Getting Started on Classic Literature

Why Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles might be a good starting point.

A real issue I faced when I realised that I wanted to start really getting to grips with literature was simply where to start. Syllabuses and curriculums everywhere seem to be drenched with the stuff, and teachers throw around references to obscure works so that no matter how much you read you never really feel like you’re properly clued up on ‘the classics’. In fact, there’s a worrying trend of associating the act of reading itself exclusively with reading ‘proper’ literature, though the debate of what constitutes a literary text is likely never-ending. The result is that the most avid childhood bookworms end up reaching GCSEs, A-Levels, or even university feeling as though they can’t compete with people who seem to inexplicably be able to reference whichever famous works of literature they fancy.

"Hardy was my first classic, so I think I’ll fight his corner"

But it’s never too late! Firstly (and very importantly), reading the famous stuff is by no means the last word in whether you can consider yourself ‘bookish’, in fact I firmly believe you should above all else read what you enjoy; losing yourself in a book is something that you should never let go of. However there may come a time when you want to broaden your horizons and see what all the fuss is about (or perhaps you’re being made to), so here’s my recommendation for getting started: Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles . Really, the top tip should be to simply pick the first book you like the look of and start there, otherwise you’ll never get going due to the huge amount of ‘classics’ that are available. But Hardy was my first classic, so I think I’ll fight his corner.

Hardy himself is a good middle ground to begin with: he’s a household name without being phenomenally popular, he influenced a great deal of writers that followed him (D.H. Lawrence, Ezra Pound, and Philip Larkin, to name a few), and overall his books have a good blend of enjoyable narrative and seriousness that makes reading him accessible. Tess is widely considered his(or at least his most famous) novel, and unlike the more depressing Jude the Obscure it isn’t intimidatingly long. Copies can be picked up for a couple of pounds at charity shops, or just a little bit more in a bookshop.

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What’s more, Tess deals with a lot of issues that are still very relevant today. Hardy loved to criticise Victorian society, and here he goes to town defending the innocent Tess against unfair marriage restrictions placed upon women, as well as throwing in a lot of material on the oppression of the lower social classes. Be warned, especially if you’re a young reader, there are some points in Tess that may be unsuitable.

If you’re looking to read some famous works for the enjoyment, then the rich fictional county of Wessex (which admittedly did used to exist as an Anglo-Saxon county) that Hardy creates is perfect. It features vivid depictions of day-to-day life, believable characters, intricate but easy to follow plots, and descriptions of nature that Hardy went on to become famous for. If you’re more here for the study, and want to work on reading critically, then Tess is equally good! As well as the contemporary social issues Hardy tackles, the way he uses language (for example his use of accents and local dialects) to express certain key points is perfect: not too obscure and not so simple that it becomes pointless to mention it.

All of this being said, I’m not reducing Hardy to beginner’s status, far from it. What I’m saying is that he’s incredibly versatile, he’s regularly studied at some of the top universities in the world, but he isn’t impenetrable which is what I think a lot of people fear when they approach older, classical novels. If, like me, you grow to love Hardy, you can continue reading him and rediscovering him no matter how far you choose to take your reading. Tess is of course by no means the only novel to offer this, but then I’m biased and plus, you have to start somewhere. Overall, if you are considering classic literature but feel put off by the sheer number of recommendations and titles available, my advice would be this: forget what other people say about what is and isn’t good, pick up a book (one final plug for Tess of the d’Urbervilles!) and see what you think for yourself. If you have any questions about starting to read literature, about Hardy, or about anything at all to do with books, get in touch at, or leave a comment below- I’d love to hear from you!

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