Following is a list of the most famous and noteworthy literature from the English Romantic and Regency Era, which we can loosely date from 1789-1832. Before you dive into the detailed commentary on this list of works, go to this post on Reading English Romantic and Regency Literature: Nature and Revolution to get at overview and important background on literature from this amazingly productive era. There is more information about each of these authors in this post.
Most works on this Reading List can be found at one of the following sources:
Significant Historical Dates:
1789: French Revolution begins; Storming of the Bastille on July 14.
1793-4: French Reign of Terror under Robespierre; 1793: King Louis XVI executed
1804: Napoleon crowned Emperor of France.
1807: Slave Trade Act makes trading slaves illegal, although slavery as an institution continues.
1811-20: The Regency: George, Prince of Wales, acts as regent for George III, declared insane.
1820: Accession of George IV.
1830: Accession of William IV.
1833: Slavery Abolition Act outlaws slavery in most British territories.
ANNOTATED READING LIST
Traditional Ballads: “Barbara Allen,” “Patrick Spens,” “The Daemon Lover (James Harris).”
According to the blog Interesting Literature, traditional ballads date to the 14th century. However, ballads are important to the development of English literature in the Romantic Era. Many poets of this era loved traditional ballads and were inspired to adapt the form for their own work. Along with other antiquarians, Romantic authors wrote down and published collections of ballads to preserve them for the culture.
Ballads are usually composed in quatrains of alternating lines of 4 and 3 iambs with an ABAB rhyme scheme– a simple danceable and singable meter. Poets like Burns, Scott, Wordsworth, and Keats took inspiration from both ballad form and subject matter of these traditional songs, which always told a melodramatic and unforgettable story.
Listed are three lovely and powerful examples to check out.
Robert Burns: “Scots Wha Hae [Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn”],” 1793; “My Love is like a Red, Red Rose” 1794; For a’ That and a’ That, 1795; “To A Louse,” 1786, “Auld Lang Syne,” 1786 [means “Long ago”] “To A Mouse,” 1786.
Burns was a self-educated Scotsman who became one of the most influential poets of the Romantic era, and is still considered the national poet of Scotland. Widely beloved by readers and writers of his own era, Burns’s work has also garnered fans through the years as diverse as Abraham Lincoln and Bob Dylan. Dylan named “My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose” as the work that had influenced his own work the most.
Many of Burns’s poems are written in Scottish dialect about humble people; most celebrate the dignity of each individual and the importance of liberty. “Scots Wha Hae” commemorates Robert Bruce who led the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314; in the poem, Bruce exhorts his soldiers to fight to the death for liberty from England:
“By Oppression’s woes and pains, / By your sons in servile chains! / We will drain our dearest veins, / But they shall be free.”
Anna Letitia Barbauld: “The Mouse’s Petition,” 1773; “A Summer Evening’s Meditation,” 1773; “Epistle to William Wilberforce,” 1791; “The Rights of Woman,” 1792; “The Caterpillar,” ca. 1816.
Ana Letitia Barbauld received an unusually broad education in the home of her father, a dissenting minister. Later she married and kept a school, where she wrote many works for children. Later she contributed poetry to her brother’s Monthly Magazine, where she published “Epistle to William Wilberforce” attacking British involvement in the slave trade. (Wilberforce, a member of the House of Commons, fought a long battle to end the slave trade and abolish slavery.)
“A Summer Evening’s Meditation” follows an “excursion-and-return” structure that anticipates a structure that many subsequent romantic poets were to utilize, including Wordsworth and Keats. But here, the meditation is from a feminine point of view.
“The Rights of Woman” is a response to an attack by Mary Wollstonecraft on an earlier Barbauld poem, “To a Lady with some Painted Flowers,” that she alleged made women look too frivolous. In her response, Barbauld agrees that women should assert their rights, but that through mutual love, “separate rights” can soften into equality. “The Caterpillar” is a charming and thoughtful meditation on why the speaker decides not to harm a caterpillar.
