Here is our list of the 10 Victorian novels we at Interesting Literature think everyone should read – whether because they’re great novels, because they tell us something important about Victorian society, because they stand as classics of the period, or (in most cases) all three. They’re not arranged in any particular order (that would be too difficult and controversial a task!).
We know you, dear reader, are bound to have a different idea of what should make the top 10, so please let us know which you think we’ve given an undeserved place on this list, which we should have included but haven’t, and your suggestions for further reading for Victorianists. Oh, and tell us how many of the 10 you’ve read…
If you enjoy this list, you might also like our pick of the best Victorian ghost stories and the best short Victorian poems, featuring Lewis Carroll and Charlotte Brontë, among others. If you wish to step into the twentieth century, check out our pick of the best works of modernist literature in the English language.
Anthony Trollope, The Warden (1855).
This was Anthony Trollope‘s first real success, although he was already the author of a handful of novels. His day job was a senior post at the – well, at the Post Office, and he would rise at 5.30am every morning in order to write his novels before going off to do a full day’s work for the Royal Mail. And he wrote 47 of them!
When he wasn’t busy doing things like introducing the pillar box to Britain (something he’d done in the early 1850s, as he was making his way in the literary world), he was writing novels such as this, a nuanced and realist account of a fictional case of ecclesiastical injustice, whereby the eponymous warden receives a fat income while the bedesmen in his care receive nothing.
This novel also contains a gently satirical attack on Charles Dickens, whom Trollope calls ‘Mr Popular Sentiment’. We recommend this edition: The Warden (Penguin Classics).
Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (1855).
Although it had been the hugely successful Mary Barton (1848) that had kick-started Gaskell’s literary career and brought her to the attention of the world and her contemporaries, including Dickens (whose Hard Times would seek to jump on the ‘factory novel’ bandwagon Gaskell helped to establish), this is often seen as her masterpiece.
Margaret Hale goes to live in the fictional northern mill town of Milton, and gets involved with the town’s manufacturing industry. Recommended edition: North and South (Oxford World’s Classics) by Gaskell, Elizabeth (2008).
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847).
This novel is about the titular heroine’s relationship with Mr Rochester, whose first wife, Bertha, has been concealed in a room in his house (though not in the attic, it would seem). Gothic overtones run throughout this classic romantic novel, which some consider the finest by all of the Brontë sisters. We have analysed the novel in more detail here.
Recommended edition: Jane Eyre (Penguin Classics).
Anne Brontë, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848).
An under-appreciated Brontë novel, this book was Anne’s second (and last) book, and was disowned by her own sister, Charlotte, who thought it had been a mistake to publish it. Anne tried to address the problems of marital law and domestic abuse in the nineteenth century, through the abusive marriage between Arthur Huntingdon and the novel’s protagonist, Helen ‘Graham’, an artist who flees with her young son and becomes – as the title has it – the tenant of Wildfell Hall, where she meets a new man, Gilbert Markham.
We recommend this edition: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (Penguin Classics) by Bront?, Anne ( 1996 ).
Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868).
Often called the first detective novel in English (by T. S. Eliot among others), Collins’s novel was, in fact, not the first of its genre (we discuss that issue in our short history of detective fiction). Indeed, this is an unusual and atypical detective novel in many ways: numerous figures play the role of ‘detective’ in the novel (Sergeant Cuff, Seegrave, Bruff, the hero Franklin Blake, and the medical assistant who eventually solves the case, Ezra Jennings), but none emerges as a clear, unequivocal figure to fulfil the role.
And critics have even argued that Collins was essentially writing a novel of domestic realism, and the ‘detective novel’ plot only gets in the way of his telling a good story.
This is a particularly helpful edition: The Moonstone (Oxford World’s Classics) by Collins. Wilkie ( 2008 ) Paperback.
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1848).
This novel, which is now the only one by Thackeray which is still widely read (though Barry Lyndon has a few fans), took its name from the fair in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Subtitled ‘the novel without a hero’, Vanity Fair follows the exploits of the heroine, Becky Sharp, during the time of the Napoleonic Wars.
