As an English student, it goes without saying that I spend a lot of my time reading books. This year, however, was actually a little different; there were surprisingly few novels on my reading list – but like last year I’ve compiled my top five set texts from my second year at York.
Like last year, I’ve picked one text from each of my modules: The Early Renaissance; Britons at Work (focusing on working-class Brits in the Victorian era); The Romantics; Post-War Italian Cinema; and Shakespeare In Depth. As a result, this list features an epic poem, two novels, a film from the 1940s and a play. As English Lit degrees go, mine is pretty traditional, but I’ve always found my texts foundational, varied and fascinating; I hope this list reflects that!
The Faerie Queene, Edmund Spenser
I put off starting The Faerie Queene until just a few days before my class. It’s considered one of the few English ‘epics’ (even though it’s only half the length it was supposed to be), and tells the story of a number of knights, each of whom represent a different virtue. It’s all a huge allegory, and the ‘fairie queene’ herself is a representation of Queen Elizabeth I. We only had to read Book One, but it was still a pretty huge undertaking. In the end, I spent three days straight sat in my room, reading it aloud, and it was a really extraordinary experience. I also spent some time listening to an audiobook version to give myself a bit of a break. I love how my degree allows me to get so intensely inside texts with as many layers as this one.
Ruth, Elizabeth Gaskell
I read Gaskell’s North and South a number of years ago and was blown away by it. Ruth was much more of a slow-burner; when I began reading it I dismissed it as nineteenth-century mummy blogging. But on reading the final page my eyes filled with tears. It was much less accessible than North and South, and required a huge amount of hard work to work through the Bible references on almost every page, and past the endless, endless stream of tears Ruth somehow manages to produce. But given the time and the space to work its magic, I found Ruth to be a really extraordinary novel that was incredibly moving in ways I couldn’t put my finger on. It also allowed me to research the power dynamics between mistresses and servants in Victorian households for my end-of-module assessment, which took me places I couldn’t imagine – it ended up centring around the word as, and that piece of work earned me my highest essay mark to date.
Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
Lots of my classmates had already read Frankenstein, but this was my first encounter. It was so different to what I expected; I found it instantly gripping and phenomenally clever. I couldn’t believe Shelley was only seventeen when she wrote it, not only because of its impressive prose and complex form, but also because of the enormous moral questions she dealt with through the text.
Ladri di Biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves), Vittorio de Sica*
My favourite module this year was Post-War Italian Cinema. Though I struggled with the language element, I simply adored the films – there wasn’t one that didn’t fascinate and surprise me. It’s hard to pick a favourite; I wrote my end-of-module essay on Antonioni’s astonishing L’Avventura, but the film that really stayed with me was de Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. It follows the story of Antonio and his young son Bruno; Antonio finally gets a job, for which he relies on his bicycle, but the bike is then stolen and the pair spend a day hopelessly searching the streets of Rome to find it. A classic neorealist film, it is desolate and heartbreaking in its depiction of the poverty of working-class citizens in post-occupied Rome, but the performance of Enzo Staiola as Bruno, who was literally picked up off the street by de Sica to play the role, will steal anyone’s heart.
*As it happens, the DVD version we have of this incredible film is a French version, hence the title in the photograph..!
King Lear, William Shakespeare
For my Shakespeare In Depth module, we spent four weeks focusing solely on King Lear. I’d not read it before, but it’s one of my dad’s very favourites, and I was looking forward to understanding why. I spent hours reading and annotating my edition with countless post-it notes. It was a difficult and incredibly complex text, and some of my classmates didn’t particularly enjoy it. It’s full of madness, gore, and loss, but I found it to be Shakespeare on a whole new level, with some really surprising characters and production elements.
Putting this list together has made me so excited to start classes again at the end of the month. I’m loving my texts for next term so far; if you’re interested in following along, check out my Goodreads in the sidebar!
Have you read or seen any of these texts? What’s your favourite book, poem, play, or film? Let me know in the comments!