Here’s a list of great 19th Century Novels to try. You can find inexpensive copies, or download and read for free!
With a pandemic raging, many of us are in official or self-imposed quarantine. I send you prayers and hopes that you and your loved ones are well, or soon will be, and that this epidemic will soon pass. If you are well but stuck inside, maybe now is the time to pick up one of those beefy classic novels you always meant to read.
But what to go for first?
Here I offer a smattering of my suggestions for best overall Big Reads that, for me, offer not just classic status, but also engaging stories and characters, worthy and thought-provoking ideas, and immersion in other times and places in western cultural history.
The great thing about choosing Classics for reading is that you can find many of them online for free, or pick up inexpensive second-hand copies from online booksellers. If you have a Kindle or other e-reader, you can even download copies of many classic works from Gutenberg.org in the correct format. The listings below provide links to Gutenberg download pages for each.
Here is the link to Gutenberg’s Book Search page, where you can search for any other out-of-copyright book you’d like to read.
A word to the wise: be patient when first starting your Classic Read. It might take a chapter or two to become accustomed to the more elaborate language and leisurely pace of fiction written in bygone years. But if the experience of most of my students is any indication, you won’t read far into these great books before you are wholly absorbed in the story-line, captivated by the characters, and stimulated by the thoughtful commentaries about being human that these great authors can offer.
Here are my picks for some great classics I think you would like to meet.
Note: If you want to choose readings from other eras, visit our Literature Lists and Timelines category page for ideas. Make a choice then search the Gutenberg link above for online copies.
Charles Dickens: David Copperfield, Bleak House, or Great Expectations
Except for A Christmas Carol, Dickens is not much read now. Time to bring him back? My all-time favorite Dickens novel is David Copperfield. This beautifully written book begins with this famous first line, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” It takes only this for me to be swept once again into melodramatic tale of the poor little abused boy who grows up to be a novelist. Students have told me that they also become easily invested in the story, finding themselves cheering and clapping when villains are finally confronted.
David Copperfield is hard to beat for an emotional and beautifully drawn coming-of-age tale which portrays the consequences of cruel treatment of children, the difficulties of becoming an adult, and even the problems of marriage. For all of the heaviness of these topics, we can trust Dickens to provide a lot of winsome humor along with characters forever memorable: falsely humble Uriah Heep, the cruel Murdstones, kindly Clara Peggotty and her brother (their house is an upside down boat!), Little Emily, Agnes, Aunt Betsey Trotwood, the Micawber family, Dora Spenlow and her aunts—too many to list.
I love Bleak House and Great Expectations also. Both are somewhat heavier, both in ideas and mood, but provide all the humor, incident, and character-drawing to be found in David Copperfield. Find out more about Bleak House here, in this post.
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The Bronte sisters: Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, Agnes Grey, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall
Of course any list of great readable novels on the 19th century must include The Brontë’s: Charlotte’s Jane Eyre, Emily’s Wuthering Heights, and Anne’s Agnes Grey or The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.
Jane Eyre is an absorbing and powerful read, even if somewhat heightened by a bit of gothic melodrama. Its memorable characters and elevating ideas rise out of an interesting story line with characters we can’t forget. See this post to read all about Jane Eyre.
Are you ready for a slightly weirder experience, where everything we tend to believe about people is turned inside out? Try Emily’s Wuthering Heights, a different kind of work altogether, not only from Jane Eyre but from just about every other 19th century novel. To read more about the untamed world, and world of ideas, that are described in Wuthering Heights, read this post.
Anne Bronte’s work is less well-known, but very interesting to read for its reporting on the difficulties of being a governess in the 19th century (Agnes Grey) and of women who tried to make lives after fleeing abusive marriages (Tenant of Wildfell Hall).
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William Makepeace Thackeray: Vanity Fair
If you feel the world’s going to hell in a handbasket (an old saying), and you enjoy laughing at most people’s hopeless egotism and insularity, Thackeray is definitely your author. Vanity Fair is a delightfully intelligent (and, I would say, snarky) critique of average and not-so-average folk trying to rub by in Victorian (or really, in any) society. This is the book that spawned the delightful quasi-villain Becky Sharp. There are other great characters here too: deluded Amelia, who never gives up on the unfaithful George, her stupidly faithful wannabe lover Dobbin, Amelia’s brother Jos Sedley, both fat and fatuous, and many more. It all comes out OK in the end, but not much to anyone’s credit.
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George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans): Middlemarch, Adam Bede, The Mill on the Floss, Daniel Deronda.
