How's the January self-improvement going – were you going to watch TV less, get out more? Televison's so lowbrow, we say, we hardly watch anything these days, and those reality shows are dreadful … wasn't life so much better when there was no TV and people entertained themselves?

Up to a point. Sometimes, when reading the great classics, the books that teach us about relationships and the world and love, the lives lived and the situations dealt with – well, I can't help feeling that some of them could have benefited hugely from TV. And those wonderful characters – mightn't they have improved their lot as participants in those shows we dislike so much? Or at least had more fun …

In Charlotte Brontë's Shirley there's a scene where three of the main characters are spending the evening together, and Robert generously decides to read Shakespeare aloud to the ladies. Hortense says: "'When the gentleman of a family reads, the ladies should always sew. Caroline, dear child, take your embroidery. You may get three sprigs done tonight.' Caroline looked dismayed."

Of course she did. In what world is that preferable to their all settling in to bond over Educating Yorkshire? They would have loved it, given that they live in Yorkshire and Robert is keen on educating Caroline, so it would count as serious telly rather than entertainment.

Then, take George Eliot's Middlemarch, and the miserable marriage of Dorothea and Casaubon. Suppose they had been able to watch Mastermind together, and she'd let him congratulate himself on how well he did, listened perhaps to his pedantic criticism of wording of questions: "I think you'll find that actually … " Might they have been happier together?

Dancing is surprisingly important in Thomas Hardy's Tess of The D'Urbervilles – key meetings with both the important men in her life happen around village dances, and Tess feels slighted when Angel Clare won't partner her. If only she could have watched Strictly Come Dancing – perhaps sitting down together with the other milkmaids, inspired to sew frills on their clothes before practising their salsa steps – she might at least have got some joy in her life before descending into the final disaster.

Madame Bovary would have been a Cumberbitch. Membership of an internet group of Sherlock fans would have been a possibility, hanging out at the stage door, even a little light stalking perhaps, but no more racketing round in cabs and no sad end.

Charles Ryder and Sebastian Flyte of Brideshead Revisited could have appeared on University Challenge: Sebastian drunk and messing up as he represents Christchurch, Charles being much more middle-class and responsible, answering questions for his assumed college (Hertford, like Evelyn Waugh himself), scoring lots of points, the goody-goody.

Elizabeth Gaskell's Wives and Daughters contains a most unusual 19th-century mother and daughter pair: the hideously snobbish and affected Mrs Kirkpatrick, and Cynthia, who turns her cold eye on her mother and is clearly shown as being psychologically damaged by watching her. Mrs K becomes Mrs Gibson, gains a stepdaughter in Molly, and proceeds to make everyone's lives a misery. Now, a good dose of Absolutely Fabulous would have given them a better chance of laughing at themselves and finding some common ground. Dr Gibson, not a man of nuance, would have been delighted to see them all finally getting on together.

Charles Dickens probably should have been kept away from TV. He would have been the person who hosted the Eurovision party, the Oscars event, the FA Cup Final barbeque: then he would have driven everyone mad, organising games and quizzes and forfeits, sweepstakes and drinking games, walking in front of the screen, talking through the good bits, busy being The Immortal, and expecting everyone to be massively grateful. He'd be shocked if they didn't join in with gusto, or were annoyed at missing something vital like an actual goal or result.

George Orwell would have watched Coronation St because he knew he ought to – working-class credentials – and then been pleasantly surprised to find he enjoyed it, with a cup of tea and a cigarette, getting involved in the plotlines.

The women of Muriel Spark's Girls of Slender Means and Mary McCarthy's The Group would surely all have loved Lena Dunham's Girls and a 10-season box set of Friends. Jean Rhys or the miserable ladies in her books would be neurotic pass-agg trouble-causers in the Big Brother house, while Henry James's smart women characters might do well presenting documentaries about the arts – the transatlantic connection so good for BBC/PBS joint funding.

The Bennet women from Pride & Prejudice were born to spend Saturday evenings watching X Factor together, Lizzy pretending she's above it, Lydia shrieking and phoning in multiple votes while showing off, sure she would be "better than them", Mrs B smiling fondly. Mary would say loudly that she'd rather be watching the BBC's Young Musician of the Year on the other side.

Enid Bagnold's National Velvet is just one long pitch for a competitive series called Junior Jockeys, and all those Noel Streatfeild stage-school girls could have entered Britain's Got Talent. And won.

Of course there might have been some terrible mis-steps: Patrick Leigh Fermor, author of A Time of Gifts and its successors, the glorious story of his penniless one-man hike from London to Constantinople, would surely nowadays have a camera crew with him for his journey. He would have had a teaser film on Youtube, and done a daily blog as part of his book contract. Please, no.

But there must be many more books and characters ready to benefit from a boxset of The Killing, a trip to the jungle for I'm a Celebrity, or a nice evening of saved-up Bake-Off epis. Share your ideas below …


Moira Redmond

The GuardianTramp

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