A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘My Brilliant Career’ by Miles Franklin

Many readers outside of Australia may not have heard of either this wonderful book or its author, but I would heartily recommend them to read it.

‘My Brilliant Career’ was the first Australian novel to be published. Franklin sent her manuscript to Henry Lawson, who liked it so much that he wrote a foreword and submitted it to his own publishers.

Although presented as a romantic story, It’s actually something of an anti-Romance. Sybylla Melvyn is an artistic and independent young woman who experiences a series of downturns in her family’s circumstances and finds herself at the wrong end of the same social expectations and judgements to which she had always been resistant.

While not opposed to the idea of love, that is not where Sybylla sets her hopes for happiness. The book does reflect the growing influence of the women’s movement in Australia and the changing values and expectations of young Australian women at the turn of the 20th century. 

The story is so realistically and vividly written that it caused Franklin considerable grief: people assumed the book was based on her own life and family and made such awful judgements about her that she withdrew the book from publication until after her death. While there may indeed have been autobiographical elements in the story, it was only ever presented as a work of fiction. In the end, it is a very poor reflection on those readers who chose to be so critical that they entirely missed the beauty and depth of a wonderfully told story. 

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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. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

You’ve got to hand it to the Bronte sisters: they certainly had a handle on brooding, emotionally charged stories that made powerful observations about human nature and psychology. 

Charlotte Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ immerses the reader in the life of the young Jane, orphaned and unloved, and has them look on over her shoulder as she grows up, learning resilience and wisdom while finding her place in the word. The relationship between Jane and the reader is an intimate one, in which Jane tells her story and reveals her thoughts and feelings as if to a confidante. 

Whether or not you agree with her choices, Jane is a in independent and spirited woman in an age where that was not really socially acceptable, and her story is certainly a compelling read.

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Treasure Island’ by R.L. Stevenson

‘Treasure Island’ is a ripping adventure story of pirates, treasure, mystery and courage that takes the young Jimn Hawkins from his home at the Admiral Benbow Inn to the Caribbean and back again. 

It has been made into movies, cartoons for TV, comic strips, graphic novels and all sorts of adaptations over the years but, for me, nothing beats the original book.

The story is told richly, with an interesting and varied cast of characters. The most famous figure in the book is Long a John Silver, whose reputation exceeds that of anyone else in the story. People may not recognise the name of Jim Hawkins, the heroic young main character of the novel , but everyone knows of Silver as a notorious pirate. 

‘Treasure Island’ is a great book for older children and teenagers. It’s a book that I still love reading, and I always enjoy enjoy teaching it because my students always respond positively to the story and it’s key ideas. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ by Harper Lee

This is such an important book. Through the eyes and experiences of six-year-old Scout Finch, the reader comes to understand key lessons about prejudice, equality, and personal integrity that profoundly influence the way they see and interact with other people. 

The story is told in a very matter-of-fact manner, yet it is laden with irony and quite intricately constructed layers of meaning that give it depth and enable it to have a powerful effect on the reader. The simplicity of Scout’s questions contrasts with the significance of the behaviour and beliefs challenged by her perplexity, while the wisdom of the adults to whom she turns for answers inspires the reader, too. 

I have numerous favourite scenes and quotations from this book, but the one I love most is the tender scene between father and daughter at the close of the book, which really emphasises the message of the book as a whole: 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Vanity Fair’ by William Makepeace Thackeray

‘Vanity Fair’ is the story of Becky Sharp, a woman who starts out with very little and demonstrates that with ingenuity and determination, one could work one’s way up the ranks of society, despite the upper classes pretensions that this could never be so. 

Written with considerable wit and thoughtful insight, it’s a really entertaining story, but it also delivers a fascinating study of human nature and quite biting commentary on social status and those who possess it.

Although our society has changed significantly since this book was published in 1848, human nature hasn’t, so ‘Vanity Fair’ remains quite a relevant commentary on people and how they see and treat one another.