We recommend this edition: Vanity Fair: A Novel without a Hero (Oxford World’s Classics) Publisher: Oxford University Press. USA; Reissue edition.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights (1847).
Emily Brontë shares her birthday, 30 July, with Kate Bush, whose first hit single would be a song based on Brontë’s novel. Brontë’s one novel is told through a multi-layered narrative which resembles a Russian doll, as one narrator gives way to another, and we find ourselves being transported back to the time when Heathcliff, a waif from Liverpool, was brought to live at Wuthering Heights by Catherine Linton’s father.
The destructive and all-consuming love story between Heathcliff and Cathy forms the main part of the novel, though the book actually follows three generations in all. The book is even credited with popularising the dialect word ‘gormless’. Emily was also a gifted poet. Recommended edition: Wuthering Heights (Oxford World’s Classics) by Bront?, Emily Reprint Edition (2009).
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891).
This is arguably Thomas Hardy‘s tragic masterpiece (he always preferred the tragic mode, and many of his great novels are tragedies which eschew the happy endings preferred by readers), along with Jude the Obscure (his final novel, which the Bishop of Wakefield publicly burned).
The story is so well known that we won’t recount it here (or spoil it for anyone who doesn’t know how it ends); we’ll just add that there’s a dramatic and atmospheric nocturnal finale at Stonehenge, a fair bit of pessimism (who’d expect less from English literature’s master of the tragic novel, and the poet who wrote this great poem?), and a sympathetic and thought-provoking treatment of the ‘fallen woman’ motif first seriously explored in fiction by Elizabeth Gaskell forty years earlier, in her novel Ruth.
Recommended edition: Tess of the d’Urbervilles (Oxford World’s Classics).
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1853).
Of all of Dickens’s finest novels, this is not the most popular in terms of sales (it is outsold, by many millions of copies, by A Tale of Two Cities). Yet it is often chosen as the ‘best’ Dickens novel. Dickens offers a biting and hilarious satire on the farcical nature of the British legal system in the ongoing Jarndyce v Jarndyce case (which may have been based on a real-life legal case that lasted for over a century).
One of the most striking things about the novel is its narrative style, with half the novel being told from the first-person perspective of Esther Summerson, the novel’s heroine, and the other half being told in the present tense – unusual in Victorian fiction – by a third-person narrator. We have more Charles Dickens facts here and offer our pick of the best biographies of Dickens here.
A good edition: By Charles Dickens – Bleak House (Penguin Classics) (Rev Ed).
George Eliot, Middlemarch (1872).
Virginia Woolf called Middlemarch ‘one of the few English books written for grown-up people’. Martin Amis and Julian Barnes have echoed Woolf’s praise, citing it as probably the greatest novel ever written, and A. S. Byatt has argued along similar lines. George Eliot’s novel centres on the fictional provincial town of Middlemarch (which is set in Eliot’s own home county of Warwickshire), with the title of the novel/name of the town pointing up the middling ordinariness of the events and characters it follows.
At its core are arguably two central characters, a hero and heroine: Dorothea Brooke, who marries ageing scholar Casaubon and then regrets it (he’s a dried-up husk, with a face that is likened to a skull); and Tertius Lydgate, a young, idealistic doctor who marries an airhead and then – aha! – regrets it. But we won’t tell you how it ends. It’s probably not how you think, though.
We’ve compiled some surprising and interesting George Eliot facts here.
For the novel we recommend this edition: Middlemarch (Oxford World’s Classics) Reissue Edition by Eliot, George published by Oxford University Press, USA (2008).
If you enjoyed this list, check out our pick of Thomas Hardy’s best novels and H. G. Wells’s best science-fiction novels. You might also like our pick of the best early works of dystopian fiction and our top 10 best Edgar Allan Poe stories.
Images: Charles Dickens, public domain; the Brontë sisters, Wikimedia Commons, public domain; Thomas Hardy, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.
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It’s funny because I have read a lot of Victorian literature and yet I got only 3 from your list.
