Five Slightly Less Conspicuous Classics of British Literature
So many inconspicuous classics, so little time.
What’s that you say? You’d like to read a slightly less canonical work of literature instead of all this Shakespeare and Austen lark? Well, fret no more dear reader. You’ve come to the right place. Here are five less conspicuous British novels that have been handpicked for your delectation, i.e, iconic novels that have garnered much less attention than their canonical counterparts. Find them. Read them. Keep them (alternatively you could always sell them on once you’ve had your fill, and or pass them on to a friend or random stranger). However pernickety your bibliophilic habits are though, be sure to give at least one of these fine volumes of prose a whirl.
Elizabeth Gaskell – Mary Barton (1848)
Ever wanted a more veracious alternative to the swathes of Gothic romances that all too easily flood many a top ten? Look no further than this heartfelt tale of Northern poverty and squalor. There are many reasons to read Elizabeth Gaskell’s work, not least because of her mastery of the romance form and penchant for captivating female protagonists. This novel sets a precedent on both of those fronts, whilst evoking a genuine reverence and sympathy for the downtrodden working classes of 1840’s Manchester in what is essentially a love story with an added dose of Chartist fervour. The dramatic centerpiece of the novel is undoubtedly the precarious ménage à trois that develops between Gaskell’s fiery protagonist and her two feuding suitors – a brilliant parable of the perils, pitfalls and politesse of feminine agency in a time of nonexistent social mobility.
Keith Waterhouse – Billy Liar (1959)
Waterhouse’s 1959 text provides an uproariously funny take on the kitchen sink drama, alongside a hefty dose of wry social satire – realism seems too far-fetched a concept for 19 year old Billy Fisher, whose persona strikes me as something of a would-be amalgamation of John Lennon’s fool à la ‘I’m A Loser’, and the triumphantly bravadic protagonist of the Easybeats’ ‘Friday On My Mind’ (appreciators of preposterous pop culture comparisons may or may not enjoy John Schlesinger’s quirky 1963 film adaptation staring Tom Courtenay). Horseplay and tomfoolery aside, the novel’s ‘will he or won’t he’ crise de nerfs finale is especially memorable. Gripping, even.
Angela Carter – The Magic Toyshop (1967)
Looking back on her career, it’s quite clear that Angela Carter was head and shoulders above many of her contemporaries, so inimitable was her ability to fuse the cerebral with the acerbic. It comes as no surprise then that this propensity for exposing the apocryphal – or rather, throwing that very same concept face-down on the floor and shattering it into a million pieces – is immediately distinguishable in Carter’s suitably surrealist and perhaps lesser well known second novel. Whilst not as incisive as the formidable The Bloody Chamber, Carter’s foray into the avant-garde is underpinned by a fascination for the reciprocality of sexuality and folklore (something that is arguably as glaring as the giant swan that adorns the novel’s front cover). My bet’s on a BBC adaptation in the next five years.
Ian McEwan – The Comfort of Strangers (1981)
At this junction you might be wondering as to why I have included a text written by one of the most popular UK authors of all time. Well, if you’ll listen for minute I’ll tell you (sort of, anyway). The Comfort of Strangers is one of those novels that lures you in like the inspiriting zephyr of an Italian riviera at the height of summer, which is rather appropriate given the labyrinthine setting of this short but devastatingly sweet erotically charged thriller. Set in an infamous town situated on the cusp of the Adriatic – yes, you guessed it, it’s that ‘unnamed’ Italian city known for its elaborate window drapes and knack for sinking into the sea – the novel follows an English couple as they gradually become ensnared by a mysterious man in a white suit. Unconscious desires soon bubble to the surface. You know how the saying goes. When in Venezia…
Pat Barker – The Ghost Road (1995)
Last up is a novel by an author who has never quite received the attention they deserve. Book 3 of the acclaimed Regeneration trilogy, The Ghost Road is provides the kind of quintessential re-imagining of the First World War that rejectionists of Western jingoism pine for. In stark contrast to most war fiction, à la Birdsong, Barker’s prose is brutally perspicacious; her characters (including portrayals of real-life poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen) are infinitely relatable. Perhaps most glaring is the novel’s explicit depiction of sex and violence – an even greater literary feat given the author’s disdain for the gratuitous and sensationalistic sentiments that are common fare in many a war novel. Irrespective of the obvious stylistic merits of Barker’s prose, the novel provides the world with an authentic retelling of the human and interpersonal sacrifices of the war. This is arguably Barker’s greatest achievement, and something that even the most ardent chroniclers of the Great War will never surpass.
And at that, we have arrived at the end of our inconspicuous literary journey. What do you think of the above list? Do you approve of my selections? Feel free to name check other British works that you would like to see on the upper echelons of the canon. Maybe there’s that one book that you’ve always wanted to share with the world but never had the guts to scream its praises from the rooftops. Whatever it is, post it on the comments for all to see! Don’t forget to justify your choices though, you know, because you’ll not doubt be on the receiving end of an exceedingly harsh sigh if you don’t.
What do you think? Leave a comment.