On Timeless Novels

I recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird in preparation for teaching it to a class this half term. I last read it when I was a teenager, and remember being enchanted by the beautiful descriptions of the faded small town of Maycomb, the closeness between Jem, Scout and the wonderful Atticus and the childish games of Jem, Scout and Dill and their obsession with the mysterious figure of Boo Radley. I was fascinated and appalled in equal measure by the terrible events of the novel; the awful treatment of Tom Robinson, the casual racism of the characters and the frightening behaviour of the Ewells. This was a world that was both a children’s paradise and the stuff of nightmares; the innocence of the young is so cleverly juxtaposed with the often disturbing and upsetting realities of adult life. As Jem and Scout grow up and understand with increasing maturity the actions and decisions of the adults around them, their interests and habits change as they realise life is not a playground, and things are not always fair. The success of this novel is not just in its unflinching and – for its time – daring portrayal of the prejudice and cruelty that many adults show towards others who are different to themselves, but also in its timeless portrayal of childhood and the way innocence is slowly stripped away as we age, the realities of the adult world gradually encroaching upon the boundaries of the playground until they can no longer be ignored.

To Kill a Mockingbird is often described as ‘timeless’, despite its very specific historical and cultural setting, and reading it has also made me think of what other novels can truly be called timeless, and whether there are hidden treasures that deserve this title and have unjustly fallen out of favour. For example, I am currently reading Dorothy Whipple’s Someone at a Distance. Before Persephone republished Whipple, she had been out of print for half a century, totally forgotten and doomed to languish as a mere footnote in 20th century literary history. And yet, when you read her books, you are transported into a world that is both wonderfully antiquated and startlingly familiar. Ellen in Someone at a Distance is forever rushing around, with never enough time in the day to get things done. She is cook, cleaner, mother and wife; if she’s not driving someone somewhere, she’s at the shops; if she’s not cooking the dinner, she’s doing the washing up. Perpetually busy, perpetually the lowest priority; married, single, mother or childless, all women can relate to this role of constant frenetic activity to fit it all in.

Louise Lanier is a femme fatale, and her cold and somewhat calculating personality certainly leaves something to be desired. However, her boredom with small town life, her longing for something more, her love of beautiful things and her desire to be noticed and appreciated are aspects of character and situation that are completely universal. Reading how she feels about being trapped in her home town, living with her parents while watching her friends marry and build successful adult lives struck a loud chord with me; so many young adults go through the fear of being left behind and the frustration of feeling stifled in a life they have outgrown. And what of Avery, tempted and flattered by the attention received from a younger woman? Can we really blame him for a lack of willpower, when we all fall down in this respect from time to time? Someone at a Distance‘s sensitively and beautifully written portrayal of relationships and desires is astounding and timeless in its understanding of human nature, and yet it has not, and never will, reach the heights of To Kill a Mockingbird‘s fame. Why not? Is it, perhaps, too class conscious? Too domestic in its focus? Lacking a wider societal view? Perhaps, but these descriptions could all be applied to Jane Austen’s novels too, and hers are certainly considered to be timeless. So what is the criteria for a timeless novel, I wonder?

When I think of the timeless classic I most often turn to for entertainment and inspiration, Jane Eyre comes most vividly to mind. I love the character of Jane; plain, penniless, with no relations and no one to care for her, she makes her own way in the world out of sheer self discipline, will power and faith that something better is to come. A lack of love does not stop her from loving; a lack of compassion does not stop her from extending compassion and forgiveness to others. She does not seek revenge for the wrongs done to her, nor does she sink under the repeated difficulties of her circumstances. She stands for what is greatest in the human spirit: resilience. Like To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre gives us a model of what it is to be human, and reminds us of the tremendous force for good that is within all of us. It might be written in a didactic style, with a fair few dodgy coincidences and a good deal of gothic melodrama, but the story transcends the conventions of its period through its ability to capture an essential truth and inspire and encourage its readers to fulfil their potential, no matter what hurdles they may face.

