The novel was born in the 18th century, but it reached maturity in the 19th century. With early Bildungsroman novels still playing second fiddle to poetry, it wasn’t until the 1800s that the novel really came into its own. Eliot, Dickens, Hardy, the Brontës, Austen: these writers and their contemporaries gave us the form-defining masterpieces that defined literature as we enjoy it today. Such novels gave us access to the protagonists’ interior lives, to vivid and sometimes frightening fantasy worlds, to mysteries in need of solving, and to the experiences of those less fortunate. The original and best of their kind, this list dips into 20 must-read books of the 19th century that tore up the rulebook to change reading and writing forever.
1. Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, by George Eliot
“One of the few English novels written for grown-up people,” according to Virginia Woolf, Eliot’s masterpiece is set in the fictitious English provincial town of Middlemarch in the 1830s and is perhaps best described as a 19th century soap opera—albeit a highly intellectual one. While the narrator comments astutely on the issues of the day with a scholarly gravity that only Eliot can offer, you can easily get swept along by the strength of the intersecting stories. Eliot was a genius of realism, and while her High Victorian novels are often remembered by 20th century critics for her morality and seriousness, this reputation obscures the compassion and humour in Middlemarch. Her treatise on a town’s worth of secret motives, desperate hopes, and private tragedies underlying even the most mundane of lives touches on something essentially human, raising her writing to literature’s most lofty and universal ambitions.
2. Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
Bleak House is Dickens at his very best. Like so many novels of its time, Bleak House was serialised, published bit by bit in a popular periodical. In Bleak House, Dickens shows a full mastery of this publication format, building in cliffhangers and weaving a deliciously satisfying web of narratives. At the heart of this web is an inheritance dispute, and from these beginnings come endless twists, turns, unexpected deaths, and family secrets. With Dickens, it’s all about the characters. Larger than life and infinitely memorable, the colourful cast includes an enigmatic aristocrat, a chilling murderess, a chaotic lady-missionary, a rag-and-bottle shop owner prone to combustion, your classic Dickensian street urchin, and the very first detective in fiction. If you were only to read one Victorian novel, this is the one.
3. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Too often dismissed as the author of bonnets and period dramas, Jane Austen was a keen satirist and innovator of literary form. Her romantic novel of manners that would go on to inspire a million love stories follows the turbulent relationship between Elizabeth Bennet, the daughter of a country gentleman, and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a rich aristocratic landowner. A love story it may be, but you cannot accuse Austen of being saccharine. There is a knowingness and a bite of irony to her treatment of wealth, class, and marriage in this age of limited life choices for women.
Throughout Pride and Prejudice and her other novels, she skillfully deploys what we now call free indirect speech to blur the line between a third person narrator and the character’s voice. An innovation entirely new to the English language, the invitation to view the characters’ innermost psyches would come to define the great 19th century novel.
4. The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
The Woman in White is as breathless and intricately plotted as any mystery, spy thriller, or detective novel. With the ingenuity and precision of a clockmaker, Collins’ novels are as pacy and fresh today as they were 160 years ago. Despite huge commercial success and a close allyship with Dickens, who for the Victorians could do no wrong, Collins’ name was always tainted with something a little less than respectable. Devious melodrama and mystery placed the novel firmly in the camp of “sensation fiction,” tapping into a prurient Victorian obsession with true crime. Collins borrowed the flavour of the 18th century Gothic, wrote with all the force and intelligence of the 19th century, and anticipated the radical value shift of the 20th century.
5. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
Our eponymous heroine is a “poor, obscure, plain, and little” young governess who falls in love with her employer. Their relationship would be perfect were it not for ominous bumps and groans in the night in their large old house, and for the terrible secret that emerges on their wedding day. Written in the 1840s, Jane Eyre is not a novel of the Victorian tradition but truly belongs to the Romantics of the long 18th century. More Rousseau than Ruskin, more revolutionary subtext than Victorian moralism, Jane Eyre’s is a soul screaming to be free. Written with deep feeling for our heroine, it is Brontë’s intimacy with the reader and the enormous passion with which Jane’s story is told that makes the novel a masterpiece.
6. Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Ann Jacobs
“Reader, my story ends with freedom; not in the usual way, with marriage. I and my children are now free!”
Harriet Ann Jacobs’ autobiographical novel draws from Victorian literary conventions to tell her own extraordinary story. Born into slavery, sexually abused, and robbed of her children, Jacobs hid for seven years in the crawlspace beneath the roof of her grandmother’s house before finally escaping North Carolina and reaching New York. Subverting the famous line, “Reader, I married him,” she references one of literature’s most beloved stories of a woman’s will and desire for freedom cut against the most literal kind of human bondage. The 19th century began to see the novel as a tool for social progress and, in this tradition, Jacobs’ autobiography is a particular clarion call to women. To a society prizing (white) female virtue, Jacobs asks her readers to imagine in painful detail what it would be like to have no ownership of their own body or to raise children amidst a constant threat of separation. This personal tract shedding light on the monstrousness of slavery deserves its place amongst the greats of the 19th century.
7. North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell
Where Eliot brought a taut realism to her character studies and Dickens vividly unveiled the lives of the urban poor to middle class readers, Gaskell took notes from both and packed her novels with a punch of social realism. Credited with bringing social responsibility to her reading audience, Gaskell’s work provides perhaps the very best of the Victorian sentimental novel, using empathy as a tool to address social issues. North and South, Gaskell’s third novel, is arguably her best, bringing the clash and roar of the Victorian industrial city vividly to life. The simmering tensions between old money and industry, worker and industrialist, between our romantic adversaries Margaret and Thornton make for a compelling story which touches on the many nuances of labour relations that feels personal, compelling, and immediate.
8. Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
When homeless orphan Heathcliff is taken in by the Earnshaw family, he and young Cathy Earnshaw form a frightening and intense bond as children, running wild over the Yorkshire moors together and declaring their souls as one. But when Cathy is brought over to the civilised world of the Lintons at Thrushcross Grange, this Gothic tale of obsession and death evolves into a cross-generational plot with the two families at the mercy of Heathcliff’s corrosive vengeance. The most raw and ambitious of the sister novels, Wuthering Heights has an undeniable poetic power but also a quality that has long unsettled readers, so much so that Charlotte wrote a preface in the 1850 edition apologising for the novel’s “perverted passion and passionate perversity.” But therein lies the power of Brontë’s story of obsessive love and domestic cruelty amongst the wild, desolate moors. Though not the most finely constructed novel on this list, it is perhaps the most striking. Wuthering Heights is a cry in the darkness, the imperfect first work of a genius who died too young.
9. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
A curious little girl falls down a rabbit hole into a strange and magical new world where everything is topsy turvy and nothing is as it seems. The shadow cast by Alice on popular culture is staggering. The wonderland created by the shy, unmarried Oxford Don Charles Dodgson gave us the March Hare, the Cheshire Cat, and the Queen of Hearts, while the Mad Hatter’s tea party is surely one of the most universally recognisable images in literature. After its publication in 1865, the nonsense novel quickly became a classic children’s book, and one of the first of its time. While the earliest children’s books are instructional tracts, Carroll’s pure surrealism doesn’t indulge in any heavy-handed moralising. That and its arch sense of humour make it the gem of a particularly English tradition of great children’s literature.
10. The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James
If Pride and Prejudice marks the beginnings of the 19th century novel, then The Portrait of a Lady gives us its end. In his construction of Isabel Archer — a penniless American beauty who travels to Europe attracts a number of suitors, and is gifted a fortune before becoming the victim of Machiavellian scheming — there is a strong sense that the novel has a depth beyond what you see on the page. James’ is a “portrait” of oblique, ambiguous impressions. He forgoes a strong sense of plot and structure in favour of meditation on human consciousness and motivation. Where Austen’s narration allowed us insight into each character through their style of speech, James recreates Isabel Archer’s own thoughts, anticipating the stream of consciousness narration we see in the 20th century.
