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. 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.