Tuesday, 22 March 2011

What can ‘neglected classics’ do for your writing?

In relaunching my blog from my web journal format, I knew that one of my focuses would be neglected classics.  Partly this is because I’m an English lit nerd, and partly because I love history.  But neglected classics have real value for the historical novelist, opening a window into areas history books may overlook.  Books that were popular in their day but little read now have often fallen out of popularity because they reflect the tastes, ideas, references, language etc. of a very particular time. – just what you want for an authentic feel to your novel.

Here’s a couple of ideas to get you thinking:

  • Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson (made more popular by the spin-off tv series) is a thinly disguised autobiography of her life growing up in an English village at the end of the nineteenth century.  Even though I considered I had a pretty good idea of English rural life in that period, she opened my eyes to attitudes and facts I hadn’t considered, from the idea of the older women that ‘good’ wives kept to their homes, to the ways in which some younger couples were already beginning to use family planning methods.
  • E. Nesbit’s voluminous output, including her children’s books, provide a detailed picture of middle class late Victorian and early Edwardian life, from popular  slang (brekkers, anyone?) right down to the colours of the forms that various tradesmen use. 

Finding neglected classics
Here are a few ideas – please share your own!
  • Follow leads in the ‘standard’ classics: what is the hero or heroine reading?  I used Northanger Abbey as the starting point for my foray into popular gothic novels – Jane Austen makes fun of Catherine’s addiction to The Monk by Henry Lewis and The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe, for example.  The heroine of Udolpho, in turn, I discovered, fortifies her character through a regimen of ‘good’ reading, and so the trail goes on...
  • Check out the advertisements and previews in those musty, second hand books on your shelves.
  • Check local history societies or the shops of stately/historic homes, National Trust shops etc. for local autobiographies.  Again, you’ll get insights into everyday life.  An example that sticks in my mind is A Kingston Lacy Childhood, the recollections of Viola Bankes, of the upper class Bankes family of Dorset.  When Viola’s father died, she was told for years that he was working abroad, and only found out the truth through the mistake of a servant!
  • If you’re fortunate enough to live near a major, older library, peruse their older catalogues for the period you’re writing in (this brings back memories of many happy hours in Cambridge libraries).
The advantage for writers now is that so many of these books have been digitized, and although I’ve found the quality of the scanning to vary, there are thousands of free books out there to download onto your computer or e-reader.  Try sites such as Barnes and Noble, Google Books, Bartleby, and Project Gutenberg.

I hope these few reason have convinced you that neglected books should be on your real/virtual bookshelf, or at least on your reading list as you work on your novel.  You may find some gems that deserve attention, plus you’ll have built up reading lists for your own characters!


  1. Susan, I've done this all along to enrich my writing. I've found lovely local slang in Fanny Burney's novels, and others written in the exact time period I write in. A wonderful resource.

  2. Great idea, Susan. I did this as a research method - kinda - for the last book and the current one. Nonfiction authors always leave a trail of reference books. I just kept on picking up reference titles for Han Dynasty/Romance of the Three Kingdoms and soon had a great resource list. LOL I'm reading a new Chinese classic now, "Water Margin" and sure enough, it's got a list! :D