Sali Hughes on Emma by Jane Austen
I didn’t want to read this book, chiefly because my English teacher told me I had to. It had a boring cover at a time in my life when everything had to look fabulous, and a protagonist who sounded like a bit of a silly sap. I’ve rarely been so grateful for the British comprehensive system, because it forced me into discovering what remains one of my all-time favourite novels.
Emma tells the story of Emma Woodhouse, a clever, rich and popular young woman, who, having lost her last female friend to marriage, seeks another “project” to occupy her time. She finds it in a clueless teenager named Harriet, new to the country village where Emma quietly rules the social scene. She begins to intervene in her love life, refashioning it into something Emma finds more agreeable, scarcely bothering to keep either Harriet or her suitors informed in the process, and ignoring her own feelings, buried by societal obligation, appearances and complex etiquette (sound familiar? This is the book on which the film Clueless was based and, of all versions of Emma, it’s the best and in some ways the most faithful adaptation).
With all this social commentary and very female cast of characters, it’s been easy for intellectual snobs to dismiss Austen as they routinely dismiss so many of our modern commercial female writers. In fact, Austen’s writing is even more than hilarious, perceptive and accomplished – it was downright revolutionary. For Emma, she created what is now known as “free indirect style”, where third-person prose is written from the perspective of a fictional character – in this case, the deluded, meddling, passive-aggressive Emma. Through a technique that is now almost standard in modern third-person fiction, we hear Emma’s story not through her own voice, but through her own thoughts, and are left frustrated and helpless to intervene in her self-serving and ill-judged ploys to permanently alter the course of her unsuspecting friends’ lives.
You’d think that in chronicling Emma’s poor behaviour in such a deliciously acerbic way that Austen would lose all our sympathies for her heroine. But this, for me, is the magic and genius of Emma. Her unbelievably daft decisions never quite allow you to hate her, or even to judge her that harshly. She is a smart, assertive, dominant and confident. She runs rings around her family, friends and suitors, and is hilariously funny and charming. She believes she is coming from a good place, so ultimately you wish her to be happy, if perhaps also to chill the hell out.
Buy Emma on Amazon or pop into your local bookshop
Sam Baker on I Capture The Castle by Dodie Smith
I came late to I Capture The Castle. I can’t claim to have fallen for it when I was a precocious 10-year-old, or even 12 or 13. My family’s collection of hardback classics came via my mum and undoubtedly was one of those that you bought in sets, possibly from the back of a newspaper or even door-to-door. (Like many such sets, it was also incomplete; interest – or funds – waning five or six books in.) So my childhood classics were limited to Tom Sawyer and What Katy Did, Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm, Little Women and Wuthering Heights and then, incongruously, Ivanhoe. It may well have been Ivanhoe that led to the subscription being cancelled. We’ll never know.
To me, if I considered her at all, Dodie Smith was the woman who wrote The One Hundred And One Dalmatians – a story with which I was intimately acquainted, thanks to Mr Walt Disney, but had never read. Even so, looking back, it feels crazy that it took me until my twenties to discover, and fall in love with, Cassandra Mortmain – a 17-year-old over-endowed with brains and time, who narrates the story of a summer in the life of her unorthodox family through her journal.
Surrounding Cassandra is a cast of characters so eccentric that in lesser hands they’d be borderline implausible: her father, a writer whose one bestseller enabled him to buy the rundown castle in which they live, and who now suffers from writer’s block; his second wife, Topaz, an artist’s model who spends most of her time communing with nature wearing as little as possible; and Cassandra’s older sister, Rose, the veritable beauty locked up in the castle. Compared with common or garden no-Girls-World-for-you-skint-1970s style, they live in the kind of noble furniture-selling penury I found unutterably romantic.
I was big on romance then – the life kind, rather than the love kind. For a start, I always wanted life to be more like a fairytale. It wasn’t so much that I was bothered about the prince, but I was very interested in those ballet-slipper-type shoes princesses always wore – so much more romantic than the Start-rite E-width with which I was saddled. And the castles. I was big on castles.
Anyway, I digress, because Cassandra did not want to live in a fairytale, but Rose (who was preoccupied with finding the prince and not a lot else) wanted to live in a Jane Austen novel, and Cassandra wanted to write one – an aspiration which became far easier when the Cottons, a wealthy American family with two eligible sons, rented a nearby hall. So, no actual prince on a white charger, but one wielding a cheque book. Austen would be proud.
The fact that I Capture The Castle has long been pigeon-holed as a children’s classic, shelved with the equally worthy Ballet Shoes, confounds me. Just because the central character is a teenage girl does not make this a teenage novel. Spend five minutes with Cassandra Mortmain and you’ll find her vivid, wry and often acerbic tone makes her a character as worthy of your time as those created by her sister’s beloved Austen.
