It’s already that time of year again – we’re now on the cusp of a new academic year! Already?! Before I head back to start my third year of my English Lit degree, I thought it might be fun to look back at some of my favourite works that I’ve studied for my degree so far and share them in case anyone wanted to spice up their TBR lists or have a glimpse into what my English Lit courses are like!
Firstly, I wanted to recommend Maria: or The Wrongs of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft (1798) which I studied for my second-year British Romanticism module. This philosophical novel was a powerful read as it addresses ‘the misery and oppression, peculiar to women, that arise out of the partial laws and customs of society’. The story of Wollstonecraft’s novel follows Maria who is incarcerated in a madhouse by her abusive husband. Through this painful story, we are given an insight into the treatment of women in 18th century society as the novel dramatizes the effect of the marriage laws that were in place that reduced women to simply the property of their husbands. I would consider this book a radical feminist text and considering when it was written, the content is ground-breaking. This is understandable as the author, Mary Wollstonecraft, is regarded as one of the founding feminist philosophers and served as a valuable influence for feminism as we know and understand it today. I read this book and studied the impact that Wollstonecraft’s works had on the society she lived amongst but also how her ideas and works have impacted generations of women and generations of feminist theory. I would hugely recommend this book to anyone who hasn’t heard of Wollstonecraft before, as in my opinion she is definitely someone who deserves to be known and appreciated in the modern day!
Trying not to be a cliché or stereotypical English Lit student here, but I have to recommend some Shakespeare! I read the comedy Twelfth Night or What You Will for my first year general Literature module and fell in love with it. Before reading this, I’d read Romeo and Juliet, King Lear and Macbeth – basically the really good but really heavy stuff and finally I got around to a comedy. The play follows separated twins Viola and Sebastian and Viola’s decision to disguise herself as a man under the name of Cesario. Under this disguise Viola falls in love with Duke Orsino who believes himself to be in love with Lady Olivia, who is in fact in love with Cesario! Without making it sound as though the play is all about love, one of the most interesting things that Shakespeare did with this play was explore the concept of gender. The play explores the concepts of gender identity and sexual attraction and the androgyny and ambiguity that surrounds these concepts really stood out to me when reading. Whenever I read Shakespeare, I find myself becoming so wrapped up in the historical contexts of the plays and trying to see how Shakespeare emanated his surrounding society. For this play, the title is a reference to the twelfth night of the Christmas celebration, also known as Epiphany. This celebration was a festival in which everything was turned upside down and this is emphasised in the play through the chaos and the deception that the characters are living through. Of course, as an independent woman of the 21st century, I would have loved to see a female character feeling powerful enough to present herself as her own sex without needing to disguise this, however I choose to read this play as demonstrating the lack of distinguishable features between the sexes, perhaps suggesting an equality. It’s important to remember here that all forms of literature, whether it be plays or novels are subjective, and we can choose to interpret and understand them in whatever light we enjoy to! That’s the great thing about literature and one of the reasons I chose to study it. I would recommend this play to anyone who is in the mood for reading a different medium to a novel or biography, to read a play can be a welcoming break from heavy reading. I would also encourage any readers, fans of Shakespeare or not, to turn to some of his comedies and explore the more light-hearted side of Shakespeare.
My final recommendation is from Miss Jane Austen herself, again, I’m an English Lit student so what did you expect? This recommendation is one of my most recent reads as I have chosen a Jane Austen module for my third year. Much like my experience with Shakespeare, I’ve read the classic Pride and Prejudice, Northanger Abbey and Mansfield Park, but I finally read Emma a couple of weeks ago. Emma is a novel full of romantic and social misunderstandings as Emma Woodhouse overestimates her matchmaking abilities in the fictional country village of Highbury. It was certainly a breath of fresh air as it really wasn’t what I expected at all, I expected to find difficulty in becoming invested, I expected it to be too similar to the other Austen I’d read, and I really had been putting it off as long as I could. How wrong I was! My favourite thing about the character of Emma was the fact that she’s flawed! Right from the get-go, we hear about how Emma is used to ‘the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself’. I think Emma’s fiery and very self-affirmed character added to the comedic aspects of the novel and I thoroughly enjoyed the chaotic plots and subplots. As a lover of Austen, it was great to read a character that was quite different to ones I’ve encountered before, namely Elizabeth Bennet. I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to broaden their Austen knowledge or simply dive back into a classic! This book is so beautifully written, and the relationships created and portrayed are so heart-warming and enjoyable to read.
Sometimes it can be difficult to decide what to read next and I know that in many cases all it takes to push me towards a great book is a little recommendation. Therefore I hope you’ve enjoyed these recommendations I’ve listed and that you fall in love with these books like I did if you go on to read them, or even if you simply add them to your TBR list to be discovered on a rainy day. I also hope this post has given a valuable insight into what studying English Literature can be like at university and has adequately demonstrated the diverse ranges of work that you can encounter studying a course like this. To anyone going back to work, university or school in the coming weeks, good luck! Don’t be discomforted if the only solace you can find at the moment is to be consumed in a great book – you’re definitely not the only one!
Where to purchase these books:
Haruki Murakami Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World – here.
Mary Wollstonecraft Maria, or The Wrongs of Woman – here.
Jane Austen Emma – here.
Photo Credits: Erik Mclean @introspectivedsgn on Unsplash
Note: We push for books written by womxn, but we have made an exception here because it is also important to reflect on how womxn have been represented in canonical works like that of Shakespeare. As Meg beautifully points out, it is important to analyse how the sexes have historically been distinguished and their boundaries blurred, and how this has developed through the years.