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"A View of Pulteney Bridge" by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery  (Bath) Collection

“A View of Pulteney Bridge” by William Noble Hardwick from the Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

Any author owes a big debt to their readers. Not just because they’ve chosen their book amongst so many others, but because they have spent time reading it. There are so many competing forms of more “instant” entertainment now, and time is precious.  The cover and blurb and opening page may be what initially appeals, but a writer has to earn their readers’  time by creating characters that they will care about and by devising a plot that will make them want to keep turning the pages.

But the historical novel, perhaps like science fiction, demands something more. It requires the reader to suspend their disbelief, to ignore everything around them, and to imagine that they are living in another place, another time. For a writer that’s where the research comes in. A writer has to understand what life was like in another time – fashions, transport, medicine, work, education, politics, crime and a host of other things. But as a novelist they also have to ensure that they include just the right amount of historical detail in the novel – Too little and it doesn’t feel real – Too much and it becomes a history lecture. It’s a difficult balance, particularly as reader-tastes differ.

What I love about historical novels is that they can help us challenge perceptions of the past, to better understand the lives of “ordinary” people and what it might have been like to have lived in another time. History often, seems to emphasise how different people were to us in the past, as in the famous opening line from L. P. Hartley’s 1953 novel, “The Go Between”

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.”

Yet it’s a poor traveller who visits a foreign country and has no interest in their culture. In historical novels you have to acknowledge those differences of culture, science, technology, education, religion, economics and all the other external influences that make us different. But while those “differences” cannot be ignored, neither should they be allowed to make caricatures out of characters. The author needs to make the culture of the past understandable and believable if the reader is to engage with it in their imagination.

The Victorian era particularly appeals to me because we know so much about it and because, perhaps more than any other era it mirrors our modern world. It was an era of great change and the first age of consumerism. The Industrial Revolution was in some ways the forerunner of our own Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. And it was the age of popular novels, which allow us, perhaps for the first time a real glimpse into the lives of “ordinary” people.

Perhaps more importantly the Victorian Era was the time when the struggle really began for democracy and basic human rights. Universal suffrage, equality under the law, safe working conditions, decent housing, education , basic sanitation and clean drinking water were not granted through the benevolence of governments – each was fought for over many years and usually stubbornly resisted by the powers to be. It is a struggle which is just beginning in many parts of the world as the process of  industrialision takes hold. It is a struggle which never seems to end. These things which many now take for granted, shape who we are, yet they were each fought for by people who we sometimes imagine to be very different to ourselves. It’s perhaps strange to think that the very changes they fought for and brought about now make them seem so very different to us.

My novel, “Avon Street” is set in Bath in 1850.  It’s a city whose image is defined even today by the novels of Jane Austen, and one of the reasons I wrote the book was to challenge (much as I love Austen’s writing) the romanticisation of the past.  I wanted to explore the darker side of the city that Jane Austen only ever hinted at – to go behind the Georgian facades – to show the streets of a city, where wealth and elegance were never far from poverty and squalor. To me, history is like a detective story. We have to sweep aside the images and pre-conceptions to truly understand the people of the past. And perhaps then we can better understand this foreign country, that we all came from.

(This piece is based on a post originally written for, and kindly hosted by Carol Hedges on her blog  on 5th April 2013.)

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Ball at The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath by Thomas Rowlandson

Formal Ball at The Upper Assembly Rooms in Bath  – Painting by Thomas Rowlandson from  Victoria Art Gallery (Bath) Collection

In 1811 King George III was deemed unfit to rule and his son, the Prince Regent, ruled in his place. On his father’s death in 1820, the Prince was crowned King George IV. Coincidentally, Jane Austen’s novels were all published during the Regency period, between 1811 and 1818 .

So popular and enduring is Austen as an author, and so frequently have her novels been adopted for the screen that the images she created have now come to define the Regency era. Yet there is a danger that we begin to accept fiction as fact, to confuse the lives of her heroines with her own life, to interpret the lives of the few, as being the same as the lives of the many. And in that process there is also the risk that we lose sight of her skill and imagination as a writer. She was without doubt a keen observer, but the settings and people she describes, come as much from her imagination as from what she saw or experienced.

