Maybe you’ve never had the time, or perhaps studying some of them at school put you off, but there has never been a better chance to tackle the classics by the world’s greatest authors. With memorable characters, meaty themes and, most important of all, beautiful writing, there are plenty of reasons why these books have entranced generations. So discover for yourself the utter joy of being transported to another world…
By Miguel de Cervantes
If lockdown puts you in the mood to take some time out with the kind of plus-sized masterpiece that the everyday nine-to-five grind rarely leaves room for, where better to begin than with this 17th-century Spanish epic?
The first ever novel is about a down-at-heel country gent who, hopped up on tales of knightly derring-do, dubs himself Don Quixote and sets off a-roaming on a series of muddle-headed escapades with his loyal sidekick Sancho Panza.
A charming comic caper that doubles as a poignant case study in wild self-delusion.
By Daniel Defoe
There has been a spike of interest in Defoe’s startling 1722 novel A Journal Of The Plague Year, but if that seems just a little on the nose right now, you could do worse than take a few tips from Robinson Crusoe, English literature’s number one self-isolator.
Shipwrecked on a remote Caribbean island with only a dog and two cats for company, the Yorkshire sailor’s chatty, thoughtful reflections on morality, the meaning of life and the virtues of perseverance remain engaging and endearing.
Stick with it and there’s a high dose of drama, too, in the shape of cannibals and mutineers.
Pride And Prejudice
By Jane Austen
While a list such as this could rightly feature any or all of Austen’s six novels, Pride And Prejudice is undoubtedly the most iconic. This is a shrewd and sparkling comedy about the choices on offer to well-to-do young Englishwomen of the early 19th century. It’s the story of Elizabeth Bennet, a landowner’s daughter who shuns her family’s strictures on marrying for advantage in favour of a love match with the one and only Mr Darcy. Who also happens to be very wealthy with a stunning stately home…
It’s subtle, supremely readable and bloody funny to boot — just the tonic we need right now.
By Mary Shelley
Mary Shelley was miraculously still in her teens when she wrote this spine-tingling tale as her entry in a parlour game with the poets Lord Byron and her lover and future husband Percy Bysshe Shelley.
They competed to see who could concoct the scariest story.
It’s the cautionary tale of a young Swiss doctor, Victor Frankenstein, whose hunger to outdo the latest cutting-edge science gets catastrophically out of hand — as witnessed by an Arctic explorer, Robert Walton, who sees the result running amok in the wild.
All the meatiest questions about humanity and the limits of technological progress are asked in this, the first science- fiction novel.
By Emily Bronte
The only novel published by the most mythologised of the Bronte sisters, this Gothic melodrama shocked and baffled Victorian readers but has inspired cult-like devotion ever since — not to mention a chart-topping single by Kate Bush.
Named after the Yorkshire manor house at its heart, it’s a tangled tale turning on the incestuous passion between a gruff, brooding landlord, Heathcliff, and his foster sister Catherine, whose decision to marry for status, not love, sets off a thunderous chain reaction felt through the decades.
It’s an unruly cocktail of ghostly goings-on, savage violence and shivery romance.
By Gustave Flaubert
Published in France in 1856, this is the tragic story of the original desperate housewife, Emma, who lands herself in hot water after doing the dirty on her husband, a hapless country doctor who fails to live up to her Prince Charming ideals. Beautifully written, the book’s almost wicked genius lies in its coolly impassive narration, which leaves us unsure what Flaubert himself thinks about the characters (his refusal to pass explicit judgment on Emma landed him with a charge of obscenity).
Every time I read this novel I see it anew — it’s viciously satirical but also achingly tender.
With memorable characters, meaty themes and, most important of all, beautiful writing, there are plenty of reasons why these books have entranced generations. So discover for yourself the utter joy of being transported to another world
By Charles Dickens
While the heyday of Victorian serialisation meant that Dickens wrote any number of great novels perfect for whiling away these quarantined days, many of them (whisper it) do carry a fair bit of timber.
Sleeker than his usual fare is this 1861 rites-of-passage book about an orphan who finds himself within touching distance of his dream of becoming a gentleman, thanks to a windfall from an unexpected source that is not wholly welcome. Tonally wild, and full of light as well as brutal darkness, it’s a twisty tragicomedy that teaches you to reconsider what really matters in life.
