A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Don Quixote’ by Miguel de Cervantes

While Shakespeare was writing plays and fancy sonnets that made him incredibly famous, Miguel de Cervantes was sitting in a jail cell for getting his accounts wrong while working for the Spanish tax department, writing this work of comic genius that would bring him, too, worldwide fame.

As always, the comedic examines important issues and ideas in ways that no other form feels free to do. Think of medieval court jesters and today’s stand-up comedians – they make their mark on the world by saying things nobody else feels free to say and making people laugh at the same time. That’s exactly what Don Quixote does. 

Don Quixote is a story about a man who is so obsessed with stories of chivalry, romance and adventure that he loses his mind and sets off on his own missions of derring-do and knightly behaviour. He is a man who cannot separate the imaginary from the real world, so in his version of reality, he rescues damsels, fights giants, and seeks to solve the problems and wrongs that beset the people he meets. Everyone else, including his own faithful sidekick Sancho Panza, thinks he’s nuts. 

It’s a story that could be sad and pathetic, but it’s written with a strong sense of comedy and powerful wit that enable the reader to empathise with Don Quixote, who is a man living his dream in every sense of the word. There are some “Groundhog Day” elements, with some scenes being relived and reinvented long after the fact, which emphasises both the delusion and the intelligence of Don Quixote as the creator of his own reality.

As the story progresses, it poses an interesting dilemma: if you can’t actually do what you’d most like to do, and if your imagination can take you there and allow you to do it- is it crazy to pursue your dream, or madness to forego the pleasure? 

It’s a fascinating and fun read that, like Shakespeare’s works, has inspired musicals, ballets, films, and countless other stories and novels in the 400+ years since its publication. 

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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.

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: ‘The Wind In The Willows’ by Kenneth Grahame

A favourite since my childhood, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ features Mole, Rat, Toad and Badger as  the main characters in a delightful story about friendship and adventure. 

The stories are enchanting and memorable, conjuring images of rural England in days gone by.

This is a wonderful book for children, and a great choice for reading together as a family. 

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. 

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: ‘Dracula’ by Bram Stoker

There are lots of vampire stories being written and read today, but ‘Dracula’ is where they all started. It’s classic Gothic horror in a story told through letters, diary entries, newspaper clippings in addition to the narrative, so it has multiple narrators. None of them have all the information and some are not even first-hand witnesses, so it’s a bit like piecing together a puzzle as you read. It builds up a lot of intrigue and suspense as the story becomes darker and deadlier. 

‘Dracula’ has inspired many films, TV shows, books, comics, cartoons and plays over the years. Other writers and filmmakers have created their own vampire stories, and some of them are really good. Even so, Bram Stoker’s sheer originality, powerful writing and ingenious storytelling style make the original classic really hard to beat. 

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.