What's next after Middlemarch?
April 5, 2019 8:23 AM   Subscribe

I just finished reading Middlemarch, and it was like the love of reading was reborn for me. The prose, the observations about humanity, the naturalistic evolution of an interlocking set of characters ... So what the heck to I read next that is similarly ambitious and wonderful? Do I just go through her entire catalog, or are there more classics I should discover? I've read a lot of the biggies (War & Peace, Anna Karenina, Moby Dick) but maybe rereading is in order? I doubt I paid that much attention when I first read them.
posted by schwinggg! to Media & Arts (60 answers total) 92 users marked this as a favorite
For modern stuff that is similarly ambitious I would recommend

The Goldfinch
The Essex Serpent
Midnight's Children
posted by brookeb at 8:29 AM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

We read the Mill on the Floss at school, also by George Eliot, and I remember simply adoring it, from start to finish.

So that one comes highly recommended by my 17 year old self (And now you've inspired me to read it again!)
posted by JenThePro at 8:30 AM on April 5, 2019 [6 favorites]

I'm a huge Trollope fan, and while he's not Eliot, no one is, he might feed the same appetite. Start with The Warden and follow with Barchester Towers, and if you like those read anything -- he wrote a million novels and they're almost all pretty much on a level.

And you could do worse than finishing Eliot. She's more irregular, but The Mill On The Floss is amazing and so are Adam Bede and Felix Holt.
posted by LizardBreath at 8:32 AM on April 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

Yes to reading more Eliot - so good. Also Jane Austen but I presume you have read her too. In no particular order I would also recommend:
Les Miserables
A Suitable Boy
The Count of Monte Cristo
Tess of the D'Urbervilles - actually much of Hardy

...that should keep you busy for a year or more!
posted by london explorer girl at 8:32 AM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Try Thackeray! Vanity Fair is funnier than Middlemarch, but shares many of the features you describe liking in Eliot. Pendennis is similarly great.

Seconding Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss-- also Romola.
posted by Bardolph at 8:40 AM on April 5, 2019 [12 favorites]

You might also like Gaskell's North and South, Thackeray's Vanity Fair, and if I was picking a Trollope, I'd choose The Way We Live Now, though it unfortunately features period anti-Semitism.
posted by praemunire at 8:41 AM on April 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

The prose, the observations about humanity, the naturalistic evolution of an interlocking set of characters
Have you read Jane Eyre?
And The Age of Innocence.
posted by nantucket at 8:42 AM on April 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Seconding (thirding?) Mill on the Floss and also lots of Hardy - Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess, Jude, Mayor of Casterbridge, Return of the Native specifically.
posted by the webmistress at 8:43 AM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Yes to rereading Anna Karenina if you read it ages ago and have no recollection of it. The Pevear and Volokhonsky translation is fantastic. The main thought I had when reading AK was "How did Tolstoy know so much?" It seems incredibly psychologically modern.
posted by swheatie at 8:58 AM on April 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Oh, hey, Brontes. Jane Eyre is terrific, of course, but Villette is maybe even more interesting -- certainly weirder.
posted by LizardBreath at 9:06 AM on April 5, 2019 [7 favorites]

Seconding A Suitable Boy. I thought it was absolutely wonderful and breathtaking in its scope.
posted by peacheater at 9:26 AM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Brothers Karamazov (cannot put down!)
Stendhal's Scarlet and Black (or Red and Black)
Vanity Fair for sure!!
The same year I read Middlemarch, I also read Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend, which was a lot of fun.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 9:28 AM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Oh and you CANNOT go wrong with One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez - I've read it about five times... it's perfect every time.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 9:29 AM on April 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Dressed to Kill beat me to it, I was also going to recommend Our Mutual Friend.
posted by saladin at 9:33 AM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
posted by ogorki at 9:40 AM on April 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: OK, I'm gonna throw down here: I will read EVERY BOOK* recommended in this thread (as long as it's not in jest and doesn't cross-reference a pre-existing list of books.) If it takes me the rest of my life! (I picked up Middlemarch on a whim and decided to commit to reading it in the month of March, and that self-challenge really worked, so why not?)