Indeed it brings us right to the very edge of the 19th century novel, almost tasting the fractured Modernism that the 20th century would bring. James is a challenging writer who has always attracted a kind of cultish intellectual following. Where the most part the 19th century novel gives us certainties, James writes a story that feels consistently just out of reach. Die-hard Jamesian’s will argue that’s his genius.
11. The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
The first great classic in the American canon explores sin, guilt and redemption in the 17th century Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony. After giving birth to an illegitimate child, the disgraced Hester Prynne is condemned to wear a scarlet letter “A.” The novel begins at the prison door with our heroine emerging with the letter on her chest like a kind of talisman. Refusing to reveal her lover’s identity and shunned by the community, Hester earns respect with her quiet stoicism, while her lover’s anguish and her husband’s vengeance consume them. The Scarlet Letter is powerful, haunting, and almost cinematic in all its intense religious symbolism.
12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman, by Thomas Hardy
Where the Brontës have the Yorkshire Moors and Dickens has London, Hardy has his Wessex. Outside this trio, it is difficult to think of a writer who possesses such a powerful and intrinsic sense of place. It is at heart a simple story: the innocent country girl “ruined” by a predatory man. Published in the final year of Queen Victoria’s reign, it puts the Victorian’s archetype of the “Fallen Woman” against a backdrop of elemental forces, fate, nature, and the rushing change of the modern world. Where other narrative voices in this list merge with the thoughts of their protagonists, we watch Tess from the outside. Hardy’s genius is to take archetypes and use them to tell a story that is somehow bigger than the novel itself. In the ancient traditions of tragedy, this novel gives us that sense of tragic perfection and cosmic inevitability.
13. Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome
“I did not intend to write a funny book, at first,” Jerome said of this unlikely comedy classic. The literary journalist was trying to make money with a travel guide. This was the golden age of the Henley Regatta, and boating on the Thames was never more popular. This unassuming story of three hopeless city clerks on a boating trip became a comic gem. The set-up couldn’t be simpler; three men and a dog row up the River Thames from London to Oxford. The characters are entirely neurotic, the plot entirely mundane. Yet the three hypochondriacs’ adventures with taxidermy trout, jam sandwiches, and the greedy fox terrier Montmorency has undeniable charm. Lampooned by the critics, the book sold by the millions and its popularity remains today.
14. Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley
Shelley could not have been more squarely entrenched in the Romantic movement when she wrote Frankenstein. It was the summer of 1816, in the “year without a summer” with the world trapped in a long, volcanic winter following the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia the year before. An 18-year-old unmarried Mary Shelley (née Godwin) was mourning the recent loss of her baby when she and her impoverished lover Percy Bysshe Shelley were visiting Lord Byron at his villa by Lake Geneva. With the weather cold and dreary, and storms raging at night, the group decided to amuse themselves with a contest to write the most frightening ghost story. In Shelley’s creation, a brilliant scientist plays God and creates life, with tragic and terrifying consequences. Shelley’s strength is in conveying the anguish and suffering of the creature who is cruelly rejected by his creator and grows disgusted with humanity: “If I cannot inspire love, I will cause fear!”
15. Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
Thackeray wrote his novel with the working title A Novel Without a Hero, but that itself is a point of contention. Reader sympathies vary toward the lively and upwardly mobile antihero Becky Sharp and her exuberant romp through Regency England. Thoroughly amoral, Becky is determined to topple the odds society has stacked against her on account of her shameful beginnings. “I want tomorrow to be better than today,” she says, anticipating shades of Scarlett O’Hara. Though her heartlessness becomes harder to stomach as the novel progresses, she remains a survivor and master of self-invention, fending for herself and taking others down around her. Becky’s strong sense of character leaps from the page, a testament to Thackeray’s iconic narrative voice.
