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Category Archives: Novels

10 Classic Victorian Novels Everyone Should Read

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 Dickens3realist 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 Bronte sisterswho 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 (1840-1928) *Woodburytype Photograph *9 1/2 x 7 inchesThomas 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 domainThomas Hardy, Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

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Five Reasons Everyone Should Know Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton

This is the second article in our occasional series, ‘Five Reasons’, in which we take a neglected figure from literary history and endeavour to unearth five interesting or surprising things about them. In our first piece, we took the Victorian novelist and poet George Meredith as our subject. This time, it’s the turn of Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1803-1873), or, to give him his full name, Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton (which should be enough Lyttons for anyone). For a short while during the 1820s and 1830s, he was the most popular novelist in Britain, until he was eclipsed by an even more popular and successful man, Charles Dickens. His popularity waned quickly, even during his own lifetime, and his reputation has never been restored. And yet, although his novels are not read much nowadays, there are still reasons to celebrate this writer. Here are our five favourite reasons.

Bulwer11. He changed the way men dressed – and still influences the way they dress today. In his first successful novel Pelham (1828), published when Lytton was only in his mid-twenties (he had already published several novels prior to this), Lytton set the trend for men’s evening dress. Prior to Lytton’s novel, the colour of smart evening wear for men could be any colour; Lytton changed that. In this, a ‘silver fork’ novel about upper-class fashionable society, the men wear black evening wear, and when the novel was a runaway success this fashion was adopted by the real gentry. It has been with us ever since.

2. He coined the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’. This first appeared in his 1839 play Richelieu. The saying has since achieved the status of general proverb, but it had a definite origin and a definite author, and it’s Bulwer-Lytton we have to thank for it. Although Bulwer-Lytton provides the true origin of the phrase ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’, the sentiment it expresses had been around for some time before.

3. He wrote an early work of science fiction. While Jules Verne was writing his groundbreaking works of what became known as science fiction, Bulwer-Lytton was helping to lay the groundwork for the English tradition – in his 1871 novel The Coming Race. In this novel, the narrator accidentally finds himself in a subterranean utopian world populated by a telepathic people known as the Vril-ya. They power themselves with the help of a life-giving fluid known as Vril, whose properties are many and diverse, ranging from healing to killing. Some people, including the Theosophists, even thought that Vril actually existed. The power of fiction…

4. He helped to inspire the name for Bovril. This is thanks to The Coming Race – in which that mysterious substance with life-giving properties, which Lytton names Vril, is at the heart of the power of the Vril-ya. When the makers of Bovril, the beef extract, were casting around for a name for their new product, they formed their brand name by blending ‘bovine’ with ‘Vril’, suggesting that this beefy drink had life-giving properties similar to those provided by Lytton’s fictional elixir.

5. He was the first person to use the most famous (infamous?) opening line in all of fiction. That is, he opened his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the words, ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ Elmore Leonard once advised writers, ‘Never open a book with weather’, but Lytton didn’t shy away from using such a device, and this opening line may serve to explain why he is not widely read any more, with his novels decried as poorly written. However, this line has inspired an unusual legacy, in the shape of the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, an annual competition sponsored by San Jose State University in California. The aim of the contest is to find a deliberately bad opening line for a new novel. Past winners have included this gem from Sue Fondrie, in 2011: ‘Cheryl’s mind turned like the vanes of a wind-powered turbine, chopping her sparrow-like thoughts into bloody pieces that fell onto a growing pile of forgotten memories.’ As this contest shows, Bulwer-Lytton has not been completely forgotten; but quite what he’d make of his legacy, we cannot say. And we haven’t even mentioned that he was offered the throne of Greece in 1862 (he declined, in case you were wondering)…

If you enjoyed learning about Bulwer-Lytton, we’ve gathered together some interesting facts from the life of Sir Walter Scott here.