If you want to read a more earnest, thoughtful, compassionate, and very lovely description of society in England in the 1800s, take up a George Eliot novel. Eliot’s novels explore how every person sees and experiences the world differently. Most folk, however, view others only through filters of their own perspectives and desires, which leads to much suffering and misunderstanding. Most of Eliot’s works urge people to fight their own cluelessness about other people. Her novels also meticulously trace the rippling effects that our actions, both thoughtless and thoughtful, can have on a wide range of people.
Middlemarch is often said to be one of the best novels ever written. For myself, I love it dearly and recommend it to everyone. To learn more about Middlemarch, read my post about it here: “Moral Streams and Ripples.”
Adam Bede was Eliot’s first full-length novel. It takes up the complicated relationship between gentry and working-class people, depicting the friendship between Adam Bede, a well-respected carpenter, and Arthur Donnithorne, local squire of the village, just come of age. The plot concerns the harrowing story of dairy maid Hetty, the girl they both love, whom Arthur gets pregnant, as well as Methodist lay-preacher Dinah Morris, who tries to help everyone. As do all Eliot’s novels, it inquires thoughtfully into the nature of morality and moral behavior. What really makes people good?
The Mill on the Floss draws a lot on Eliot’s own girlhood. In part it is a tale of thwarted and sacrificial love; it is also a cry for freedom for women from nonsensical cultural strictures.
Daniel Deronda concerns, in part, a young man who learns in young adulthood, to his surprise, that his heritage is Jewish and who explores his family’s culture, becoming captivated by the Zionist movement. It is also about Deronda’s friend Gwendolen Harleth, a shallow materialistic young woman who marries for money and position only to find herself in an abusive marriage. She develops a friendship and even love for Daniel that becomes a saving grace for her, helping her become a more mature and better person.
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Trollope: The Warden and Barchester Towers, The Eustace Diamonds and The Prime Minister
If you want to read something a little less earnest, a little more chatty and lightly comic than George Eliot, yet still with plenty of trenchant observations about humankind, pick up an Anthony Trollope novel.
He wrote 47 of them (!), so there are plenty to choose from. All are not equally good, however. Here I have given my picks for “best of Trollope.”
If you are interested in church life, start with the first two novels of Trollope’s clerical series, The Warden (see this post for more info) and Barchester Towers. I love both these novels, Barchester Towers in particular, because the characters are so truly human and real. They are also both quite funny. I think the scene at the Bishop’s reception in Barchester Towers, where all the anomalous characters meet to create comic mayhem, is one of the funniest scenes in English literature. To make complete sense of the story, spend just a little time googling to learn about Victorian church structure to help you understand everyone’s position and exactly what they are all fighting about.
For a different slice of Victorian life, choose something from the Palliser or “political” series. These novels do touch on politics but are really more about the personal lives of politicians and their hangers-on. The Eustace Diamonds centers on the beautiful, clever, not-quite-honest Lizzie Greystock, an adventuress making her way among the society of political greats. When the book opens, she is the widow of Sir Florian Eustace, and has possession of some diamonds which were family heirlooms. By rights she should return them to the estate, but she is bent on keeping them. Can she? What other adventures ensue?
The Prime Minister is the last in the Palliser series, and is a compassionate portrait of a man who ends up unexpectedly in the role of Prime Minister but who may not be quite up to the task. I like this novel especially for its unusual subject matter, a detailed portrayal of the dilemmas of a man in later life who is promoted past his own ambitions.
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Thomas Hardy: Far from the Madding Crowd, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Return of the Native
Thomas Hardy really knows how to tell a story. His take on life is melancholy; many of his stories are fashioned as Greek-like tragedies, full of ironies and coincidences that almost always make things worse for the protagonist. Sad as some of the plot incidents may be, I love reading Hardy for his intimate portraits of how people really think and feel, and for the intensity of the loves and hates he weaves throughout his tales of the eternal human struggle against the dictates of fate. No novelist fashions more vivid characters than Hardy.
He wrote many great works, but the ones listed here are my favorites and the best, I think, to start with. See this post for more about The Mayor of Casterbridge, the tragedy of a man whose troubles are largely of his own making. Far from the Madding Crowd is more cheerful, following the fortunes of a brave independent woman managing her own farm and, at last, finding love. Tess of the D’Urbervilles shows how women and farm workers are both treated as second-class citizens in 19th century society, exploring how people mistakenly venerate unworthy things, especially noble blood lines. It is also a moving and delicately painted story of a girl who falls in love and lands in tragedy.
The Return of the Native is such a tangle of love, desire and ambition thwarted by fate, all lived out within one year in the fictional remote village of Egdon Heath, I don’t know how to describe it. You will just have to read for yourself! I find it intense, moving, and thought-provoking.
