Fellow literature nerds, help me out here
July 26, 2010 9:13 AM   Subscribe

Yet another reading recommendation request. Fellow literature nerds, help me out here. Specific requirements inside.

I am a recently graduated English major who is excited to finally have the time and energy to read any kind of literature I choose at my leisure. So right now I want to read nothing but my favorite: 19th century British novels.

I've already read a few of the major canonical novels: Jane Eyre; Wuthering Heights; Dracula; Tess of the d'Urbervilles; Picture of Dorian Gray; Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; all of Jane Austen; etc. I've also read a handful of random, less well-known works: Lady Audley's Secret; The Moonstone; In a Glass Darkly; the wonderfully creepy ghost stories of M.R. James.

I haven't read any Charles Dickens due to not liking him very much in high school, but I'm willing to give him another go if there is one or two particularly must-read novels of his. Oh and no Joseph Conrad please.

What other novels (or short story collections) should a person with an unhealthy obsession with 19th century literature be obliged to read? They don't have to be canonical, they just have to be entertaining. Density of prose is no concern; I'm also a big fan of Marcel Proust.
posted by Lobster Garden to Writing & Language (45 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
Fellow English major here- I just wanted to recommend Great Expectations by Dickens. It was a great book.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 9:17 AM on July 26, 2010

Thomas Hardy wrote a lot more than Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Oscar Wilde wrote a lot more than Picture of Dorian Gray -- his plays are wonderful -- and Dickens is awesome, really at the heart of 19th century British literature. Start with some of his more kid-oriented books, for example Oliver Twist and Christmas Carol. Pickwick Papers is also a light and fun read.

Also, you have only just begun to read the Brontes . . .
posted by bearwife at 9:21 AM on July 26, 2010

2nding Great Expectations.

With your list, you really can't go wrong with more Hardy- I'd recommend The Mayor of Casterbridge or The Return of the Native

I enjoyed Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White more than The Moonstone.
posted by jz at 9:23 AM on July 26, 2010

Charles Palliser's Quincunx is an ersatz 19th-century epic that, to my ear at least, mimics the Victorian style quite well. On the other hand, it reminds of Dickens, so maybe that's out for you. Also, it's enormous, so should keep you going for a while.
posted by col_pogo at 9:23 AM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You didn't mention Frankenstein, though I imagine you just omitted it. If not, do add that to the list. ;)
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:23 AM on July 26, 2010

It's not from the 19th century, but Aldous Huxley's Crome Yellow satirizes some 19th century themes. It's also pretty short and very funny, so is a nice bit of easy leisure reading.
posted by phunniemee at 9:24 AM on July 26, 2010

Oh, and Poe's corpus.
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:24 AM on July 26, 2010

I second Great Expectations-- it's so often mentioned because it is a great introduction to Dickens. My other recommendation is a bit different from the works you list above-- the Sherlock Holmes stories. I love 19th-century British literature and history, and I love these stories.
posted by TrarNoir at 9:25 AM on July 26, 2010

Jude the Obscure
posted by cmgonzalez at 9:25 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Celsius1414, I am ashamed to admit I haven't actually ever read Frankenstein. It's definitely going on the list.

Poe is good but not British.
posted by Lobster Garden at 9:27 AM on July 26, 2010

Best answer: James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is an odd & lopsided narrative, but still well worth reading.

If you liked M.R. James, you should certainly try some of J. Sheridan Le Fanu's stories.

I love Arthur Machen's The Hill of Dreams, which, while first published in 1907, was written in the mid-1890s.
posted by misteraitch at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2010

I second those who suggested The Return of the Native -- my favorite Hardy novel of all.

