Posted by: zhiv | May 6, 2010

Summer Reading Ideas: Victorian Literature and the Novel

I bought a nice copy of The Mill on the Floss for my daughter yesterday. She’s now an official English major, and she has made a lot of progress in her literary studies over just a few short months. The first part of last summer was kind of a disaster, when she worked on a movie in Boston right after school let out, and she didn’t come home until July. We try to learn from our mistakes, and this year she’ll be home before Memorial Day, rapidly approaching. She’s figuring out her job, and she’s already said she wants help making a reading list for the summer, and all she’s going to do over the summer is read, because none of her friends are going to be back home. This sounds great to me of course, but I highly doubt that it’s going to happen. She does manage to power through books, however, and her motivation seems solid. I tried to get her psyched up about Victorian and 19th Century fiction in the past, and I put copies of Adam Bede and Oliver Twist and other Dickens and Madame Bovary and all sorts of other books in front of her, but she wasn’t ready. She’s read Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf and Tolstoy and Russians and South African and so much else, certainly an impressive amount. Since I started blogging and as my sense of its many virtues has evolved, I have a much better idea of the value of keeping track of things, and we should work on a list of what’s she read. But for now I want to consider the reading list for this summer, and write about Mill on the Floss and George Eliot.

I tried to make the list semi-manageable, even though it’s ridiculous, and the long version is a list of possible ideas, and my strategy is to mix in shorter books with a sprinkling of the longer essential classics. The idea is to find books that you might read in a week, or even a bit quicker if you have the time, and then there are the longer books that really do take awhile. I suppose one way to break it down is to set up a daily page count goal, and I wonder what would be appropriate. 50 pages is manageable is you’re working, like I do, and 150 pages every day seems like a lot. This new copy of Mill on the Floss, for instance, which I have in my shorter books category, is 520 pages. So I would read it in 10 days, but one could get through it in four days with a strong effort. 100 pages a day seems like a good number at least to set things up, though it would be hard to sustain of course, but it’s not bad if you’re motivated and reading good books. So I’ll go through my list and talk about backgrounds and reasons along the way.

The first book is Wuthering Heights. She read Jane Eyre early in high school and liked it well enough I think, but she was young and she’ll like it better the next time. I was knocked out by Wuthering Heights when I read it very early in my career as an English major and I’ve always had a special affection for it, though I’m not sure I’d feel the same way now. And I think I might have been lucky not to have read Jane Eyre first. It’s surprising that she hasn’t read it yet, and that’s why it’s at the top of the list, by mutual suggestion. I found a good clean copy of this the other day too; the only copy I had was old and beat up, and not the one I read myself long ago.

Next is The Mill on the Floss. I want to write about this more, below, but here I’ll note that part of the motivation for this entire effort is that she read Middlemarch last month for school, and she loved it. I see that I slipped in Dorian Gray next, which surprises me a bit, but it must be because it’s short. And it’s a late 19th century text, so it should serve as something like an antidote after the first two, broadening the perspective. And Wilde is a great writer and a genius and fun at the same time–she may be reading one of his plays right now for Brit Lit. There’s a Wilde essay on criticism that was originally called The Fine Art of Doing Nothing that I’ve been meaning to read (again, perhaps–might have read it before). As I said in my note to her:

The trick is to find short ones, that you’ll want to move through quickly, in a few days. WH should go really fast. I think you’ll like Mill on the Floss better than Adam Bede, and it will be more fun and easier and go more quickly. Dorian Gray and Oliver Twist could be really quick too, and then you’d have all of those under your belt right away.

So yes, the next book is Oliver Twist. She’s getting up to speed on Dickens and seems to get it now, and I have some Dickens interests of my own these days. She read Great Expectations twice, first on her own last summer and then for a class in the fall. My own reading of Oliver Twist wasn’t too long after the Wuthering Heights experience, and i remember those days very happily. The musical version, Oliver, had been expertly aimed at my childhood, unavoidably making a strong impression and probably marking the path towards Victorian Studies (“consider yourself…”)–that old insidious devil Dickens, the maestro of popular culture. Reading the text of Oliver Twist after such a strong attachment was another revelation of the power of literature and the novel.