Perhaps this is it, then; timelessness is not just about being able to relate to the experiences of the characters, but by being moved, encouraged and inspired by their fates. A timeless novel is not one that merely explores the human condition, but that leaves us with a desire to become better people, to grow in self discipline, in courage, in kindness, and in understanding. Timeless stories are those that stay with us because they mean something vital. They inspire us to be more than we are, and remind us of all we could be. I think the novel I have read most recently that is a truly neglected timeless classic has to be Winifred Holtby’s South Riding. In its magnificent and ambitious exploration of the trials and tribulations of the inhabitants of a corner of pre war Yorkshire, it reveals the essential goodness of humanity, and the need for each and every one of us to live our lives with passion, courage and hope. It moved me to tears, and the night I finished reading it was the night I finally decided to face my fears and apply for teacher training. It showed me what I could be capable of, and made me dare to believe that I too had the potential to make a difference to other people’s lives. The power of the written word is not something to be underestimated, and those words that are truly timeless are those that give us a vision of the greatness that is within our reach, if only we would rise up and grab for it.

So, perhaps there are two types of timeless novels; those that have a universality of experience, such as those of the unjustly neglected Dorothy Whipple, and Jane Austen; and those that inspire and move us in their portrayal of the potentiality of the human spirit, such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Eyre. The character of Atticus Finch has to be one of the greatest in literature; his compassion, understanding and courage are heart melting as well as inspirational. What makes him resonate so strongly with so many people is because he is an everyman; he is not wealthy, he is not overly handsome, and he doesn’t have a particularly charmed or interesting life. He lives in a rural backwater, alone with his children in a town where nothing happens. His days are uneventful, filled with the petty arguments of his uneducated neighbours and the trials and tribulations of parenting two lively children. What elevates Atticus into the extraordinary is simply his strength of character; he makes a stand against what he knows to be wrong, daring to fly in the face of the accepted social norms of his town. He is prepared to risk everything in order to do the right thing. Atticus requires nothing to do this but the resources he has inside of himself. Reading his story, we can believe that we too could be capable of doing the same thing, should we be called upon to do so; we don’t need any material trappings or heaps of brain cells to be able to emulate Atticus’ example. All we need to do is summon our courage, and raise our heads above the parapet. If Atticus, a thoroughly ordinary man, can do it, so can we. It’s the same with Jane Eyre; she has nothing that we don’t have; in fact, in many cases, she has a good deal less. Nothing but our own fear can prevent us from demonstrating her bravery, and if someone with as few opportunities and options as Jane can overcome her fears to leave everything she knows behind to strike out on her own, then we certainly can.

I’d love to hear other people’s views on timeless novels, and to know what books you turn to time and time again. My recent run of disappointing reading has made me hanker for books that are truly special, and that will leave me feeling moved and inspired. I am adoring my re-read of Someone at a Distance, and I want to follow it up with something of an equal quality, so any reading inspiration that can be offered would be much appreciated!



  1. kheenand says:

    I’ve Ben hearing a lot this week that the test of a great book is its re-readability factor. It was an idea that came up in the judging for the booker prize as being the feature the judges most looks for when they short listed. And then I was listening to a podcast which talked abt the same idea. What you’ve written about here I think is that very factor and why we get drawn to some books Over and over again. Part of it I suspect is that we remember with affection something that gave us pleasure years ago and we want to recreate that moment. But I also wonder if its sometimes because we are looking for insights or answers Nd know that certain books can do that?..

    1. bookssnob says:

      I think re-readability feeds into the idea of resonance, doesn’t it…we only want to re-read books that have affected us in some way, don’t we? I think sometimes – and this has certainly been my experience – I can re-read a book I read years ago that was earth shattering for me at the time, but on a second read has left me cold – books can touch us where we are at and be for particular times in our lives, whereas others truly do capture something essential in the human spirit and grow with us as we age. I definitely know there are some books I go back to again and again to remind me of certain things. So the re-readability is a necessity…but so is the reason to re-read!

