Jessica of Read React Review, one of my favorite blogs, recently mentioned that she had never read Jane Eyre and had decided to do so. I and several others volunteered to read or reread it along with her. I’ll be posting on my re-read Friday, May 14th through Sunday, May 16th, and hopefully will manage to put in links to some of the other posts, as well, as they appear – Jessica’s post is now scheduled for Sunday, May 23rd.
Because of the re-read, I started thinking about “the classics.” I’m not going to try to define “classics.” That way lies madness. Instead, I’m going to muse on the idea of there being “classic” romance novels; or maybe I should call them “precursors.” Pamela is often cited, and Pride and Prejudice, and of course Jane Eyre. Why are these important to modern romance readers and writers?
To me, Jane Eyre doesn’t fit the formula of the modern romance novel; if I had to slot it into a modern literary genre, I’d choose women’s fiction instead, because in addition to Jane’s relationship with Edward Rochester, the book includes complex relationships with her family, in more than one iteration. Rochester gets a lot of press, but the book is not about him, it’s about Jane. (And Gothic romance, and social commentary, and feminism, etc..)
However, fitting into modern genre conventions has nothing to do with why these precursors are important. To me, as a writer, a large part of their importance relates to the genre tropes that modern romances have in common with these books. Certain plot elements in precursor books still resonate today, and are still being used and recreated. How many modern romance novels include the hero and heroine misunderstanding each other, as in Pride and Prejudice, or falling in love without realizing their beloved has a major secret, as in Jane Eyre? Or Byronic heroes, like Jane Eyre? (She’s more of one than Edward Rochester, I think. She’s so tormented and angry and prone to dark fits of the soul!)
Writers keep using these novels’ ideas, reinterpreting them and dialoguing with them. Reading precursors, and also reading their modern descendents, to me is a form of conversation, us in the now with our sisters/mothers in the past (or fathers, in the case of Pamela). If you haven’t read these novels, you can’t follow the conversations. Reading them is as important as talking to a grandmother.
Among the classics I’ve never read are Wuthering Heights and Fanny Burney’s Evelina. Evelina will probably be the next precursor I read, though it will probably be awhile before I get to it. How about you? What precursors/classics do you love, or have never read, or would like to read?
Reading for the Writer.
Great post, Victoria! I try to read a few missed classics every year – as you say, you can't join in on perrenial conversations if you haven't read the books.
I recently read P&P for the first time (though I was gifted with a copy ages ago) and loved it – and wondered why I had put it off so long. I can see rereading it many times in years to come. So far I've read all but two of Austen's seven novels and liked all but Emma. Given that that was read back in HS, though, I have considered giving it a reread.
As for the Bronte sisters, I've read Jane Eyre twice and liked it both times. Wuthering Heights, on the other hand… Sigh. I've attempted it twice and could not get into it either time.
Wuthering Heights is a big favorite of mine–something I read and reread as a teenager. A book I remember loving and would like to read again is Villette.
Heather, I've found Austen definitely rewards rereading. I try to space them out, though, since there's such a limited number.
Gwynne, so far I've only read Villette once, but I do own a copy, and plan to reread one of these days, possibly in a comparison with The Professor.