Classics Club Round-Up 4 – English

When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the fourth…

THE ENGLISH SECTION

When it comes to the Classics, English is my comfort zone. In my day, it was English literature we were primarily taught in school, with a sprinkling of American and almost no Scottish. The same applies to history. The result is that I understand classic English literature without having to work at it, and I understand the social, cultural and historical background. So when I pick up an English classic, I am conditioned to enjoy it, and almost always do. More objectively, I also happen to think that the English have given us some of the greatest writers and finest fiction in the history of the world.

The result of my predisposition towards classic English literature is that this section is heavily weighted towards the good and the great. This was helped by the fact that it contained several re-reads of old favourites, and included five Dickens novels. Anyone who’s visited my blog for any length of time can’t fail to be aware of my abiding love for Dickens!

Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then – the quotes are from my reviews:

ABANDONED AND REPLACED

I abandoned no books in this section. I replaced two, but only to make room for two that hadn’t been on my original list that I read along the way and wanted to add. The two that I bumped to make room would both have been re-reads, and will no doubt be re-read again some time in the future:

The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens was replaced by The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene was replaced by Middlemarch by George Eliot.

THE BAD ONES

Bad is, of course, a subjective term…

No Name by William Wilkie Collins – “As always, I came away with the impression that Collins was trying to ‘do a Dickens’ and was failing pretty dramatically.”

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp – “Sharp clearly felt stupid is a synonym for funny. We’ll have to agree to differ on that.”

THE MIDDLING ONES

Middlemarch by George Eliot – “A book that engaged my intellect more than my emotions and, in the end, failed to make me care about the outcomes for the people with whom I’d spent so much time.”

The African Queen by CS Forester – “Do people change as rapidly as these two do, even in extreme circumstances? Hmm, perhaps, but I wasn’t entirely convinced.”

THE GOOD ONES

Barnaby Rudge by Charles Dickens – “…this is one where the individual parts may not come together as well as in his greatest novels, but it’s well worth reading anyway, for the riots and for the interest of seeing Dickens experiment with the historical novel as a form.”

Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens – “The filthy and polluted Thames runs through the heart of the book, appearing again and again as the place where the foulest acts take place, and Dickens uses it to great effect as he builds up an atmosphere of tension and horror.” [I gave this one five stars at the time, but reading back over my review I feel I was too generous, so have reduced it to four for the purposes of this summary.]

Dark deeds by the river…

Lorna Doone by RD Blackmore – “The description of the harvest itself is wonderfully done, full of warmth as Blackmore describes the age-old rituals that surround this most important point of the rural year. For this picture of farming life alone, the book is well worth reading.”

Sons and Lovers by DH Lawrence – “…as he finds himself struggling to develop satisfying relationships with the women with whom he becomes involved, he knows that this is at least partly due to the influence and pull of his mother’s overweening, almost romantic, love for him. Of course, this being Lawrence, this psychological question plays out largely at the sexual level.”

Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer – “And in the tradition of romances, it all ends when everyone becomes engaged to the right partner, so only those of us who have a tendency to over-analyse everything have to worry about the probable unfortunate offspring of some of the more fiery matches!”

THE GREAT ONES

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen – “She may not have as much fun as Lizzie, and Edmund is not a hero I’d particularly want to marry myself, but Fanny knows what she wants and has the strength of mind and character to get it, and she deserves to be admired for that!”

Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley – “…I’d like to make a law where every scientist should be locked in a room for one week every year and be forced to read and contemplate this book, and maybe write an essay on it for public consumption before being considered for funding.”

Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan in Frankenstein 1931

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens – “Nell starts out rather better than a lot of Dickens’ drooping heroines. She’s a girl of spirit who loves to laugh . . . She’s not quite as strong as Kickass Kate Nickleby, but she’s certainly no Drippy Dora Copperfield either!”

Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens – “Little Dorrit is perfect, hence perfectly nauseating – too good, too trembling, too quiet, too accepting, too forgiving, too much slipping and flitting about (just walk, woman, for goodness sake!), and too, too tiny. Too Dickensian, in fact!”

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy – “Had Tess been less pure of nature, she may have been able to conceal her transgression and create a second chance for herself with the besotted Angel Clare, and we see her struggle with the temptation to do this. This reader willed her to do it, her mother advised her to do it, but Tess, pure to the point of idiocy, believed in a world of fairness, where men and women would be judged by the same standards – if she could forgive, surely she could be forgiven? Poor Tess!”