Image: Title page and frontis by Hablot K Browne of ‘Pelham’, 1849 (scanned by Steven J. Plunkett), Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Guest Blog: Ernest J. Gaines – At Home in the Pelican State

By Lillie Anne Brown, Florida A&M University

The literary work of Ernest J. Gaines intersects history and culture with universal themes of self-respect, human dignity and personal integrity. His novels pay homage to ordinary black citizens who not only deserve respect in their everyday lives but crave it as a matter of order and sensibility. His obsession with the speech, cultural traditions, and mores specific to the Point Coupeé Plantation in Oscar, Louisiana, is notable in each of his seven works of fiction. When Gaines left the plantation in 1948, at age 15, to join his mother and stepfather in Vallejo, California, he had become so enamored with the land and its people that he was unable to extract himself psychologically and emotionally from the region of his birth.

Gaines

While his experiences on the plantation helped shape him, the memories did not dissipate with his subsequent move to the West Coast. On the plantation there were people who knew his grandparents’ grandparents, and it was partly because of this familial association that he felt, for so many years after he left Louisiana, still connected to the region. The plantation of his birth is a cultural and emotional force in his life and serves as the fictional Bayonne community of his work. In his fiction the community serves as the site for social change, helps define notions of manhood, contributes to the social construct of male identity, and serves as the backdrop of cultural consciousness. Each of his novels depicts myriad complexities of a culturally diverse community that includes blacks, whites, Cajuns and Creoles, where each group embraces its own history. His fiction, a social and political commentary on race, class, gender, and the struggles and sacrifices of the powerless and invisible, represents the common strivings of the disenfranchised, the control of subservient labor by the majority class, and the folk culture that helps foster leadership and generate change.

As Gaines writes openly and passionately about the common people of his childhood, the most critical aspect of his fiction is the impact of racism upon black men—especially husbands and fathers—and the overall effect it has on the black family. From his first internationally published short story, “The Sky is Gray” (1963), to his critically acclaimed novel, A Lesson Before Dying (1993), Gaines’ fiction does not stray far from his emotional roots of the plantation. From the publication of “The Turtles,” his first short story, published in (San Francisco State’s) Transfer magazine in 1956, to his 2005 work, Mozart and Leadbelly, the author’s attachment to the plantation runs strong. In 2010, the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where Gaines served as Writer-in-Residence from 1984-2004, established the Ernest J. Gaines Center, which serves as a global repository of the author’s works.

In 1964, the short story “The Little Stream” became the basis of his first novel, Catherine Carmier (1964), a love story set in a small, rural community in Louisiana beset with racial tensions among whites, blacks, and Cajuns. Internal ruptures occur within a Creole family when Catherine, a beautiful Creole woman, is forbidden by her father to associate with Jackson, a dark-skinned man who has returned to the plantation after ten years.  The novel explores cultural and class differences and the volatility among members of two distinct racial groups in Louisiana during the period.

Gaines’ second fictional work, Of Love and Dust (1967), is an explosive tale of race and power in the southern trenches of Louisiana. Set in the 1940s, it contains multiple stories told from the viewpoint of Jim Kelly, a trusted worker on the Hebert Plantation whose historical viewpoint provides insight to each narrative. Marcus Payne, the novel’s central figure, is bonded out of prison where the price of his freedom is the performance of hard labor on the plantation of Sidney Bonbon, the racist plantation overseer. Angry and defiant, Marcus breaks all social codes of conduct by refusing to engage in subservient behavior and restricted language. His transgressions ultimately result in a violent confrontation with the overseer in which he (Marcus) is killed as he attempts to leave the plantation in a misguided plot to begin a new life with Louise, the overseer’s wife.

