A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Jamaica Inn’ by Daphne du Maurier

My copy of ‘Jamaica Inn’ was given to me by my sister-in-law for my 16th birthday. I don’t know if she remembers giving it to me, but I certainly do. I hadn’t read any of du Maurier’s books before, and I read it in a day. Given the tendency of many other favourite books to migrate from my shelves to those of other people, it is something of a miracle that the very same copy is still on my bookshelf.  

Jamaica Inn is set in and around a Cornwall coaching inn in the early 1800s. It is a a dramatic and exciting story, full of mystery, intrigue, skullduggery and danger. 

Having come to live at Jamaica Inn with her relatives, Mary Yellan, the heroine of the story, learns the hard way that she can’t trust anyone she thought she should be able to, and that life on the moors can be as bleak and coldhearted as the weather.

It is reminiscent of Bronte’s Withering Heights in both the setting, even though the location is vastly different, and the characters who populate it, giving the book a strong sense of the kind of Gothic literature that was written a century earlier. It’s sinister and rather creepy, laced with vivid detail and evocative writing that brings the characters and  especially the settings to life. 

While it is classified as Romantic Literature, this book should not be mistaken for a romance – the two are very different things. In fact, it’s more of an anti-romance, showing men to be ignorant and selfish, some violent and others just rather stupid. It’s not about female vanity, but rather about the vulnerability of women living at a time when they were entirely dependent on their men to provide for and protect them. The contrasts between integrity and deceit, and between love and selfishness, are powerful, adding depth and drama to the compelling storyline. 

The thing I love most, though, is the writing: du Maurier’s craftsmanship is magnificent. That in itself makes her books well worth reading. 

P.S. I am excited that I actually got to use the word ‘skullduggery’ in a post, as it’s one of the most delightful words, yet one so rarely gets a chance to use it well.
I really am a word nerd.

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A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘I Capture the Castle’ by Dodie Smith

Dodie Smith is best known as the author of ‘101Dalmatians’, but I much prefer this beautifully sentimental and highly engaging book.

Set in 1930s England, the story of the Mortmain family is told by Cassandra, who begins her narrative with one of my most-favourite-ever opening lines:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it. The rest of me is on the draining board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.”

Another feature of this book that I really enjoy is Cassandra’s frequent references to books and plays she has read and enjoyed. In that sense, she is the literary forerunner of Rory Gilmore, the booknerdy lead character in the TV show Gilmore Girls. Other characters, too, make scattered literary references throughout the book. 

It does frustrate me that the only copy I have on my shelf is one with a movie-based cover image— I generally avoid those, but this is my last remaining copy, which I picked up in my favourite book rescue shelter upon discovering that my other copies had disapeared. It was their last copy, too. Like The Scarlet Pimpernel, this is a book that has migrated from my shelf to those of family and friends on multiple occasions. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ by Baroness Orczy

I looked for my paperback copy of ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ last night in order to include it in the image for this post. It wasn’t there. Again. 

So, I slipped in my vintage copy of Eldorado, another book in the same series, because it does have a really beautiful title page.

I can’t tell you how many times I have bought ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’ in paperback. It just keeps disappearing— which means a good number of my friends and family members probably have it on their shelves. I hope they’ve read it, because if they haven’t, they’re missing out. 

It’s a mystery adventure story about an unidentified Englishman who helps French aristocrats escape France, and therefore the guillotine, during the ‘Reign Of Terror’ after the French Revolution. Of course, there’s only one thing the French want more than to chop off the heads off the rich and powerful, and that’s to chop off the Scarlet Pimpernel’s Head, so maintaining the mystery of his identity is definitely in his interests. 

It’s a great read for lovers of Historical Fiction, but there’s also enough mystery, romance and adventure for readers of those genres to enjoy, too. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘The Three Musketeers’ by Alexandre Dumas

The ultimate story of friendship, loyalty and chivalry, ‘The Three Musketeers’ is full of the adventure, swordfighting and drama that was life for the king’s Musketeers of the Guard. This book transports the reader to early 17th century Paris and all the intrigues and machinations of courtly and public life.

I always felt a bit sorry for d’Artagnan that the book wasn’t called ‘The Four Musketeers’, but on the other hand, Athos, Aramis and Porthos were exactly the kind of men that a swashbuckling heroic adventure story should be named after.

I guess d’Artagnan could be satisfied knowing that many people would know his name even if they couldn’t name the others.

The Musketeers’ catch cry, “All for one and one for all!” has been adopted and echoed many times by groups of friends the world over, including my beloved Indie Fabs, six author friends bound by friendship, support and loyalty.

This is still a tremendous read which I highly recommend. Of the movies and TV adaptations I have seen, the black and white movies I grew up watching almost did the book justice, and the recent BBC TV production The Musketeers is brilliant, but they aren’t quite the same as reading the book.

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Les Miserables’ by Victor Hugo

Set in France during the first decades of the 19th century, this is a story of the struggles of the lower classes — the miserable, the dispossessed, and the dissatisfied. 

While many people in the 21st century know the story because of the highly popular and quite magnificent musical theatre show, most have never read the book. It is a large novel: epic in its scope, powerful in its storytelling and heartbreaking in its story and drama. 