  2. margecsimpson says:

    The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig is a possibility – here is a summary from the Telegraph (please don’t read the rest before you read the novel as it’s too full of plot spoilers)

    “The Post Office Girl is a fine novel – and an excellent place to start if you are new to this great Austrian novelist. It is a powerful social history, describing in moving detail the social impact of the First World War, and the extreme poverty in which so many people were forced to live. It shows up the challenge to European civilisation of the early Thirties and the failure of humanism, in which Zweig believed until the end of his life. And it is remarkable for the bleak interior worlds it depicts – of anxiety, self-doubt, depression and disintegration. Zweig succeeded in taking the most complex concepts of psychoanalysis and bringing them vividly to life. The fact that we will never know whether he intended the book to be published in this form only makes it all the more alluring”

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’ve never read that, Marge – you have tempted me. I shall look out for it! Thank you for the recommendation!

  3. Thank you for your insightful (as always … smile) post. I first read To Kill a Mockingbird as a mature adult … and way past the times of rampant racial discrimination of the South in the fifties. So, my first impression was like reading with a historical editor on my shoulder, who made constant comparisons of then vs now and how this book contributed to the progress we’ve made today. I also wondered more about Boo Radley, and his psychological status. Scout and Jem “bullied” him by approaching Boo’s own home. Was Boo abused as a child? Handicapped? Impaired? Or did the author want to draw a comparison between the obvious racial discrimination of color and economics and the more quiet, but just as tangential, emotional discrimination. So interesting, eh. But yes, I’m disappointed in so many timeline-maniputated novels of today. It’s nice to have timeless novels to fall back on. One of my personal favorites is “Green Mansions” by W.H. Hudson. Its prose is so beautiful!

    1. bookssnob says:

      You’re welcome Nancy! I’m glad you enjoyed this, and were able to appreciate it as an adult – I do think many people who read this at school must miss some of the more subtle undertones. I am fascinated with Boo this time around – it’s obvious his overly religious father has been emotionally abusive, as is his brother, and my heart bled for him when his brother concreted over his hole in the tree. There is so much in this novel about the ways in which we all discriminate against, abuse and misunderstand one another in greater or lesser ways. I always see Green Mansions in second hand book shops – I’ll have to pick up a copy next time I see one!

  4. Karen K. says:

    I read To Kill a Mockingbird in high school, then completely ignored it for more then 20 years. When I finally re-read it, I was kicking myself for waiting so long! I try to reread it every couple of years now and I always get something out of it.

    I also loved Someone at a Distance, and foisted on my mother during a recent visit. I haven’t read all of Dorothy Whipple yet but I really loved The Priory and Because of the Lockwoods.

    My list of timeless favorites is pretty long! However, I’d highly recommend two books I’m rereading next year with my library book groups: Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton; and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I think many people do the same with books read at school, Karen – I certainly have and am only revisiting them because I’m now turning the tables on myself and becoming the teacher!

      I’m so glad you loved Someone at a Distance – I have been reminded of its brilliance on this re-read and I have just LOVED it. You must read Greenbanks if you haven’t – it’s my favourite!

      Oh I love both of those books – just love them. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is probably one of my all time favourites – such a special story!

  5. Cheryl says:

    As an English teacher for the past 20+ years (in the U.S.), I love your post on what still resides, quite securely, on the reading lists in the curricula of most English departments throughout the country. It has been a favorite of mine both as a student and, later, as a teacher. (And Gregory Peck absolutely inhabited the character in the movie version!)

    One of the books that I love and believe is timeless (and cannot exclude from my classes’ reading list) is Jazz, by Toni Morrison. It takes a bit of work to “crack the code,” but oh what a thrilling, shocking, tragic, and beautiful experience it is.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh didn’t he just, Cheryl? I can’t wait for our lesson when we watch the film!!

      Oh my…I never got on with Toni Morrison. I studied Beloved at school and hated every minute of it. I must revisit her as an adult and see whether I can find the magic I apparently missed!

  6. What a lovely essay you’ve written in this post!

    I must say that I find personal inspiration in several of the novels of Elizabeth Goudge; The Scent of Water in particular. Very much about the importance of accepting the unchangeable things in life with grace (this is the important part!) and moving on to create an morally acceptable and forward-moving here and now for yourself.

    So yes, resilience of a character, and the confirmation of the essential goodness of humanity are important components in deciding the “timelessness” of reads.