Charlotte Smith: “Written at the Close of Spring, 1784; “To Sleep,” 1784; “To Night,” 1788; “On Being Cautioned against Walking on an Headland Overlooking the Sea, Because It was Frequented by a Lunatic,” 1797.
The 14-line sonnet was an unpopular form in 18th century poetry, but Coleridge and other literary historians give Smith’s melancholy sonnets credit for making the form popular again with British readers. Her sonnets were among those he praised for connecting Nature with “moral Sentiments, Affections, or Feelings.” Later Romantic poets were to write many more sonnets in this vein. Take a few minutes to check out these quiet and lovely poems.
William Blake: “Songs of Innocence and Experience,” 1789 and 1794; “The Book of Thel,” 1789-91; “The Marriage of Heaven and Hell,” 1790-93; “Auguries of Innocence,” 1803 (pub 1863).
Like his fellow poets Romantic Wordsworth, Shelley, and Byron, William Blake was passionate about humankind’s universal fight for freedom from tyranny and the plight of the poor. However, of all poets of this era, Blake had the most abstract, prophetic, and far-reaching vision of how humans functioned psychologically, and how modern life and mistaken morals fractured and squelched the potentially divine human spirit.
Blake’s later prophetic work can be confusing, since he created a whole series of “prophecies” to explain how people in the modern world had become fractured psychologically. Blake believed that the four natural human energies, or “Zoas,”as he called them–reason, imagination, body, and love/passion—had become split apart, with some kinds of energies given too free a range while others were harmfully suppressed. In his current society, he felt that Reason was worshipped while Imagination was ignored.
A reader coming fresh to Blake does not need to understand his mythological system in detail to love and appreciate his earlier works, especially the lovely and deceptively simple Songs of Innocence and Experience. These books contain two sets of short lyrics “shewing [Blake wrote] the two contrary states of the human soul.”
Songs of Innocence are poems written seemingly from the point of view of an innocent, happy child, while Songs of Experience offer poems from the point of view of an angry cynic, whose more extensive life experience has given him a dim view of the world. Which does Blake represent as the “true” view? Neither seems truer than the other, since companion poems offer a tempering perspective on each other. Read together, for instance, the two famous poems “The Lamb” and “The Tyger,” both attempts to define God by examining the qualities of animals He created. Readers vibrate back and forth between contrary views that are paradoxically both correct and simultaneously both exaggerated.
“The Book of Thel” is a mythological tale about a young Shepherdess who leaves her flock to explore the world of nature. She seems upset that everything in nature seems transitory, and quizzes a series of natural objects about this problem. Each object in turn, from a cloud to a clod of dirt, attempt to explain why it is good, not bad, to be ephemeral, but Thel remains unconvinced, and flees from embracing this knowledge. Read this lovely little poem and see what you think of it.
The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, ironic, thoughtful, and often funny, describes a walking tour through Hell. The traveler in the poem, however, does not see what most of us would expect to see in either of these realms. In Blake’s vision, devils are not all bad, and angels aren’t all good. Instead, they merely represent two different kinds of energy, both needed for humans to be fully themselves. Throughout the poem, Blake questions the thoughtless moral platitudes of his age, urging readers to redefine good and evil by different criteria.
“Auguries of Innocence” became newly famous recently as the source of many of the epigraphs in Olga Tokarczuk’s 2018 Nobel prize-winning novel Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead. The title of the novel is from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Blake began his artistic life as a trained artist and engraver, only later becoming a poet. He produced most of his poetry in conjunction with beautiful engravings which he hand-printed and hand-colored, stitching them together to make hand-produced booklets. Only a few of each of these booklets are still in existence. To fully enjoy and understand Blake’s poetry, read it side-by-side with the moody and beautiful artwork that accompanies it, which you can do online at the links below, as well as other sites. Often, his visual art undermines or contradicts the verbal art it accompanies, making meaning both larger and more complex than might at first appear.
Resources for Reading Blake or seeing his art:
Published in 1798: “We Are Seven,” “Lines Written in Early Spring,” “Expostulation and Reply,” “The Tables Turned,” “ Lines (Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey).”