Have you read any Mrs. Gatskell? She's not read much here in the U.S., but I took a class about her while studying in London.
posted by wisekaren at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2010

I've got the same taste as you, and I recently went back to Dickens after seeing a few good BBC adaptions. He requires energy - you have to give him the time to build his pictures - but so, so worth it. If you like the parts of Austen that bite ("Mary wished to say something sensible, but knew not how") you'll love Dickens - no one can rip a thing to shreds while flattering it to its face like him. Try the first chapter of Martin Chuzzlewit, for example, in which he destroys the claims of the line of Chuzzlewit while praising them.
posted by L'Estrange Fruit at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2010

For a reintroduction to Dickens, it's Bleak House and Little Dorrit all the way. Also, Middlemarch is one of the best books, ever.
posted by pickypicky at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Even though The Sorrows of Young Werther is neither 19th century nor British, it was a huge influence on 19th century British writing. I recommend that one highly.

I also like Middlemarch by George Eliot, and William Thackery in general.
posted by Ideal Impulse at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2010

Best answer: Pickwick Papers turned out to be a great place to start with Dickens, for me--the thing is just suffused with joy and humor, and even the cramped misery of the debtor's prison scenes doesn't take away from the overwhelming happiness of the book as a whole (although of course there was plenty more misery available in later books).

Have you read Trollope's Palliser novels? I accidentally started with "The Eustace Diamonds" (the third book--the first is "Can You Forgive Her?")--I was on a Evil Female kick after finishing Thackeray's "Vanity Fair"--and it was great. These are a lot of fun, maybe not as deep as Dickens or Austen, but plenty of romantic and political intrigue.

(I know you said British, and Henry James is American, but "The Portrait of a Lady" is gorgeous, thoughtful, and heartrending!)

(And I'll be keeping an eye on this thread to see where I should go next after my Dickens obsession has finally died down!)
posted by mittens at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It's quite odd, but I loved it; reminds me, in a way, of Lady Audley's Secret (but more odd).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 9:34 AM on July 26, 2010

Anthony Trollope! My favorite Victorian author. I started with The Eustace Diamonds, which is the middle of a series but still readable on its own. If it turns out you like Trollope, you've got a LOT of reading ahead of you.
posted by JanetLand at 9:37 AM on July 26, 2010

I really enjoyed Scott's novels Guy Mannering and The Antiquarian. And Sheridan Le Fanu's ghost stories are quite good too.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 9:38 AM on July 26, 2010

What about the works of Anthony Trollope?
posted by Hanuman1960 at 9:39 AM on July 26, 2010

Another favorite: It's not exactly a novel, and not exactly an autobiography, but something in between: Lark Rise to Candleford. A wonderful look at what life was like for un-rich country people in Victorian England.
posted by JanetLand at 9:42 AM on July 26, 2010

You got me to looking at reading my reading list of the last few years, as I've been doing a lot of "catching up" in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some selections:

* The Sherlock Holmeses
* Erewhon (Samuel Butler)
* Jungle Book 1 & 2 and other Kipling
* HG Wells?
* King Solomon's Mines (Haggard)
posted by Celsius1414 at 9:42 AM on July 26, 2010

Also, John Galsworthy's The Forsyte Saga begins in Victorian England and moves through the Boer War and then World War I.
posted by JanetLand at 9:44 AM on July 26, 2010 [2 favorites]

Yep, Trollope. If you want to read a self-contained one rather than starting a series, He Knew He Was Right is magnificent.
posted by escabeche at 9:49 AM on July 26, 2010

Best answer: I'm a Victorianist, so I could go all day here :)


1. More Brontes: head for Charlotte B.'s Villette and sister Anne's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
2. Besides the Collins mentioned above, try Armadale.
3. Dickens: once you get past Great Expectations, I'd suggest some combination of A Tale of Two Cities, Little Dorrit, David Copperfield (Dickens' own pet novel), and Bleak House.
4. George Eliot: start short(er) with The Mill on the Floss, then try Middlemarch and Daniel Deronda.
5. Elizabeth Gaskell: Mary Barton, North and South, and Sylvia's Lovers. Her Gothic short stories are also very good.
6. Hardy: besides Jude and Tess, try The Mayor of Casterbridge and Return of the Native, plus the short stories (Penguin has reprinted several of them).
7. Rudyard Kipling: Kim and the short stories.
8. J. S. Le Fanu: If you've tried In a Glass Darkly, see what you can do with his best novel, Uncle Silas.
9. W. M. Thackeray: Thackeray is an uneven novelist, and even Victorianists tend to wince at the really late work, but definitely read Vanity Fair.
10. Anthony Trollope: Oh, dear, there's a lot of Trollope. He tends to be consistent, though. If you've only got time to read a stand-alone Trollope novel, try The Way We Live Now; if you've got time to spare, read through the Palliser novels and the Chronicles of Barsetshire (both are six novels apiece).