Bloodline (1968), Gaines’ only collection of short stories, offers a slight departure from his standard narratives. Four of the five stories, “A Long Day in November,” originally published in 1958, “The Sky is Gray” (1963), “Three Men” (1968), and “Bloodline” (1968) advance the theme of manhood, dignity, and identity politics captured in his earlier works. The first four stories are presented through the lens of the narrative’s primary characters. From six-year-old Sonny (ALBD) to eight-year-old James (“TSG”) to nineteen-year-old Proctor Lewis (“TM”) to Copper Laurent, the central figure in “Bloodline,” each tale presents a social, cultural and political awareness that allows each character to advance psychologically as he learns to understand the social, cultural and racial complexities that govern their lives. In the collection’s concluding story, “Just Like a Tree,” Aunt Fe, the central character, prepares to move from the safety of the plantation’s “quarters” to a more protected environment in the North. In “Just Like a Tree” Gaines offers a medley of voices which speak to the familiar themes present in each of the collection’s four narratives: the quest for human dignity, personal responsibility, pride and self-respect. The work serves as the stylistic precursor to The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman (1971) and A Gathering of Old Men (1983).

The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman gave Gaines a national presence, with readers comparing him to (as well as placing him alongside) William Faulkner in capturing the history of race, politics, and the cultural fabric of the Old South. Told from the perspective of “Jane,” a one-hundred-year-old woman, the work is divided into four books: the War Years, Reconstruction Years, Plantation Years, and the Quarters. A key motif in TAMJP is the notion that perseverance is a sustaining principle one must possess in order to move forward. The novel, adapted for television with actress Cecily Tyson in the lead role, also served as the precursor for the television mini-series Roots in 1977.

Constructed from the omniscient point of view, In My Father’s House (1978) is Gaines’ signature novel of father and son separations. In his attempt to address issues of father and son estrangement, however, the author fails to develop the central figure, Reverend Phillip Martin, a man on a journey of redemption, beyond a stereotypical figure of the flamboyant, sexualized minister and small-town political activist. While the novel has notable strengths, its major flaws are its treatment of the moral, ethical and social issues that separate fathers and sons. Of the author’s seven novels, IMFH, the only work where the primary action takes place outside the Bayonne community, is the one most unfavorably received by critics.

Presented in a style of memoirist writing, Gaines allows each man in A Gathering of Old Men (1983) to claim, in separate accountings, their own visibility in a setting where each has heretofore been mistreated by the plantation’s overseer. While each man has a compelling story to tell, the most notable distinction is the collective pride each takes in standing up, literally and figuratively, for himself after a lifetime of unfair treatment at the hands of the oppressor. In AGOM, Gaines presents the men in the thematic structure of his canon: taking personal responsibility for one’s actions while remaining strong of character.

In the Pulitzer Prize-nominated novel A Lesson Before Dying (1993), Grant Wiggins, the plantation schoolteacher, reluctantly returns to the quarters with the objective of teaching the children on the plantation. He is both angry and disillusioned, and his frustrations are greatly enhanced by the mandate to teach Jefferson, the twenty-one-year old semi-illiterate plantation worker who has been unfairly sentenced to death—for a murder he neither planned nor committed—how to die with dignity. As the novel’s narrator Grant helps Jefferson realize the latent strength of his own (Jefferson’s) character. As a result Grant begins to understand that achieving manhood is more than simply reaching adulthood. “Jefferson’s Diary,” the private notebook that the imprisoned man keeps at the urging of Grant, is written in the phonetic vernacular of Jefferson’s speech and permits a dialogue of understanding and respect to eventually occur between the two men.

Previously published and unpublished short stories, autobiographical essays, and conversations on the craft of writing combine to make Mozart and Leadbelly (2005), Gaines’ latest literary work. In ML, he shares inspiration behind his literary career, how he became a writer, and reminisces about his childhood on the Point Coupeé Plantation in Louisiana. He also shares how he came to write A Lesson Before Dying, the importance of his southern upbringing and the musical influences that helped shape his work.

Over the years Gaines has received numerous awards for his works, which have been translated into over twenty-five languages and performed on national stages to critical acclaim. In July 2013, in a White House ceremony, he was recognized by President Barack Obama where he was one of 12 recipients of the 2012 National Medal of Arts Award.

Photo by: Lillie Anne Brown

Dr. Lillie Anne Brown is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and Modern Languages at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Florida.