    So many almost-forgotten books waiting to surprise us by their relevance in today’s world, for those willing to explore what is hiding under dusty, faded covers.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks very much! 🙂 Do you know, I have been meaning to read Goudge for years. One of my good friends loves her books and has told me I should read them – I must track down one and get started. I love the sound of The Scent of Water – right up my street!

      I quite agree – who knows what magic people could be missing behind books that have fallen out of favour?

  7. James Lomax says:

    Captain my (R) Captain!

    Another lovely flurry of literary love enthusiasm.

    And what a big question to ask. Perhaps we should ask what the criteria of greatness is and proceed from there. There are canonical great works and why are they so regarded? We have enthusiasms at different times of life, which is another point, and people from different backgrounds, cultures etc have different sympathies. As regards the canonical stuff…its wide open to political analysis and objections, from all various angles.

    You call yourself a snob while you are not that at all – and was that in reaction to the “slut” book site? 🙂 – which raises other questions further pertinent to education. Are there actually great works or is it simply a case of people are all equal and all literature is equal so Shakespeare is intrinsically no better than populist stuff.

    My view is the latter is ridiculous piffle, which then leads to a collision between ‘politics’ and ‘art’. Lefty and feminist types I think took hold of UK education some decades ago. And with the latter for example, books written by women were regarded as written by women and worthy of undue interest accordingly – not for other reasons.

    Shakespeare is a good example because some people say his work is no longer relevant or useful in the curriculum, while its probably the most canonical stuff there is. Whether you foist it onto young teenagers is one thing, but my view is there’s no doubting its depth, power, subtlety, humanity, beautiful language etc. When I read it A Level I didn’t understand it: I had to learn methods of literary criticism by rote, not because it meant anything to me. Two very different angles.

    Then there are other debates such as to what extent do we acknowledge and incorporate the American novel into “English” tradition? I always felt Steinbeck was one of the greats, improperly ignored. Might not have that view now if I read Grapes of Wrath again, but he’s just an example. At Harvard, Colombia, etc, do they include Faulkner, Hemingway, maybe Steinbeck, Scott Fitzgerald in their undergraduate degrees more than we do here? I think they probably do. How do US universities regard Dickens? – rather differently R, I suspect, than Brit universities. Then to what extent do university attitudes filter down into lower mainstream education? – I think its probably considerable, because university is in many respects the culmination of lower education for those so suited.

    You have a lovely blog, R.

    I wait, with tremulous anticipation, for Tales From Shakespeare And Co……

    1. Cheryl says:

      Having attended an American university myself, I can say that Dickens is held in very high regard in the academy, not only in literature courses but also in history and political theory courses. I am in the midst of teaching HARD TIMES to my students (seniors in high school) right now, and they love it–especially for its social commentary during our recent Presidential election (cause for much celebration in its explicit mandate for social reforms).

      1. bookssnob says:

        That’s really interesting, Cheryl!

    2. bookssnob says:

      You always generate such an interesting discussion, James!

      I think I AM quite a snob when it comes to reading…but I’m definitely more open than I used to be! 🙂

      If you get all philosophical about it, the whole idea of a ‘canon’ is ridiculous, because we are all individual people with different needs, backgrounds and interests, and saying that everyone ‘should’ read a certain novel is like saying everyone ‘should’ like a certain type of food. Who has a right to say what is a canonical novel? Who has the right to form the world’s taste?

      However, stepping aside from that philosophical standpoint, I don’t think all literature is equal, and I don’t think we can deny that there are great works out there that should be read by everyone, either because of their historical impact or their literary merit. BUT I do think the ‘canon’ is incredibly narrow and misses out whole swathes of traditions, nationalities and experiences. Not to mention gender! What I like about the school curriculum these days is that there is a real move away from the ‘canon’ – there is a variety of novels from a range of periods that gives children a wide view of what there is out there to read, enabling them to make choices rather than being told ‘you should read this and you should like this’ about books they don’t understand and can’t relate to.

      American literature is given very short shrift in English schools and academic institutions and I wish this wasn’t the case. To Kill a Mockingbird is probably the only major American novel most British school children will ever read. Even at my very traditional university, the only way I got to study American literature was by choosing a specific course on it, and my personal tutor laughed and said ‘American literature is an oxymoron!’ when I showed her my choices. I love American literature and John Steinbeck in particular – the vast variety of human experiences across that endlessly diverse continent never cease to amaze me and I would love to see more effort put into integrating American literature into the British education system.

