Five Slightly Less Conspicuous Classics of British Literature

penguin classics on a bookshelfSo 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)

Mary Barton (Front Cover)

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)

1995 Pat Barker The Ghost Road2

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.

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  1. Apolonia

    Ack… Magic Toyshop… if you’re expecting a charming story about magical toys and toyshops… this is not it.

  2. There are some wonderfully written passages in all of these books. Great list!

  3. Emily Deibler

    I’ll definitely have to check these out. I read The Bloody Chamber collection by Angela Carter about a year ago and enjoyed it, so I might like another piece of hers. Mary Barton also sounds incredibly interesting. Excellent job here!

    • Luke Stephenson

      Thanks so much! And definitely do. I also have fond memories of getting to grips with The Bloody Chamber. Made me approach short stories from a completely different angle.

  4. Nice list, it’s good to see Carter and McEwan on there.

  5. Loved Gaskell’s “North and South”. Adding Mary Barton to the list. Thanks for the recommendations!

  6. I was surprised to enjoy Mary Barton so much!

  7. Erich Sharpe

    I’ve forgotten what a great writer Angela Carter was! I wish I had the creativity and dedication to craft a book as detailed and multi-faceted any of her work.

  8. The “Comfort of Strangers” starts off very slow but ends up on a great note.

  9. Pat Barker’s writing is almost deceptively simply.

  10. Thomas Sutton

    Cool list, nice to see a mix of older and newer novels

  11. Thomas Sutton

    Carter’s The Passion of New Eve gets forgotten about a lot, I think everyone gets caught up in The Bloody Chamber to much

  12. Barton is a gripping Victorian novel!

  13. I don’t know what made Angela Carter hate males so much.

  14. Some brilliantly written novels you have listed here.

  15. While the writing of Comfort Strangers was beautiful – almost nostalgic in a sense of the standard “good” literature – the plot took the most unexpected turn.

  16. Carter is one of the most original and imaginative British writers of her generation.

  17. Lang Nolen

    I loved McEwan’s Enduring Love!

  18. Barker isn’t terribly good at fleshing out characters.

  19. Jacque Venus Tobias

    Lovely, concise, and a teensy bit intimidating- thank you!

  20. Jacque Venus Tobias

    In the best way possible my scribe; your choices of words are vibrant, engaging and rhythmic. I think if I were in a conversational setting listening to you speak it would fare in the most enchanting manner. – Cheers

    • Luke Stephenson

      My goodness… I’m not sure a budding penman such as myself could receive greater laudations! I think I’d have to agree. Perhaps we’d both speak at great length, and I would learn a great deal.

  21. Sherrell

    The Magic Toyshop is my favourite book. I could read it forever.

  22. Contreras

    The Ghost Road is the perfect ending to the Regeneration trilogy.

  23. shirley

    I’ve been a huge Ian McEwan fan since first reading A Child in Time. I also loved Black Dogs, Saturday, and of course Atonement. But The Comfort of Strangers is really strange.

  24. I like McEwan when he is expansive and hopeful in his writing: I think both Atonement and Saturday are two of the best novels I’ve ever read.

  25. Lexzie

    I’m going to have check these out.

    Also, your writing style is so engaging and your humour is delightful. Can’t wait to read more articles published by you.

    • Luke Stephenson

      I’m so glad you enjoyed reading! Also (I too am a proponent of such elementary adverbs), thank you ever so much for your lovely feedback. Here’s hoping you hold my future articles in such high regard 😉

  26. Good picks: Pat Barker especially is a fantastic writer!

  27. After my foray into reading industrial novels, beginning with Dickens’ “Hard Times,” I was thrilled with “Mary Barton.” Gaskell is an excellent writer and her story is a heart-wrenching tale of the dark side of “progress.” On a lighter side, you may enjoy her “Cranford” – very different style of writing but quite enjoyable. I will definitely put the other four suggestions on my list of must-reads for pure enjoyment – this will be after the must-reads for work. Thanks for these suggestions.

  28. Just about to graduate from an English Lit degree and haven’t heard of any of these! Will definitely be adding them on to my summer reading list!

  29. Stephanie M.

    Now I’m eager to read about more of your picks–non-canonical choices for World, African-American, Women’s, or American Lit, for example. Do you have more? Would you consider writing follow-up articles?

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