* limit 100 answers.
posted by schwinggg! at 9:45 AM on April 5, 2019 [17 favorites]

Highly nthing trying out Hugo's Les Miserables after this.

Little Women? I feel like it gets forgotten today, but It's good!

Also, Crime and Punishment
posted by dis_integration at 9:47 AM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. It very much felt like a modern Middlemarch. Small town in the English countryside, social changes, ensemble cast, electoral drama....
posted by basalganglia at 9:48 AM on April 5, 2019

We read the Mill on the Floss at school, also by George Eliot, and I remember simply adoring it, from start to finish.

I read it a couple of years ago, and it was wonderful.

Read Willa Cather, especially The Song of the Lark.

I loved Steinbeck when I was a kid and read most of him by 8th grade. I should do it again.

Herman Wouk is great for "observations on humanity" and evocative prose.
posted by jgirl at 9:48 AM on April 5, 2019

The Plum in the Golden Vase is an early 17th C. classic that is, beyond a certain point, stunningly beautiful over and over again and hugely ambitious in scope. It starts small and fairly often revisits topics like political corruption, murder, very graphic sex, and so on, which isn't very relevant to your question. But it's a ~2500 page novel full of slowly unfolding wonder at the poetry in basically everything, and although it focuses on just one family, the 'dramatis personae' text included with each volume itself runs to around 50 pages. So it definitely puts interlocking character evolutions, observations about humanity, and so on in the foreground. The link goes to a review that hides more detail behind spoiler warnings, but it's not really that spoilery if you want to know which scenes I appreciated most.
posted by cpound at 9:48 AM on April 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

Little Women? I feel like it gets forgotten today, but It's good!

So is Little Men! I love the chapter "In the Willow."

Then there's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.
posted by jgirl at 9:51 AM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Seconding Villette. I really liked that book!

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall was a nice dense read. All of her books are really different from each other, more than is true of most writers. A Place of Greater Safety is also fantastic.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 10:04 AM on April 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

Sigrid Undsett's Kristin Lavrandatter trilogy! Be sure to get the Tina Nunnally translation.
posted by prewar lemonade at 10:07 AM on April 5, 2019 [8 favorites]

I recommend House of Mirth. To me, Wharton is wonderful to read and feels very modern, in some ways it feels more contemporary to me than some later American fiction.
posted by vunder at 10:11 AM on April 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

I adore both Portrait of a Lady and Wharton, especially The Age of Innocence, but they're not really "big-canvas" books in the way I think OP may be asking for. (But you should read them anyway, OP!!!)

I have not yet scaled the mountain that is Balzac, but my understanding is that Le Pere Goriot (and the Human Comedy generally) would fill your bill.
posted by praemunire at 10:19 AM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Rumer Godden's in This House of Brede
posted by Enid Lareg at 10:20 AM on April 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

the observations about humanity, the naturalistic evolution of an interlocking set of characters

I mean… there’s always Proust? If you can cope with his prose style. The evolution of an interlocking set of characters, and how they change over time and from different perspectives; those are very much his thing. I loved it when I read it, many years ago, but every so often I pick it up again, get part way through one of his meandering paragraphs, and think maybe once was enough.

The Leopard, by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, is a terrific novel about declining aristocracy in Sicily in the 1860s (written in the 1950s but with a relatively old-fashioned feel to it).
posted by Bloxworth Snout at 10:25 AM on April 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

Modern side: The Night Circus
posted by wellred at 10:26 AM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Nthing Les Misérables. I was going to also say War And Peace, but I see you've read it.

Regarding translations of Les Mis: Fahnestock & McAfee for Signet Classics is the standard. Christine Donougher's recent version, with the title given as The Wretched, is also good and has excellent notes in the back for the myriad 1820s-30s Parisian cultural references.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:29 AM on April 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Don't forget Dickens! Bleak House gets overlooked a lot, but I also love David Copperfield.
posted by Occula at 10:30 AM on April 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Seconding Edith Wharton and putting in a vote for House of Mirth. Her ability to bring you into the inner lives and minds of her characters reminds me of Elliot, and her prose is remarkable. I remember, about 30 years ago, sitting on my back porch reading a sentence towards the end of the book. That one, relatively short sentence had worlds and worlds in it.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 10:39 AM on April 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

