Following the findings from scientists that novels teach us to be better people, here are 10 classic novels and the dubious lessons I have learned from them:
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I learned to desire the sulky brooding boy at school, the one who holds himself apart and looks down on you. I learned to dream that I might one day reform and win this Darcy type – even that this was in the natural order of things. This has caused me much grief. I'm afraid that the arrogant and unavailable man is not usually reformed. The arrogant and unavailable man doesn't ring you in the morning.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
See above. Ditto.
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
I learned that you have to be very very careful about exes. And there's nothing worse than a dead ex. Actually, there is – a living wet blanket. I aspired to be the dead and devilish Rebecca with her lovers and her perfect stationery rather than the wet weekend that was the new Mrs De Winter.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
From Madame Bovary I learnt to fear a stultifying marriage. I was cheering her on when she was going round Rouen having sex in the back of that carriage. I do admit, though, that she shouldn't have spent all her husband's money on soft furnishings.
Mary Poppins by P L Travers
The lesson here is that you should never be ashamed to call in a nanny. Couples can polarise, the father often takes up a rigid authoritarian position (see also another great story: The Sound of Music) and needs to be softened by the arrival of fun, laughter and music.
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
From this I learned that I never, never wanted to be a Miss Havisham. Visions of the ancient jilted bride still in her rotting wedding dress still haunt me. If someone breaks your heart, then immediately have a haircut, go to the gym, lose weight. Move on, move on.
Winnie The Pooh by A A Milne
And likewise – better not be an Eeyore. Show me the honey.
Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
From this I learned that even the most angelic-seeming man can be a monster of unreasonableness. Won't put out the rubbish, won't ask for directions when you're lost, won't contemplate sleeping with you if you're not a virgin. I also resolved never to slip important messages under doors. (See also Romeo and Juliet: make sure beloved is dead before you off yourself.) The real definition of tragedy is utterly pointless unhappiness.
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald
One of my favourite novels ever, and from it I learnt to long for brittle glamour. Never mind that Gatsby is found shot and floating face down in his swimming pool. Fitzgerald set out to indict a world where the young Gatsby didn't marry the young Daisy because he couldn't afford her – but his glorious prose captures ephemeral glamour so magically that I yearned for nothing more than to be among those unhappy people whose voices were "full of money".
Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding
From this I learned that if I wanted money, there was a lot of it to be made in fiction for young women, otherwise known as Chick Lit.