By now we should be warmed up and ready for an important book. After creating an impossibly long list I went back and culled what I would call the Essentials. These are novels that she hasn’t read yet that are crucial, in all sorts of different ways. I’ve divided the list into Essentials and Incidentals. Dorian Gray and Oliver Twist are incidentals. Wuthering Heights and Mill on the Floss are, I guess, semi-essentials: you have to read WHeights after reading Jane Eyre, or vice-versa, to get the Bronte experience; once you’ve read Middlemarch and are hooked on George elito, you want to read Mill. Mill could be classed as an incidental, I suppose, but it’s in a different category than Oliver Twist is in the Dickens section. You’d want to read David Copperfield and Bleak House, I would think, if all you’ve read is Great Expectations, but I didn’t think it was possible to sneak one of those onto the list, especially not up front. I’m thinking I could start over and have categories I, II, III, and IV, Roman style, but enough, for now, with dissection and process, even if it’s fun: the goal is just to read the books.

Next comes Madame Bovary, which is obviously an essential. I think she took a brief swipe at it last summer, but it didn’t take (her big book last summer was Infinite Jest, which she lugged around, all too appropriately, while she was bitter and miserable working on the movie set. That goes for me too, as I read the first 50 pages of MB again last summer. And I really want to reread it, sooner than later, even though I am horrible at rereading books and never seem to be able to do it. Some people are great at it; I’m not. Madame Bovary seemed very important after reading Richard Yates in 08 and Chekhov at the beginning of 09, so it’s somewhere on my own list, and it’s up high on hers, definitely an essential.

I’ll jump ahead here, as I did in my email to her and for the sake of long lost brevity, and run through the Essentials list: it’s Wuthering Heights, Madame Bovary, Vanity Fair, Mill on the Floss, and Tom Jones. That’s a strong, ambitious summer reading list by any account, no? I believe I only got to it by doing the longer list first, and all of these stood out, for obvious reasons. In my longer list I snuck The Warded in there between MBovary and Vanity Fair, just to take a break with a 2- or 3-day book, and to introduce Trollope and set up Barchester Towers for later. First I want to talk about Thackeray and Vanity Fair. But that’s its own set of posts.

Here are the possibilities I came up with, the list of ideas. What would you put on the Summer Reading List?

Wuthering Heights
Mill on the Floss
Dorian Gray
Oliver Twist
Madame Bovary
The Warden
Vanity Fair
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Joseph Andrews
Tess of the Durbervilles
The Red and the Black
Portrait of a Lady
Henry Esmond
Pere Goriot
The Egoist
Tom Jones
Tale of Two Cities
Adam Bede
Bleak House
Barchester Towers

Life of Johnson

Proust: Swann’s Way



  1. Wow, is she preparing for her MA orals? That’s some list.

    Whatever the reason, I recommend replacing the unrespected Ivanhoe with either Waverley or The Heart of Midlothian.

    The Scottish novels get more scholarly attention, and, says me, are better.

    I’d hate to add to the list, but, if you want to fill out the French: Chateaubriand (Atala, short), Hugo, Zola, and Maupassant (“Boule de Suif,” short) should be there.

    And thinking in terms of a “what’s hot” MA exam, if she hasn’t read this stuff, something Gothic and something “sensational,” like Collins or Braddon. And I forgot Frankenstein! Do Kim and Lewis Carroll already have check marks next to them?

  2. I was going to say AUSTEN!! but then i saw your daughter has read her already. Definitely yes to AR’s recommendation of Frankenstein. How about the Russians? Crime and Punishment? What about Tristram Shandy?

  3. You guys are great. The zhiv homies.

    As I was typing this to post it I realized even more strongly that it doesn’t make sense when you don’t know what she’s already read. I can do a follow-up, which would be pretty quick.

    She’s read Frankenstein. She’s got a lot of things covered, including Kim and Lewis Carroll, for instance, and from my point of view is well ahead of the game. I’ll talk about the Scott later. But it’s interesting that she’s just starting on some of this stuff. And obviously the great thing is that she really likes it. Middlemarch went really well.

    I actually want to post my son’s (10th grade) paper on Frankenstein, btw, which kind of stunned us: it’s hard to believe he didn’t steal it from somewhere.

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