Exploring class and society

Pink logo with text: the novels that shaped our world

This summer, we’re diving into the BBC’s list of 100 novels that  shaped our world.

One of the categories is class and society, and the BBC panel selected these 10 books:

  • A House for Mr Biswas – V. S. Naipaul
  • Cannery Row – John Steinbeck
  • Disgrace – J.M. Coetzee
  • Our Mutual Friend – Charles Dickens
  • Poor Cow – Nell Dunn
  • Saturday Night and Sunday Morning – Alan Sillitoe
  • The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne – Brian Moore
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie – Muriel Spark
  • The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  • Wide Sargasso Sea – Jean Rhys

Learn more about the relationship between class and literature in the related BBC documentary, The Class Ceiling – available on Box of Broadcasts.

The Remains of the Day is a favourite of Robert Curry from the library, who told us:

As with all of Kazuo Ishiguro’s books, this is a subtle and challenging novel. The Remains of the Day examines the damaging nature of the socially encultured expected humility, and internalised ‘dignified’ behaviour of those in ‘service’ in the mid-twentieth century in England. This damage is embodied in the repressed character of Mr. Stevens the butler, and his uncritical submissive ‘dignity’ that ignores the nascent fascism of his master as well as his own complex feelings. Thus we find someone tragically not allowing themselves a natural inner life where seeded emotional bonds can grow into love.

Robert Curry from Oxford Brookes library holding a copy of The Remains of the Day by Kazuo IshiguroMany of the novels that have an impact on us are set in that strange borderland between teens and adulthood. The film adaptations of both The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning capture this coming-of-age mood, in very different ways.

Another novel about young adulthood is Poor Cow – also adapted for the screen and available to watch on Box Broadcasts.

Unlike the pages for many of the books on the BBC’s list, the Wikipedia page for Poor Cow is very brief. If you’ve got some time over the summer and fancy extending this page with more content and links, then do it! Let us know how you get on.

Box of Broadcasts offers a range of views of the life and work of VS Naipaul. This Arena documentary from 2018 is a profile of the author and gives a good biographical background. It’s interesting to compare that to the 2019 programme, The Trouble with Naipaul presented by Shahidha Bari, which questions whether Naipaul’s views on race, gender and colonialism should affect his reputation.

Of course, it’s not just English lecturers like Bari that use novels from this list as the basis for their research. Doc, the idiosyncratic scientist from Cannery Row was based on the real-life biologist, Ed Ricketts. John Steinbeck’s novel generated interest in the Monterey community and in Ricketts himself, as typified in this article in BioScience by Sharon Levy.

Finally, we’ve found a beautiful postcard on ArtStor, showing Charles Dickens reading to his daughters. We can’t all have our world shaped by a personal encounter like this, but – as Robert illustrates – we can still have our lives and views shaped by the novels we read.



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