Literature

The Best Novels of the 1890s

Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle

The 1890s saw pioneering works of science fiction, detective fiction, and Gothic horror all published, by some of the greatest English, Scottish, and Irish writers of the age. In the United States, too, novelists addressed social issues, sometimes in comic ways, while social realism continued to play an important role in fiction of the decade. Below, we introduce nine of the greatest 1890s novels.

William Morris, News from Nowhere. William Morris was hugely productive during the last decade of his life, the 1890s, and when he wasn’t writing important early fantasy novels such as The Wood beyond the World and The Well at the World’s End, he was writing this 1890 utopian novel which reflects Morris’s socialist views. The narrator wakes up in the year 2035 to find that England has become a utopian land based on the socialist principles of common ownership and democratic control of the means of production.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In 1889, the American publisher Joseph Stoddart held a dinner in London at which he persuaded Wilde to contribute a novel to his magazine, Lippincott’s. This novel, published in the magazine in 1890 and revised for book publication a year later, was The Picture of Dorian Gray, Wilde’s only novel, in which the young, handsome Dorian Gray makes a wish that he might remain young while his portrait gradually ages and bears the marks of Dorian’s sins and transgressions. The novel is part Faustian moral fable (although Wilde disliked the idea of calling books ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’), part Gothic novel, and part witty conversation after witty conversation, as Wilde’s characters ‘sit in chairs and chatter’. It’s delightful.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four. Also present at Stoddart’s 1889 dinner was the young Scottish author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, whom the publisher persuaded to write a follow-up to Doyle’s debut Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet (1887). Doyle agreed. If he hadn’t, Sherlock Holmes might have remained the hero of one novel, and never have become the global icon he became in the wake of the short stories Doyle began writing in 1891. In this novel from 1890, Holmes and Watson investigate a mystery that takes in buried treasure, one-legged men, the Indian Mutiny of 1857, and much else besides.

George Gissing, New Grub Street. The 1890s was a great decade for genre fiction, but social realism was still an important mode for many writers. And perhaps the most important one of the lot was George Gissing, whose 1891 novel New Grub Street explores the widening gulf in English letters between the popular author writing bestselling novels and the literary artist who usually ends up starving in a garret. The two main characters in the novel are Edwin Reardon, a clever but commercially unsuccessful novelist, and Jasper Milvain, a young journalist.

Mark Twain, Pudd’nhead Wilson. Twain’s 1894 novel is about two babies who are switched at birth: one is 1/32 black and born into a life of slavery, while the other, who is ‘wholly’ white, is destined to be a master. But when the babies are swapped, they follow the opposite paths from those meant for them. Twain deploys his trademark wit and irony to explore racism in the Deep South, nearly thirty years after the end of the American Civil War.

H. G. Wells, The Time Machine. Wells (1866-1946) embarked on his prolific novel-writing career with this 1895 bestseller, which is more of a novella than a full-blown novel (it heads at least one collection of his Complete Short Stories), but which more than earns its place here for its startling innovation and exploration of numerous 1890s topics, from degeneration to imperialism to communism and much else. The Time Traveller invents a machine capable of sending him millions of years into the future; he alights in the year 802,701, to find that the human species has evolved into two distinct subspecies, the Eloi and the Morlocks…

Marie Corelli, The Sorrows of Satan. The English novelist Marie Corelli (1855-1924) was not renowned for being the greatest stylist of the age, but she outsold all of her contemporaries by some margin. Her most enduring book is The Sorrows of Satan (1895), a Faustian novel about a starving author who makes a pact with an aristocratic figure named Lucio, who is really Lucifer, the Devil; the novel’s sales, according to Teresa Ransom in The Amazing Miss Marie Corelli, outstripped those of all previous novels published in English. Oscar Wilde was a fan of the novel, and it is regarded as one of the first true ‘bestsellers’ in English fiction.

Bram Stoker, Dracula. Stoker’s novel wasn’t the first vampire novel: that honour goes to John Polidori, a physician and friend of Lord Byron who wrote a short vampire novel while staying with Byron at Geneva (that holiday also gave us Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). And there were many others throughout the nineteenth century, from Rymer’s vast penny dreadful Varney the Vampyre and Sheridan le Fanu’s Carmilla. But Stoker’s tale of the Transylvanian count has become synonymous with vampire fiction. One of the most striking things about the novel is the innovative narrative devices Stoker employs, from letters and diary entries to phonograph recordings.

Richard Marsh, The Beetle. Stoker’s novel was only one great horror novel published in 1897. It was eclipsed, at least initially, by this novel by the prolific writer Richard Bernard Heldmann, who published this tale of ‘the empire striking back’ under the pseudonym Richard Marsh. Set among the dark, smoggy streets of London, the novel features a mysterious foreign figure from the East – a member, no less, of the ‘cult of Isis’ – who is possessed of supernatural powers and newly arrived in the nation’s capital. The novel, told from multiple character perspectives, cleverly taps into late Victorian fears and anxieties concerning a host of themes including the British empire, homosexuality, scientific discoveries, and crime within the metropolis.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

7 Comments

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  2. Fantastic and interesting overview, thank you.

  3. Pingback: The Best Novels of the 1890s

  4. Now to find some of the books you have mentioned. This wasn’t quite the list I expected.

  5. Paul Connolly

    Interesting that the list includes horror, science fiction and fantasy which many academics would rule out and not many other decades (if any) could boast such categories.

    I like The Red Badge of Courage by Stephen Crane and McTeague by Frank Norris

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