Published in 1800: The Lucy Poems: “Strange Fits of Passion,” “She Dwelt Among the Untrodden Ways,” “Three Years She Grew,” and “A Slumber Did My Spirit Seal.”
Published in 1807: “Resolution and Independence,” “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” “My Heart Leaps Up,” “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” “Solitary Reaper,” “London, 1802,” “The World is Too Much With Us,” “She Was a Phantom of Delight.”
Published 1835: “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways.”
No Romantic poet had greater influence on both his contemporary and poet-descendants than William Wordsworth. Together with Coleridge, he forged the Romantic manifesto that described why he rejected the formal language and general, cultured themes of poems of past centuries, instead focusing on simple tales about common people and descriptions of the powerful effects of nature on soul and spirit, rendered in simple, common speech.
You can read more about his ideas in “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” 1798, but it’s more fun to go to direct to full immersion into his lovely and accessible works listed above.
The first cluster of listed works were published in the seminal work Lyrical Ballads in 1798. They feature two of Wordsworth’s most prominent life-long themes: the innocent simplicity of children, and the powerful and wholesome effect of Nature on the human soul and spirit. Wordsworth asserts that immersion in nature is joyful, healing, and even morally instructive—certainly a better tutor than books, as he discusses in “Expostulation and Reply” and “The Tables Turned.” See this post for a discussion of “Lines” about Tintern Abbey.
The lovely Lucy poems are among my life-long favorites. In each, the speaker meditates on the girl he loves, a simple country maiden often referred to as Lucy. In one poem, he relates a sudden fear that she will die; in another, she has passed on, and her lover reflects on her obscure yet precious life and death. These poems, as do those published in 1807, continue reinforcing the theme that simple lives lived close to Nature are valuable and authentic.
“Solitary Reaper” draws from the Romantic era’s enthusiasm for ancient ballads and depicts the way these ancient songs bring a mysterious magic to people from one generation to the next.
“She Was a Phantom of Delight,” a sweet and personal poem, was written about his wife Mary, whom he admired as “A Perfect Woman, nobly planned,” having both homely sensible virtues and as angelic spirit. See more about this poem HERE.
On the one hand, Wordsworth worries that the exploding urban landscapes prevent people from living close to Nature, the source of spiritual peace and moral growth (see this post for discussion on “The World is Too Much With Us”). But in later years, as in “Steamboats, Viaducts, and Railways,” he wrote how human contributions to the landscape are not always foreign or unwelcome additions to nature. Who has not enjoyed gazing at a railroad bridge integrated prettily into a natural setting?
If you find you are a Wordsworth enthusiast, dip into the much longer work known as The Prelude, or Growth of the Poet’s Mind. In this poem, Wordsworth traces his significant life experiences from childhood to later youth that formed his mind and character into the poet he became. This poem among many others from the era testifies to the new interest in inner psychology, subjective perception, and personal modes of thinking that influence how each mind encounters the sensual world.
Wordsworth wrote the first version of The Prelude in 1805, but kept revising the poem throughout his career; later versions change or add material not in the original.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge: “The Eeolian Harp,” 1796; “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” 1798; “Frost at Midnight,” 1798; “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” 1800, “Dejection: An Ode,” 1802; “Kubla Kahn,” 1816, “Christabel,” 1816; Chapter XIV, Biographia Literaria, 1817.
Along with his collaborator William Wordsworth, Coleridge defined poetic Romanticism, not only through example, as in his stunning poems like “Kubla Kahn” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” but also in his writings on poetic theory, as in the famous Biographica Literaria.
In Chapter XIV of Biographica Literaria, Coleridge explained the role that supernatural narratives would play in their joint project Lyrical Ballads:
In this idea originated the plan of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’; in which it was agreed, that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.
To enjoy the results of Coleridge’s plan, read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” a beautiful yet spooky tale about the need to revere nature’s creatures. Other works with supernatural elements are “Kubla Kahn” and “Cristabel.”
Coleridge also mediated on our human relationship to simple Nature itself, as in these poems:
“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” shows his kinship to Wordsworth at the time it was written; it is a meditation on how even the smallest contact with the natural world can soothe and improve the soul, and how previous experiences of stunning natural encounters can lighten the soul when remembered.