Jane chose to set two of her novels, “Northanger Abbey” and “Persuasion” in Bath. She lived in the city between 1801 and 1806 and it’s still possible to retrace her footsteps, to see some of what she saw. The pattern of roads is largely unchanged in the older part of the city. Many of the places she would have frequented are still there; The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, the Guildhall, and Sydney Gardens, to name but a few. It is easy to imagine these places as she depicts them in her novels, yet it is almost impossible to separate fact from fiction. For example, in “Northanger Abbey” we read;

 “They arrived in Bath. Catherine was all eager delight; – her eyes were here, there, everywhere, as they approached its fine and striking environs, and afterwards drove through those streets which conducted them to the hotel. She was come to be happy, and she felt happy already.”

Yet Jane also records in a letter to her sister, Cassandra, on May 5th 1801, her own “first impression” of the city;

 “The first view of Bath in fine weather does not answer my expectations; I think I see more distinctly through rain. The sun was got behind everything, and the appearance of the place from the top of Kingsdown was all vapour, shadow, smoke, and confusion.”

Again in “Northanger Abbey” she describes a formal ball held in the Upper Assembly Rooms;

“The season was full, the room crowded, and the two ladies squeezed in as well as they could. As for Mr Allen, he repaired directly to the card-room, and left them to enjoy a mob by themselves. With more care for the safety of her new gown than for the comfort of her protégé, Mrs Allen made her way through the throng of men by the door, as swiftly as the necessary caution would allow; Catherine, however, kept close at her side, and linked her arm too firmly within her friend’s to be torn asunder by any common effort of a struggling assembly.”

Yet her own experience was somewhat different, as she reports in letter to her sister on May 12th 1801;

“By nine o’clock my uncle, aunt, and I entered the rooms, and linked Miss Winstone on to us. Before tea it was rather a dull affair; but then the before tea did not last long, for there was only one dance, danced by four couple. Think of four couple, surrounded by about an hundred people, dancing in the Upper Rooms at Bath.

After tea we cheered up; the breaking up of private parties sent some scores more to the ball, and though it was shockingly and inhumanly thin for this place, there were people enough, I suppose, to have made five or six very pretty Basingstoke assemblies.”

They say you should write about what you know and Jane Austen certainly knew about people, but was her life really comparable to those of her heroines?  True, she attended dinner parties, suppers, formal balls and had some insight into high-society.  Yet that society was very stratified with rigid conventions and social etiquette. Those rules defined who was on a level with whom, and Jane was certainly not part of its upper echelons.  Though she was undoubtedly part of “Society” in truth she was fairly low down in the “pecking order.” Her Uncle and Aunt were wealthy and lived in the Paragon. They might have provided her with opportunities to glimpse their way of life, but they do not seem to have been over-generous to Jane or her family.

When Jane’s family moved to Bath they leased a house at 4, Sydney Place (now luxury apartments). It was a fine house in a good area, near the popular Sydney Gardens, but it was not a prestigious address in comparison with other parts of the city. And when the lease ended they moved to a house in Green Park Buildings. This was an area the family had dismissed when they first moved to the city and it’s easy to see why from Jane’s description;

“Our views on G. P. (Green Park) Buildings seem all at an end; the observation of the damps still remaining in the offices of an house which has been only vacated a week, with reports of discontented families and putrid fevers, has given the coup de grace. We have now nothing in view. When you arrive, we will at least have the pleasure of examining some of these putrefying houses again; they are so very desirable in size and situation, that there is some satisfaction in spending ten minutes within them.”

Before leaving Bath the Austen family also lived for a while in 25, Gay Street. (The Jane Austen Centre is nearby at 40 Gay Street). It was a “good address” but by then, after the death of Jane’s father, they were reduced to “taking rooms” as boarders, rather than occupying a house as owners or tenants. But by then the family were largely dependent on the charity of relatives.

It’s obvious too that Jane was well aware of the plight of the genteel poor. In “Persuasion” Sir Walter Elliot refers to Westgate Buildings as,

“Everything that revolts other people, low company, paltry rooms, foul air, disgusting associations.”

Westgate Buildings was by no means the worst of streets but it was situated on the border of the Avon Street slum area.  My own novel Avon Street  has an opening scene in Westgate Buildings and explores the darker aspects of the City.

Opinion is divided on whether or not Jane Austen actually liked Bath, but she certainly knew how to use it as a setting. Jane Austen created an image of Regency life which still survives today. That is a testament to her imagination and skill as a writer.  She chose to depict a way of life in her novels that did not always reflect her own everyday experience. Indeed it was not representative of the lives of most, yet it pleased her readers then, and still pleases many more readers today.

