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!

Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott

I re-read Little Women last year and was surprised to find that my memories of the story had been unduly influenced by the wonderful Winona Ryder-Kirsten Dunst-Claire Danes film version I watched as a child; in comparison to the film, half the book appeared to be missing, and I wondered why the filmmakers had taken such liberties in extending the story so far beyond Louisa May Alcott’s imagination! It was then that I realised the film had depicted not just Little Women, but its sequel, (one of three sequels, actually) Good Wives, too, and so off I set to find myself a copy of the latter. I found a gorgeous early 20th century edition that matches my copy of Little Women shortly afterwards, but as usual, it was left to gather dust for a few months before I got around to reading it. I never change! Last week I was finally in the mood for a bit more Louisa May Alcott and so out came Good Wives, and I was enchanted all over again by the world of the March girls.

Good Wives takes off about three years after where Little Women left off. Meg is about to get married, Jo is attempting to launch a literary career, Beth has sadly never recovered from her scarlet fever and is now virtually housebound, and little Amy is maturing fast, and about to go off travelling with a wealthy aunt. Each girl is struggling with her own problems; for Meg, she must learn to be a good wife and mother, and juggle the demands of the two; Jo must learn how to maintain her morals in a corrupt business, and rein in her headstrong and often selfish nature; Beth has to come to terms with the fact that she may never grow old, and learn to enjoy the time she has left without dwelling on what may come, and Amy must learn to put others first, and understand that money and fine things are nothing in comparison to a good heart and unconditional love. As they make their way from childhood to womanhood, each of the four March girls has her own path to tread, and though there is much joy to be found along their way, there is also much sorrow, heartache and lessons to be learned. In all things, they look to the quiet strength and wisdom of their mother, whose gentle reprimands and loving encouragement sees all of them through their trials and helps them to greater appreciate their blessings.

Louisa May Alcott is very much a Victorian writer, in that her stories are all about girls being obedient, self governing, faithful to God and developing characters and hearts that reflect the great virtues of patience, love, and charity, so that they can be a blessing to all around them, and bring perpetual sunshine to their homes. Little Women and Good Wives are a thinly disguised Pilgrim’s Progress, the March girl’s favourite book, and I can understand that the didactic and religious overtones can be a little too much for the modern reader. However, I absolutely adored this book and it gave me a lot to think about, as I dripped tears onto the pages, laughed, and gave satisfied sighs at these delightful girls’ various antics. These books have both made me search my soul and promise myself I will be a better person. More patient, more kind, more compassionate, more considerate, more tactful, more loving…and then I continue to get REALLY ANGRY AT EVERYONE on the tube and fight with my brother and tut loudly behind SLOW people and open my big mouth where it’s not wanted and think evil thoughts about people who take the last seat on the train even though I was clearly waiting ten minutes longer than them…but still, the willingness is there, I suppose, which is a start.

I think any story that makes you want to be the best person you can be has got to be worth reading, and when I closed this book, in the midst of Mrs March smiling at her girls and grandchildren and saying this, this is happiness, and nothing more, it was like a little ray of light beaming into my soul, reminding me that it is the simple things in life, like family, and friends, and sunny days, and walking barefoot on grass, that are important, and not the rest of it that we stress ourselves out about on a daily basis. It might be cheesy, and it might be old fashioned, and the characters might be a little bit too good to be true, but it works for me.

Little Women and Good Wives will always be amongst my favourite books, because they are not concerned with being flashy or different or clever, but about inspiring and encouraging their readers to grow, and change, and love, and dream, and live, and to never give up, because no matter what, life is worth it. What could be better, and truer, than that? I urge you to read them; they’re not just for children, and I promise you’ll close the pages with a smile.

Want to read some Alcott? Join Margot at Joyfully Retired in her All Things Alcott Challenge!

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

What books could be lovelier than Victorian children’s books (follow this link for some very interesting articles on the topic)? They are so prettily made and have delightful picture plates of healthy rosy cheeked children doing wholesome things like strawberry picking inside, grubby finger marks and colourings-in of various children who have owned and loved the book over the years splotched across the pages, and wonderful titles usually involving a very period name, like ‘Bess’s Adventure’ or ‘Dick’s Nasty Scrape’. It just makes them such a pleasure to read, even when the subject matter is so didactic that it baffles me as to how whole generations of children could have borne being told to shoulder their burdens with selflessness and good grace, look to Jesus, and learn their lessons well if they wanted to grow into good young citizens of the world.

I wonder sometimes whether the world would be a different place if today’s generation of under tens were reading stories with such a message rather than being fed a diet of broken marriages, teen crushes and diets. The morals Victorian children were brought up with led to millions of young men marching out to their deaths in both wars with the conviction that they were fighting for the honour of their motherland and the protection of its women and children; such patriotism and selflessness would never be seen today. Was their character partly formed from the consistent message of How to be Good they received from the books they read as children? I suppose it depends on how much you believe the books you read influence the way you think and act and are. I think literature has a power that many underestimate when it comes to forming young minds…and old ones, too. Many a book I have read has made me understand or appreciate something differently, has encouraged me, inspired me, and made me aspire to being better at something or more grateful, or even more adventurous. Some books have even helped me make big life decisions. There is a lot of power to influence in the humble written word.

So the point of this ramble is…I have just re-read Little Women. The self imposed book ban made me reorganise my bookshelves so my unread books are all grouped together, and Little Women happened to jump out at me from its place within this new arrangement, and so here we are.

It was wonderful. I was transported back to a world when hardship was borne with Christian grace, when poverty didn’t necessitate the firing of servants, and when a hard earned treat was a pickled lime. Marmee was the most delightful, warm, generous and unbelievably good mother I have come across in literature and I adored the four girls with their striking personalities, inner struggles and love for one another that always won out despite their disagreements. Laurie, Mr Lawrence and Mr Brookes, as well as the ever distant figure of Mr March are all excellent examples of strong, upright and protective manhood, and I just loved the small world of gentle kindnesses, neighbourliness, companionship and little adventures they all shared. The image of the March women curled up in their living room around a warm fire, just enjoying each other’s company and keeping busy with their work is something I will always treasure as the picture of what family should be; a loving unit that accepts each other for who they are, weaknesses and strengths, and that helps each other along as they all journey on through life. What marvellous role models there are contained within the pages of this story; Mrs March’s instructions to her daughters on how to improve themselves certainly inspired me to work harder at checking my own quick temper! I hope I have little girls to read this story to one day; nothing could sum up what women I would want my girls to grow into more than the delightful Marches.