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: ‘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. 

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 Series: The Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis

I may be cheating by covering a whole series instead of just one of the novels, but how does one choose a single favourite among such an incredible set of books?

Supposedly written for children, The Narnia Chronicles fill me with as much joy and wonder now as they ever did. They are stories that never, ever get old.

I collected a mismatched set of the books over several years as a child, and then as a teenager I indulged my slightly OCD book-neediness and bought a boxed set with matching covers. I can’t find any of the first lot, and only one of the boxed set remains on my shelf. I’ve lost a few in different classrooms over the years and others courtesy of unreturned loans, so several years ago I bought the complete set in one volume so I could read them all again.

While each book in the series is a unique and brilliant story in its own right, as a collection they are remarkably cohesive and unified.

The Narnia Chronicles really are the works of a master storyteller. 

A Favourite Classic Novel: ‘Pride and Prejudice’ by Jane Austen

Many people assume that this is a book all about love and courtship. That comes into it, of course, but really only the sense that Jane Austen is blowing an enormous raspberry to the way society did those things.

‘Pride and Prejudice’ is full of delicious snark and subversive humour, parody and caricature, that make its observations far more rapier than romantic. 

Of course, Mr Darcy is smolderingly handsome and, as an introvert, I totally get that he was regretting being dragged along to that party long before he even got there, and by the time he was offending all the locals, was busy trying to think of ways to leave without anyone noticing. Further evidence of that is found in the fact that he falls for the one brainy chick who is happy in her own company and reading a book without needing someone affirming her delicate sense of self every three minutes.

Elizabeth is smart and sassy enough to stand up for herself, and to not settle for the first nincompoop who tried to marry her, nor does she agree to marry Darcy just because he’s loaded. No, she is a woman of substance.

Those things are enough to make us love them both more than the rest of the characters, most of whom are either quite socially acceptably bland or rather horrid.

If you’re not sure where to find the sarcasm,  it all starts with the very first line. Let’s be honest: what rich man, living the dream and enjoying his wealth, is desperate to find a wife to keep him at home and spend his money for him? 

Yeah. I don’t think so, either.