We are always looking for a good book. We read reviews, browse in bookstores, chat to friends, and join Goodreads groups. The critics reputedly have the best taste, but I also note what characters in novels read and books mentioned in poetry.
I have been racking my brain to remember what Jane Eyre and Dorothea Brooke read but alas! I don’t remember. Here is a short list of specific books I learned about from bibliophile characters in books. Please add any you can think of!
1 The Oxford Book of English Verse. Manya, an actress in Madeleine L’Engle’s The Small Rain, reads aloud an anonymous 16th-century quatrain from The Oxford Book of English Verse to Katherine, her ward and the heroine of the novel.
There seem to be different versions of this poem, but here is one I found online.
O Western wind, when wilt thou blow
That the small rain down can rain?
Christ, that my love were in my arms,
And I in my bed again!
Yes, I own a copy of The Oxford Book of English Verse.
2 The Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. The March sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women not only read this allegory but act it out. I admit, I was more interested in the fact that Jo March reads and writes “blood-and-thunder stories,” but I don’t recall whether her favorite trashy reads are mentioned by title.
3 Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native. Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in Rye is not only a rebel but a reader, and he he has a thing for Eustacia Vye, a dark, brooding, voluptuous character in The Return of the Native. This was the first Hardy novel I read.
4 Ivanhoe by Walter Scott. In Maud Hart Lovelace’s Heaven to Betsy, Betsy dutifully completes the freshman summer reading, Ivanhoe, and loves it. Some of her friends, i.e., the boys, never got around to it, though. After she tells them the enthralling plot, they get better grades on their papers than she does. The irony of being nice!
5 Chapman’s Homer. In John Keats’s sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” the narrator realizes the power of Homer when he discovers George Chapman’s translations.
Here is Keats’s sonnet:
Much have I travell'd in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow'd Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star'd at the Pacific—and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
6 George Gissing’s The Odd Women. I discovered this 19th-century classic when I read Gail Godwin’s 1974 novel, The Odd Woman. The heroine, Jane Clifford, an English professor, is a George Eliot expert but is also preparing to teach a class on Gissing’s The Odd Woman. Both of these “Odd” novels are brilliant.
7 Mrs. Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolpho.The heroine Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey reads Gothic novels and starts to imagine spooky things. Catherine introduced me to the work of Mrs. Radcliffe. Unfortunately, i am not a fan!
What books have you learned about from characters in novels or poets?