“The Eeolian Harp” is a meditation what can happen when Nature interacts with a creative poet’s mind.
In “Frost at Midnight,” Coleridge prays his infant will grow up amid scenes of Nature that will teach him the language of God and eternity.
Mary Robinson: “London’s Summer Morning,” “The Poor Singing Dame,” “The Haunted Beach,” all published 1800.
Mary Robinson lived an unusually varied life, from wife of a law clerk who later deserted her, to Mistress of George, Prince of Wales, to famous actress, to mistress of a member of Parliament. When all those means of support failed, she turned to writing. Both her novels and poems sold well. The selections given here are charming and varied in mood; Robinson could paint beautiful scenery and tell haunting emotional tales in a few harmonious words.
George Gordon, Lord Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, A Romaunt, Canto the First, 1812; “She Walks in Beauty,” 1815; “When We Two Parted,” 1816; Manfred, 1817; Don Juan, Canto 1, 1818; “So We’ll Go No More A-Roving,” 1817.
Said by his former lover Lady Carolyn Lamb to be “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” George Gordon, Lord Byron, is the most glamorous poet of the Romantic Era. He is also one of the most readable. Fluid and lovely lines of poetry seem to have just poured out of him, touching many subjects and many moods—melancholy, philosophical, satirical, dramatic, romantic, and comic.
Byron was a larger-than-life figure—his living riotous, his physical accomplishments impressive (achieved despite a lame foot), his love affairs notorious. His life as well as his poems and dramas, many of which featured heroes resembling himself, created the archetype now known as the Byronic Hero, who is talented, sensitive, powerful, and attractive, but alienated and solitary—a man with a secret guilty past who chooses to live and judge himself by his own rigorous rules, well outside of the morals dictated by society.
Many of Byron’s poems are quite long, so dip into a few to see what strikes your interest. Begin with the lovely short lyrics listed above, “She Walks in Beauty,” “When We Two Parted,” and “So We’ll Go No More A-Roving,” to get a taste and find how lovely Byron’s poems can be.
Then dip into Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, written as a semi-autobiographical poem. Like the poem’s hero Childe Harold, Byron had left England to escape debt and other entanglements. The poem follows the travels of the young Harold through many lands, including Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Greece. Harold comments on all the various places and cultures he visits. For the most part, he is less than impressed. When published, Canto the First was so immediately popular, Byron joked that he awoke the next day to find himself famous.
Most Romantic poems are not funny, but many of Byron’s are, especially his grand mock-epic satire Don Juan, in which he traces the hapless amorous adventures of his own version of the well-known Spanish libertine. In Byron’s version, however, sophisticated seducer Don Juan becomes “Don Joo-un,” a naïve but naturally sexy young man who is more seduced than seducing.
Don Juan is quite long: there are sixteen finished sections (Cantos) and a seventeenth unfinished one, each focusing on a self-contained episode. I suggest you read just the first canto, which can stand alone. It tells how the 16-year-old Juan, raised to be ignorant of the “facts of life” gets seduced by an older woman anyway. The Canto is fun reading, full of satire, irony, humor, and just a little pathos. Read it to see how Byron gets so much humor out of his handling of the intricate ottava rima poem form, which has 8-line stanzas in an ABABABCC rhyming pattern. He often uses the final “CC” rhyming couplet to ironically undercut what was said in the first six lines. It is funny.
Percy Shelley: “Mutability,” 1816; “To Wordsworth,” 1816; “Mont Blanc,” 1817; “Ozymandias,” 1817; “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty,” 1817; “England in 1819,” 1819; “Love’s Philosophy,” 1819; “Ode to the West Wind,” 1820; “To a Sky-Lark,” 1820; “When the Lamp is Shattered,” 1822.
Shelley may be the most intellectual of the Romantic poets, making some concepts in his poems more abstract and taking a bit more thought to understand than those of his fellow Romantics. That should not discourage you from exploring his works, however, because his poetry is lovely and readable, wistful, and often melancholy.