Nthing A Suitable Boy, and Proust (if you feel up to it).
Try A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book -- it's about a set of English families whose lives interlock as the Edwardian Age ends and WWI begins.
posted by ourobouros at 10:40 AM on April 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yes, A Casual Vacancy and A Suitable Boy are both modern takes on Middlemarch and they are both excellent.
posted by chaiminda at 10:42 AM on April 5, 2019

Came in here to suggest Trollope and Thackeray—for Trollope, the Palliser novels scratched this particular itch for me. By the end of it you've followed a number of characters for their entire adult lives.
posted by Polycarp at 11:20 AM on April 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

I loooove Trollope. Before I lost the capacity to read along about the time Facebook came along, I read a ton of Iris Murdoch and loved it. I just read Shirley, having looked at it on the bookshelf for like 20 years. It somehow grabbed me, and now I want to find this Villette because I remember vastly preferring Wuthering Heights to Jane Eyre. Was I right to? Given recent results, probably not. Don't forget Jane Austen. Melville is a joy. Try Typee. Pretty much anything George Eliot. I think Daniel Deronda lost me, but that was probably a time-of-life problem like Jane Eyre.
posted by Don Pepino at 11:28 AM on April 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yes to rereading Tolstoy. I found Anna Karenina more enjoyable once I knew that there would be a lot of farming.

Vanity Fair, a reread of War and Peace, and finish with The Charterhouse of Parma.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:32 AM on April 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

The Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andrić.
posted by bdc34 at 11:52 AM on April 5, 2019

Not long after reading Middlemarch (which I loved) I read Caroyn Chute's Merry Men and thought it seemed a lot like a modern-day Middlemarch. I recommend it.
posted by Redstart at 12:04 PM on April 5, 2019

I love George Eliot, and I really, really love Trollope and Hardy.

Some more recent (relatively) books in that vein:

Robertson Davies' trilogies - the Salterton trilogy, the Deptford trilogy, and the Cornish trilogy. Fantastic and deep storytelling, complexity, humanity.

The Line of Beauty - Alan Hollinghurst.

The Goldfinch - Tartt, The Remains of the Day - Ishiguro, White Teeth- Smith could also fit the bill.
posted by hiker U. at 12:14 PM on April 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Nthing the suggestion for Vanity Fair! Engrossing!
posted by sallybrown at 12:36 PM on April 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Yikes, no one has mentioned E.M. Forster (including me). How did that happen? That's quite an omission when you're talking about the pantheon of English (and particularly British) novelists.

His novels are deeply felt stories of moral development that often turn on questions of class and caste. Most people will point to A Passage to India, but my personal favorite is Howard's End. His books aren't as capacious as Eliot's (they weren't serialized), but they are wonderful.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 12:40 PM on April 5, 2019 [4 favorites]

I don't want to put down Eliot, but I will say that after Middlemarch, for me at least, everything else paled in comparison. I'd recommend a different author as a buffer before heading for that flossy mill (and the latter's heavy use of hee-yuk dialect transcription, if I recall correctly?).

On a positive note, nthing Wharton, Charlotte Bronte, and Proust (not least because I like the idea of reading Recherche just as a buffer).
posted by Beardman at 12:41 PM on April 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

hmm, re "observations about humanity," all of Virginia Woolf? Start with "To the Lighthouse," though.
posted by elgee at 1:16 PM on April 5, 2019

For Austen, Pride and Prejudice is the biggie (for good reason!) but don’t overlook Northanger Abbey which is lesser known and wonderful.

For Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities is pretty ambitious and wonderful.

Sir Walter Scott isn’t popular these days which is too bad because he was a prolific genius. I’d start with The Antiquary, which was Scott’s favorite of his own novels.
posted by bananacabana at 1:29 PM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

Ah, you seek Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. World-building from the interior out, perfect in its prose, heartbreaking in its minute observations of how people are. Read it slowly, ad imagine yourself jumping from mind to mind.
posted by MonkeyToes at 2:24 PM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

2nding 'Charterhouse of Parma' especially for Stendhal's hilarious asides & digressions!