First half of the nineteenth century, aside from the previously-mentioned Mary S.:

1. Maria Edgeworth: Castle Rackrent. Extremely short satirical novel about the decline and fall of a wealthy (once) Irish family.
2. James Hogg: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. A really terrific novel about a man and...the devil? (James Robertson's recent novel The Testament of Gideon Mack is a riff on Hogg.)
3. Sir Walter Scott (a.k.a. the novelist everyone else in the nineteenth century was imitating or attacking): the three novels which seem to work best for modern readers are The Heart of Midlothian (one sister tries to rescue another from the charge of infanticide), The Bride of Lammermoor (meddling parents, curses, etc.), and Old Mortality (the Covenanters). Kenilworth, however, is a surprisingly fast read, and the alternate history novel Redgauntlet is also worth a go.

There are a lot of short story anthologies out there--you might start off by looking for Michael Cox's name in the editorial slot.
posted by thomas j wise at 9:55 AM on July 26, 2010 [7 favorites]

Another vote for Thackeray. If you haven't read Vanity Fair, you should. Not a lot of 19th century novels are laugh out loud funny, but this one is.
posted by Sculthorpe at 9:59 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The Last Man by Mary Shelley
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 10:01 AM on July 26, 2010

John Galt?
posted by serazin at 10:14 AM on July 26, 2010

I think Middlemarch (George Eliot) is pretty much the best novel ever written. I like her other novels too, though she does put in too much transliterated dialect for my liking.
posted by altolinguistic at 10:16 AM on July 26, 2010

Best answer: I'm a fellow Victorianist! My picks:

My favourite Hardy is The Woodlanders
Mary Ward -- Marcella.
Charlotte M. Yonge -- The Clever Woman of the Family.
Ellen Wood -- East Lynne
George Gissing -- The Odd Women and New Grub Street.

(I'm not in Broadview's pocket or anything. I just like their editions.)
posted by atropos at 10:22 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

Another vote for Hogg, and another for Bleak House. I read Bleak House travelling across Canada on a train about 15 years ago and managed to enjoy both.
posted by Logophiliac at 10:31 AM on July 26, 2010

> Middlemarch is one of the best books, ever.

Yup. And another vote here for Hogg. (I had no idea so many people had discovered this guy!)
posted by languagehat at 10:33 AM on July 26, 2010

Wilkie Collins' No Name is Entertainment with a capital E with curlicues on. I can't fathom why it's not a big-budget BBC miniseries yet.

Gaskell's North and South is for when you've already read Pride and Prejudice too many times and need the same sort of will-they-won't-they romance, but with more Industrial Revolution. Wives and Daughters is good too.

Lorna Doone is Scott-like, if you get into Scott. Have you read Ivanhoe?


Dracula is entertaining, in a 'what the hell?' kind of way. Conan Doyle's non-Holmes books, like the Brigadier Gerard series and The Lost World, are fun too.

My gateway Dickes was Our Mutual Friend. I had a hard time getting into him until I clicked with that one for some reason, then I devoured all the rest (except for Dombey and Son.. snore).
posted by Erasmouse at 10:46 AM on July 26, 2010

Rudyard Kipling's Kim is on the cusp of not being 19th century, but I recently re-read it and enjoyed it immensely.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:11 AM on July 26, 2010

Jerome K. Jerome - Three Men In A Boat (To Say Nothing Of The Dog) a classic of 19th century humor.

