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Read it and weep: Top 6 texts to read before you start your English degree

20 April 2020

8 mins

I have collated 6 texts that I think will aid you before you start your English degree, or texts that are just staples to read full-stop! Studying BA English brought everything that I’d always loved together. Analysing language and form, social, cultural and historic contexts as well as arguing about themes within a text. So without further ado here’s my top recommendations… 

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1849)

For me, Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre will always be a classic must read. It is a Bildungsroman following the life of orphan Jane Eyre. The reader sees her go to boarding school, teaching and becoming a governess at the manor of Thornfield. Featuring timeless tropes, romance and inspiring proto-feminist monologues; Jane Eyre is a novel that will be mentioned time and time again in your degree. Not only due to its masterful writing, but because of the array of criticism written about it. From Post-Colonial criticism such as The Wide Sargasso Sea, to class criticism of the dynamic between a master and governess, the power play between Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester is a must read for any romantic- which us English students often are.

My Favourite Quote:

“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me; I am a free human being with an independent will, which I now exert to leave you.”

– Volume 2, Chapter 8, Page 6

The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare (1605)

We can’t talk about classics without mentioning Shakespeare! Throughout my degree I have sometimes tried to pick modules that will challenge me and my interests, rather than those I’d find simple. I never used to be a fan of Shakespeare until I took the ‘Adapting Shakespeare’ module in my third year. Learning how Shakespeare adapted probable sources in order to create his plays gave so much more meaning. The texts, for me, stopping being words on a page and became emotive. I particularly enjoyed The Merchant of Venice. This is actually a text I studied in Year 8 and got nothing from whatsoever. But discovering the cultural significance of Shylock’s Jewishness, the homoeroticism of Antonio and Bassanio’s friendships, as well as the utter female empowerment of Portia throughout the play. It has so many layers and is again a text with so much to it that I think it should be read by everyone. We all know the classics such as Romeo and Juliet, so why not push the boat out and read the Merchant of Venice!

Favourite quotation: Act 3 Scene 1

“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.”

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813)

Another classic for me has to be Pride and Prejudice. Most of us would have seen the BBC version with Colin Firth or the film with Keira Knightley! If you’re impressed by these then I cannot recommend the book enough! Austen writes of stolen glances conveying sexual desire, asking to speak with someone indicating a future engagement which reveals a society long past. The plot follows the Bennet family which consists of five daughters who must seek marriages due to there being no male heir to their family’s own wealth. The battle between pride and prejudice conveys indoctrinated flaws in us which cloud our judgement for the worse. Through Pride and Prejudice, we can see how marriage worked in the 1800s and learn from it about how characters.

Favourite quotation: Chapter 59

“And do you really love him quite well enough? Oh, Lizzy! Do anything rather than marry without affection. Are you quite sure that you feel what you ought to do?” Jane Bennet

“It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” Elizabeth Bennet

The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1387-1400)

The next book I recommend is Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Including stories of Courtly love, Knights, Maidens and wonderful wives; Chaucer’s tales are a staple in the canon. I read this text in the second-year module ‘Chivalry from Chaucer to Shakespeare’ and fell in love with it. It was unlike anything I’d ever read before due to its medieval period and subject matter. The language is Middle  English so the elements of translation were fun to work out too. The stories are all medieval, even conveying the fantastical. The plot line consists of travellers on a pilgrimage, telling stories during their travels. Thus, the tales come in form of ‘The Knight’s Tale’; which consists of a conflict between friendship and love as well as the Roman Gods; or ‘The Wife of Bath’s Tale’; detailing allowing women to make their own free choice.

Favourite quotation, from ‘The Wife of Bath’s Prologue’.

‘Yblessed be God that I have wedded fyve! Welcome the sixte, whan that evere he shall. For sorthe I wol nat kepe me chasst in al. Whan myn housbonde is fro the world ygon, Som cristen man shall wedde me anon.’

Serious Concerns by Wendy Cope (1992)

I can’t not recommend a poetry collection in this blogpost since I love poetry so much and I am particularly biased when it comes to Wendy Cope. I studied one of her poems at A- Level and am now writing a chapter of my Dissertation on 5! Cope utilises light verse in order to create adult poetry which can come in forms of parody, comical as well as darker themes. She is a great example of a modern female poet, writing about the female experience, romantic relationships as well as therapy and alcohol. If you aren’t a poetry fan then Cope might work for you as she is contemporary and uses simplistic language which allows for more universality and accessibility.

One of my favourite poems from the collection:


The day he moved out was terrible-

That evening she went through hell.

His absence wasn’t a problem

But the corkscrew had gone as well.

The Time Machine by H.G. Wells (1895)

G. Wells’ The Time Machine was another text I adored during Uni and would recommend to someone about to study at University. I studied it in my first year in the Writing in History module. It’s only a novella, making it gripping and accessible – it’s available on Project Gutenberg! In this text, Wells instilled an obsession of time travel into a generation! The plotline involved a Victorian gentleman who invents the time machine and travels into the future in which there are segregated species: the Eloi; small, elegant childlike people who are carefree and go about their days eating fruit; and Morlocks who are brutal and live in the darkness. The story brings to light issues such as class, education and the ecocriticism.

Favourite quotation, Chapter VI

‘Seeing the ease and security in which these people were living, I felt that this close resemblance of the sexes was after all what one would expect; for the strength of a man and the softness of a woman, the institution of the family, and the differentiation of occupations are mere militant necessities of an age of physical force. Where population is balanced and abundant, much childbearing becomes an evil rather than a blessing to the State; where violence comes but rarely and offspring are secure, there is less necessity—indeed there is no necessity—for an efficient family, and the specialisation of the sexes with reference to their children’s needs disappears. We see some beginnings of this even in our own time, and in this future age it was complete. This, I must remind you, was my speculation at the time. Later, I was to appreciate how far it fell short of the reality.’

This concludes my classic book recommendations! If you don’t see yourself as a reader then why not try to write something yourself! The course offers Creative Writing modules at every year: Introduction to Creative Writing: Elephants and Engines, Maps and Motors and Writing for Stage and Screen. We also have LU arts which offers creative writing workshops as well as the LSU Literature society which aims to run informal sessions to craft works with fellow writers.

I hope over this turbulent period in our lives that you too find the time to escape into another world of adventure, romance or fantasy!

Keep reading!

From Caroline x

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