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I read The Warden multiple times as a teenager starved of books and have adored Trollope’s satire and sympathy ever since- loved the Radio 4 adaptations recently. I absolutely agree it is No 1 and greatly underrated today. His female characters are absolutely equal to the male. I dislike Jane Eyre and her mimsy panderings and sufferings, her almost pathological love of stoical suffering. it was never convincing that she didnt go off to be a missionary. Wuthering Heights is the most powerful of all these novels, not least because of the doubt and suspicion of the truth incurred in the reader by the unreliable narrators with untrustworthy motives. Pure and utter genius. Middlemarch doesn’t touch it in passion or feeling- Eliot’s astonishing intellect gets in the way of raw emotion and distils it into a novel in which the untangling overtakes the joy of the experience. Anyway, the end is a famous anti climax and there are no tragic deaths to create emotion. Eliot is no fun, not like Bronte who dares to breach topics no one else does- anorexia, ghosts, women’s sexual freedom (Isabella in London), and the incomprehensible foundations of desire.
I have watched quite a few of these classics on TV/Video/Dvd and I have got “The Moonstone”, “Jane Eyre” and “Wuthering Heights” as paperbacks. I have read “Bleak House” three times for the simple reason it anticipates “The Moonstone” and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes – and we must remember the author of “The Waste Land” regarded Doyle and Collins as serious literature!
I have read “The Woman in White” and “Jane Eyre” so far and now I’m considering the titles mentioned here. A really great post that guide us into the great pieces of literature.
Reblogged this on Classic Book Shelf and commented:
Interesting list from the Victorian era. I have read “Jane Eyre” so far and now I’m considering the names mentioned here. Thanks!!
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I love Wilkie Collins. The Woman in White has been my all time favorite, but I love The Moonstone as well. The only one I have yet to check off my list is Vanity Fair! Yes, I’m ashamed to not have read it yet…
Love, love, love Thomas Hardy, especially Jude the Obscure, which I would actually rate slightly higher than Tess. I always found Hardy to be incredibly sympathetic to his female characters even while putting them through the most horrible of situations. I also love how he seems to have an incredible sense of awareness of injustices and hypocrisies of the time, long before there was feminism, social democracy, environmentalism etc etc.
Really great post this.
Reblogged this on Elephant Tree Blog and commented:
Ok, so this reblog is a pure indulgence. I studied most if not all of these novels during my Undergraduate degree and have a great love of the Bronte sisters and Thomas Hardy’s Tess. Does anyone else love these?
Only read one on that list – Wuthering Heights – but feel inspired to read others. I’ve read a couple of Dickens’ but not Bleak House. I almost made a fool of myself by pointing out the lack of Jane Austen in the list, before remembering she was pre-Victorian. Doh.
And this is one of the places where you can find almost all of these great literature works: http://youtu.be/HAUFOfG-4Vo Yes: It’s us and we do love good books!!!
The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Three out of ten and will read more when my pile of books goes down. Thank you.
Reblogged this on Writing by Mary Blowers and commented:
Here are some classics you might like for summer reading.
7/10. Pretty good, although not good enough for a lover of Victoriana! :D
I’ve read a number on this fantastic list, and a few are still on my TBR list. A new addition for me would be French Victorian novelist, Emile Zola The Ladies Paradise, or Therese Raquin. I would substitute him with Wilkie Collins’ Moonstone.
I’ve read Jane Eyre, but sadly none of the others, though I did read Wilkie Collins’ ‘The Woman in White’ and loved it.
I’ve read eight out of 10 but I am a bit of a literary geek. I would have included Bram Stokers Dracula in there though as well as Great Expectations. I am a huge fan of Hardy. Love the bleakness and portrayal of working class life, get a bit fed up with lower middle class Victorian women who’ve got nothing better to worry about than marrying a man with enough money!
Love ALL of these!
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I’ve read many of these. I adore Gaskell and Bleak House is amazing. Dickens isn’t my favorite Victorian author, but that one is a must.
Great selection…read them all but *off to check out the Collins one* :)
I’d swap North & South for either Ruth or Wives & Daughters. I’d have at least one Dickens but not Bleak House.Possibly Our Mutual Friend or Little Dorrit
Only missing Mrs Gaskell; I hope to get round to it sometime. The Warden is a great taster for the whole Barsetshire series, which is well worth the substantial investment of time it would need. My favourite would be Tess though. For the full-on experience, try reading the closing chapters while listening to Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Not a dry eye in the house.
