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Five unusual families from the classics

Classic novels are a breeding ground of unusual families, a world away from what most would call home. We’ve chosen five that break the mould of the traditional nuclear family 

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

'Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.' So begins this 19th century Russian novel, where Anna begins an affair that eventually leads to her own tragic demise. Set against the backdrop of varying happiness and misery, it’s a story of marriage, forgiveness, and the value of family itself.

Ada or Ardor, Vladimir Nabokov

In Nabokov’s unforgettable invented world of Antiterra – a dreamlike, timebending mix of America and Russia – two teenagers begin an incestuous relationship, believing that they are cousins. Only later do they discover that they are in fact brother and sister in this controversial yet rapturous novel.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson 

Most of the Blackwood family have been murdered – all except Merricat, her sister Constance and Uncle Julian, who are left behind in the crumbling family mansion. The mystery of who killed the rest of the family is brilliantly questioned in this Gothic masterpiece as the survivors remain isolated indoors, ostracized by the villagers nearby. 

The Pumpkin Eater by Penelope Mortimer 

An unsettling novel peppered with black humour, Mrs Armitage is living an empty life, married to her well-paid fourth husband and barely in touch with her children from previous marriages. After a nervous breakdown in the linen department of Harrods, she begins to realise that marriage, children and a traditional family life might not be the reason for living, after all.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy 

Tess is one of the most tragic heroines in all of literature, as her love and trust for those around her contributes to her downfall. Part of the peasant family Durbeyfields, she is sent to claim kin with the aristocratic D’Urbervilles on a journey that ends in unthinkable tragedy. 

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane is an orphan, resented and mistreated by her heartless aunt and abusive cousins. She passes through the years of a dire boarding school and starts teaching as a governess, all the while searching for happiness and a family she can call her own. Ever so satisfyingly, she finds just that in her kindred spirit and new master Mr Rochester – but only after a few complications along the way. 

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