“Mutability” is a short poignant work on one of Shelley’s prominent themes, the impermanence of everything in this life.
In “To Wordsworth,” Shelley deplores how in his later years, Wordsworth departed from his direct focus on Nature as the source of divinity and moral teaching.
“Ozymandias” has to be one of the most anthologized poems in English. It shares its theme with “Mutability” but instead portrays it through a highly visual moral tale, relaying the message that nothing lasts by painting a vivid scene in words. The technique of this poem anticipates the Imagists who will write after the turn of the 20th century.
In “Mont Blanc,” Shelley confronts a scene of awe-inspiring natural beauty whose power dwarfs any human who contemplates it. Yet within the very first stanza, he reflects that “The everlasting universe of things,” represented in this case by the sublime mountain scene, “flows through the mind,” which answers with its own response that gives shape and meaning to the raw natural phenomena, even though the mind’s response is a “feeble brook” compared to the power of the mountain scene with its raging river below.
“Mont Blanc” is a meditation on the nature of the relationship between mind and nature, a topic also precious to poets of the Romantic Era such as Wordsworth and Coleridge. Wordsworth poses that the mind can come into inspired harmony with nature. Shelley’s response is more complex: the sublimity of the scene suggests a kind of vast reality and awareness that is beyond the human mind. And yet he ends the poem by reflecting that the same “secret Strength of things / Which governs thought” is the same law that bounds this natural scene.
Raw nature, however powerful, might be nothing if it were never present “to the human mind’s imaginings.” Perhaps Nature needs a human mind to give it meaning and purpose, Shelley asks. This is a difficult poem, but worth reading and pondering to get another view of our human relationship to the vast powers of nature.
“Ode to the West Wind,” “To A Skylark,” and “Hymn to Intellectual Beauty” all explore one of Shelley’s dominant themes: how to find transcendence over the mutability of life. He turns to Nature to help him reach ideal realms and higher states of mind, which he calls “Intellectual Beauty.” His poems express such longing for this state of mind, which he has reached from time to time, but also uncertainty that he can reach or sustain these states at will.
“Love’s Philosophy” finds Shelley in a more playful mood in this playful love poem.
John Keats: “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer,” 1816; “[A Thing of Beauty] excerpt from Endymion, 1818; “When I Have Fears that I May Cease to Be,” 1818; “The Eve of St. Agnes,” 1819; “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art,” 1819; “La Belle Dame sans Merci: A Ballad,” 1819; “Lamia,” 1819.
The Great Odes of 1819: “Ode on Indolence,” “Ode to Psyche,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Ode on Melancholy,” “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “To Autumn,” 1819.
I love the poetry of John Keats and have so much to say about it I am struggling to say just a little. It is beautiful, melancholy, passionate, and filled with wonder that Beauty can lift us, however temporarily, above sorrow and loss.
Of the poems listed here, “The Eve of St Agnes” and “Lamia” are narratives. “The Eve of St. Agnes tells a brief “Romeo and Juliet” type tale; in this version, the young man escapes with his lady, but the poem is ambiguous about how happy the couple will be, or how much it matters, given that everything will die.
“Lamia” is about a type of mythical creature that is a woman trapped in the body of a snake. In Keats’s tale, she gets Hermes to turn her into a woman so she can captivate Lycius, the young man she loves. Sadly, the philosopher Apollonius “outs” her as a serpent, and the romance crumbles.
The other poems are shorter lyric poems. The “Great Odes” are some of the most famous poems in English literature, so I hope you will sample them for yourself. See the end of the post on Reading 19th Century English Romantic Literature for more information on the work of Keats.
Felicia Hemans: “England’s Dead,” 1822; “Casabianca,” 1826; “The Homes of England,” 1827; “Indian Woman’s Death Song,” 1828.
Mostly unknown today, Felicia Hemans’s poetry was very popular in her day, both in England and America. According to The Norton Anthology of English Literature, “Her books sold more copies than those of any other contemporary poet except Byron and Walter Scott” (Norton Anthology of English Literature. Vol. D. 9th ed. 884).
