2016 marks the 70th anniversary of Penguin Classics and in order to celebrate, I’ve decided to compile a list of the Classics that I’ve found influential. Let me know which Penguin Classics you would include!
The Odyssey, Homer (c.750-700 BC)
Where better to start than with Homer’s Odyssey, the first Penguin Classics title published in 1946. Focusing on the hero Odysseus’s ten-year journey home after the Trojan War, this ancient Greek epic is filled with battles against sea monsters, juxtaposed throughout with the lamenting and domestic turmoil of Odysseus’s wife Penelope. My copy is battered from all my re-readings, and considering it was written over 2,500 years ago, this is a sign of just how accessible and endearing The Odyssey is.
The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 2100 BC)
I had never heard of the Epic of Gilgamesh until I studied it at university, and I was fascinated by its rich contextual history. Set in Mesopotamia (ancient Iraq), the poem is regarded as one of the most significant works of literature, focusing on the heartbreak Gilgamesh sustains from the death of his friend Enkidu, and Gilgamesh’s subsequent journey to obtain eternal life. The poem was written in cuneiform Akkadian (the language spoken in Mesopotamia) on a series of clay tablets; however, only fragments of these survive, resulting in missing portions of the text. Despite this, if you are interested in ancient mythology and analysing the similarities between ancient epics, I would definitely recommend this work.
The Lais of Marie de France (c. late 12th century)
Not much is known about Marie de France; however, she is regarded as the earliest French woman poet. Her twelve lais (songs) written in Old French, draw on tales of chivalric romance. With werewolves, questing knights and swans smuggled into castles, the tales capture your imagination, providing a detailed insight into the values of chivalric society.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream, William Shakespeare (1595)
As 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I had to include one of my favourite works of his. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is composed of various plots that interweave in a somewhat confusing, but hilarious fashion. There are the four lovers: Lysander, Hermia, Helena and Demetrius; the fairy world ruled by the bickering Oberon and Titania, and the Athenian tradesmen who are rehearsing a play to be performed at Theseus, the Duke of Athens’ wedding. The setting of the wood acts as the point of convergence for these characters, where enchantments and transformations into donkeys, mark this land as a space for subversions of hierarchy. If you are after a multi-layered plot full of pranks, you cannot go wrong with this play.
The Book of Margery Kempe, Margery Kempe (c. early 15th century)
The Book of Margery Kempe, the first autobiography in English, focuses on a series of revelations between Margery and Christ. The text provides an insight into Margery’s struggles, trying to balance her role as a mother to her fourteen children whilst looking after her ailing husband, alongside her spiritual devotion to Christ. Medieval pilgrimage forms a significant part of this work, and the descriptions of Margery’s travels to Rome and Jerusalem and the problems she encounters at these places, serves to emphasise her courageous nature. Most significantly, Margery’s Book describes the difficulties she faced as an illiterate woman in having her story published. In the medieval period, women were barred from learning Latin, the language of the church, as well as preaching the word of God. In order to navigate around the restrictions imposed on women’s writing by the patriarchal society, Margery had to enlist several priests to transcribe her story, to ensure her voice was not silenced.
The Interesting Narrative and Other Writings, Olaudah Equiano (1789)
Kidnapped from Nigeria when he was eleven years old, Olaudah Equiano’s narrative initially focuses on the brutal treatment he endured upon a slave ship bound for Barbados. Multiple journeys run simultaneously throughout Equiano’s narrative: his struggle to purchase his freedom and be recognised as a free man, and his spiritual journey to Christianity. After obtaining his freedom, Equiano resides in England, where his Narrative focuses on his dual identities, and the struggles he faces adapting to a western identity. Equiano’s political activism plays a key role in his Narrative, with his detailed descriptions of his anti-slavery campaigning, highlighting the prominent role he played in this movement. This is a hard-hitting and important work which provides an insight into the conditions of slaves and the work of the anti-slavery campaigners in this period.
Our Mutual Friend, Charles Dickens (1865)
My last blog post analysed the significance of the setting of London in Our Mutual Friend, but I couldn’t resist having a wider discussion about the characters and themes within this novel. I thoroughly enjoyed Dickens’ inclusion of characters from a wide range of socio-economical backgrounds, and his multi-layered plots which interwove throughout the novel. The novel provides a sustained insight on a range of issues prevalent in 19th century Britain, with commentary on waste and excess, materialism, and critique of the education system. Despite being nearly 900 pages long, Our Mutual Friend is extremely accessible and instantly immerses you into the events of the novel.
The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins (1859)
If you are a fan of detective fiction, I definitely recommend reading The Woman in White, regarded as the first great sensation novel. With deception, trickery, and mistaken identities, this novel had me gripped until the final page. I thoroughly enjoyed Collins’ use of variable internal focalisation (where each character is given a first-person portion of the narrative) which really enhanced the mystery by providing different insights into the various plot lines.
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy (1895)
Jude the Obscure is a bleak novel which focuses on a country workman’s attempts to be accepted into the prestigious university of Christminster (Oxford). With the novel’s focus stretching across Jude’s life span, Hardy provides an evocative insight into Jude’s continued despondency. In particular, the juxtaposition between Hardy’s exquisite descriptions of the landscape and the continual tragedy that plagues Jude, are unsettling and hard-hitting. If you are interested in reading a novel that provides a powerful attack on Victorian values, critiquing the elitism of education and the institution of marriage, whilst commenting on the struggles women faced against patriarchal ideologies, this is a powerful novel to read.
The Go-Between, L.P. Harley (1953)
The events that thirteen year-old Leo experiences whilst staying with his friend Marcus at Brandham Hall, form the main plot of The Go-Between. Acting as the messenger between Marcus’s sister Marian and Ted the farmer, the novel explores how both adults work to emotionally manipulate and fuel Leo’s delusions so that he can continue in this role. The juxtaposition between Leo’s childish innocence, the content behind the messages, and the emotional trauma that results, makes this novel all the more dramatic.