I’ve got two: North and South and Jane Eyre. I heartily recommend both!
Just another reason I love your blog. I have read all but one of these & highly enjoy them (enough to read multiple times).
6 out of 10. Not bad. Vanity Fair took a lot of doing — such a dense book. Becky Sharp is a memorable character.
My only quibble is I’d want the Trollope to be The Way We Live Now
I’ve read all but North and South. Of the nine, The Warden and The Moonstone were my favorites.
7…I have read 7 of these and actively avoided the others so, yay me! Great list though!
I might pick a different ten, but most of your authors would be there – probably not Gaskell. I agree your sentiments and have read half your list.
8/10 for me – helps that I studied Victorian Literature though! I didn’t enjoy Mary Barton which put me off ever reading Gaskell again, and I’ve never read any Trollope. I’ve also never really understood all the love Wuthering Heights gets – The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is much better.
So true about Anne Bronte’s work. I liked it far more than I liked Wuthering Heights (a book I still passionately loathe to this day). I only have one book by Hardy I haven’t read (Far From the Madding Crowd), and it’s on my bucket list reads. I love Dickens and Thackeray, and while I’ve read only two of Eliot’s novels, they were more than enough for me.
I am very curious to know why you loath Wuthering Hieghts. By saying the dislike is enduirng I take it to mean that you have read it recently and not just when compelled at a young age in school.
I read it as an adult taking college classes and not as a requirement. I just disliked the characters a lot. I couldn’t sympathize in any way and never found it a romantic classic. I almost had that same feeling with Emma, which I eventually warmed up to (though I still prefer Persuasion for my top Austen book). Maybe down the line I’ll try to re-read it, and my opinion might change.
I also wasn’t a fan of Wuthering Heights. I think Anne Bronte was a superior writer compared to her sisters (and I’ve read all of Charlotte Bronte’s novels). Not a big fan of Emma either; much preferred Austen’s other novels. I’m a *big* fan of George Eliot! (Read her novels back in the 1990s; favorite is Daniel Deronda. Haven’t yet read her historical novel, Romola, yet.) If you’re a fan of George Eliot, check out Dinah Marie Craik, a George Eliot-wannabe who still produced some pretty decent novels.
I’ve read 6 of them but I’ve added a couple more to my TBR list based on this post! Mostly I’m excited to read Gaskell’s Ruth having recently fallen in love with her work.
Ruth is a wonderful novel – my favourite by Elizabeth Gaskell – and probably in my top 5 Victorian novels. I loved Wives & Daughters too.
I went to the library to get it because of this post! I’m excited to read it.
I’m so embarrassed to say I have yet to read any of these….if you could pic just one, which would it be?
If you want action and adventure and the classic country house mystery, go for The Moonstone, but if you want doomed romance and tragic obsession go for Wuthering Heights. Personally, I’d avoid Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It’s beautifully written but it is unbearable. Life’s too short to wade through such misery. My personal favourite Dickens novel is A Tale of Two Cities. even if it is set before the Victorian period.
Jane Eyre, one of my all-time favorites. :-)
Thank you, Nadine! I’m adding that one to my reading list!!
Wuthering Heights. But please, it is not a love story! Maybe that will make it more intriguing to read that there is a diffence of view about the fundamental nature of th novel.
i think Middlemarch. Eliot is so witty !
I’ve read and loved the three Bronte novels listed here and hope to find time to read “Middlemarch” once I’m out of school.
All ten! All ten! I’m so proud of myself! :-D
I wholeheartedly agree with this list! Many of my favorites are included. I wrote a short Classics Beginners Guide if you are interested: http://bouquetsandbooks.com/2014/07/11/classic-literature-beginner-guide/
Read “Tess” aloud with my partner Steve…great drama, great discussion of gender issues, great atmosphere…and it took a good, long time!
I have read several of these, but never managed to come to terms with Hardy – he’s just too hopelessly tragic and rural for me!
Check, at least I read one: Anne Bronte I´m heading towards the right direction.