Nada the Lily by H Rider Haggard – “…Haggard’s portrayal has a firm foundation in history and apparently also in the legend and folklore of the Zulu people. What I found so surprising about it is that Haggard offers the story to his British readers non-judgementally – he presents this society as it is (in his mind, at least – I have no way to gauge its accuracy) and the characters judge each other by their own standards, not by ours.”

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – “Conrad shows the devastating impact the white man had on both the society and the land of Africa, but he also shows that this devastation turns back on the coloniser, corrupting him physically and psychologically, and by extension, corrupting the societies from which he comes.”

Rebecca  by Daphne du Maurier – “The book is famously compared to Jane Eyre, but the dead Rebecca is much more vividly alive in Manderley than the madwoman in Mr Rochester’s attic ever is. She infuses every room with the strength of her personality, as our narrator flits through the house like a ghost, or like the lowliest little maid, afraid to touch anything.”

The Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse – “Madeline is as soupy as ever, still thinking that each time a bunny rabbit sneezes a wee star is born. One can quite understand Bertie’s reluctance to enter into the blessed state of matrimony with her.”

The Go-Between by LP Hartley – “There is an air of nostalgia for a golden age, but below the surface brilliance the reader is aware of the rot of a rigid social code that restricts most the very people who superficially seem most privileged.”

THE BEST ONE

(Obviously it was always going to be a Dickens! If I’d excluded Dickens, either Tess or The Go-Between would have been my choice. Or Frankenstein…)

Nicholas Nickleby by Charles Dickens – “Nicholas is also more complex than most of Dickens’ young heroes. At heart he is naturally good, but he’s hot-tempered, can have a wicked sense of humour at times, is not above poking fun at the dreadful Miss Fanny Squeers, and even flirts outrageously with Miss Snevellicci. He’s tougher too – although he gets help along the way, one feels Nicholas would have been perfectly capable of making his own way in life if he had to. And he’s kind and fiercely loyal – his friendship with Smike, one of the boys from Dotheboys, is beautifully portrayed, and always has me sobbing buckets. If I was forced to fall in love with a Dickens hero, Nicholas would be the one…”

(Nicholas gets a little hot-tempered…)

* * * * *

So a wonderful section – any nation that can produce such great literature can’t be all bad! 😉

Thanks for your company on my journey!

74 thoughts on “Classics Club Round-Up 4 – English

  1. We did The Go-Between as our GCSE set text. I’m quite surprised that a book in which the squire’s daughter and the local farmer are caught in flagrante, and we’re then told that the said daughter had a baby seven months after getting married, was considered suitable as a GCSE set text in 1988 to 1990, but there you go 🙂 !

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    • Haha, there are a lot of the classics which I feel are entirely unsuitable to be taught at school! If memory serves me right I first read Sons and Lovers as a school text, which I find really quite odd!

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      • I remember someone embarrassing our Latin teacher by pretending not to understand what Dido and Aeneas were up to in the cave. And someone else embarrassed the history teacher by pretending not to understand what was meant by Catherine of Aragon’s first marriage not being consummated!

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        • Haha, how times have changed! When I worked in a school, the science teacher used to threaten that if the boys didn’t behave she would give them extra sex education classes. They were clearly far more embarrassed about the whole subject than she was! 😂

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  2. I have the same feeling, because of background education and experience, that English literature is my reading home (even with my lack of familiarity with most of the physical settings). I loved the colour, complexity and humanness of Nicholas Nickleby. Amongst the books you list here that I haven’t read, Lorna Doone tempts me. I will keep working through reading and rereading books from the familiar authors you mention, but RD Blackmore is new territory.

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    • It makes such a difference. I find reading English literature is a completely relaxing experience, whereas even with Scottish literature I find I have to actively engage my brain much more because I’m not so instinctively in synch with the style and the cultural background. Which is ridiculous! I’m glad you loved Nicholas Nickleby too – I had forgotten prior to this reread of it just how good it is, so it was a real pleasure to discover it all over again. Lorna Doone, if I remember rightly, starts off incredibly slowly and I found the first quarter or so really quite hard to get through. But it picked up after that and I was glad that I liked it in the end, because my father always said that it was his favourite book of all time. I can’t quite agree with him on that, but at least I didn’t hate it!

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  3. In my youth I read many, if not all, Georgette Heyer’s regency novels and really enjoyed them. Perhaps a reread of some is in order (or is that in my dreams 😉)

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  4. Well, I’m sad that you didn’t like my beloved Middlemarch, but I guess I can forgive you since you have listed Rebecca, Mansfield Park, and The Code of the Woosters among the good and the great! I’ve never been able to get on with Georgette Heyer, but so many people seem to love her that I think I should give her another chance.