For Dostoyevsky, I would recommend 'Demons' (AKA 'The Possessed') for having a more interesting plot than some of his other more famous books.
posted by ovvl at 2:45 PM on April 5, 2019

Need some Conrad on this list, and not the usual suspects (Heart of Darkness, Secret Sharer). Maybe Lord Jim, or the [unfortunately titled] Nigger of the 'Narcissus'.

+1 to Count of Monte Cristo, just rollicking good fun

Not sure if we're supposed to be doing only 19th century; if not:
Steinbeck, East of Eden
James Jones, Some Came Running
posted by Bron at 3:18 PM on April 5, 2019 [2 favorites]

You might like reading Rebecca Mead's My Life in Middlemarch.
posted by apricot at 3:26 PM on April 5, 2019

'A Dance to The Music of Time' series by Anthony Powell. It's a handful, maybe I'd start with 'A Buyer's Market'.

'Strangers and Brothers' series by C.P.Snow is another handful, maybe I'd start with 'The Light and The Dark'.

I noticed James Jones mentioned above, I'd also note that 'Some Came Running' is a sort of sequel to the famous 'From Here to Eternity', which is more sprawling & complex than could be contained in the famous film version. If we start to include some more sprawling & complex 20th century novels, then maybe James Michener or Leon Uris might appear.
posted by ovvl at 3:40 PM on April 5, 2019 [1 favorite]

Knut Hamsun, particularly Growth of the soil. Do be aware that later in life he supported the Nazis. Like really supported them. But I don't remember any anti-Semitism in his work, and certainly Growth of the soil was written long before.

AS Byatt has been mentioned but not, I think, Possession which I think fits the bill beautifully.

Murasaki Shikibu's Genji Monogatari. I link to the Wikipedia page because it is not an easy read and you'd want to choose the translation you think might work best.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:04 PM on April 5, 2019

Oh, and if you don't mind including genre fiction, Dorothy L Sayers's Gaudy Night is perfect. Plus if you haven't already met Peter and Harriet you have other Sayers to read to enjoy their company further.
posted by Athanassiel at 5:07 PM on April 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

The Sea of Fertility tetralogy by Mishima would be my suggestion. It’s wonderful.

Btw is there such a thing as second hand “eponisterical”? If not I’m claiming it as the Middlemarch effect.
posted by Middlemarch at 5:30 PM on April 5, 2019 [3 favorites]

John Galsworthy's complete Forsyte Saga, which is 9 books (and a handful of short stories) collected into 3 trilogies. It's a family saga, rather than a small-town story, and Galsworthy looks at humanity with a more jaundiced eye than George Elliot, but oooooooh does he understand what makes people tick and he lets you follow them through their entire lifespan as they grow and change and stagnate and triumph and despair. You simultaneously like and hate all the characters. Nobody's a hero, but you always understand what's motivating them when they do awful things. I ripped through 3,000+ pages of novels in a month!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:22 PM on April 5, 2019 [5 favorites]

For someone contemporary, I’d suggest Marilynne Robinson. Start with Housekeeping, them move on to Gilead, Home, and Lila. The latter three all deal with mostly the same people from different points of view and, read together, are somewhat like Middlemarch in their deep dive into a small community. And the writing itself is beautiful.
posted by FencingGal at 6:32 AM on April 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Sunset Song by Lwis Grassic Gibbon (read it online)
Voted the best Scottish book of all time by Scots!

The Emigrants - series of four novels by Vilhelm Moberg
Best Swedish novel(s) in the opinion of Swedes!
After you've read all four, watch the dramatization starring Liv Ulman and Max Van Sydow. So good.

The Cairo Trilogy - beginning with Palace Walk
Nobel-prize winning author! Eleven on a scale of one to ten. You'll thank me.

The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (read it online)

The other one by Thomas Mann

Thirding (fourthing?) A Suitable Boy

I assume you've read all Jane Austen? If not, how I envy you.
posted by Transl3y at 2:30 PM on April 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

I thought there was no way someone would beat me to In This House of Brede and yet here we are!