      Tales from Shakespeare and co will be coming eventually I promise!

      1. Cheryl says:

        “Even at my very traditional university, the only way I got to study American literature was by choosing a specific course on it, and my personal tutor laughed and said ‘American literature is an oxymoron!’ when I showed her my choices.”

        Oh my god, I’m choking on my coffee! (or should I be drinking tea?)

        I love your reflections on the paradigm of “the canon.” Here in the (apparently oxymoronic) States, there is a “canon-busting” movement among some universities. Works of multicultural and certainly literary merit are studied in addition to the “canonical” standards. And there is a variety of strands within the English major to allow for students to choose their areas of concentration. What a wonderful conversation you have engendered! Your students are lucky to have you as their teacher!

  8. heavenali says:

    I agree that there is a definite timelessness to Dorothy Whipple, and Holtby’s South Riding too. To Kill a Mockingbird – may make it on to my pile to re-read during my month of re-reading in January, you have made me want to re-read it now.
    I also think Elizabeth Taylor is timeless too – I have just finished re-reading Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont which I adored. I also think Anita Brookner has a similar quality.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I quite agree with you about Taylor, Ali – she is one of our great unsung authors in my opinion. I did include her in one of my lessons – I gave my students some of her short stories to read – and they loved them!! My first experience of Anita wasn’t great but I’m looking forward to discovering more in future.

  9. James Lomax says:

    PS: phwooooar, luvvvly blog daahlin! 🙂

  10. Jillian22 says:

    This is one of the best analyses of Jane Eyre and, for that matter, To Kill A Mockingbird I have ever read. Jane Eyre is my favorite book of all time and I have written many blog posts about it. I first read it when I was 11 and it thoroughly changed my life. Jane has been my friend, my companion, and my inspiration for more than thirteen years now. What you said is true: timeless books and especially timeless characters are ones who are normal and ordinary, just like us, but who possess strength, magic, and willpower within themselves to change their lives and those around them. Beautiful thought, simply beautiful. Is it ok if I mention and put a link to this post on my blog next week? Thanks!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Jillian! It’s not much of an analysis, but I’m glad you enjoyed it! I’m so pleased you feel the same about Jane Eyre – such a wonderful novel that so inspires so many people. Of course you can link to it – thank you for being so enthusiastic about my writing! 🙂

  11. James Lomax says:

    “I am in the midst of teaching HARD TIMES to my students (seniors in high school) right now, and they love it”

    This is fascinating Cheryl. I don’t reply to your post directly because I think this software only allows one or two replies, and I don’t want to impede responses from our lovely host.

    Why do you think that is? Hard Times is quintessentially English concerning pivotal historic issues about class inequality, the Industrial Revolution and how – apart from the enormous economic implications – it involved exploitation of working people. I think Engels spent time in some of the worst places for this…like Manchester…if I remember correctly…and it was partly what he saw which led to Marxist analysis.

    What do you think this has to do with Obama and your elections? How do you relate British history to contemporary America?

    1. Cheryl says:

      Well, while I am no socio-political analyst (that is my humble disclaimer), I will say that the pivotal historic issues that Dickens takes on in HARD TIMES–class inequality, labor laws, utilitarianism vs. compassion, the need for educational reform, laws that hurt vs laws that help (to paraphrase Stephen Blackpool)–are what make this novel timeless. The particulars of these historic issues may be different, but it seems to me that, here in the States, the issues involved in the Occupy Movement, the debates about school reform (testing vs learning, rising costs of public universities, curricular content…), tax laws and tax breaks, access to affordable health care would contemporize Dickens’ critique.

      My students, who are currently in the process of applying to some major universities all over the country, have a lot to say about Gradgrind’s educational system. And they are not unfamiliar with the hypocrisy in Bounderby’s propaganda, or the tragic lack of moral conscience in young Tom. Thankfully, neither are they unfamiliar with Sissy’s compassion, Rachael’s altruism, or Gradgrind’s transformation.