Bath is a beautiful city and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many of the places Jane Austen visited are still there and remain largely unchanged – The Royal Crescent, The Circus, Queen Square, Milsom Street, Pulteney Bridge, the Upper Assembly Rooms, the Pump Rooms, the Guildhall, and Sydney Gardens, to name but a few. And it is still possible to retrace her footsteps and imagine the City she depicts in her novels. But it’s also worth imagining what life was really like for a country girl of limited means in a bustling city, where appearance was everything.

Much of this piece was first hosted at the “Jane Austen’s World” Website on September 8th 2012.

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Like our own era, the Victorian age was a time of great change. For some it was an age of  prosperity, for others it was an age of desperation. This was the first age of consumerism and the Industrial Revolution was in many ways the forerunner of our own Technological Revolution. New discoveries and inventions revolutionised manufacturing processes. Railways and steamships made travel faster and cheaper, rapidly shrinking the world. Mass production and increased international trade made more and more products available and affordable for those who could pay.  And with the growth in industry and trade, the middle classes grew in number and wealth, and wanted to buy as much as possible of what was on offer.

These first lines from “A Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens are certainly amongst the best openings to a novel ever written. But not only do they set the tone and atmosphere of the book and give a flavour of what is to come, they also capture a taste of the challenges and uncertainties of the Victorian era.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

While the Wealthy and the new Middle Classes prospered in the Victorian era, the Working Class did not.  Work, whether in factories, sweat-shops and mines was invariably dirty and dangerous; hours were long and poorly paid. Children had to work, in order for families to survive, and working conditions were often worse for children than they were for their parents. Towns and cities grew quickly to house the workers, but much of the housing was poor quality and overcrowded. Vast slum areas sprung up, putting pressures on water supplies and the disposal of waste. Coal fires and factories filled the air with smoke and other pollutants. The reaction to living conditions and the gap between the haves and have-nots generated rebellion  in many parts of Europe, as people fought for basic human rights in bloody revolutions. In Britain any signs of revolution were ruthlessly suppressed.

Drunkenness was common amongst the working poor, as alcohol was one of the few affordable escapes from hard lives. It was seen by the better off as a reason for poverty, rather than a symptom. Meanwhile opium and a range of other drugs were used by brewers to strengthen beer while keeping down costs. Drugs were also readily available in Victorian times for the better-off. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes injects cocaine when there are no stimulating cases to occupy his mind, much to the disapproval of Dr Watson. Opium dens also feature in Dickens’ “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Yet the real drugs “problem” in Victorian times was not with the illicit drugs that were largely frowned upon, but the propriety medicines that were consumed in great quantities, but little spoken of. Numerous popular household remedies and tonics contained substantial amounts of opium and yet could be bought over the counter. These included “Dr Collis Browne’s Chlorodyne” a general nerve tonic, “Dover’s Powder” used to treat a wide variety of common complaints and “Godfrey’s Cordial” which was commonly given to children and infants to “help” them sleep – and of course the ever popular, “laudanum.”

Nowhere were these contradictions in Society more obvious than in the Morality of the Victorians. They say the Victorians invented Childhood, treating the child as someone who needed to be protected and nurtured, and yet children as young as five were working in mines and factories, quite legally, during much of Queen Victoria’s long reign. Women too, in the middle-class household were regarded almost as saints, “protected” from anything that might offend or morally corrupt. Yet they were often little more than prisoners in their own homes with few freedoms in terms of what they could own, or how they could behave; while  outside the home, prostitution and pornography were rife.

Great play is made of the philanthropy of the Victorians and the fine public buildings often financed from private fortunes; and indeed there were many genuine philanthropists. Yet this philanthropy also masks in some ways the incredible wealth-divide between the haves and have-nots and the terrible working and living conditions of the vast majority of the population. Yet gradually awareness of the plight of the poor spread. Not least of the factors in this growing awareness was the writing of Charles Dickens. Dickens’ novels had an undoubted impact on Victorian society by giving faces and voices to the poor and proclaiming their humanity. He perhaps more than any other writer changed his world and helped shape the future.