Henry James scratches this itch for me too. The Wings of the Dove is my favorite.
posted by Threeve at 4:38 PM on April 7, 2019

"The prose, the observations about humanity, the naturalistic evolution of an interlocking set of characters"
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev?
Penguin Random House blurb: "When Fathers and Sons was first published in Russia, in 1862, it was met with a blaze of controversy about where Turgenev stood in relation to his account of generational misunderstanding. Was he criticizing the worldview of the conservative aesthete, Pavel Kirsanov, and the older generation, or that of the radical, cerebral medical student, Evgenii Bazarov, representing the younger one? The critic Dmitrii Pisarev wrote at the time that the novel "stirs the mind . . . because everything is permeated with the most complete and most touching sincerity." N. N. Strakhov, a close friend of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, praised its "profound vitality." It is this profound vitality in Turgenev’s characters that carry his novel of ideas to its rightful place as a work of art and as one of the classics of Russian Literature."

The Neapolitan Novels (a book 4-part series) by the Italian novelist Elena Ferrante?
posted by Cantdosleepy at 8:21 AM on April 8, 2019 [3 favorites]

Magister Ludi by Herman Hesse. I read it the summer before my senior year of high school.

I used to be so literate!
posted by jgirl at 9:32 AM on April 8, 2019

Response by poster: Thank you Metafilter for crowdsourcing a reading list that should last me until retirement! I am going to start with A Suitable Boy. Here's the complete list for anyone who would like to join me on this decades-long venture. I left out books I had already read, which ended up including a lot of the best women novelists - most of Austen, the Brontes, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton. But I'll keep them in reserve on the shelf if need a dose.

The list - around 57 books total:

The Goldfinch- Donna Tartt
The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry
Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
Mill on the Floss - George Eliot
The Warden - Trollope
Barchester Towers - Trollope
The Way We Live Now - Trollope
The Palliser novels- Trollope
Les Miserables - Victor Hugo
A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth
The Count of Monte Cristo - Dumas
Tess of the D’Urbervilles - Hardy
Vanity Fair - Thackeray
Pendennis - Thackeray
North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
Anna Karenina - Tolstoy
Villette - Charlotte Bronte
Brothers Karamozov - Dostoyevsky
The Possessed - Dostoyevsky
Our Mutual Friend - Dickens
100 Years of Solitude - Marquez (in Spanish!)
The Casual Vacancy - JK Rowling
The Caine Mutiny - Herman Wouk
The Plum in the Golden Vase - Jin Ping Mei
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith
Wolf Hall - Hilary Mantel
Kristin Lavrandatter - Tina Nunnelly translation - Sigrid Undsett
This House of Brede - Rumer Godden
Swann’s Way - Proust
The Leopard - de Lampedusa
The Night Circus - Erin Morgenstern
A.S. Byatt - The Children’s Book
Shirley - Iris Murdoch
Typee - Melville
Charterhouse of Parma - Stendahl
Merry Men - Carolyn Chute
Line of Beauty - Alan Hollinghurst
Remains of the Day - Ishiguro
The Rebel Angels - Robertson Davies
Howards End - EM Forster
The Antiquary - Sir Walter Scott
Virginia Woolf - Mrs. Dalloway
Lord Jim - Conrad
Some Came Running - James Jones
A Buyers Market - Anthony Powell
The Light and the Dark - CP Snow
Genji Monogatari - Murasaki Shikibu
Gaudy Night- Dorothy L. Sayers
Sea of Fertility - Mishima
The Man of Property - John Galsworthy
Sunset Song - Lwis Grassic Gibbon
The Emigrants - Vilhelm Moberg
Palace Walk - Naguib Mahfouz
Buddenbrooks - Thomas Mann
Fathers and Sons - Turgenev
My Brilliant Friend - Elena Ferrante
Magister Ludi - Herman Hesse
posted by schwinggg! at 12:12 PM on April 13, 2019 [12 favorites]

Well, this is a list that I could read along with...

(Note: 'The Goldfinch' by Donna Tartt is highly recommended, but I got more of a kick from her earlier novel 'The Secret History', which is quirky and fascinating)


'I Claudius' by Robert Graves
'Creation' by Gore Vidal
posted by ovvl at 7:33 PM on April 16, 2019

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