Thursday, December 17, 2015

The 100 greatest British novels

The authors of seven of the ten greatest British novels. Clockwise from top left:
George Eliot (#1), Virginia Woolf (#2, #3), Charlotte Bronte (#5) and Charles Dickens (#4, #6, #8)

Another year, another "100 best novels" list. The BBC's "100 greatest British novels" derives from a poll of 82 book critics "from Australia to Zimbabwe," but, interestingly, excluding the UK. (Of course, Australia, Zimbabwe, and many other countries from which the participating critics are drawn are former British colonies.)

Jane Ciabattari writes for BBC Culture, "This list includes no nonfiction, no plays, no narrative or epic poems (no Paradise Lost or Beowulf), no short story collections (no Morte D’Arthur) — novels only, by British authors (which means no James Joyce)."

Or Oscar Wilde, or Bram Stoker. My Irish history is a little shaky, but wasn't Ireland still a part of the UK when The Picture of Dorian Gray, Dracula, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man were first published (in 1890, 1897, and 1916, respectively)? Just to be inconsistent, Laurence Sterne, born in County Tipperary in 1713, and Jonathan Swift, born in Dublin in 1667, are included, although the Act of Union creating the UK wasn't passed until 1800.

Oh—and is Le Morte D'Arthur really thought of as a collection of short stories?

In any case, there are some striking differences between this list and those published by the Guardian/Observer and the Telegraph, which I wrote about previously in "100 novels". One major contrast is that both of the previous lists included novels originally published outside of Britain, and in languages other than English.

Another key difference is that the BBC poll does not limit entries to a single novel by a given author. As a result, there are two novels by Virginia Woolf and three novels by Charles Dickens in the BBC poll's top ten (in fact, Woolf has two of the top three novels). Both authors have four entries overall; Jane Austen matches their popularity with four titles (Mansfield Park and Northanger Abbey don't make the cut), but, surprisingly, none of Austen's books break into in the top ten. Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland comes in at #40 (the Guardian has it at #24 while the Telegraph places it at #78), but the sequel Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There is not on the BBC list (or on either of the others).

The Alice example points up the many discrepancies across the different lists in the placement of authors and novels (of course, the very idea of ranking novels against one another is absurd, but never mind):
  • Middlemarch is ranked #1 on both the Telegraph and BBC lists, but astonishingly it doesn't appear at all on the Guardian list of the "greatest novels of all time," where the sole Eliot slot is taken by Daniel Deronda at #28.  
  • The Lord of the Rings trilogy is a robust #26 on the BBC poll, a middling #64 on the Guardian list, and #100 on the Telegraph list (the Telegraph adds major insult to minor injury by misspelling Tolkien's last name). 
  • Ian McEwan's Atonement is a grossly overrated #15 on the BBC poll, #30 on the Telegraph list, and barely squeaks onto the Guardian list at #97. 
  • P.G. Wodehouse's Code of the Woosters is #15 on the Telegraph list, is clinging by its fingertips to #100 on the BBC poll, and has dropped off the Guardian list entirely.
So as I did before, I thought I would tally the novels that appear on all three lists. I've ordered them by the highest place they achieved in any of the three polls (in bold), with ties ordered alphabetically by author. You might expect the closest agreement between the Telegraph and Guardian lists, because they both include non-British authors, and, for the same reason, that the BBC poll would generally rank the same novels higher. Neither pattern, though, is seen—the placement is all over the map:

AuthorTitle  Telegraph  Guardian        BBC
Daniel DefoeRobinson Crusoe#12#3#27
Virginia WoolfMrs. Dalloway#9#46#3
Charlotte BronteJane Eyre#7#18#5
Henry FieldingTom Jones#28#5#22
Samuel Richardson  Clarissa#33#6#14
Emily BronteWuthering Heights#14#17#7
Laurence SterneTristram Shandy#20#7#47
Charles DickensDavid Copperfield#13#16#8
Mary ShelleyFrankenstein#27#10#9
George Orwell1984#21#59#12
Ian McEwanAtonement#30#97#15
Evelyn WaughScoop#18#54#84
E. M. ForsterA Passage to India#22#47#50
Lewis CarrollAlice's Adventures in Wonderland#78#24#40
J. R. R. TolkienThe Lord of the Rings#100#64#26
Kingsley AmisLucky Jim#35#65#48
Muriel SparkThe Prime of Miss Jean Brodie#46#72#63

Are these really the consensus 17 best novels by British writers? Could the contributors to these lists really not agree that Middlemarch, Pride and Prejudice, Wives and Daughters, and Barchester Towers belong on all of them?

Here are a dozen British authors ("British" if they were born in the UK), ordered alphabetically, who did not make the BBC's "100 greatest novels" list, but probably should have:

Anne BronteAgnes Grey
Fanny BurneyCecilia
Angela CarterThe Magic Toyshop
Arthur Conan Doyle  The Hound of the Baskervilles
Daphne du MaurierRebecca
Elizabeth GaskellWives and Daughters
James JoyceUlysses
James KelmanHow Late It Was, How Late
Charlotte LennoxThe Female Quixote
Flann O’BrienThe Third Policeman
Bram StokerDracula
Oscar WildeThe Picture of Dorian Gray

I've mentioned several of these before (some on the occasion of their exclusion from other lists), but I'm happy to have another opportunity to recommend them; please click on the title links for my (sometimes extensive) comments.

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