Many of the key events of the novel were based on events and circumstances that Hugo witnessed personally, adding a depth of detail and authenticity that immerses the reader in the settings and makes them feel as they are right there, watching the events and listening to the characters’ conversations. 

Admittedly, there are some passages that are moral reflections rather than narrative, but they do add depth of understanding to the social issues and conflicts experienced by the French people of the time, and cause the reader to reflect on the responsibility of those with wealth and power to ensure that those under their rule are able to live without despair. Given that it is not possible to separate a work of literature from the society and environment in which it was written, Hugo’s thought-provoking digressions remain relevant to the story overall.   

One can simply watch the musical or a film adaptation, but they will not deliver the full impact of the story as it is told in the book. It’s a magnificent, wide-reaching story with themes of social justice, equality and personal redemption that are still really powerful and resonate with readers today. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘The Secret Garden’ by Frances Hodgson Burnett

This is a beautiful, although sometimes bleak, story in which a horrid little girl grows up, makes friends, and becomes a nice person. Through her experiences, she also helps others to rebuild their lives and relationships, so it’s a happy ending for most of the characters. 

As things tend to go in novels, the unpleasant behaviours and attitudes of Mary Lennox are shown to not be the consequence of being entirely unloved as the young child of parents who didn’t want her and did all they could to pretend she didn’t exists. The cynical side of me cannot help but be a little satisfied that such nasty people died of Cholera while their daughter survived and found a better life than she was ever likely to have had with them. 

While there are numerous TV and film adaptations of the story, there’s no substitute for reading the book and enjoying the story as it was meant to be. . 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley.

Before I write anything else, let me get one thing straight: contrary to widespread belief, Frankenstein is not the name of the monster. It’s the name of the scientist who created him.  Frankenstein’s creature is never actually named at all in the book. 

‘Frankenstein’ is a macabre Gothic story in which Frankenstein creates a monster from spare parts and manages to bring it to life without thinking about the consequences of his experiment. It raises interesting ethical and moral questions like “Just because we can do something, does that mean we should?” and “How far is too far in the interests of Science?” which are just as relevant today as they were two hundred years ago when Syhelley wrote this most excellent book. 

Expertly crafted with a bit of horror, a bit of science fiction and a lot of suspense, ‘Frankenstein’ is a story with a great deal to offer for a wide range of readers. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Wuthering Heights’ by Emily Bronte

When this book was published, Victorian audiences didn’t know what to make of it. It wasn’t the light, fluffy romance and romp that they were accustomed to. Instead, it was dark, violent, and stormy, and there was no happy ending for most of the characters. 

‘Wuthering Heights’ is about love, but it’s not romantic. It’s about dysfunction, selfishness, misunderstanding, bullying and manipulation. Much like Heathcliff and the Yorkshire moors on which the novel is set, it’s a bit dismal and morose most of the time, but it has power and substance that are fascinating and somewhat spellbinding. 

I love the power of the writing and the tempest that inhabits the characters and their relationships. I am fascinated by the cleverness of the intrigue and mystery woven into the narrative. I enjoy the fact that the narrators, Nellie Dean and Mr Lockwood, tell the story as though they are objective onlookers, but when you delve into the story, you can see that neither of them is innocent or objective as the story develops. All the characters are flawed and selfish and broken in one way or another, and I remain unconvinced that we’re meant to actually like any of them. It really is a fascinating study of human psychology as much as it is a compelling work of fiction. 

Even so, the story works because it is expertly written. The storytelling and the imagery are profound and beautifully constructed. The story appeals to our human nature, and to those voyeuristic tendencies that make people watch on with interest as things go wrong, take satisfaction in the misery of others, and slow down to get a better look at car accidents or natural disasters.  

I have read ‘Withering Heights’ more times than I can remember, and I know I will read it again. It may have been published in 1847, but it’s a story that, for me at least, will never get old. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Bleak House’ by Charles Dickens

A beautiful vintage copy of Bleak House given to me by a friend as a birthday gift a few years ago, and the paperback copy I bought to replace my Penguin Classic edition which fell apart from overuse.

‘Bleak House’ takes Dickens’ readers off the streets and out of the factories of Victorian England, and immerses them in a complicated, old and bitterly fought legal case in which questions of inheritance, corruption and legality are explored. Dickens brings the court case to life through his characters who are, in one way or another, personally invested in the outcome. 

It’s far more than just a legal drama, though. It’s an epic tale of family, personal entanglements, deception, and even murder. Some characters know little of the past, while others know far more than they are willing to tell. 

I really love the way Dickens shrouds the past in mystery and develops an almost tanglible sense of intrigue in his storytelling in ‘Bleak House’. In contrast to ‘A Christmas Carol’, this is a much longer and more involved novel in which the development of both plot and characters is intricate and complex. It is written with Dickens’ typical satirical social commentary and acute insights into human nature. 

This is one of the best of Dickens’ novels, and sits at the top of my list of favourites alongside ‘A Christmas Carol’. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’ by Mark Twain

Tom Sawyer is one of those unforgettable characters of literature: cheeky, imaginative, adventurous and downright naughty. That he is able to get away with his mischief time after time is what has endeared him to generations of readers.

This is my personal favourite among the books by Mark Twain and, I believe, his best. 

Fabulous reading for kids, teens, families, adults… this is a timeless classic that everyone should read at least once.