Over the course of Victoria’s reign Britain changed; the right to vote was extended and with greater democracy came improvements in working conditions, housing and education. Yet it leaves me wondering how much of this was down to “Victorian Values” as opposed to the long and sometimes bloody struggle for the basic human rights, that we now sometimes take for granted. We are now in the midst of a Technological Revolution, a new age of consumerism. the world is shrinking again as communication and transport get ever faster. And yet looking around that shrinking world it’s obvious that many millions are going through the worst ravages of the Victorian Industrial Revolution. The opening line of “A Tale of Two Cities” remains as relevant now as it was when it was written.

Much of this post was hosted on the FLY HIGH website on 26th June 2012, but I thought I’d post it here too. In writing my first novel, “Avon Street,” I have tried to bring the Victorian era to life, with all its contradictions and its similarities to modern life. “Avon Street” takes the reader on a journey behind the fine Georgian facades of Bath to expose the darker side of the city.

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The demands a writer makes on a reader are quite incredible. Embarking on a new novel the reader is expected to suspend their own life, to ignore their surroundings, and to use their imagination to enter the writer’s imaginary world – and the world of the novel is constructed entirely of words.

Every sight, sound, touch, smell, or taste, is entirely imaginary. Each emotion the reader feels is triggered (or not) by imagined experiences. Every character is a figment of the writer’s imagination. There are no actors, sound-track, special effects, atmospheric lighting, or carefully directed camera work to assist them, simply words arranged on a page. And the reader has to translate those words into moving pictures and see them from a new perspective, to empathise with the characters, to care about what might happen to them, and to react to what does.

Yet no two readers will see that imagined world in quite the same way. They will often see it differently than the writer intended, bringing their own perspectives and expectations and experiences to bear. And while it’s naturally exciting to see my book published,  I have also come to realise that the world of “Avon Street,” that I spent so long creating is no longer mine. Now the book is out there I have no say in how it should be read, or what people should think of my characters, or their stories, or my ability to convey them.

The use of plot, sub-plot, pace, characterisation, dialogue, settings, atmosphere, style, and use of language are all finalised now. They are set in print and cannot be changed. Whether I have got the balance is right is for the reader to judge. I just hope that those who read it, enjoy it; and that the world of “Avon Street”  and its inhabitants feels real, and stays with it’s readers, at least for a while.

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It hardly needs saying that many people do judge a book by its cover, particularly nowadays. But unless the author is well known, their book is likely to be marketed as belonging to a particular genre or category of fiction, rather than as an individual novel. As a consequence, the chances are that the cover will be very similar to lots of others in that particular genre.

So the potential reader turns to the back cover in search of recommendations. But again, unless the writer is an established name they are unlikely to attract reviews and recommendations from other well-known writers or the mainstream media.  And the blurb will often do little other than to confirm that the book fits neatly again with what is expected of the genre.

So the reader thumbs through the book to get an idea of whether they like the style of writing. Some readers even have a particular page number that they turn to and read. But however a reader chooses a book they will almost certainly read the opening line.

These are a dozen of my favourite opening lines of novels – Not only because they draw you in to reading the book, but also because they manage to give a strong flavour of what is to come. There are of course many more  – and long before Creative Writing Courses and the boom in Marketing and Promotion, the Great Writers of the past recognised the power of the opening line.

  1. “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.” – Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813)
  2. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”  Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
  3. “Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.”
    -George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872)
  4. “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” – Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
  5. “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” – George Orwell, 1984 (1949)
  6. “Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.” – Franz Kafka, The Trial (1925)
  7. “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.” – J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye (1951)
  8. “A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.” – Graham Greene, The End of the Affair (1951)
  9. “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
  10. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” – Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)
  11. “All this happened, more or less.” – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  12. “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” – Iain M. Banks, The Crow Road (1992)

The opening line of my own novel, “Avon Street” is – “Thomas Hunt left his home in the early hours of that February morning in 1850 and made his way through the maze of Avon Street alleyways.” -perhaps not up there with greats, but I hope it draws some readers in and gives them a taste of what is to come.

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“All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand. For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one’s own personality.”

George Orwell

It sounds a little harsh, but anyone who writes will recognise at least some truth in what Orwell says. To an extent writing is vain, if only in having the belief that you can write something that is worth reading. It is certainly selfish. Writing is a totally absorbing activity. You can be sitting in a room surrounded by people you love, but when you are writing your mind is somewhere else and you are cut-off, in your own world. So why write?