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    • If it’s any consolation, I’m sorry too that I didn’t like Middlemarch! But I do have another of her books on my second list, so maybe she will still win me over and become a favourite. There are so many English classics and it’s nice, I always think, that so many of us have read a lot of the same books. It gives us a kind of common experience! As for Georgette Heyer, she’s one of these authors that I adore but I suspect that may be because I first read her in my teens when I was at the right age for that kind of frothy romantic type of novel. I have a feeling that if I was reading her for the first time now, I might feel quite differently…

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    • I was sorry that I didn’t enjoy Middlemarch more, but I do have another of her books on my second list so I haven’t given up on her completely. She may become a favourite yet! I’ll need to try to brainwash you into enjoying PG Wodehouse though… 😉

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    • Haha, yes, I’m not exactly unpredictable when it comes to Dickens, am I? I’ve really loved revisiting a lot of these and also reading a lot of them for the first time, and adding to my list of favourites. 🙂

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  5. I’m pleased to see Tess and Rebecca amongst your great ones, as they’re two of my favourite classics. I can’t agree with you on Wilkie Collins, though – I actually prefer him to Dickens. Sorry! Nicholas Nickleby is on my Classics Club list, however, so maybe that one will win me over!

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    • I’ve always felt that people tend to love either Collins or Dickens, but not both. Clearly the difference in their style means that each of them appeals to a different group of readers, though I think most of us can appreciate the one we don’t like so much even if we don’t love them! I do hope Nicholas Nickleby will win you over to my side though! 😉

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  6. I liked No Name and Middlemarch better than you, but my first reading of Lorna Doone years ago was not as good an experience as yours (I do mean to give it a second try). Love Mansfield Park, Little Dorrit, Frankenstein, Barnaby Rudge and OMF while Heart of Darkness was unsettling. Wodehouse I feel never goes wrong. Interesting that you rate Nicholas Nickelby among your favourite heroes–On my reread last year, I noticed how much more spirited his is compared to other Dickens’ heroes (and certainly far more than the heroines), and a man of action as well, which one certainly appreciates. With Collins, I think, he manages to give us strong women almost every time which I really like as well.

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    • I’ve never been a Collins fan, much though I would like to be. I’m sure it’s because he writes in a vaguely similar style to Dickens and therefore I can’t avoid making comparisons, which don’t work in Collins’ favour. I haven’t given up on George Eliot – there’s another of her books on my second Classics Club list, so she will have another chance to win me over! There are so many great classics in English literature – I just wish Scottish literature had the same breadth and depth. I’m glad you liked Nicholas Nickleby as a hero too. It had been a long time since I had last read it and I had really forgotten just what a great book it is, and what an enjoyable character Nicholas is. Kate Nickleby is probably my favourite Dickens heroine too.

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      • Hope you do enjoy Eliot better in other books. I agree on Kate. She stands out from Dickens’ usual heroines since she has a spirit and some personality. Many of his tend to be bland though his other characters show so much range and such distinct personalities. Esther Summerson is also interesting like that. With Collins I think it is both the strong women characters, and the mystery elements in his stories that I find appealing.

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        • I’m quite sure I would enjoy Collins more, if I didn’t link him with Dickens in my mind for some reason. The inevitable comparison never works to Collins’ advantage. Dickens’ heroines really wear a drippy lot on the whole and it’s rather odd because all his secondary women are really very good and very complex characters. And he tends to discuss the place of women within Society with quite a lot of insight. But he just seems to have a blind spot when it comes to these tiny, pathetic saintly young girls!

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          • All his secondary characters are excellent–they show such range and depth, and that is in fact one of my favourite things about his books. The heroines and many heroes alas are sadly bland in comparison. I think perhaps he wanted to make them ‘good’ and ended up with saintly creatures rather than real ones. That’s also a reason why I took to Nicholas–he had no qualms using the whip on Squeers.

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            • Yes, that’s what I liked about Nicholas too. Plus he had a sense of humour and there are a lot of funny scenes that he’s involved in, which is also quite unusual for Dickens’ heroes and heroines. Stop dictating

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  7. You’ve got some really fine classics on your ‘good’ and ‘great’ lists, FictionFan! What I especially like is that the Dickens books you’ve mentioned aren’t the ones most often mentioned and taught (e.g. Oliver Twist). They’re really fine novels that I think show Dickens’ skills off very well, but don’t always get the ‘hype.’ And of course, I’d have been surprised not/i> to see an Austen on your ‘great’ list!

