least Dickens is caricature-and-family-secret- laden fun. But people’s expectations have been greatly raised (see what I did there) by these ‘fun’ adaptations and the biggest culprit? Mr Richard Armitage, actor – (doff of hat) step forward sir!
Why? Because a few years ago Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South was made into a series staring said actor. Who cares if it’s grim up north int cotton mills if you’ve got our Mr Armitage, all smouldering like, with northern grumpy accent and making mutton shops look sexy again (almost). So great an impression did Mr A and his facial hair/trousers have on the womenfolk of Britain they set up the Armitage Army (and many other fan sites) to revel in his performance and tight britches.
Don’t believe me – take a looky here.
Mr Armitage is almost wholly responsible for falsely great expectations (oh, I done it again, guv) of the Victorian novel.
You won’t get many Mr Armitage -alikes on that reading list. Wait til you get to Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the Durbervilles and discover Angel Clare…
But don’t give up hope… try the alternative list for some classical fun!
Scrap Tess – read Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge. Penniless Michael Henchard sells his wife in a country fair while ‘in his cups, lad’, then gets rich and powerful. Blackmail, murder, sex, wife-selling – the bureaucracy of local government – the cosmic laughing of the fates – oh, the humanity!
Ignore Great Expectations – read A Tale of Two Cities. Tis a far, far better book (hee hee). Old crones, fops, the French revolution, La Guillotine, (quelle Horreur!) and the greatest sacrifice a guy can make for his mate when he fancies his girlfriend.
Forget Jane Eyre – go really gothic and read Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White. You’ll be forced to engage with those feminist theories of Mrs Rochester and ‘the Mad Woman in the attic’ so why not read about a mad woman in an asylum with cracking baddies!
Swap Middlemarch for The Mill on the Floss. Well, you’ve got to have one George Eliot (note – she’s a woman!) It’s got class struggle, feminism, unrequited love and a tearjerker, symbolic, global-warming-predicting ending.
Go rebel and read Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s secret – original Victorian ‘sensation’ stuff – sort of Eastenders in a crumbling country pile with shameless hussy heroine. You can argue you’re using it to reveal the way the ‘the canon’ is determined by the received moralist values of the society in question – you might get an extra mark!
Try anything by Arthur Conan Doyle – the man who brought us Sunday night Benedict Cumberbatch, sorry, I mean Sherlock Homes. So what if he believed in fairies?? Deerstalkers on!
But do fall in love with WM Thackeray’s Vanity Fair – orphans, murder, slaves, poison, treachery, the Napoleonic wars, ‘conspicuous consumption’ (?) and Becky Sharp, the best heroine ever – if you don’t love this you don’t love nothing!
PS The lovely Richard Armitage is soon to be in The Hobbit movie – don’t even think about reading any Tolkien….
* Don’t agree, Sir? Slap me in the face with a leather glove and demand a duel. Or leave a comment…