Joshua Slocum - Sailing Alone Around The World. Autobiographical chronicle of the first solo circumnavigation of the globe.

Charles Kingsley - The Water Babies (A Fairy Tale For A Land-Baby). Children's novel about a chimney sweep who falls into a fairie river-world. A classic of British children's literature.

Richard Henry Dana - Two Years Before The Mast. contains pre-Gold Rush descriptions of California, as well as vividly detailing the conditions of life aboard a ship at sea in the mid-1800's.
posted by namewithoutwords at 11:20 AM on July 26, 2010

Vanity Fair!

I hated Great Expectations, but I love love Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.

Oh, and H. Rider Haggard, for the sheer over-the-top-itude.
posted by mishaps at 11:31 AM on July 26, 2010

E.M. Forster wrote in the early 20th century, but he's wonderful and plays around with a lot of themes from earlier British lit. A Room with a View and Howard's End are probably the most traditional (though they still mess around with some conventions); A Passage to India and Maurice are more explicitly subversive.
posted by oinopaponton at 11:37 AM on July 26, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm a Romanticist.

Consider dipping into the 18th century a bit, cause they've got most of the good Gothic! Start with The Castle of Otranto (Horace Walpole) to get a little bit of a sense of the utter weirdness of the genre. If you want to torture yourself with slow-moving prose and/or read what most of Austen's heroines were reading, try something by Anne Radclyffe, probably "The Mysteries of Udolpho" or "The Italian." Then read The Monk (Matthew "Monk" Lewis) for one of the most over-the-top bodice-rippers you'll ever lay eyes on. By then you'll know enough to go back to "Northanger Abbey" and get most of the jokes. If you like the over-the-top crazyland style, though, try "Vathek" by William Beckford and "Zofloya" by Charlotte Dacre, although to my mind nothing beats The Monk.

The link between the Gothic and the Crime Thriller (and also just a staggeringly good read in its own right) is Caleb Williams by Godwin (Mary Shelley's dad, FYI). Make sure you get an edition with both endings.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 12:13 PM on July 26, 2010

Seconding Walter Scott. The Heart of Midlothian in particular is well-paced, funny, touching, and engaging, and also manages to convey a lot of great information about its time and place: sectarian tensions, rule of law, the communitarian implications of pregnancy outside of marriage, etc. And the narrative style verges on cinematic.
posted by AkzidenzGrotesk at 12:31 PM on July 26, 2010

How about The Scottish Chiefs by Jane Porter? A novel about William Wallace published in 1810. I remember it being terribly exciting.
posted by Allee Katze at 2:15 PM on July 26, 2010

Here to nth the Hardy suggestions. I particularly like The Mayor of Casterbridge. You might also want to pick up J.S. LeFanu's vampire novel Carmilla, which dips into the Gothic a whole lot. I'd also like to second all of Pickman's Next Top Model's (love the Lovecraft reference there) comment for the Gothic immersion since you like Dracula.
posted by blueskiesinside at 6:34 PM on July 26, 2010

If you liked Tess of the d'Urbervilles, try Jude the Obscure.
posted by MidsizeBlowfish at 8:35 PM on July 26, 2010

Lady Audley's Secret! love it. that book is a trip.

Middlemarch is a wonderful novel. I also really love and highly recommend Villette, above all the other books from the Brontes. Seconding Mary Barton, Jude and Return of the Native, and Vanity Fair really is extremely funny.
posted by citron at 9:20 PM on July 26, 2010

It was published in 1908, but I'd strongly recommend reading The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton.

It's an extremely ingenious book as well as an allegory and remains one of my favourite books of all time.
posted by Senza Volto at 10:31 PM on July 26, 2010

I vote for H. Rider Haggard and Allen Quatermain, the Indiana Jones of the British Empire.
posted by greytape at 1:32 PM on July 27, 2010

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