When it comes to English Literature, some truths are irrefutable: Never trust a man who looks too good to be true. Malicious gossip is more fatal than a cup of strychnine-spiked tea. And no amount of inner turmoil cannot be fixed by a brisk walk amongst Meryton’s verdant wood/Yorkshire’s blustery moors/Wessex’s fecund vales.
But there are some subtleties to this vast and storied canon that can only be appreciated by the fervid Anglophile reader. Those readers, too, will likely pick up habits and perspectives, passions and paranoias, informed by that rich cultural and literary tradition. Here’s an example: I dislike tea, but I continually find myself making a cup before hunkering down with a novel, possibly in a conscious effort to implement ritual into an otherwise chaotic world, but more likely in an unconscious effort to pretend I’m in a Henry James novel. (He did famously state, in the first line of the first chapter of The Portrait of a Lady, that “There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”)
You probably already know if you’re an English lit fan — I can’t imagine there are too many of us who read Thomas Hardy for fun. But how can you tell if you’ve teetered off the edge of the “casual, if dedicated, enjoyment of the literature” edifice and down into the hectic cobblestone’d streets of insufferable obsession? Here are a few key warning signs.
You have a favorite Shakespeare play, which you will defend to the death...
It's The Tempest, guys. (Also, you're beginning to find Kenneth Branagh strangely attractive.)
...and you have a favorite classics publishing press, to which you are unendingly loyal
Penguin Classics? Oxford World Classics? Dover Thrift Editions? Pick your poison.
You understand the power of a punchy couplet...
...like, for example, the heroic couplet, a form favored by the likes of Geoffery Chaucer. Refresher course: the heroic couplet form is constructed by rhyming pairs of lines in iambic pentameter. Alexander Pope was a master in the art of the mock-epic, and his clutch use of heroic couplets is what makes reading his 1712 narrative poem "The Rape of the Lock" an utter joy. I'm not even kidding, it's amazing. Thank you, rhyme schemes!
Whether or not you actually finished Middlemarch/The Mill on the Floss/Daniel Deronda (don't even pretend you finished Silas Marner), you idolize George Eliot...
...because she was one of the first-ever female editors (of The Westminster Review, at age 32). Because she had a solid, passionate, mutually-respected relationship with George Henry Lewes without ever actually officially getting married. Because her personal journals in themselves are rich, complex works of literature. Because she wrote this line: "People are almost always better than their neighbors think they are." And this one: "And, of course men know best about everything, except what women know better."
You can differentiate among the Brontës...
...and you also know their pen names. Charlotte/Currer Bell wrote Jane Eyre, Shirley, and Villette; Emily/Ellis Bell wrote Wuthering Heights; Anne/Acton Bell wrote Agnes Grey and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. You're welcome.
You either love or loathe the Romantics...
...because one cannot feel neutral toward the Romantics. You also know the difference between Keats (sappy odes, negative capability, looks like Ben Whishaw), Shelley (Ozymandias, has an impossible-to-pronounce middle name that sounds like an STD), and Byron (Don Juan, playboy with a clubfoot).
You laughed harder reading The Castle of Otranto than you did reading Bossypants...
...because Horace Walpole's 1764 Gothic masterpiece begins with a young lord being crushed to death (or "dashed to pieces") by a massive helmet that's fallen off of a statue and squarely onto his doomed person. Much of the 18th-century Gothic canon is a similar riot of slapstick annihilations, hirsute, brooding villains, and useless heroines, and it's all wonderfully hilarious.
In your downtime, you enjoy coming up with the most Dickensian names possible
Tilly Chalkington. Tobias Shuttlecock. Immy Featherstone. Benedict Cumberbatch.
You celebrate Bloomsday, even if you've never read Ulysses
...because, if 80 years of advertising is to be believed (and why shouldn't it!), Guinness is good for you. It was good enough for James Joyce, anyway, until he died of complications involving a perforated ulcer.
You are awesome at identifying first lines...
...like this one: “Once upon a midnight dreary, as I pondered weak and weary…”
And this one: “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.”
You obviously know this one: "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."
But what about this one? “What's it going to be then, eh?” (Hint: the character is speaking Nadsat, which, by the way, you knew better than English at one point in your life.)
...and you become unjustifiably excited when a Jeopardy! category has anything remotely to do with classic literature...
...because you obviously watch Jeopardy!, and you take it very seriously.
You make it a point to read major writers’ lesser-known works...
...like George Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying, C.S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, D.H. Lawrence's Kangaroo, Roald Dahl's Switch Bitch...yeah you're extremely well-read whatever it's fine.
You believe that a plot without a marriage plot is no plot at all
Ah, the marriage plot. Whether you cheered for Jane and Rochester, Benedick and Beatrice, or Bridget Jones and Mr. Darcy, you can’t even pretend to resist the antiquated charms of a tricky courtship. Of course, there's nothing wrong with literature that doesn't end in wedded bliss — you're a grown-ass, 21st-century woman — but you can't help but feel soothed (or is it vindicated?) when love prevails.