      The issues involved in our recent election (and perhaps in any election) are not so far from such concerns, especially when considered on the more personal level, which, in the end, I think, is the level that is most deeply struck by timeless literature.

      Thanks for asking; I appreciate your curiosity!

      1. James Lomax says:

        Ah yes….facts, facts, FACTS! – and how that training process damages the psyche.

        Let us wait to hear from our lovely teacher trainee host on that matter. In the UK one of the most topical educational issues concerns government inspections and school ratings. They have enormous effect in terms of how schools are regarded and a damaging effect in terms of how teachers have to make a special artificial effort so the inspectors – Ofsted they are called – give them a good snapshot grade. I think schools are starting to revolt against this – a head teacher spoke out against it year or two ago, which has never really happened before.

        The point also arises – facts, facts, FACTS! as opposed to a more organic educational system – in Dead Poets Society.

      2. bookssnob says:

        I love the idea of Hard Times being taught as a discussion prompter for our current political and educational system. So much of school these days is about passing exams, and we as teachers have very little opportunity to go ‘off topic’ in the classroom as we’re always teaching to an exam, especially in Year 10 upwards. You have to make sure you cover everything that might be on the exam paper, and be careful not to let your class fall behind, so having random lessons where you do fun stuff and explore and experiment become very difficult to fit in. I’m working out ways to get around this…it can be frustrating but there has to be a solution!

  12. Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn come to mind. I love books that are read and enjoyed at one level as a child, but have much more depth when read as an adult. I doubt that I even thought about the regional prejudice when I read them as a child. It was much different as an adult and I understood that they were very daring for their time.

    I like anything by Jane Austen, but, of course, I must include Anne of Green Gables. I grew up with Anne and still love every thing that I have read by L. M. Montgomery. I know they don’t have the depth of To Kill a Mockingbird, or Jane Eyre, but for just plain enjoyment, Lucy Maud Montgomery can’t be beat.

    1. bookssnob says:

      It’s been so long since I read those, Janet! I completely agree – reading favourite children’s books as an adult has been such a wonderful experience, and has shown me how talented children’s writers are.

      Oh Anne, of course! She has to be one of the most timeless heroines in literature, doesn’t she?

  13. joanhunterdunn says:

    Off to think, mull & ponder.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’d love to know what your timeless books are, Rachel!

  14. Martina says:

    How beautiful you put everything into words. I love your insights about “Jane Eyre” – this is the book I always return to, and for the reasons you mentioned. I also try to give it as a gift to as many young girls as possible as Jane, old as she is now, is still such a great role model.
    Another book I read frequently and love every time is “A room of one’s own” – though it’s no fiction, it has a disturbing timeless quality. Also a book I want to give to every single one of my female piano students when they turn 18!

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you so much, Martina! Giving Jane Eyre as a gift is a wonderful idea! I have done it once, but without much success!
      Ah yes, A Room of One’s Own! That’s such a special book…if I were teaching older girls, I’d give that to them too!

  15. Silverdee says:


    I think you would enjoy Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple if you haven’t already read it.

    Have never followed a blogger before, indeed yours was the first blog I ever read! Really enjoy reading you.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh Silverdee, I love Greenbanks! It’s my favourite Whipple!
      That’s lovely to hear…thank you so much! I’m so glad you are enjoying reading my blog! 🙂

  16. Very much enjoyed your post! You’ve made me really want to read South Riding; how lovely that it inspired you to apply. I think all timeless novels have the common bond of saying something on the human condition. Such novels speak to us throughout the years as they explore themes central to what it means to be human; these books will then always resonant with their reader. Jane Austen will always be my favourite author; I return again and again to her books and always discover something new (Persuasion, incidentally, is my favourite!).

    As to new good reads, have you read any of Jane Harris’ books (Gillespie and I and The Observations?). I highly recommend them! M x

    1. bookssnob says:

      I quite agree, Miranda – what lovely thoughts! 🙂 Persuasion is my favourite too – and I come back to it year after year and find something new to inspire me every time. Such a gorgeous novel!

