Anna Campbell and Romancing the Classics
Hello, my name is Anna Campbell, and I’m a reading addict.
I’ll read anything, even, in the absence of other candidates, the back of the milk carton. Often the times I have amazed my friends into catatonia with something I read on a label.
My preferred method of intake is books. I’ve always loved books, right from the moment my parents read to me from the beautiful Oxford fairy tales editions when I was a mere toddler. An addiction to the glories of extravagant historical costume might have started then too, but that’s another story. I read all sorts of books from anywhere – books on my shelves, books belonging to other people, library books (Cleveland library was an early enabler).
Among those books were a large number that are considered classics. Many of those stories have stayed with me, subject to multiple re-reads. I believe one of the definitions of a classic is that it can stand up to return visits and show you something new each time.
These days I write romance for a living, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my favourite classics involve a heartfelt love story or two, even if a happy ending isn’t guaranteed (although I think it’s noteworthy that the greats of the past weren’t at all afraid of happy endings!). So I thought I might share a few of my favourite 19th century novels that double as great romances.
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
It’s really sad that W&P has this awful reputation as an unreadable behemoth when it’s a string of fabulous stories in one luscious whole. Even the bits of book where Tolstoy tells you his theories of history and war are interesting – although perhaps not quite as interesting as Natasha and Prince Andrei at her first ball or the wonderful ride through the snow with Masha and Nikolai. The characters in this epic tale are unforgettable, and so real, you can imagine that the Russian aristocracy might turn up for a picnic in the park across the road. I made the mistake of reading the death of Prince Andrei on a bus and made a complete fool of myself by dissolving into floods of tears. It’s just so perfectly written and it cuts straight to the heart. One of the many lovely things about War and Peace is that while it’s about great historical events, Tolstoy never loses sight of the effect these events have on the human level. Don’t be frightened off by the length – there are some wonderful romances, happy and sad, in this book. And Prince Andrei has to be one of the great romantic heroes!
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
This one wears its heart on its sleeve. There are stages in my life when I think it’s my favourite book in the world. I’ve read it more times than I can count. If you’re looking for a ripsnorter of a romance novel, this one has it all – intrepid heroine doing it hard; Cinderella plotline; brooding, mysterious, aristocratic hero; a huge character arc for the hero and heroine so they’re more fulfilled, better people after all the drama; more gothic madness than you can poke a stick at; and a wonderful happy ending (I remember how much I loved “Reader, I married him” the first time I read it!).
Middlemarch by George Eliot
What does a dedicated reader study at university? English literature of course! Imagine a place where they actually want you to plough through several thousand pages a week – my idea of Nirvana. One of the wonderful things about someone else setting the reading list is discovering things that you probably wouldn’t have picked up off your own bat. Middlemarch is just such a book. This portrait of a small 19th century town is as epic in its own way as War and Peace. There is a cast of thousands and most of them pair up either happily or unhappily, so there are romances galore to gladden or sadden the heart. The heroine Dorothea Brooke is a gloriously ardent creation – intelligent and generous and so misguided. I love it when a character has a lot to learn before they get their happy ending. Most of the critics feel that the romance between Dorothea and Will Ladislaw is a bit of a fizzer, but when I read this book, I remember my powerful reaction when they finally got together. Guess that’s why I’m a romance writer and not a literary critic. Just as an aside, one of the most brilliantly written characters in this book is Dorothea’s repressive first husband, the Reverend Edward Casaubon, a man who gives vampires a run in terms of blood sucking. The first husband of my heroine Grace in Untouched was written as a homage to him in all his awfulness.
Persuasion by Jane Austen
I’m currently re-reading all the Austens (although I have a feeling Mansfield Park might wait a while). Northanger Abbey is the next one off the cab rank. Like most people, I adore Pride and Prejudice. The whole world loves watching Darcy and Lizzie struggle through the errors of their first impressions (First Impressions was Austen’s original title for the novel) and find love. But if I had to pick a favourite, I think I’d go for Persuasion which is much quieter but so heartfelt. The reunion romance is a staple of the romance genre and this one’s a corker. The heroine, quiet, gallant, perceptive Anne Elliot, knows she’s missed her chance when as a young, easily persuaded girl, she rejects the dashing Frederick Wentworth. What a bitter pill she has to swallow when Wentworth returns years later as a captain, a hero and, even more significantly, rich, to find a wife in the neighbourhood. He hasn’t forgiven Anne for turning her back on their love—but gradually her qualities win him back again from much flashier candidates. The scene toward the end when she proclaims the steadfastness of her love and he writes her a letter expressing his feelings always makes me cry. Definitely a lovely romance!
So there you have it – four great classics with wonderful love stories. Perfect for the romantic in all of us!
Anna Campbell is a Sunshine Coast writer who writes Regency-era historical romances for Grand Central Forever (USA), Harlequin Mills and Boon (UK) and HarperCollins Australia. Her latest release is WHAT A DUKE DARES (August 2014) and her website is www.annacampbell.info