Thursday, December 10, 2015

My Thoughts on the BBC's 100 Best British Novels

The BBC has posted their list of the 100 Greatest British Novels. The top 20:

20. Persuasion (Jane Austen, 1817)
19. Emma (Jane Austen, 1815)
18. Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989)
17. Howards End (EM Forster, 1910)
16. The Waves (Virginia Woolf, 1931)
15. Atonement (Ian McEwan, 2001)
14. Clarissa (Samuel Richardson,1748)
13. The Good Soldier (Ford Madox Ford, 1915)
12. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1949)
11. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen, 1813)
10. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray, 1848)
9. Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)
8. David Copperfield (Charles Dickens, 1850)
7. Wuthering Heights (Emily Brontë, 1847)
6. Bleak House (Charles Dickens, 1853)
5. Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë, 1847)
4. Great Expectations (Charles Dickens, 1861)
3. Mrs. Dalloway (Virginia Woolf, 1925)
2. To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf, 1927)
1. Middlemarch (George Eliot, 1874)

I have a few thoughts on this list, having read at least part of 37 books in the top 100 and seen movies based on two more.

I personally can't stand Virginia Woolf, in fact I would rank Mrs. Dalloway (3) second to last of the listed book I know. On the other hand I know people who love her books. Is that sort of divided response what one expects in a "great" writer, counting for more than if everyone thought the book was ok? Some moderns do seem to think that way about art. But ranking her above both Dickens and Austen seems to me a very strange choice.

By contrast I thought Middlemarch was ok; I read about half of it and enjoyed it but have never felt compelled to go back and finish it. Maybe next time I have a big field project involving hundreds of hours in the car I will try listening to it.

The absolute worst book on the list is Robinson Crusoe (27), which is tedious to read and the least realistic depiction of castaway life ever penned. Ugh. I don't understand how it got famous or why anyone ever praises it.

Frankenstein (9) is a great idea and has some nice Gothic writing, but it is a terrible novel. All modern interpretations follow a stage version put on in London that is very different from Mary Shelley's text -- she saw it and loved it -- because the original is completely unworkable.

I have probably read more Dickens than anyone else on the list, and I am baffled that they rank Great Expectations at number 4; I like both Bleak House (6) and David Copperfield (8) much better, and none of them are in my top ten.

A Clockwork Orange (68) was a better movie than it was a book, although I might have felt this way because I saw the movie first.

The inclusion of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (79) on the list shows that the voters were mostly atheists who love rebellion against god. Because I didn't think it was any better than Harry Potter and none of the children I tried to read it to liked it much at all.

Does anyone still read Ford Madox Ford?

My personal top ten from the list would be:

1. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (26)
2. Hillary Mantel, Wolf Hall (44)
3. George Orwell, 1984 (12)
4. Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels (55)
5. George Orwell, Animal Farm (62)
6. Thackeray, Vanity Fair (10)
7. Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (21)
8. A.S. Byatt, Possession (49)
9. Pat Barker, Regeneration Trilogy (85)
10. William Golding, Lord of the Flies (93)

1 comment:

G. Verloren said...

I find it rather telling that most of the "best" british novels are today not widely read at all, and increasingly irrelevant and culturally obsolete.

There are exceptions of course, but so many of these books are now mere historical curiosities, useful chiefly to illustrate how society used to function. How very far removed the world of today is from that of 19th century England and the culture of country manor houses, or of mid-industrialization London.

Then again, perhaps this has more to do with the decline of the novel itself, and fundamental changes in the way people approach literature in the modern age? Most present day novels are less weighty affairs, with a strong inclination toward either high fantasy or science fiction, but almost universally seeking to entertain first and foremost, rather than seeking to be epochal works of grand literature.