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Nineteenth Century American Fiction
Meanwhile, across “the pond,” Americans too were busy penning great novels. Here’s a list of some American Greats to sample from this era:
Herman Melville: Moby Dick
After recommending this great work to many, well I know that Melville is not everyone’s cup of tea. However, I and many of my closest reading pals just love this work. I think that to appreciate and enjoy it, you must approach with some appreciation for Melville’s quirky sense of humor. It runs the gamut from dry and sly to out-and-out goofy. For instance, the book is introduced with a list of extremely miscellaneous extracts relating to whales or whaling, from any and every source possible, from famous poets to newspaper articles, all supplied by a supposed “sub-sub-librarian.” They get crazier and more anomalous until finally the sources degenerate into “from ‘Something’ unpublished.”
To me, this is very funny stuff, if somewhat cerebral. Yet just beneath this kind of fooling Melville makes serious points about the nebulousness of human knowledge. What is a whale, after all? What is its meaning? What is the meaning of Moby Dick’s whiteness? Why would anyone become obsessed with pursuing it, as Ahab does? In between those kinds of questions, readers find amazingly grand and moving descriptions of nature and the men who try to master it: whales sailing the ocean and looking after their young, whalers on the hunt with nothing but simple gear and courage, the sailors’ life on the sea, and so much more. All this is in addition to the grand tragedy of Ahab, who dedicates his life to killing the whale who took his leg.
I have wended my way through this grand, fun, sad, philosophical novel multiple times, and never fail to have an amazing experience. Maybe it’s not for you.
But maybe it is.
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Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Blithedale Romance or The Marble Faun
Everyone always thinks of The Scarlet Letter and The House of Seven Gables as Hawthorne’s best; certainly they are the most famous. However, I think The Blithedale Romance and The Marble Faun are much more interesting than either, and his shorter works such as those in Twice-Told Tales are better than all of them. But these two novels are both interesting and very much worth reading.
The Blithedale Romance is a fictionalized account of the time in 1841 that Hawthorne spent living amongst other writers and visionaries in a would-be Utopian socialist community in Massachusetts known as Brook Farm. In the novel, Miles Coverdale is Hawthorne’s alter ego; like the real Hawthorne, he is skeptical about the community from the start, but stays out of friendship for a couple of the people who are living there. Read the novel to see if his skepticism is justified.
Besides the difficulties of founding a utopian community, the story also focuses on some interesting characters such as mysterious, attractive feminist Zenobia, who is helping to found the community in an attempt to live out her ideals. There is also a parallel plot line about a mysterious woman clairvoyant whose life becomes a commentary on the experiment at Blithedale.
The Marble Faun takes place in Rome, where three young American artists—Miriam, Hilda, and Kenyon—meet and befriend a young Italian man, Donatello. Out of love for Miriam, Donatello kills a threatening man who has been stalking her, but is then wracked by guilt. The three friends are also affected by the taint of murder in this interesting philosophical consideration of guilt and how humans fall from innocence.
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William Dean Howells: The Rise of Silas Lapham or A Hazard of New Fortunes
As editor of The Atlantic magazine, Howells was vastly influential in his own day, steering American writers toward the style of Realism in fiction. Yet Howells is little known in ours. It’s a pity, because his novels are readable and interesting portrayals of what life was like for real people in the American 19th century.
Both novels I list here are about how people struggle to accommodate to new, more sophisticated cultural ways when they move to a big American city. The family in A Hazard of New Fortunes are educated Bostonians; the father, Basil March, moves to New York City with his family to become the editor of a new periodical. He and family struggle to learn and to live with the faster pace of city life along with the greater focus on status and conspicuous consumption. They also witness and acknowledge social injustice in unequal treatment of people from different classes.
The Rise of Silas Lapham, even more dramatic, has similar themes. The simple country man Lapham has made a fortune by inventing a new type of mineral-based paint. He relocates his family to Boston and attempts to take advantage of their money by insinuating them into high society. But due to a series of missteps and false pride, his efforts do not pay. An interesting study of money and class in the nineteenth century, and how it affects different members of the family, including two daughters just reaching adulthood.
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Henry James: The Bostonians or The Portrait of a Lady (these two for starters, anyway!)
James’s style is notoriously difficult, and gets even more opaque in novels that come after the two novels listed here. Cases in point: my other two James favorites, The Ambassadors and The Wings of the Dove. Even these two earlier novels do not move fast through lots of plot points, since James focuses more on the inner lives of his characters than on crowding a novel with incidents. However, in my view, no novelist explores the inner lives of people better than James does, exactly why his works are worth taking on.
