Adults can still enjoy a great classic and learn from the characters by losing themselves in a story within a time and place far from here.
I am not one of those people who has read every classic ever written. I read slowly, so a thick, heady tome is a significant commitment for me. When I was young, my mother read many classics aloud to me. I still remember sitting on the rug, listening to Alice Through the Looking Glass, Black Beauty, and Tom Sawyer. As an adult, however, it’s easier to forget my novel on my bedside table for long periods of time as I run to and from work and try to maintain something resembling a social life.
This is why, when I choose a novel, I don’t do so willy-nilly. My time is precious and books are endless: I need only read the best. When I look for a new book (especially a new old book!), I try to find books with the same qualities I first fell in love with from the rug in my childhood home. Great characters you could root for, excellent writing, solid plot and something simmering below the surface that stirs up a mysterious desire for another chapter. When I consider these qualities, five classics I’ve enjoyed as an adult come to mind.
1. The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery
Most of you know Montgomery’s name from the cover of your old copy of Anne of Green Gables. I am personally taking the scenic route through the life of Anne-with-an-E, currently reading Anne of Ingleside. I have also enjoyed The Story Girl and Jane of Lantern Hill. However, The Blue Castle was not one I had often heard Montgomery fans speak of, so I was thrilled to launch into it with no expectations or “spoilers.”
Perhaps it was the fact that The Blue Castle focuses on a twenty-something “spinster” such as myself, or Montgomery’s unmistakable voice, but this book quickly became a personal favorite. Valancy Stirling lives a drab, stifled life in an ugly house with a domineering mother and bitter aunt. Every day she does exactly what is expected of her, but it brings no joy or improvement to her world. One day, Valancy receives a letter from her doctor and the news is bad. Keeping the report to herself, she decides that very day to start doing and saying exactly as she chooses. What she doesn’t expect, however, is the rippling effects of her actions throughout her entire community.
2. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
Against all my better judgment, I actually watched the BBC miniseries before I ever read North and South, but that didn’t dampen it a smidgen. Margaret is a country girl and the only child of an aging and often unwell mother and an eccentric, ex-parson. Margaret has always been happy in their idyllic village until her father decides to leave the ministry and seek employment as a tutor in the bustling, industrial city of Milton.
Uprooted and alone, Margaret tries her best to make friends in this foreign place but is met with much resistance by the skeptical, downtrodden people there. Though business is generally bad, her father does manage to secure one regular tutee, a young and handsome Mr. Thornton who runs one of the biggest and most successful cotton mills in the area. Margaret and Thornton immediately butt heads over his work and his treatment of his employees. This is a story about love, forgiveness, courage, justice and ultimately, learning to have the humility it takes to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
This is a story about love, forgiveness, courage, justice and ultimately, learning to have the humility it takes to see the world through someone else’s eyes.
3. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
A few years ago I met a dear old friend at a local coffee shop (the kind with old couches and for-sale artwork everywhere). When I approached her, I interrupted her reading. “Caroline,” she said, “you have to read this. It reminds me so much of you!”
This was my introduction to Dodie Smith, a great English author, and playwright of the twentieth century. Most famous, perhaps, for writing The Hundred and One Dalmatians, Dodie also wrote for adults.
I Capture the Castle was her first published novel, releasing in 1949, and is a “coming of age” story in the classic sense. Written from the perspective of teenage Cassandra, this book tells the story of an unusual English family who lives in the ruins of an old castle. The father is a failed author who’s one big, bestseller has been followed by years on years of writer’s block. The stepmother is an eccentric artist and model. The eldest daughter, Rose, is the beauty of the family. Cassandra is the writer, constantly journaling about their struggles to make ends meet and entertain themselves in their secluded home.
Enter two dashing young men, the chance at a fortune, several bouts of unrequited love, a freezing midnight swim and lots and lots of green dye and you have a rollicking, though heartfelt story about growing up, getting your heart broken, keeping your family together and believing in your own dignity. The best part? Dodie’s writing voice, through young Cassandra.
4. Good Wives by Louisa May Alcott
After working as a nurse during the civil war, Alcott seriously pursued publication but her efforts were often met with rejection. When someone suggested she write a book for girls, she scoffed at them. She herself had been a tomboy…what could she possibly write for girls? So she did what many authors have done before: wrote a novel inspired by her own life. The life of a tomboy, Jo March.
Little Women was such an instant hit, fans were writing Alcott scores of letters, asking for a sequel. Herein Good Wives was born. Often packaged as part two of Little Women, Good Wives was originally published as a separate novel. Beginning when the first of the four March sisters has been wed, we meet a mature Marmee, happily married Meg and John, independent Jo, faithful Beth and talented Amy back at their beloved Orchard House. This book does not disappoint from any angle, I wish I could sit down and read it all over again as I type! Love, loss, effort, failure, hope, fear, courage–it’s all there. This is a true classic, for good reason. Don’t miss it.
5. Dear Enemy by Jean Webster
Another sequel, this one by an all-time favorite writer, Jean Webster. Webster is best-known for Daddy Long Legs, a novel which has been turned into a play, multiple movies including the Fred Astaire musical of the same name and was the inspiration for Katherine Reay’s Dear Mr. Knightley. Daddy-Long-Legs is the account of a bright, young orphan, Judy, who is sent to college by a wealthy sponsor. At college, she rooms with the well-to-do and beautiful Sallie McBride. With a shocking turn of events, Sallie winds up moving to Judy’s old home and taking responsibility for the 113 children who occupy it.
Following the pattern set by the first book, Dear Enemy is comprised entirely of letters, all written by Sallie. Most of these letters are sent to her “enemy,” the good-hearted but difficult Scotch doctor who serves the residents of the orphanage. Engaging right from the get-go, if I used one word to describe this little novel, it would be “witty.” It seems the early 1900’s produced some of the smartest, funniest books to date. Yet there is also a fair share of seriousness, and sweet lessons to be learned by–and from–children.
I believe grown-ups should read fun books, too. What is the “funnest” book you’ve had the pleasure of reading recently?
May you walk in His sweet light,
Caroline Rose Kraft
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Caroline Rose Kraft started blogging as a teen in 2007 as an outlet for her wonderful but crazy life. She’s a homeschool grad, sister to eight, passionate advocate for educated adoption and author and illustrator of Always Plenty. She blogs at carolinerosekraft.com and also gladly contributes to kindredgrace.com on a regular basis. Caroline lives at a place called Eyrie Park in Central Texas.