Crime And PunishmenT
By Fyodor Dostoevsky
Published in Russian in 1866, this is the tale of impoverished former law student, Raskolnikov, who lives in St Petersburg.
He fools himself into thinking that he’s above the law when he reckons that he can solve his money worries, and maybe even do some good in the world, by murdering a predatory old pawnbroker.
Naturally the guilt-racked reality fails to live up to the plan in his head.
I’ll always remember the cold sweat in which I first read this darkly philosophical crime story about free will, redemption and God — I was utterly gripped by its dream-like ambience of mounting dread.
War And Peace
By Leo Tolstoy
Of all the big beasts that are more talked about than read, this one is perhaps the biggest. Set in Russia amid the Napoleonic Wars, and portraying everything from St Petersburg high society to the bloodshed of Borodino, it tells the story — among many others — of Pierre Bezukhov, an aristocrat’s illegitimate son, and Natasha, a count’s daughter. Packed with duels, high-stakes card games and elopements, it mixes scalding drama with essayistic digression, and is populated by characters who feel as real (and as maddening) as your own family.
If you weren’t inspired to try it when Andrew Davies’ BBC adaptation aired in 2016, now’s the time.
By George Eliot
Widely regarded as the finest English novel ever written, this rich social tapestry unfolds in the Midlands in the early 19th century. It’s pegged to the stories of a go-getting young doctor, Lydgate, and 19-year-old Dorothea Brooke, who is eager to use her inheritance to make a difference in the world but is stuck in a stifling marriage to a dull older man.
The almost impossibly wise narrative voice of Eliot (real name Mary Ann Evans) constantly pops up to remind us there’s another side to the story whenever she finds herself getting too cosy with any one character.
Tess Of The D’Urbervilles
by Thomas Hardy
This 1891 masterpiece follows a downtrodden milkmaid pressured by her peasant family to search for extra work following an accident that leaves them in danger of destitution.
When Tess falls in with a rich playboy, Alec, she gets the income she needs, but at a terrible cost — not least to her doomed relationship with another man who piously takes the view that she’s damaged goods.
Hotly disputed in its day, this stinging broadside against the double standards of Victorian morality is terrifically, almost horribly, dramatic.
Even just thinking about Tess’s fate feels too much to bear.
Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad
Conrad, who was born in Poland and wrote some of the greatest novels to be found in English, drew on his seafaring days for this morality tale published in 1900. It’s the confession of a sailor who decides to save himself rather than the hundreds of passengers below deck when his steamship starts letting in water. While the passengers are saved, it’s no thanks to him, and the guilt is ruinous. Emerging through a nest of narrative layers designed to complicate simplistic notions of truth, this is a provocative examination of shame, salvation and British identity at the height of the Empire.
In Search Of Lost Time
by Marcel Proust
This is made up of 3,000 pages, containing hundreds of characters and more than one million words — most of them written in bed in a cork-lined room. French writer Proust’s seven-volume mega-work (also known as Remembrance Of Things Past in C. K. Scott Moncrieff’s landmark translation) follows a narrator who, dunking his cake in a cup of tea, finds himself flooded with nostalgic memories of the ins and outs of aristocratic life in Belle Epoque France.Push past the slowish start and his reminiscences become an addiction you won’t want to shake, but if you get stuck, there’s always the 150-hour audiobook.
By Franz Kafka
Fancy something shorter?
Try Kafka’s 1915 story, perhaps the finest ever written, in which a travelling salesman, Gregor Samsa, wakes to find himself turned into a cockroach and shunned by his family.
While Samsa’s nightmarish fate can be read as a skin-crawlingly apt symbol of all manner of psychological ills, from sexual anxiety to wage-slave ennui, the story’s timeless brilliance comes down to Kafka’s decision to play an entirely straight bat. The scenario, thrillingly alive on its own terms, can bear almost any allegorical interpretation but doesn’t need one. Blackly funny, tragically moving: it’s perfect.
By James Joyce
The best way to think of Joyce’s playful but daunting magnum opus, set over a summer’s day in 1904, is to see it as a pick’n’mix of freewheeling exercises in style. It’s the story of two blokes taking a stroll around Dublin.