Like so many others around the world, I’m spending much more time at home than usual. Let’s look on the bright side: extra time at home means extra time for reading! If you are looking to add to your reading list, consider these wonderful, lesser known novels that I discovered recently.
Links are currently not affiliate links. I “read” most of these titles by audiobook through my library app or Librivox.
The other L.M. Montgomery novels
We all know and love Anne of Green Gables. The Anne series has long been a staple of the reading lists of old and young alike. But did you know Montgomery wrote lots of other novels? I absolutely loved these two lesser known stories.
Jane of Lantern Hill
Jane Stuart’s life has always been the same for as long as she can remember. She lives in a stuffy old mansion treading carefully around her jealous grandmother and stealing moments with her adoring but cowed mother. She hates her expensive private school. Her only playmate is her cousin whom she despises. Then one day, something different happens. Her mother receives a letter from the father Jane cannot remember, demanding that Jane come spend the summer with him on Prince Edward Island. Jane dreads going to a place she knows nothing about and meeting a father whom she is sure hated her mother. It turns out that nothing is as Jane expected. Her summer on Prince Edward Island is about to change her from the inside out.
The Blue Castle
Valancy Sterling is an “old maid” at 29, whose life has been ruled by the whims of her mother and the conventions of her large extended family. She eases her dreary life by making up stories about her “blue castle” and reading the nature books of John Foster. When Valancy receives a diagnosis from her doctor telling her she only has a year to live, she decides to hide the information from her family and make the most out of her last year on earth. She musters the courage to leave her mother’s house and move across town to help care for an ailing childhood friend. While at the Gay home, she meets the enigmatic and kind Barney Snaif, the town outcast whom no one can quite say what he actually did to earn that reputation. Valancy falls in love with Barney during her time with the Gay’s, and rather than go back to her mother after Cissy dies, Valancy proposes to Barney, explaining she only has a year to live. Barney accepts the arrangement and takes her to his remote island in the Canadian wilderness where nature and companionship give Valancy a happiness she never imagined possible. Could true love possibly be meant for her as well?
Unfamiliar British Classics that are worthwhile reads
It’s no secret that 19th century British literature is my favorite genre. I feel at home here and relate to the characters in ways that few other genres let me relate. There are many lists of the all-time best British classics. Here are a few lesser known gems I’ve enjoyed recently.
Evelina by Fanny Burney
Considered a precursor to Austen’s literary achievements, Evelina was one of the first social satire novels telling the story of a naive young English girl coming out into society. Evelina has faded in popularity today, but we know both Austen and Alcott read it and quoted the book in their letters.
Evelina has had a quiet life in the care of a kind vicar until the day her grandmother learns of her existence and returns to England to meet her. Although her grandmother’s intentions appear less than honorable, the vicar has no choice but to let Evelina travel to London with the lady. There Evelina is introduced into a whole new world. She stumbles her way through many social mistakes, thrown together with her greedy cousins and various humorous and ill-meaning characters. Can she ever earn the respect of the honorable and attractive Lord Orville?
Lorna Doone by R.D. Blackmoore
This sweeping historical novel tells the story of a young farmer, John Ridd, and his love for the beautiful Lorna Doone. Their love is tested against the backdrop of the wild Exmoor coastline, the villainous Doone clan and the world-changing events of Monmouth’s rebellion of 1685. Despite the fact that the writing style is slow for modern readers, the images of English country life are painted with a charming and vivid stroke. I find Lorna to be a bit shallow and rather too prone to swoons, but John is a fascinating picture of a young man coming of age.
Villette by Charlotte Bronte
I have long been a fan of Jane Eyre and only recently explored Bronte’s other novels. Villette tells the story of a solitary English woman whose circumstances force her to move to the continent to seek employment. She finds a situation in a girls boarding school in the fictional town of Villette. There her introverted personality and her status as a foreigner lead her to withdraw within herself, observing the characters around her with acute vibrancy, while searching the thoughts and feelings of her own heart. There is not much action in this story, but there is incredible insight into the human psyche. In a time before clinical psychology, Bronte’s insight into a woman’s mind is uncanny. The side characters are fascinating, the romance is unusual and sweet, but I think most readers will find the ending unsatisfying.
Ruth by Elizabeth Gaskell
This one is currently on my reading list as I just discovered it at Powell’s Books. Since I’m a huge fan of North and South I look forward to delving into this novel. The description sounds very unusual: “The orphaned heroine Ruth, apprenticed to a dressmaker, is seduced by wealthy Henry Bellingham who is captivated by her simplicity and beauty. Their affair causes her to lose her home and job to which he offers her shelter, only to cruelly abandon her soon after. She is offered a chance of a new life though shamed in the eyes of society by her illegitimate son. When Henry reappears offering marriage she must choose between social acceptance and her own pride. Ruth ultimately finds a path that affirms we are not bound to repeat our mistakes.”
The Shuttle by Frances Hodgson Burnett
The 1800s saw the bankrupt British aristocracy employing any means possible to save their failing estates. One method was for British titled men to marry American millionaires’ daughters. In Burnett’s novel, Sir Nigel Anstruthers impresses New York society with his title and wins the hand of the heiress Rosalie Vanderpool. It doesn’t take many weeks into the honeymoon for Rosalie to discover that Sir Nigel is abusive and only after her for her money. Rosalie doesn’t have the mental fortitude to stand up to her husband and his mother, and fades away into a fearful, cowed woman, shut away from the world. Years later, Rosalie’s sister Bettina, travels to England determined to discover the truth of what happened to her sister. Her strong personality enables her to restore Rosalie’s health and breathe new life into the estate. Bettina also meets a neighboring impoverished gentleman, Lord Mount Dunstan. Mount Dunstan is everything Sir Nigel isn’t and he and Bettina are mutually attracted. The problem is, Bettina has promised herself never to marry into the aristocracy and Lord Mount Dunstan has sworn never to marry an American in order to save his estate.
For those who only know Burnett through her children’s stories like The Secret Garden, you may be surprised at the style of her adult novels. This is probably the best description of an abusive marriage I’ve ever read in literature and it is heartbreaking. Once you can make it through the first 3rd of the book, you will be rewarded with a fascinating commentary on the social issues of marrying across the water and engrossing romance. I also loved how she described the American’s love of England. It put words to the feelings I experienced visiting England for the first time.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
Cassandra Mortmain captures the life of her eccentric family during the most momentous year of their lives. The Mortmains live in a derelict castle, waiting for the day their father will once again write a great novel and save them from poverty. When two young, single American brothers move in next door, Cassandra’s sister Rose sees this as her opportunity to marry and escape poverty. Cassandra grows up a lot through the months she keeps her diary, from navigating relationships with her sisters and brother, learning the difference between encouraging and enabling her father and navigating the pains of unrequited love.
This novel is much newer (reflecting a more atheistic worldview that bothered me) than the previous British novels mentioned, but it still captures elements of Austen and the magic of the English countryside.
What new books have you discovered recently?