James is a genius at rendering conversation in “slow time,” showing not only what characters say to each other but how they are interpreting each speech as they go. The stories and characters are also powerful and fascinating. In most works, James focuses on “users” and “used,” not always telling us which is which, leaving readers to judge at the end of the story. The central, most positive characters, usually “the used,” come out stronger and with more self-knowledge at the end of the story, making their difficult experiences worthwhile, even if sad.
The Portrait of a Lady tells the story of bright, independent, young Isabel Archer, whose cousin leaves her a fortune only for her to be courted and snared by a widowed fortune hunter who treats her badly after marriage. James traces the whole story, especially the inner lives of Isabel and her cousin (before his death), explaining how such a strong independent person could be fooled, yet leading to wisdom and heightened character in the end.
The Bostonians is less sad, with many more comic moments. It tells the story of ardent feminist reformer Olive Chancellor, who falls in love with up-and-coming woman’s rights speaker, young Verena Tarrant. Enter Olive’s cousin Basil Ransom, a strongly patriarchal southern man who also meets Verena and falls for her charms. Olive and Basil battle to influence and control Verena, Olive to keep her dedicated to the feminist cause and to a life with Olive, Basil to convince Verena to turn her back on the women’s rights struggle and marry him. Who will come out on top?
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Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence
This novel was published a little after the 19th century, but does concern a society with roots and customs in an earlier time. Wharton, the author, was a wealthy woman, raised in the rarefied atmosphere of New York society in a brownstone on West 23rd Street. Most of her novels are analytical and mostly unflattering portrayals of the people who live and move in this milieu. Like James, who was a close personal friend of Wharton’s, she was interested in how people seek to manipulate each other for personal ends. She also shows how outworn societal “rules” and expectations interfere with natural human relationships, particularly love and desire.
All the characters in The Age of Innocence are members of this society. Newland Archer is engaged to the “perfect” woman, May Welland. But then he meets the charming and winsome Countess Ellen Olenska, a cousin of May’s who has been “taken back” into the family after a disastrous marriage to an abusive Polish Count. Archer falls passionately in love with the intense and free-spirited Ellen—but she is married without the ability to divorce, and May is counting on him to complete the marriage considered so appropriate within their suffocating society. What will Newland do?
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Harriet Anne Jacobs: Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself
This work is not a novel, it just reads like one. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is a true account of the author’s harrowing life, which she self-published under a pseudonym. Jacobs braved 19th century delicacies that many things to remain unspoken in public to tell the truth about how female slaves could be abused by their male owners. At one point, Jacobs escaped and remained hidden for seven years in a tiny space in her grandmother’s attic. Eventually she was able to rescue two of her children.
Find out more about this work, and other works by 19th century African American women writers in this excellent article.
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Kate Chopin: The Awakening, or any of her short stories.
Chopin was a popular writer of short stories for magazines at the end of the nineteenth century. When she published The Awakening, her career was suddenly over because the novel, which questioned the roles imposed on women at the time, offended popular sensibilities. The Awakening takes place on the Gulf Coast of Louisiana in the late 1800s and tells the story of Edna Pontellier. Edna questions and then abandons the roles of wife and mother she felt were imposed upon her by the nineteenth century culture. Though Chopin’s work disappeared for a time, this novel was rediscovered and championed in the 1970s by feminist critics working to uncover the lost history of women writers in Victorian times.
It is very lucky for readers that Chopin’s works are now known. Her writing is delicate, closely observed, moody, wry, sometimes ironic, emotional, and beautiful. Much of it focuses on Cajun and Creole culture of Louisiana, where she lived for some years with her husband, a native of that state. Try The Awakening, or any of her short tales such as “Desiree’s Baby,” “At the ‘Cadian Ball,” “The Storm,” or “Story of an Hour.” They offer pictures of life in another time and sub-culture as well as bold ideas about the right role of women in society.
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What Will You Choose?
Of course this list is just the tip of the nineteenth-century iceberg, with many more by these and other authors to explore. This list is offered here not only as varied favorites of mine, but also as great works that have been much read and are still highly regarded. Reading one will put you in company with thousands of readers over many years, instrumental in forging common experiences, thoughts, ideas, and questions among us.
Make your choice, and welcome to the club of people who love to Read Great Literature!
If you do read one of these great nineteenth century works, I would love you to leave a comment. (Comments are moderated, so it may take a day or two before they are posted.)
Peggotty and Little Emily. Harold Copping (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons).
Nathaniel Hawthorne By Charles Osgood – [Public Domain], via Wikipedia Commons
Henry James. By John Singer Sargent (died 1925) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Mary Jane is a longtime literature lover who lived in the Cincinnati area for many years, then in central Louisiana for three years (what a treat!), teaching literature classes at universities in both locations. Now back in the Cincinnati area, she pampers her grandchildren, experiments with cooking, and visits art museums as often as possible.