To me, summer is a time for rereading a classic or two. Writing this just now, I’ve made myself want to visit Cassandra’s Suffolk all over again.
Buy I Capture the Castle on Amazon or pop into your local bookshop
Lauren Bravo on Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
When it comes to books I really love, I often have a bad memory for detail. I remember the way it made me feel, and often I remember in vivid technicolour where I was when I read it – the scenery, the weather, what I was eating at the time – but the whys and wherefores of the plot escape me. I just remember that I loved it.
Not with Little Women, though; so many lines and scenes are perfectly preserved in my memory, still so fresh and relevant that I dig them out as often as anecdotes from Friends and Seinfeld (which is often). That iconic opening chapter. Marmee imploring her warring daughters not to let the sun go down on their anger. Amy and her bag of fashionable limes, all too true for anyone who’s found themselves stockpiling avocados to feed their Instagram aspirations. Jo, queen of the creative side project, building a future career through fiction and bedroom am-dram productions. Meg’s flirty high-society makeover and the burning shame she felt afterwards – all eternally relatable to the challenges and contradictions of 21st-century girlhood.
While Little Women’s sometimes-preachy biblical rhetoric might belong to another time, its proto-feminist credentials have barely dated. In fact, Louisa May Alcott once vented her frustration at all the letters she received from “girls who ask who the little women will marry. As if that was the only end and aim of a woman’s life”. And apple-eating, novel-writing, swashbuckling Jo March is up there alongside the Lizzie Bennets and Lisa Simpsons of the canon, finding new ways to kick against society in every chapter. Every girl who reads Little Women likes to think she’d be Jo, the same way we all like to believe we’d be in Gryffindor.
It’s funny, too. People tend to talk about literary classics in misty-eyed terms, forgetting all the times those books will make you hoot out loud at the wit of it all. “Let us be elegant or die!” I mutter when my heels pinch. Any time my hairdresser goes rogue with the scissors, I still hear Amy’s voice in my head, yelling, “Jo! Your one beauty!” And “I’d rather take coffee than compliments just now” is so ripe for a slogan T-shirt.
As someone without sisters, reading Little Women always felt like peeking into a different world, of fierce squabbles and blood-bound loyalty. But beyond that, it’s also a model for female friendship – all different, all flawed (except angelic Beth of course, but then I firmly believe we are allowed to secretly hate Beth) and all forging their own paths, surprising each other, challenging each other and celebrating each other’s choices.
Teenage girls are poised to inherit the earth just now, and while their lives might feel a world away from the March sisters’, Little Women still has so much power to comfort them and cheer them on. It still does for me, as a not-so-little woman.
Buy Little Women on Amazon or pop into your local bookshop
Bridget Minamore on Anne Of Green Gables by LUCY MAUD Montgomery
If there’s one reason to read (or re-read) Anne Of Green Gables, it can be summed up in two words: Anne Shirley. When I first read Lucy Maud Montgomery’s fun, sweetly sarcastic prose, on paper we were nothing alike. But when it came to personality, I too was a talkative pre-teen, a girl who was unhappy with the way she looked and a kid whose own imagination was her best friend. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate what loving Anne did for my own sense of self-esteem, but perhaps the reason I loved Anne so much then was because when we first meet her, she’s forced to battle against my biggest fear: the idea it would be preferred if she was a boy. As an only child, I remember being deeply concerned that my parents would have much preferred a boy instead of a girl like me, someone who liked dresses and couldn’t climb trees. But here was Anne, someone who, despite all her oddities, finds a family of her own as she comes to be adored by the Cuthbert siblings.
Throughout the book, 11-year-old Anne’s quirks are numerous, funny and deeply endearing. Her name needs an “e” at the end of it because it’s “romantic”, she gives everything a name, from geraniums to bubbling brooks, and her fiery red-headed temper leads to misunderstandings, lashings out and a school slate broken across the head of her nemesis (and – spoiler – soon-to-be friend) Gilbert Blythe. Perhaps the best part of reading the story again was the reminder of how magical I must have been as a child to identify with a character like Anne. It’s something I wish I remembered more these days, when work and life and bills can distract us all from the important things in life. As an adult, it’s easy to forget the ways our quirks make us special, but reacquainting myself with Anne – and the many people who grow to love her – felt like a reminder to accept myself more, and excuse myself less.
Anne Of Green Gables is one of those books where the bonds between people we love aren’t portrayed as merely important, but crucial. Human beings aren’t meant to be lonely and, every few chapters, I’d find myself texting or calling someone in my life I hadn’t spoken to for a while. In the book, family is shown as more than blood – it’s chosen and accepted, welcomed into homes and fed and hugged and praised and loved. Orphaned and brought to Green Gables – a fictional but beautiful home on an island in Canada – Anne was, and is, everything I needed to read about when I was a child. Perhaps it’s worth keeping in mind that Anne is everything I need to read about now, too. Her two defining features are perhaps her tenacity and her capacity to love a little deeply, two things I’d say we all should have – no matter how old and grown-up we’ve become.