Orwell  identified four reasons as to why writers write, and what determines how they write or what they write about. Again he didn’t mince his words:-

  •  “Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one…
  • Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story…
  • Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.
  • Political purpose. Using the word ‘political’ in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.”

Having just had my first novel, “Avon Street” published, perhaps it’s an odd time to wonder why I write?  But at the moment I’m trying to publicise my book and wondering how far I want to go, and how much I’m willing to let my goals change, when all I really want to do is get on with the next book.  But family and friends keep asking how the book is doing, and it’s made think again about what people expect – and what I expect?

Much as I admire George Orwell, I think his list, perhaps intentionally (to make a point) ignores many other motives . Some writers, also feel a basic need to form bridges of communication with others to overcome the feeling of “separateness” that comes from being an individual human being. For others writing is a coming to terms with what has happened in the past.  For many, writing is a form of exploration, of challenging their own perceptions, of trying to empathise with others and to understand a complex world which sometimes makes little sense – and to define for themselves what it is to be a human being with a sense of consciousness.

Perhaps Orwell was too noble-minded to identify money  in his list of motivations, or perhaps times have changed, but it  cannot be ignored nowadays, though many see writing as a more spiritual quest, in search of the Muse, or God, or some higher purpose in our nature. For others it is a way of exploring thought processes and the relationship between conscious and unconscious mind. And let’s not forget the sheer sense of enjoyment that the process of writing can bring.

Other writers have their own definitions. Monica Dickens said,

“Writing is a cop-out. An excuse to live perpetually in fantasy land, where you can create, direct and watch the products of your own head. Very selfish.”

Some write, because through writing they can build new worlds, worlds in which, at least for a while, they have some sense of control. As John Fowles said,

“There are many reasons why novelists write – but they all have one thing in common: a need to create an alternative world.”

There is also the question of when are you entitled to call yourself a writer. When I started writing fiction, I honestly had no interest in being published, yet as soon as I had finished the first draft of my novel it seemed pointless simply leaving it in a drawer, so I started sending it off to publishers and agents. Slowly publication became almost an obsession, and so my goals and expectations began changing. As Lee Child asked,

“If you write a book and no one reads it, is it really a book?’

Yet if you write, you are a writer and publication is often just a matter of luck or fortuitous circumstance. As Kate Mosse said,

“There’s only one difference between published and unpublished writers and it is this – the first group see their work in print on the shelves of Waterstone’s or Tesco or online at Amazon; the second group are yet to have physical evidence of the hours, weeks, years spent fashioning words into their patterns.  You are already a writer.”

Perhaps some or all of thes motives for writing (above) are common to every writer, but the strength of their influence will be different from writer to writer and they will rarely remain the same. Orwell was right when he said,

“It can be seen how these various impulses must war against one another, and how they must fluctuate from person to person and from time to time.”

Each individual writer’s motivation is complex and personal – and it changes over time as expectations change. In truth there are as many reasons for writing as there are writers – and writing will always have something new to say, or find a new way of saying it. But it seems important to remember why you started writing and what you expected then, rather than chasing new rainbows.

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In the relatively short history of the Novel many have changed the lives of individuals, but (in my opinion) few have changed the world, or at least helped shape and change Society’s attitudes and values.  These are the novels that have, for the most part stood against persecution, de-humanisation and the exploitation of the many by the few. They have perhaps helped us evolve a little and remain as relevant today as when they were written.

I have drawn up a list of 20 novels. They are largely of my own choosing though I must thank Reine and Dovegreyreader for their valuable suggestions of titles I would otherwise have missed.

 