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    • I’m always a bit sorry that Oliver Twist is the book that is used as an introduction to Dickens most often. Obviously it’s because it’s considerably shorter and also has children in it, but it has never been one of my favourites. Admittedly it’s a long time since I last read it, and I may appreciate it more now, but I always feel it’s more likely to put kids off reading more Dickens than encourage them to do so. In fact, I’m not convinced that making Dickens a school text does him any favours at all – I imagine modern kids find the whole Dickensian style quite hard to get in tune with. I wish they’d leave him for adults to find in their own time!

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    • Haha, yes, it would be hard to describe him as concise! I love Dickens adaptations on TV too, quite often just as much as I enjoy the books. But I do love getting lost in Dickens’ exuberant characterisation and lovely effortless writing style, and I forgive him a lot of flaws just for the pleasure that he gives me in the reading experience. 😀

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  8. Most of my favorite classics are English too, and I’ve read and enjoyed many of the titles you have mentioned. No surprise to see Dickens topping your list, and I would say Nicholas Nickleby is one of the more underrated ones these days, it is certainly my favorite among his earlier titles. The extract from your review of Little Dorrit made me laugh out loud though, what a drip.

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    • I had forgotten just what a great book Nicholas Nickleby is, so it was a major highlight of my Classics Club list rediscovering it. I loved all the theatre stuff especially – the Infant Phenomenon is such fun! Haha, poor Little Dorrit, she did drive me crazy! I liked the book despite her rather than because of her. Give me Kate Nickleby any day!

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  9. Brilliant, I haven’t read Nicholas Nickleby or The Go-Between so they can go on my next list. You put it very succinctly why comfort reading is what it is, which seems obvious but seeing it written like that: understanding the social, cultural and historical background is why it’s so comforting, we can just relax and enjoy. Phew, now I can just go back to reading!

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    • I promise you here and now that you will love The Go-Between! If you don’t, I will eat my hat – though first I’ll have to buy a hat, or knit one! We did it as a review-along a while back, and everyone loved it! No pressure, though… 😉 It’s only because I split my CC list up like this that I came to realise how much more comfortable I am with English classics than any other classics, even Scottish ones. It just shows how much our tastes are influenced by what we are taught when we are young and impressionable!

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      • I remember all your reviews of The Go-Between and it does sound just my sort of book. The Classics Challenge has made me give a lot more thought to the books I read and it’s been interesting to find out that I really do love English classics!

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        • Yes, being a member of the club and actually having to review some of these major classics has made me think much more about what I like and which ones I’m likely to struggle with. That wasn’t really why I joined the club, but it’s been an added bonus!

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  10. Oh man! So many great books! Loved Nicholas Nickleby, Little Dorrit, Mansfield Park, Rebecca–so many others I probably liked Middlemarch more than you did, but I appreciate your review.

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  11. I dare say that this post could be titled: Smitten with Dickens, although I can’t fault you for it. Love your scathing assessments of the bad ones. And I’m not sure I’d put Heart of Darkness in “great,” more likely “good” for me. But this is a quibble. I haven’t read a significant number of these, so I’m also not qualified to be much of an all-round judge. I do agree that Frankenstein would be a strong candidate for “winner” if Dickens were not in the running.

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    • Haha, I could probably call my entire blog Smitten with Dickens – in fact, I might get it carved on my gravestone… 😉 It took me three reads of Heart of Darkness, plus the help of the intro and notes, to feel it was great – after my first attempt it probably would have only got 1-star and a scathing review! Frankenstein is wonderful – the structure is a bit flawed and it goes on too long in some sections, but the brilliance of the ideas in it is incredible for one so young – for anyone! – and it’s still so relevant today. So many great books in this section – hurrah for English classics! 😀

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  12. You have made me very sad. I loved Cluny Brown. I didn’t see her as stupid, just as undeterred by society’s rules, and Sharp likes to be silly. And Middlemarch is one of my favorite books ever. Sigh. I have read all the books on your Good list and agree. I just loved Lorna Doone and must revisit it soon. I also agree with most of the books you put under Great, although I might switch some of them with the goods, personally, except there are two I haven’t read, The Go-Between and Nada the Lily. I also found Frankenstein too turgid to be in either the Good or Great list, and have not ever been able to finish it. And although I have not read Nada, I am not an H. Rider Haggard fan.