Buy Anne Of Green Gables on Amazon or pop into your local bookshop
Alexandra Heminsley on The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The Secret Garden, like all good children’s classics, is as creepy as it is heart-warming. Working as a sort of Rorschach test for one’s temperament or even one’s life experience, it holds a mirror up to the reader as much as it entertains them.
As a child, Mary, Colin and Dickon’s life away from the gaze of adults is captivating – secret keys, illicit missions and shared hideaways make it the stuff of dreams. The children have the sort of adventures I longed for and my schoolgirl’s imagination conveniently erased the grief the novel is suffused with.
By my late teens, I was less keen on sharing my passion for Hodgson Burnett’s classic, but quickly I learnt that poor old Colin made a good punchline. Confined to his wheelchair for (what I then saw as) no good reason, he seemed like the ultimate flake, a faker and a wimp. A friend too tired to come out, a computer too slow to reboot, a boyfriend not being as much fun as I might have liked – they were all dismissed as “being a bit of a Colin”, which was always met with a chuckle from kindred Secret Garden fans.
As years passed and I grew to appreciate the soothing benefits of time spent outside, it was the landscapes that I longed to return to. Initially dismissed as neither “fields nor mountains, it’s just miles and miles and miles of wild land”, the moor appalls Mary until the maid, Martha, sings its praises, describing the gorse, the heather and its sweet summertime smell of honey, in an entirely convincing little monologue. Mary is converted. Similarly, the garden, first seen as little more than brown grass and untamed, leafless rose stems, is converted itself. The labour of love that the children carry out is both inspiring and a lush, invigorating treat to read. As the roses are regenerated, so are the children.
These days, it is the children themselves that I find almost unbearably moving. Thirty years ago, I coolly agreed that Mary was – as she is so frequently described – sullen, rude and spoilt. Now it seems alarmingly obvious that she is as traumatised by grief as poor Colin is by neglect. These children are not having adventures away from the adults but despite them, and it’s heartbreaking.
A gripping adventure as well as a thematically rich look at Empire-era childhood, The Secret Garden is so much more than merely the sum of its parts. Just like its titular garden, each time you return you find a little something which had gone unnoticed on your last visit.
Buy The Secret Garden on Amazon or pop into your local bookshop.
Caroline O’Donoghue on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Not everyone likes Jane Eyre and I get that. It’s hard to invest in it as a feminist tale when the romantic hero has locked his wife in an attic and has attempted to simply wish her out of existence. But despite the more problematic elements of Jane Eyre, I think it’s easier to embrace it if you think of the “love story” as the one Jane has with herself. Yes, I know that sounds twee and very “New York is a main character in Sex And The City”, but hear me out.
Jane begins the novel despised by everyone. She’s hated by her adoptive mother, bullied by her siblings, pitied by the servants and abused by her boarding school. Everywhere Jane goes, people are perpetually frowning that she’s not pretty enough, or energetic enough, or tall enough. She is told by Blanche Ingram that governesses are “half of them detestable and the rest ridiculous, and all incubi”. And yet Jane likes herself. She has a steely sense of self-worth that, despite living in a world that’s against her, never manages to waver. Jane can sleep in a ditch for three days and almost starve to death, but she still never compromises her ideals. That’s a heroine worth rooting for, I think. She’s also – and no one gives her credit for this – incredibly funny. One of my favourite moments of the novel is when Mr Brocklehurst, the principal of Jane’s school, questions her on what hell is.
"And what is hell? Can you tell me that?"
"A pit full of fire."
"And should you like to fall into that pit, and to be burning there for ever?"
"What must you do to avoid it?"
I deliberated a moment: my answer, when it did come was objectionable: "I must keep in good health and not die.”
I’ve always like Jane Eyre, but I started to really love it when I reread it last summer, while I was working on my first book. My confidence was a bit low and I began to question whether I was wasting my time. Then, I realised: Jane Eyre is a workplace romance. I said it out loud, like a mantra: Jane Eyre is a workplace romance. Jane Eyre is a workplace romance. Because you know what? It is! It’s a literary classic about a woman feeling turned on at her job. And if you’re a woman who tries to create art about women, or who simply enjoys reading about women’s lives, Jane Eyre is an important book to be acquainted with. Because if you’re ever in doubt, or you’re ever made to feel like female stories are frivolous and light, remember Jane Eyre. Jane Eyre is a workplace romance. Use it to remind you that romances are important, and women are important, and no amount of literary negging will change that.
Buy Jane Eyre on Amazon or pop into your local bookshop
To find your classic read this summer, go to www.