Hemans’s poetry often celebrates the so-called “cult of domesticity,” what we might call motherhood and family values. Many poems also have patriotic themes. On the surface, these poems are readable and apparently simple, though many point out that they may have subtle implications that undercut the surface message. Look at this selection and form your own opinion.
John Clare:  “First Love,” “Autumn,” “Pastoral Poesy,” 1824-32, “The Nightingale’s Nest,” 1825-30; “I Am,” 1842-46; “The Peasant Poet,” 1842-64; “The Dying Child.”
Unlike almost every other poet of the Romantic era, John Clare came from a peasant background with very little formal education. Known as the Northamptonshire Peasant Poet, his first collection of poetry, Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery, won him acclaim with both critics and the public. Sales of subsequent collections were less and less strong, but he continued to write beautiful, simple, moving poetry through his life. Many poems are based on detailed observations of rural life and human struggles he experienced as a farm laborer and poor family man.
I find Clare’s poetry lovely and poignant. His descriptions of nature and celebrations of natural beauty are joyous; poems about personal struggles, as in “I Am,” and about tragedies of common life, as in “The Dying Child,” are powerful yet winsome and sweet. I highly recommend your dipping into some John Clare and see whether your spirit is touched and softened by their simple beauties. Search for titles on poetryfoundation.org.
Fiction and Other Prose
Thomas Paine, “The Rights of Man,” 1791.
The writer of “Common Sense,” the pamphlet that helped catalyze American opinion in favor of revolution, later wrote this work in the context of the French Revolution.
“The Rights of Man” is an argument against Edmund Burke’s assertions that people do not have natural rights to choose their own government. On the contrary, Paine argues, people have two classes of rights:
Natural rights “are those which appertain to man in right of his existence. Of this kind are all the intellectual rights, or rights of the mind, and also all those
rights of acting as an individual for his own comfort and happiness, which are not injurious to the natural rights of others.—Civil rights are those which appertain to man in right of his being a
member of society. Every civil right has for its foundation, some natural right pre-existing in the individual, but to the enjoyment of which his individual power is not, in all cases, sufficiently
competent. Of this kind are all those which relate to security and protection.”
Read the whole work “The Rights of Man” here.
Mary Wollstonecraft, A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Excerpt, 1792.
In this long prose work, Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley, who wrote Frankenstein, argues that neither men nor women play moral and fulfilling roles within the society that denies women the right to educate themselves, own property, conduct business, enter professions, and look after their own children. Her current culture’s emphasis on making women devote themselves to pleasing men is good for no one.
You can get a taste of her arguments in the excerpt linked above. This excerpt ends with Wollstonecraft’s vision for a better future for both men and women, if only women were granted equality:
Would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable mothers-in a word, better citizens. We should then love them with true affection, because we should learn to respect ourselves; and the peace of mind of a worthy man would not be interrupted by the idle vanity of his wife, nor the babes sent to nestle in a strange bosom, having never found a home in their mother’s.
Anne Radcliffe, Mysteries of Udolpho, 1794.
Anne Radcliffe’s popular Mysteries of Udolpho follows the fortunes of Emily St. Aubert, whose father dies while they are on a trip through the Pyrenees Mountains, leaving her unprotected except by her unreliable and self-serving Aunt. What doesn’t happen to Emily in this novel? She meets Valancourt and falls in love, is forced to break her engagement to move to an isolated Italian castle with her aunt and her aunt’s mysterious new husband Montoni, is nearly forced to marry an untrustworthy friend of the brigand Count Montoni, has supernatural experiences in the castle, suspects Montoni of murder, and more. Read the novel to find out.
This is the novel that all the young ladies are reading in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, which pokes some fun at the outsize effects this Gothic work has on the main character.
Maria Edgeworth, Castle Rackrent, 1800.
Maria Edgeworth was highly educated for a woman of her time, owing to a father who had progressive views toward women. She wrote many instructive books for children and their parents and teachers, and four novels about her experiences living on their Anglo-Irish family’s estate in Ireland.