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    • Haha, I’m sorry, I know – I think I’m the only person in the entire blogosphere who didn’t love Cluny Brown! The “stupid” comment was more generally about how Sharp portrayed her working class characters than about Cluny herself, if that’s any kind of defence… 😉 I was sorry I didn’t enjoy Middlemarch more, but I do have another of her books on my second list so she still might win me over. I think you’d love The Go-Between – we did it as a review-along a while back and everyone was unanimous in their praise. Nada is a bit different from most of the Rider Haggards that I’ve read – there are no white colonialists in it at all, so less of that kind of irritation. And he didn’t judge the black characters – he simply told the story and showed them as heroic or evil by their own cultural standards. But I do agree that he’s an acquired taste – I acquired it very young so still love him, but I don’t know how I’d feel if I was reading him for the first time now,,,

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        • I haven’t read She since I was a child, though it’s on my new CC list. But memory suggests it’s probably one of the worst. I re-read King Solomon’s mines a few years ago, and actually he’s very respectful of the native African cultures for the most part, though the elephant slaughtering was a bit off-putting!

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  13. I haven’t read Nicholas, so perhaps I need to put it on my own list. Your review certainly makes me think I’m missing out on something! Great summary, FF — you’ve been busy. I’m finding that having a puppy is eating into my reading time, ha!

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    • If you enjoy Dickens, then I’m certain you’ll enjoy Nicholas Nickleby – it really is up their with his best! So many great English classics – it’s always the easiest part of my list to put together. Haha, Tommy sleeps most of the time these days, but he still remembers to come and annoy me whenever I pick up a book… 😉

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  14. I think I’ve only read two of these! (Middlemarch and Rebecca) I know I enjoyed Middlemarch more than you did, but some of my enthusiasm for it might just have been the fact I got all the way through it! I liked that she wrapped up everything in the final chapter. (for those of us who did care about the characters and want to know what happened to them. 😉)

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    • Ha, yes, I think quite often I give books one additional star just for getting to the end of them, especially these classics that tend to be about 800 pages! I wish I’d liked Middlemarch more, but I do have one of her other books on my second list so she still has a chance to win me over. 😉

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  15. I agree with your assessment of Middlemarch being more intellectual than emotional. It is such a well-regarded novel, but I was disappointed. I read Daniel Deronda last year and loved it. Much more tugging on the emotions for me! I am rereading Mansfield Park in August and I am really going to try and like it since I feel I am missing something–that thing that so many like yourselves have found. And congratulations on finishing your CC list!

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    • I was sorry that I didn’t like Middlemarch more, although I did seem to remember from my teenage years that George Eliot and I didn’t get along too well. However I have Silas Marner on my second Classics Club list so she still has a chance to win me over. I do hope you get on with Mansfield Park in your reread – it’s really not as sparkling as some of her other books, but I do think it has a good deal to say about her society and particularly about the place of women and how it might be about to change.

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  16. I’m a wee bit (quite a bit) more of a fan of Middlemarch and Wilkie Collins and do quite like Dickens, though I’ve never got along with David Copperfield. I’ve tried several Georgette Heyers and mostly get annoyed with some of the characters!

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    • I love most of David Copperfield, but I could easily live without the awful Drippy Dora section! In fact when I reread it now I quite often just skip straight over that and tune back in for the death scene! It’s odd that I don’t get on with Wilkie Collins – I always feel I should, but every single time I come away with the same feeling, that he’s trying to be Dickens and failing. Georgette Heyer I fell in love with in my teenage years, and I’m not at all sure that if I was reading them for the first time now that I would actually enjoy her at all. I think it’s that residual sense of nostalgia that makes me love her still.

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      • It’s interesting – I didn’t read any Heyer when young, but my first attempt at David Copperfield was during my teen years when I first read much of Dickens. I do like both Collins and Dickens, but have to say I don’t see that much similarity between the two of them.

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  17. I always say I’d like to read more of these and I even own quite a few (collecting them is a hobby all on its own). Yet whenever I think the time is right to pick one of them up, they seem so daunting that I go and do something else entirely.

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    • I read loads of classics in my teens and am now reading loads more in retirement. But all the years that I was working, I just didn’t have the brain energy. I really think classics are only suitable for when you have loads of time on your hands and no real responsibilities to worry about. Maybe when you get to be as ancient as I am you’ll find time to read through your collection… 😉

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  18. Overall this is a lovely bunch of books – although I love Middlemarch much more than you do, and I didn’t get along with Nicholas Nickelby, I’m afraid, although I think I may try it again in another season. I didn’t hate it! 🙂 Perhaps it just wasn’t the right timing.

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    • Oh, that’s a pity about Nicholas Nickleby! But these things are just so much a matter of subjective taste. I really wish that I enjoyed Middlemarch more, but for some reason George Eliot just doesn’t work as well for me as she does for most people. Happily there are so many books and so many authors we can all find something that we like! 😀

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    • Oh good! I’m glad to hear that Rebecca has become a favourite of yours – it’s such a great book! Haha, I’m afraid any list of great English classics that I prepare will inevitably have far too much Dickens in it! 😉

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