The ‘nineteenth-century novel’ covers Jane Austen’s Regency fiction, the comic exuberance of Dickens, the social critiques of Elizabeth Gaskell, the realism of George Eliot, the Gothic inventiveness of late Victorian writers, and the birth of detective fiction. Below, we introduce twelve of the greatest nineteenth-century novels, with some curious facts about them.
Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice. Of the six full-length novels Austen wrote, this has become the most famous of all. Although the novel hinges on the developing relationship (and sparring) between Elizabeth Bennet (whose ‘pride’ is referenced in the novel’s title) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (whose ‘prejudice’ means he is initially too high-minded to entertain the idea of marriage with Lizzie), it is crammed full of Austen’s trademark wit, irony, and social satire.
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein. In 1816, while holidaying with her husband Percy Shelley and their friend, Lord Byron, Mary Shelley conceived the idea for this novel, during a ghost-story writing competition (in the same competition, Byron’s physician came up with the first modern vampire story). She wrote it up and it was published in 1818 when Shelley was just 20 years old. It’s been called both the first science-fiction novel, but the novel also plays with earlier Gothic conventions. One of the most influential (and endlessly adapted) novels of the whole nineteenth century – indeed, of all time – Frankenstein’s plot is too familiar to recap here, and this cautionary tale (about the dangers of playing God, or about being a responsible parent?) continues to exert considerable power over readers over two centuries on.
Sir Walter Scott, Ivanhoe. While we’re talking influential novels, how about Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott’s hugely popular 1819 novel set in late twelfth-century England? Among other things, Ivanhoe helped to cement the modern image of Robin Hood – a Saxon named Robin of Locksley, defending the absent Richard the Lionheart’s kingdom from his evil brother John – in the popular consciousness. John Henry Newman asserted that Scott’s novel ‘had first turned men’s minds in the direction of the middle ages’, while Mark Twain blamed Scott’s novel for causing the American Civil War, because it had inspired a love of feudalism among the southern states. The novel features outlaws, jousting, a witch-trial, and much else. What more persuasion do you need!
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre. This 1847 novel is about the titular heroine’s relationship with Mr Rochester, whose first wife, Bertha, has been concealed in a room in his house. Gothic overtones run throughout this classic romantic novel, which some consider the finest by all of the Brontë sisters. It’s also one of the finest bildungsromans – novels charting a protagonist’s journey from childhood to adulthood – of the nineteenth century written in English.
Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights. The unusual adjective in the book’s title is a Yorkshire dialect word meaning rushing or whizzing. Initially, reviewers didn’t know what to make of what is now regarded as one of the greatest nineteenth-century novels. ‘We rise from the perusal of Wuthering Heights as if we had come fresh from a pest-house’, one reviewer wrote, before going on to recommend burning the book as the best course of action. The North British Review simply said that ‘the only consolation which we have in reflecting upon it is
that it will never be generally read’. They couldn’t have been more wrong: the novel remains one of the best-known and most widely read novels of all time, for the passionate though destructive relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff, and the way their stormy attraction sets the trend for what will happen among the next generation. The novel inspired Kate Bush’s 1978 song of the same name – which is quite fitting, since Brontë and Bush share a birthday.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House. 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) in this novel of 1852-3. 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.
Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South. 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.
Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone. 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. 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 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.
George Eliot, Middlemarch. 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.
Robert Louis Stevenson, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Although at barely 70 pages this book is more of a novella than a novel, it deserves to be included here because it made such a lasting mark on late nineteenth-century fiction and popular culture in the modern age. Published in 1886, with the idea purportedly coming to Stevenson in a dream, this tale of a secret double life tapped into numerous contemporary concerns, from homosexuality to drink to Darwinian evolution.
Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure. This 1895 novel would be Hardy’s last, because its reception was so critical (one bishop claimed to have burned it) that Hardy considered he has pushed the nineteenth-century public as far as he could, in terms of the moral issues he could frankly address. The novel contains autobiographical echoes of Hardy’s own life: Jude Fawley is from a humble background, wants to go to Christminster (i.e. Oxford) to study, but becomes sexually involved first with a woman named Arabella and then with his cousin, Sue. Tragedy follows…
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, 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…