Castle Rackrent follows the fortunes of the successive inheritors of the Rackrent Estate, most of whom do the best they can to mismanage it. That sounds depressing, but it isn’t—the novel is very fast-paced and often funny, narrated by a great “unreliable” narrator “Honest” Thady, the longtime steward of the estate.
I highly recommend that you check out this novel. It gives a shrewd and, I imagine, faithful picture of all the various Irish people in all walks of life as they interact within the community of this estate and surrounding village. Some call this the first “upstairs/downstairs” style novel in English literature, showing the servant and peasant class interacting with the upper classes.
Sir Walter Scott, Waverley, 1814; Rob Roy, 1818; Ivanhoe, 1819; The Lay of the Last Minstrel, 1805.
Reading Scott’s novels is not easy, at first. The pace of events may seem slow, the plots are interwoven with many actual historical events, and many characters speak in accurately rendered dialect. But if you read along for awhile to become accustomed to Scott’s style, the rewards are big.
In these fictions, Scott invented the new genre of historical fiction, which enthralled readers from the first. He also promoted Scotland, its culture, and its people; readers fell in love with his descriptions of its Romantic landscapes and its brave people of strongly marked character.
Scott’s novels focus on different historical times and places, but most feature a naïve, sensitive but unformed young man as central character. This young man sets off on some purposeful journey on behalf of family or their desire for him to see more of the world, during which he gets caught up in whatever factional conflict is going on at the time. This character usually gets captured at some point, or tossed back and forth between factions, thus able to see the strong points of each side. Along the way, he meets one or even two maidens, falls in love with one or both, and ultimately gets the girl, plus an estate thrown in.
The overall message of most of the novels is a humane one: whatever side people may take in any political or cultural battle, Scott shows them all to be just people at heart, all with some reason for holding the opinions they do. That message alone is enough to make reading one of the novels worthwhile.
Waverley was Scott’s first novel, and it was immediately popular. It focuses on the Jacobite uprising of 1745, as well as the tribal culture of the Scottish Highlanders and their interactions with the Lowland Scots. Edward Waverley has adventures with all sides of every struggle, so readers learn a lot of history and culture in the process. (Jacobites were supporters of the line of King James II, who was deposed in favor of William and Mary, James’s daughter, in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. James II was deposed because his militant Catholicism alienated the Anglicans who had majority political power.)
Rob Roy may be the most fast-paced novels, full of incident. It features the Robin-Hood-like character Rob Roy, who steals only from the rich. The narrator is another ingenue character, Frank Osbaldistone. Because of disagreements with his father, he exchanges places with his cousin Ranleigh, who takes Frank’s place in the father’s business. Ranleigh turns out to be a bad guy, and Frank has to save the day, with the help of Rob Roy. Note: the plot of this novel is nothing like the plot of the 1995 Liam Neeson film.
Unlike most Scott novels, Ivanhoe is set in England shortly after the Norman Conquest, when tensions between the conquering Normans and the Saxon nobility are at their height. Ivanhoe is a young knight from the Saxon line, but he is at odds with his family for having gone to the Crusades with Richard, a Norman, whose exploitative brother John is now on the throne. This is not too long of a novel and has a lot of fun incidents and characters. Lovely ladies Rowena and Rebecca are in it; Robin Hood is in it. What’s not to like?
If you liked the novels listed above, try this one: The Tale of Old Mortality, 1816, which focuses on the two sides of the Jacobite uprising of 1715, an event that also occurs at the end of Rob Roy. If you want to try a longer narrative poem, read “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,” the poem that first made Scott’s fame as a writer.
Evidently there was a resurgence of Walter Scott novel reading in 2021, mostly by people who were taking Scottish “staycations.” Scott’s novels are perfect accompaniments to a stay in beautiful Scotland, explains this article.
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, 1811; Pride and Prejudice, 1813; Mansfield Park, 1814; Emma, 1815; Persuasion and Northanger Abbey, both published posthumously, 1817.
Who among English-reading people has not heard of Jane Austen? She is among the most famous ever of writers who have written in English. Of course, Austen’s works are not everyone’s cup of tea (at least, so I have been told)—but for the life of me, I can’t understand why. Her work is delicate, observant, humane, and often, really really funny.
