The best British novel?

December 8, 2015

51a2J0Q2vbL._AA160_I’ve been reading today that international critics have voted George Eliot’s Middlemarch the best British novel. Interesting.

Such polls of British readers have always had one of Jane Austen’s novels at the top if the ranking: is she too subtle or too parochial for non-British tastes? And what criteria were used for these international critics and their reading: did they have to read in English, or have they read in translation?

Some of the other choices further down the list I also find rather surprising: far too much Dickens, which may have good plots, but was certainly written by the yard; Virginia Woolf in second and third place? And Tristram Shandy – I’m certainly glad it’s appreciated by non-British readers, but also more than a little astonished. What, exactly, determines which British writers readers in other countries come across? I have a cousin who teaches English Literature at a university in China, and some of the texts he has to teach his students certainly caused me to raise my eyebrows…

Back to Middlemarch, which I do think is a very good novel. It’s broad in its scope, painting a panorama of English society at a crucial point in the country’s history; there’s a good range of characters, plenty of plot, and the whole is sustained for eight hundred pages or so, very entertainingly. And there’s plenty beyond this, to make the reader think about issues, people, ideas, language. I suppose one might put it in a similar class to social novels by Zola or Balzac, though I think neither of them have the subtlety of Eliot. Her canvas is broader than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, too.

Where does all this get us? Not very far, I feel. People from other countries also seem to have the picture of the nineteenth century as the great age of the novel. People love lists (shades of Umberto Eco here?) and league tables, and we can all get off on agreeing or pooh-poohing the choices in them. What would an English person’s list of the best French, or German novels look like, and what would a French or German person make of our choices? For that matter, what do you make of my choices in the ‘My lists’ section of this blog?

One Response to “The best British novel?”


  1. Reading this list reminds me of an experience I had walking into a church in Hanoi, Vietname, where men sat on one siade and women on the other and we were given a translation of the reading. I read it and was shcked at the tone of the language, until I learned that they stopped updating their Bible possibly when the French decamped. It was like the words were arrested in time, lost in another era that no longer fit with the times.

    I can appreciate the classics, except that they excluded so much that could have been so eye opening and new and diverse. I resist Jane Austen because it plays to too many stereotypes, it no longer provokes the kind of questions I wish to be discussing. So instead I read a new 34 year old author Chinelo Okparanta from NIgeria, setting her novel in the shadow of the Biafran war of Nigeria, where I might just learn someting I had little prior knowledge of.

    Like


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