      No I haven’t read any of Jane Harris’ books – I will remedy that asap!! x

  17. Donna says:

    Another interesting and enjoyable meditation on books and reading articulated with the sincerity and thoughtfulness fast becoming a characteristic trademark of your delightful blog.
    I’d nominate Middlemarch by George Eliot as a timeless classic. Okay, whilst its great to have a knowledge of the Victorian context to enrich the reading process, there are passages to my mind which bridge the gap of years and speak to us as much today as when they were first penned by the author: ‘Certainly those determining acts of her life were not ideally beautiful. They were the mixed result of young and noble impulse struggling amidst the conditions of an imperfect social state, in which great feelings will often take the aspect of error, and great faith the aspect of illusion. For there is no creature whose inward being is so strong that it is not greatly determined by what lies outside it’ (Middlemarch).

    1. AJ says:

      Middlemarch would have been my choice as well. It rewards no matter when it’s read … young or old, happy or sad, for school or for pleasure. Also Persuasion.

      1. bookssnob says:

        I perfectly agree with you on Persuasion, AJ!

    2. bookssnob says:

      Thank you so much, Donna!
      I haven’t read Middlemarch since university, I must admit. I didn’t get a huge amount of enjoyment from it then, I don’t think – the enforced study part may have been the cause of that – but I must re-read it one of these days as I have read so many wonderful comments about it since!

  18. Nicola says:

    I suppose there is an element of luck in it. Time of publication, reviews, circulation etc. I think what makes To Kill a Mockingbird so special is that it was the only novel Harper Lee wrote, something charming in not being too prolific I think.

    Have your read Elizabeth Jenkins’ The Tortoise and the Hare?

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh yes, absolutely. Writing only one novel is certainly a good trick!

      Yes I have – a few years ago now. I very much enjoyed it. I should actually like to read it again – it certainly has many timeless qualities!

  19. James Lomax says:

    “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again”


    No seriously – while we all have passions, sympathies etc, how does that coalesce into timeless canonical stuff? Who controls that process? Who decides? Using what criteria, and why?

    I will never forget the ending of Grapes of Wrath. That final act of self sacrificial charity (was her name Rose of Sharon?) encapsulates the human spirit at its best: the dogged will to compassion when it gets kicked in the head, again, and again, by circumstances we cannot control but which are wrong.

    But I also think writers like Orwell cut right to the heart of things, describing not a dream world of potential, possibility etc etc but rather some appalling facts of life which we have to understand.

    Interesting too is how and why books, and certain books, have been banned and made illegal. Religions did it and still do it, the DH Lawrence censors did it (saying it will “corrupt your servants!!”), and so on.

    1. bookssnob says:

      It’s an interesting question, isn’t it? There seems to be some kind of literary ‘elite’ who decide these things – those that write the book reviews and teach the university courses – but surely those who decide must be the common readers?

      I have never read The Grapes of Wrath, I must confess…but I have read other Steinbeck novels and loved them all. Of Mice and Men is one of the most powerful boojs I’ve ever read.

      Quite true about Orwell. And part of his canonical quality is that when he was writing, his thoughts were so topical and so critical of the world political situation. If someone had written his books now, would they be as famous? I doubt it.

      Oh yes – I always find it funny that D H Lawrence was banned. Fancy a Lady going off with her gardener!! And having the servants reading it and getting ideas above their station!

  20. vintagefrenchchic says:

    I absolutely agree with all your choices (except I haven’t read “South Riding”) but I would add “Pride and Prejudice” , “Gone With the Wind”, “Rebecca”, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and for my inner child, “Little Women” “The Little House” series; “Anne of Green Gables” series…oh! and “The Blue Castle”.

    One that I have yet to read that I would place as a timeless based on what I do know of it is “The Count of Monte Cristo”.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I would agree with all your choices! You MUST read South Riding – you’d love it!

      I haven’t really read any foreign classics I must say…I want to read more French literature, but finding the time to get to those doorstops is so difficult!

      1. vintagefrenchchic says:

        I am actually waiting for “Patience” from Persephone, thanks to your review. And “IIlyrian Spring” is on order from the library loan. So, since it is obvious I must “listen” to you and your suggestions, you can bet “South Riding” will be tackled in the near future. ; )

      2. bookssnob says:

        Hehehehe! 🙂 I’m glad to hear it!! I hope you will love Patience, and you can’t fail to love Illyrian Spring!