  • “Robinson Crusoe” (1719) –  Daniel Defoe – Many books can lay claim to being the first novel and for shaping what came after, but “Robinson Crusoe” certainly popularised the form. By the end of the 19th century, no book in the history of western literature had been so widely translated or been printed in so many different versions, and the adaptations  still continue today. The novel also had a moral compass which challenged many of the commonly held values of the day.
  • “A Christmas Carol” (1843) – Charles Dickens – Collectively Dickens’ novels had an undoubted impact on Victorian society by giving faces and voices to the poor. He perhaps more than any other writer changed his world and helped shape the future. Many of his novels could be included here, but I have chosen this novella because it is here that Dickens’ overall message is expressed most succinctly, at least for me, particularly when the Ghost of Christmas Present  reveals the two children and says, – “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.
  • “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1851) –  Harriett Beecher Stowe  –  This book was the best-selling novel of the 19th Century. It increased awareness of, and help change attitudes to slavery, eventually helping to bring about the abolition of slavery.
  • “Ulysses” (1922) – James |Joyce – Probably the most definitive work of modernist fiction, not least for its use of stream of consciousness writing. It may not have changed the world, but it certainly changed the world of literature.
  •  “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” (1928) – D.H. Lawrence – The novel that changed the laws of censorship. Penguin second edition, published in 1961 carried the following dedication,  “This edition is dedicated to the twelve jurors, three women and nine men, who returned a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’ and thus made D. H. Lawrence’s last novel available for the first time to the public in the United Kingdom.”
  • “Brave New World” (1931) – Aldous Huxley – The novel demonstrates the loss of individual identity that can come through assembly line production, indoctrination and the abuse of technological “advancement.”
  • “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1929) –  Eric Maria Remarque – One of the major themes of the novel is the difficulty of soldiers to revert to civilian life. Commenting in the preface Remarque says that  he,  “will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.” The book was banned and burned by the Nazis prior to the Second World War.
  • “Testament of Youth” (1933) – Vera Brittain – Not strictly speaking a novel, but “Testament of Youth” was a biography that gave whole generations of “civilians” a new understanding of the impact of War. Up until its publication many still viewed war as a wholly heroic enterprise, without contemplating its effects on those who went through it, nor the suffering undergone by their families and loved ones.
  • “The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) – John Steinbeck – The book was subject to many  public book-burnings,  but Steinbeck changed attitudes on the plight of the poor and migrants following the great depression. Steinbeck wrote, before writing the book: “I want to put a tag of shame on the greedy bastards who are responsible for this the Great Depression and its effects.”
  • “The Citadel” (1937) A.J. Cronin –  Exposed the inequity and incompetence of medical practice at the time. In the novel, Cronin advocated a free public health service in order to defeat the wiles of those doctors who he said “raised guinea-snatching and the bamboozling of patients to an art form.” It played a major role in the development of the National Health Service in the UK.
  •  “The Little Prince” (1943) Antoine de St Exupery – There are many novels which could be cited as providing guidance on a way of living or “spiritual” awareness. I chose this one because it is my favourite and because it communicates across generations and age groups.
  • “Diary of a Young Girl” (1944) – Anne Frank – Ann Frank’s Diary stands as a symbol and reminder of the effects of persecution on ordinary lives and still communicates with young readers.
  • “If This is a Man” (1948) – Primo Levi – Not just a testimony of suffering and cruelty in the concentration camps – but also a demonstration of how mankind can be dehumanised through degradation.
  • “1984″ (1949) – George Orwell –  Gave us the concepts of “Big Brother” and “Doublethink.” Revealed the dangers of Nationalism, Censorship, Surveillance, Manipulation through propaganda and alerted people to the dangers of an over-powerful state and totalitarian government.
  • “The Catcher in the Rye”  (1951) – J.D. Salinger – Adopted by generations of youngsters as the book that speaks to them and for them.  The anti-hero, Holden Caulfield, searches for a sense of belonging, and identity, in a Society in which he feels alienated.
  • “Atlas Shrugged” (1957) – Ayn Rand – This book is not to my taste, but it has to be included because it helped found and sustain the new economics, which rejects ethical altruism in favour of unfettered capitalism, and  puts the concept of self, before society. Rand termed her philosophy “Objectivism”, describing its essence as “the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life.”
  • “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1960) – Harper Lee – Deals with issues of race and class discrimination, but in a way which is almost uniquely accessible to younger and older readers alike.
  • “Catch 22” (1961) – Joseph Heller –  The novel plays with time-lines and perspectives in a very individual style and demonstrates better than many other books, the insanity of war. It also perhaps shows, that if not for their own absurdity and inefficiency mankind would have wiped themselves out years ago.
  • “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich” (1962) – by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn – Never before had an account of Stalinist repression been openly distributed in the Soviet Union. This book also forced Western countries to acknowledge their hypocrisy in ignoring breaches of  human rights behind the “iron-curtain.”

 

  • “A Novel” (1962 to Now) – Unspecified because perhaps only time can judge which novel written in the last fifty years will have helped change the world and shape our futures?

 

 

 

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