I completed my BA in English Literature last year. I was one of the sub-editors for Words Matter during my time at the university, with my undergraduate graduation just around the corner (finally!), it feels like a great time to reflect on my time studying at York St John.
Since finishing my BA at York St John University I have completed an MA in Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of York and I now work as a Research Intern with Elizabeth Montagu Correspondence Online. The texts that I studied during my three years of studying at YSJ had so much influence over the course I have taken after completing my degree, including my current job.
One of my favourite things about the texts that I studied during my degree was their diversity; I had the freedom to write about texts that interested me, as well as read texts I would have never even thought about before. I studied authors I’d never heard of before, and forms of texts I’d never even imagined.
These top ten were so difficult to choose – over my three years at YSJ I studied so many different texts – but I decided to go for those that left a lasting impact on my view of English Literature.
10. Charlotte Brontë, Shirley (1849)
I had always been a fan of Charlotte Brontë, and growing up not far from her hometown I read a lot of the classic Brontë novels. I read Shirley as part of the “Sick Novels: Literature and Disease” module in my second year. It is a beautifully written novel with classic Brontë twists. It’s a great intersection between romance and something new; Brontë delves into the issues of women’s health and illness whilst drawing on many cultural anxieties about ‘punishment ‘ for certain behaviour choices. Brontë’s inclusion of these anxieties is what intrigued me the most in this novel.
9. William Wordsworth, “Composed upon Westminster Bridge“ (1802)
“Composed upon Westminster Bridge” was a poem we studied in second year, in the “Revolution and Response: British Literature 1740-1840”. The speaker of the poem is pondering on the views of London from Westminster Bridge, considering both its beauty and its power. Wordsworth’s vivid and detailed exploration of the city below is beautiful. He draws upon ideas of community versus individuality, as well as nature versus industrialisation, and it is a poem which really stayed with me after reading it. Wordsworth also explores the impermanence of things – the city that the speaker is looking down upon in particular – creating a sense of reassurance for the reader.
8. Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (1772)
A Journal of the Plague Year was one of my first encounters with a piece of fiction that was presented as non-fiction. Of course, the events which unfold in this text are the events which occurred in 1665 during the plague. Defoe’s text tells the story with the voice of a man surviving through the bubonic plague outbreak in London, told in loosely chronological order, with incredibly specific details of neighbourhoods and individual houses. The legitimacy of Defoe’s account was speculated about for some time, until it was accepted in 1780 as a piece of fiction. This text stuck with me after studying it as it opened up a whole new genre of literature. It played quite a large role in my desire to study eighteenth-century literature.
7. Stephen King, Cujo (1981)
One of the more contemporary novels on this list, Stephen King’s Cujo is a classic thriller / psychological horror. Similar any Stephen King novel, it is a slow burner to begin with, with the threat looming in the background for a while before it strikes. I’d always been a huge King fan before beginning my degree, so I was thrilled to be studying this in the second year module “Sick Novels: Literature and Disease”. Cujo differs from other novels by King, as rather than a supernatural threat, such as Carrie’s telekinesis or Pennywise, the threat here (a rabid dog) is real, although exaggerated.
6. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892)
This short story was a key text for the study and understanding of feminism and attitudes towards female mental health in the late nineteenth century. The short story follows an unnamed woman and her inner narrative as she describes the room her husband has locked her in, in order to aid her nervous disposition and “temporary nervous depression”. Gilman draws on the discourse of women’s subordination to their husbands, as well as the ignorance of the struggles of mental illness in women, often dismissed as hysteria. This is another text I think about often: Gilman’s writing style is beautiful, in stark contrast to the content.
5. John Milton, Paradise Lost (1667)
I’ll be perfectly honest, when I first read Paradise Lost I did not quite get it. It seemed convoluted, unnecessarily long and generally confusing. It was one of the first texts we studied, alongside texts such as The Metamorphoses and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. I remember going home after my seminar on Paradise Lost and rereading it again. It was after this that I realised how much I enjoyed it. This epic poem concerns the Fall of Man, and conjures images of Satan, Beelzebub and Hell. The character of Satan is charming and charismatic, rather than evil and aggressive as he is usually portrayed in popular culture. The reason this text is in my top ten is because of how it turns a traditional story on its head, but also for the controversy it caused after its publication.
4. Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1995)
Another contemporary novel, Lolita follows the narrative story of a middle-aged literature professor “Humbert Humbert” and his gradually increasing sexual obsession with a twelve-year-old girl. Being narrated by the aggressor of the novel himself creates an unreliability to the story itself. The reader has to work out what is true and what is not, between Humbert’s manipulation of the young girl. Although difficult to read in many ways, Nabokov’s narrative style is unlike other authors’, and this was truly a great text to really read between the lines.
3. Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1963)
The Bell Jar quickly became one of my favourite texts – ever. Plath’s semi-autobiographical novel follows the narration of Esther Greenwood and her descent into mental illness, along with her attempts of recovery which ultimately reflect Plath’s own struggles. Through this narrative Plath was able to express and explore her own struggles, as well as bring issues of women’s mental health to light. The Bell Jar is an incredibly emotional, thought-provoking novel which is why it’s so high on my list.
2. Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl (2012)
Gone Girl was a text we studied on the “Gender & Sexualities” module in third year. It was a popular choice due to the film adaptation in 2014 and is the most contemporary of my entire list. The unreliable narration from both Nick and Amy creates an immense amount of suspense and really makes the reader question who is telling the truth (most likely, neither). Neither Amy nor Nick is the ‘perfect’ protagonist: both are flawed and even borderline psychopathic at points, Flynn creates a great chemistry between the two whilst also setting out a new concept – the “Cool Girl” in contemporary feminism.
1. Jonathan Swift, “A Beautiful Nymph Going to Bed” (1731)
If someone were to ask me what satire was in the eighteenth century, I would direct them towards this poem. Swift is unrelenting, brutal, and savagely satirical in this poem – and many other poems which follow later. The poem follows Corinna as she undresses in her dressing room and transforms from a beautiful young woman to an old worn-down shell of a woman. It has been argued that Swift is simply admiring the strength and determination of the woman to continue working despite her declining health, however it is more commonly accepted to be a scathing criticism of the deceptive nature of this woman – and perhaps all woman who engage in cosmetics to alter their appearance. This poem makes its mark on a reader, which earns it the top spot in my list since it began an interest in the study of the eighteenth century and satire which influenced much of my academic career from there on.