  21. James Lomax says:

    “Oh my god, I’m choking on my coffee! (or should I be drinking tea?)”

    Tea versus coffee? My dear, I refer you to this fierce chap 🙂

    “I love your reflections on the paradigm of “the canon.” Here in the (apparently oxymoronic) States, there is a “canon-busting” movement among some universities. Works of multicultural and certainly literary merit are studied in addition to the “canonical” standards. And there is a variety of strands within the English major to allow for students to choose their areas of concentration.”

    Yes I wonder if there’s more of that in the US. Obviously there will be size-wise, but proportionally is another matter. We do it here too, but I suspect not as much. My impression is in some respects, US education is more advanced insofar as you don’t carry such a heavy weight of tradition.

    “What a wonderful conversation you have engendered! Your students are lucky to have you as their teacher!”

    Agreed. And you know, I take it, our lovely host spent a year in the US?

  22. cbciucci says:

    I, like most readers of the classics, have often wondered what makes a book “timeless”. I’ve read a good number of posts and essays about it, and yet this one stands apart. I don’t think I ever made the connection inspiring/timeless, but it seems so obvious now. I do think you might have nailed it when you wrote this.

    I’m so glad you found it in you to overcome your fears and applied to teacher training. Like others have said before me, I think you make really insightful points and your students are lucky to have you.

    The books I turn to over and over again are Wuthering Heights and Great Expectations. There’s something about both books that pulled me in when I first read them and to this day refuse to let me go.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks very much! I think inspiring/timeless is kind of an obvious idea but it’s hard sometimes to get it down to the bare bones, isn’t it?

      Thank you, that’s very kind – I hope they are enjoying having me as their teacher!

      Oooh…Wuthering Heights is a book I’ve never enjoyed but Great Expectations I certainly agree with!!

  23. Alex says:

    Very interesting post! I’m sometimes convinced that it has a lot to do with timing and, possibly, sheer luck for a book to become “timeless”. It seems to be a good formula for it to be published at a time when the issues it approached rang a bell or caught the waive of social change as it was forming. These books usually become not only part of this social change, but also a symbol of it.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I think timing has definitely got something to do with it, Alex…books that really encapsulate their age are usually destined to become classics, I think. I love that idea of books becoming part of and a symbol of social change. Brilliant!

  24. You have two of my all time favorite and timeless books right here in your post, Rachel. Jane Eyre has stayed with me for so many, many years, having first found it in my parent’s cedar chest. You describe it so well Jane and her strong spirit and determination. I was well loved and cared for and had a wonderful childhood, but, I was shy. Perhaps Jane appealed to me in this.

    To Kill a Mockingbird – well, you’ve said it far better than I could possibly say. It is timeless and there are parts of it that I find hovering over us here these days, still. It was a daring book of its time and I believe was once a banned book. Can you imagine that?

    I’ve read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath many times over. Each time it grabs me, makes me sad and mad, sometimes hopeful, sometimes dejected. The movie version was just on, an old adaptation, and much of it was still relevant today in how we treat others, especially the poor and downtrodden.

    Another good post, Rachel. I’m just in the process of catching up. Enjoyed reading about Paris.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Jane is the ultimate heroine, isn’t she? I think she calls to a part of most of us more quiet souls, who have inner cores of steel just waiting to be discovered!

      The more I read To Kill a Mockingbird with my class, the more I am falling in love with it – it’s such an incredible book about so many things, yet at its core is this message of tolerance and compassion and humanity that will never cease to have relevance as long as humans walk this earth.

      I have yet to read The Grapes of Wrath – this is something I plan on remedying this year. I adore Steinbeck but have been saving his masterpiece…the time has come to crack it open I think!

      Thanks so much Penny – it’s always lovely to read your thoughts. 🙂

  25. Kat Thomas says:

    hello ! I am writing an essay for my grade 12 university class, and I would like to know if it would be alright for me to use your explanation of what makes a piece of literature timeless. I would greatly appreciate it and will make sure to cite you as a source 🙂

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