Imagine Pride and Prejudice, but the grounds at Pemberley are immersed in smog, Elizabeth Bennett’s gown is covered in soot, and Fitzwilliam Darcy actually has to work for a living. The pride and the prejudice are still rampant, the protagonist is a feisty female, and the plot features two rejected proposals — but aside from these resemblances, North and South is an altogether much grittier tale. The story follows heroine Margaret Hale as she adjusts to her new life in the fictional Northern town of Milton and illuminates the stark contrast between the rural, genteel South and progressive, industrial North. As tensions between worker unions and factory owners rise, Margaret must balance her natural compassion for the people of Milton with a series of her own, personal crises. A fast-paced story of bravery and resilience, its themes continue to resonate today as a tale of the original North-South divide.
The Gothic genre can be great, but if you’re beginning to tire of defenceless heroines finding themselves trapped within archaic castles in foreign lands, give William Godwin’s original take on the genre, Caleb Williams, a read. Caleb Williams is hired as a servant to the respectable squire Fernando Falkland but soon discovers a terrible secret from his past. In fear that Caleb will expose him, Falkland embarks upon a journey of persecution that sees Caleb reinvented as a villainous rogue wanted for several heinous crimes and consequently forced to take cover from the omnipotent clutches of the law. Though highly political, the novel is still as dark and sinister as we might expect from a traditionally Gothic novel such as Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, featuring plenty of gore, doses of tyranny, madness, illness, and an atmosphere frightfully reminiscent of a nightmare from which there is no escape.
‘There were narcissi from the banks of rushing rivers and peonies from the high meadows growing on his chest, poking out through his open collar.’ This is just one of the whimsical descriptions featured in Salman Rushdie’s criminally underrated novel Shalimar the Clown. It begins with a cold-blooded assassination, the climatic result of a catastrophic love story, interwoven with revenge, passion, civil war and the rise of religious extremism in India. As with Midnight’s Children, India is the jewel in the crown of Rushdie’s narrative; much of the plot unfurls itself in Kashmir, which is brought to life so vividly that you are liable to find yourself compelled to scuttle off to India, if you aren’t perturbed by the equally striking portrayals of the brutality of the region’s civil war. Rushdie’s writing is intelligent and multifaceted, and yet the plot is never lost in this sea of literary brilliance — it simply must be read.
Unlike the disturbing ghost story The Turn of the Screw, Henry James’ novella In the Cage is rooted firmly within social reality, as opposed to supernatural subject matter. The novella recounts the life of an unnamed female protagonist working as a telegraphist, who spices up her humdrum existence by concerning herself with the telegraphic exchanges between two lovers who are participating in a scandalous affair. She becomes obsessed with meddling in their business and consequently starts to interpret events in a purely fabricated manner, soon finding herself entrapped in a deluded fantasy. In the same way one might argue that the social network is not particularly ‘social’ at all, James highlights the potential pitfalls of the telecommunications network by presenting it as a system that impedes rather than facilitates the protagonist’s social behaviour, making the novella a rather significant read, even today.
In Heart of Darkness, one European ivory baron has established himself as the despotic ruler of the indigenous people of the Congo; in She, or to use her full title, She who must be obeyed, a beautiful, immortal femme fatale holds the same authority. Two Englishmen investigate an ancient family legend, which brings them into the path of She, an all-powerful queen that has been awaiting the return of her lost lover for over two millennia. With a wrath that makes grown men tremble, and a beauty so astounding as to drive them insane with desire, She is a formidable match for any travelling Englishman. Will her diabolical passions prevail, or will her reign of terror reach its end? H. Rider Haggard’s tale has everything a good adventure book needs — a foreign land, a shipwreck, a mysterious legend, a love triangle, cannibals, and a spot of hocus-pocus.
Given the recent craze for all things Gatsby, you may have had your fill of the passions and parties of New York’s Jazz Age elite; if so, give Ethan Frome a read — it has all the frustrated hopes and tragic love affairs of The House of Mirth but in a slightly more original setting. A tale of broken dreams and stifled ambitions, this novella follows the story of Ethan Frome, a man trapped in the declining New England town of Starkfield with his sickly, contemptuous wife and crumbling lumber business. The only ray of light in his existence is his wife’s vibrant cousin and carer, Mattie — but his affections, unhappily, have heartbreaking and dramatic consequences. The tale is exquisitely written and the imagery unparalleled. It is a stunning read that will not only vividly transport you to a different era but is guaranteed to pull at your heartstrings.
Legend has it that Bram Stoker and Richard Marsh arranged a bet to see who could write the most popular unearthly tale. Although Marsh’s novel, The Beetle, has since fallen into obscurity, it was actually, at the beginning, more popular than the tale of Stoker’s bloodsucking aristocrat — both were published in 1897. A potential reason for its decrease in popularity may be its blatant portrayal of Victorian xenophobia, but this aside, it is a fascinating read. A deadly shape-shifting creature lurks undercover in London, seeking revenge upon a man who, in his youth, discovered the bloodcurdling practices of a secret Egyptian cult. Sometimes taking the form of an enormous beetle and others a hideous, androgynous human with mesmeric powers, it is a beast that shows its victims no mercy. Just imagine if the concept of the monstrous literary beetle had caught on — Twilight would have been quite a different story!
The eerie, white figure of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White is so iconic that it has even had the Lloyd-Webber West End musical treatment. The novel is often hailed as an archetype of sensation fiction, but Collins wrote much more than this sole smash hit. Heart and Science takes as its subject the vivisection controversy that arose in the 19th century, which inspired many authors to express their opinions about its brutal processes. The issue simmers on a low heat throughout the novel, which for the most part comprises of your typical sensational plot — a malicious aunt strives to get her hands on the fortune of her beautiful but defenceless niece, Carmina, by any means necessary. As Carmina’s escape routes are gradually surgically removed, the vivisection question then comes to a boil and bubbles over the brim as the two plotlines merge, and Carmina’s life hangs in the balance in a nail-biting finale.