By Megan Powell, Michael Calder and Hannah Spruce
Notoriety defines classic literature – an overarching seal of approval from literary communities. Typically, literature gains status via inclusion within recognised ceremonies or lists and several aspects may warrant the label: exceptional style, significant social commentary, genre redefinition, nuanced narrative. With these facets, literature dubbed classics may hold the attention of readers, philosophers and academics for generations. However, not every impactful literary work can receive the plaudits. Occasionally, a significant work will go unnoticed or underappreciated. So, in this issue, we are highlighting some lesser-known literature which we believe makes the classical cut.
The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner by James Hogg
Though the text saw inflated interest during the late twentieth century, aligning with hesitant scrutiny of an independently recognisable Scottish literature, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, written by James Hogg and published anonymously in 1824, may skirt under the radar regarding classic literature. The novel received a poor critical response upon publication. Within his lifetime, Hogg only saw one edition published with little commercial success. However, the novel has since ranked among the greatest works of Scottish literature and deserves wider exposure. As a provocative tale that provides commentary on the social, political and religious turmoil which descended upon Scotland during the Reformation period and beyond, Hogg’s novel shows all the characteristics of a classic.
Robert Wringham holds centre stage as a Calvinist in the extreme, taking predestination to a murderous extent and presuming himself immune to repercussions. With his depiction of character and setting, Hogg harnessed Gothic techniques, permeated genre boundaries and perhaps, created one of the earliest examples of modern crime fiction.
The Heptaméron by Marguerite de Navarre
This French classic was published posthumously in 1558. Marguerite de Navarre originally intended to fill The Heptaméron with one hundred short stories spanning ten days but upon the death of the author the collection consisted of seventy-two short stories reaching seven days.
The tales contain central themes of lust, love, sex and other similar synonyms. However, upon first publication, editor Pierre Boaistua only used sixty-seven of the stories and used the title Histoires des amans fortunez. It wasn’t until the second edition by the instructions of Claude Gruget that The Heptaméron was restored to its original intention and order, including all the short stories. Navarre’s frame narrative structure was highly influenced by Boccaccio’s The Decameron and she uses her profound characters to contrast the form through exploring the tales told by a group of travellers. The characters often explore the differences in society and attitudes through the recounting of tales over a seven-day period – hence the title deriving from Greek to mean just that. Throughout the novel, tales are told by different narrators who feature in each story, allowing for a strongly engaging read.
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
My Cousin Rachel shares much of the complexity and grit of its predecessor Rebecca. The narrator Philip becomes obsessed with the idea of his cousin Rachel, following the unexpected death of his beloved cousin and benefactor Ambrose whilst in Italy. As Ambrose’s widow, Rachel becomes implicated in murder accusations following a series of fraught and paranoid letters from Ambrose in his dying weeks. However, after meeting Rachel, Philip becomes enamoured and his resentment manifests into desire and mania. It is a novel which leaves the reader guessing as Rachel shifts between villain and heroine. The mystery and suspicion of the eponymous character is heightened as she is kept at a distance, while Philip’s unreliable narration leaves the reader to question Rachel’s motivations and integrity. Du Maurier writes refreshingly complex and independent female characters who are capable of deceit, murder and manipulation and it is these characteristics which allow Du Maurier’s work to endure. The novel is a slow burner, but nonetheless captivating and its ability to be retold and assessed from various perspectives solidifies Du Maurier’s mastery of her craft.
The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen
The Great God Pan, published in 1894 by Welsh author Arthur Machen, took inspiration from the author’s visit to a pagan temple and comprises one of the greatest Gothic tales ever told, as attested by Stephen King. The novella opens with a controversial science experiment, skirting the line between science and ritual, meant to induce spiritual awakening and the results are devastatingly unexpected. A tragedy unfolds with brutal irreverence. A tragedy Helen Vaughan cannot escape. Thematically, the text asks pertinent questions, querying the concept of independent agency within religious settings. In more recent years, critics have lauded the unification of facets that would fall under the umbrellas of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Gothic within contemporary literature. However, the novella received heavy criticism of innuendo and crass horror throughout the writer’s lifetime, reviews that ultimately tarnished Machen’s reputation. While The Great God Pan incurred criticism during the nineteenth century and beyond, Machen’s literary work has since influenced phenomenal horror writers and become a staple of the genre.