Austen’s novels are all about love, and how hard it can be to live with the foibles of other people, and the struggle to achieve independence and a strong sense of self while coping with unreasonable strictures society so often enforces. Though times have changed and the rules of romance are now different, these are still all enduring human quandaries.
Note: Though Sense and Sensibility was published first, Northanger Abbey was written first. You could read them in the order Austen wrote them. If you want to make sure you cover the most famous ones, I suggest you read the novels in this order:
Pride and Prejudice: The incomparable Lizzy Bennett really hates the supercilious and rich Mr. Darcy—until she doesn’t. In the meantime, she must support her beloved sister Jane in her bumpy love with Mr. Bingley, endure her silly mother’s attempts to marry her to silly men, manage her foolish sisters, and keep her self-respect throughout encounters with the condescending Lady Catherine DeBourgh.
Emma: First line of this famous novel: “Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.” Emma is proud of her ability to manage everyone and everything around her, especially to prompt her friends and family to fall in love with the right people. She thinks she is always right, but as readers and Emma herself are to learn, she is wrong about pretty much everything.
Northanger Abbey: A naïve country girl meets less naïve friends while visiting Bath. She allows her fascination with the latest Gothic fiction novel to lead her astray in her judgment of all her new acquaintances, mistakenly seeing them all like the characters in the book she is reading.
Sense and Sensibility: Two sisters, Eleanor and Marianne, could not be more unlike. When Eleanor loses in love, she tells no one of her sufferings, not wishing to burden them with her troubles. When Marianne loses in love, she shows it to everyone, even people who will think less of her for her feelings. What is the best course, the right way to live? Austen explores and ponders in this novel.
Mansfield Park: Fanny, the heroine at the heart of Austen’s most weighty novel, is a gentle, humble soul from the poor branch of a big family. Brought up among her rich cousins, she sees herself almost as an upper servant to her relatives. She is quiet, timid, and self-effacing, but also a keen observer of all the secrets and undercurrents in the household, especially romantic ones. Will the eligible young man she loves, as well as her whole family, come to appreciate her quiet virtue, or will flashier but less honest personalities mislead them?
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein, 1818.
Mary Shelley’s original novel Frankenstein is a little different from the versions enshrined in generations of world-wide cinema. Victor Frankenstein, the student of “natural philosophy” and chemistry obsessed with learning the secret of creating life, is there. The monster he creates from stitched-together body parts, and then immediately abandons, is there. The deaths of his brother William, his friend Henry, and his bride Elizabeth at the hands of this monster are there.
But what is missing from most later versions of this tale is the monster’s side of the story. Spurned by everyone who sees him, even by his own creator, the monster is left to assemble his personhood all on his own. Through the monster’s story, Shelley speculates on what makes someone human, and what truly makes someone a monster.
The whole complex tale is wrapped in a dramatic frame which begins near the end of the tale, wherein sea captain Robert Walton rescues Victor from an ice floe near the North Pole, where he has been chasing the monster to destroy him. Surprisingly, when Victor dies, the monster appears by his side to weep over him.
In short, there is a lot more to the novel than you may have supposed. In Frankenstein, Mary Shelley not only created a cultural icon that lives beyond its pages; she asks enduring questions we still wrestle with: how far should people seek to manipulate Nature? What are our responsibilities toward our creations? What does it mean to be a fully human, and humane, person?
William Hazlitt, “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” 1823.
If you want to get a view of what it was like to meet Wordsworth and Coleridge in person, this essay will deliver. Hazlitt, who became and essayist and literary critic, in this essay relates his meeting with these two influential poets. I found it fascinating reading.
Most works on this Reading List can be found at one of the following sources:
Read this Post to learn about overall trends and themes in English Romantic and Regency Literature.
Charlotte Smith. George Romney, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Songs of Innocence Title Page. William Blake, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
, via Wikimedia Commons.
Coleridge. Peter Vandyke, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
Peel House, Scotland. Jim Barton / Peel House, Ashiestiel.