16. A Scandal in Bohemia, by Arthur Conan Doyle
The world’s most famous detective began as a modest operation. When Arthur Conan Doyle introduced Sherlock Holmes in A Study in Scarlet, he made just £25. However, the unofficial consulting detective of 221B Baker Street soon caught the public’s imagination. Holmes’ outlandish skills of deduction and fascination with the troubled laid the groundwork for an entire genre. When Doyle eventually killed his detective at the Reichenbach Falls, The Strand Magazine lost 20,000 subscribers overnight. Of all his many adventures, one standout episode has to be A Scandal in Bohemia, which gave us the brilliant femme fatale and American opera singer Irene Adler, the woman who bests the King of Bohemia and Holmes himself. Though she only makes one appearance, “to Sherlock Holmes she is always ‘The Woman.’”
17. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
Twain’s story of a runaway boy and an escaped slave’s travels on the Mississippi River in the antebellum South occupies a unique place in American literature. “It’s the best book we’ve had. All American writing comes from that,” Ernest Hemingway wrote. Twain “discovered a new way of writing,” according to T.S. Eliot. Both were American modernists who prized the terse and the immediate. Though popular, readers were startled by slang and dialects in a story told from the point of view of the town drunkard’s uneducated young son. Where early 19th century novelists gave us inner voices, Twain recreated them, capturing the essence of everyday American English in the Midwest. A relevant American tract on race and freedom, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn has a vigour and immediacy that still appeals today.
18. The Water-Babies: A Fairy Tale for a Land-Baby, by Charles Kingsley
“This is all a fairy tale,” the narrator of Water-Babies tells us early on, “and only fun and pretense; and, therefore, you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true.” There are many such interjections in Kingsley’s story of a young chimney sweep’s magical transformation and surreal underwater adventure. In parts bewitching tale, it is also a dark, satirical moral fable. At the time, children’s literature was still yet to emerge as a fully distinct genre, and Kingsley’s story is not without its adult themes. Tom’s drowning before his rebirth as a water baby is the first challenge, though the idea of perpetual childhood was a common enough fixation in late-Victorian writing. Compounding this morbidity, the novel has a huge and not-so-subtle Darwinian subtext. The Origin of Species had been published just four years before, and groundbreaking evolutionary theory proved weighty material for a children’s fable. Whilst prejudicial attitudes may inhibit Kingsley’s works from truly surviving the test of time, this is a snapshot into history and a dark adventure which taps into the rich potential in nonsense, fable, and satire in the way only great children’s literature can.
19. Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Spawned in countless interpretations across every creative medium, Bram Stoker’s Dracula tells the story of the eponymous monster’s journey from Transylvania to England and the efforts by Abraham Van Helsing to destroy him. Narrated in epistolary form through diary entries, letters, and newspaper cuttings, the novel suffers from flat dialogue, one-dimensional characters and clunky pacing. And yet… though it might not bear the hallmarks of a great, late-century novel, there is something compelling about Dracula, something primitive and frightening. Stoker is said to have researched his work for more than seven years, and its myth-making is unparallelled. Granted Stoker did not invent the modern vampire. It was John Polidori’s The Vampyre of 1819, written during the same stormy nights in Lord Byron’s villa as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, who gave us the alluring Lord Ruthven. Regardless, something in Stoker’s novel, like the monster he created, endlessly endures.
20. The Time Machine, by HG Wells
The Time Machine, progenitor of time travel stories and the novel that made HG Wells famous, is one of the earliest works of science fiction. A four-time Nobel Prize Literature nominee, Wells’ “scientific romances” went on to foresee the splitting of the atom, aerial warfare, and travel to the moon. In his first foray into the genre, his “Time Traveller” is a gentleman inventor whose journey on his machine takes him to A.D. 802,701. In this future, the human race is divided into two groups, the decadent Eloi who live aboveground, and the Morlocks, the subterranean workers who live in darkness underground and surface only at night. HG Wells’ work is of particular fascination because it bridged the 19th and 20th centuries when an era of British peace and prosperity was coming to a close. As threats from other European powers encroached, the future worlds conjured in Wells’ fictions address growing contemporary fears about war, imperialism, class divisions, and technology. His accurate augury and passionate interest in society and the human condition still sets the standard for science fiction more than 100 years later.