43. Read a ‘classic’

How hard can it be? For a double literature graduate, a self-confessed poetry lover, one-time avid reader and ex-English teacher to read one novel by a classic author? Think ‘pulling teeth’… and you may be halfway there!

This challenge began as far back as May, when I asked friends for recommendations for a good classic novel to get my teeth (the ones I’ve since been pulling) into. Many and varied cam the suggestions, and I decided upon Tess of the d’Urbervilles. I ordered a copy from Amazon, but even when it arrived the print-size and thickness of the book did not bode well (I will explain more on that subject later). Three chapters in, and it was already painful… and after putting the book down for several weeks, I admitted defeat and had a rethink.

And so it was that in September, I purchased a copy of Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen.

This novel and I have history. And I think it was in the hope of putting our tortured history to rest that I decided this was the novel I should read…. Let me put you in the picture:-

Form 2, Radyr Comprehensive School, Cardiff. Top set English, an eager student with a well-developed love of reading. A reading list was issued at the beginning of the school year, and as well as being allowed to select independently, the apparently well-meaning teacher – one Mrs. James – herself selected a work which she believed would be ‘stretching’ for me. That novel was ‘Northanger Abbey’ and I was to borrow it from the school library. It was a thick tome, with an uninspiring grey hardback exterior and tiny print inside (see above hang-up). I remember even now the pain I endured in its reading… It went on and on and on. The pain. And the reading. I know I asked on multiple occasions to give it up. I know my parents even asked on my behalf at parents’ evening. But no. Mrs. James remained convinced of the ‘formative’ benefits of continuing.

Formative?? I shall tell you what formed. An aversion for books over 2cms thick. An irrational distaste of literature written before the 20th century. And a refusal to engage with period drama either on stage or screen. I actually think that without the ‘Northanger Abbey’ experience at age 12, I may well have continued with English Literature to A-level… and even for my first degree. (I did actually do both of those things in time – A-level at 21 and second degree via the Open University at 47). Rightly or wrongly, I have never forgiven that teacher for her well-meaning, yet ultimately misguided and thoroughly destructive intransigence.

Fast forward 38 years…

It was with a wry smile that I purchased my paperback copy of ‘Northanger Abbey’ from Wellfield Bookshop and took it home to commence this challenge anew. It sat on the bedside table for a few weeks before I even opened it… and since then I have to tell you progress has been slow. I even resorted to the help of Juliet Stevenson via Audible to get me through! But today, I reached that longed for word of ‘FINIS’.

So, what do I think second time around? Well, I’ll tell you what I don’t think first…

I don’t think this is a novel for a 12-year old to enjoy. I don’t think I could describe it as having a ‘story’. I don’t think it’s *that* well written. (And I don’t think I’ll bother with a cheap ‘vintage classics’ edition of anything in future, as it was riddled with typos and other proofing errors).

At times, I enjoyed the description of the setting – interesting as I know Bath reasonably well – and of the characters and their interactions. Some times the author’s turn of phrase made me smile. As did Juliet Stevenson’s expression (especially at 1.5 times speed in order to get through it more quickly) and her mispronunciation of the word ‘spinnet’!!

I feel a sense of achievement in having re-read it, but I also think that I won’t be rushing to read other novels of this ilk. And I don’t think I’ll bother to feel bad about that either. I’d rather stick to reading stuff that actually fires me up and makes me want to not put it down rather than not pick it up! After all, life is short…


[43 down, 7 to go]


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