In a small, sea bound nation of tepid summers and stiff upper lips, you get your kicks where you can. Many rely on imagination. Perhaps that’s why Great Britain has such a rich creative culture, generated not least by an amazing roll call of novelists. In the 300 years or so since Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe (1719), each generation has yielded its globally important writers. The last century alone bore Forster, Woolf, Lawrence, Waugh, Orwell, Greene, Amis (x2), Murdoch, Naipaul and many more.
The popularity of the novel really exploded in the Victorian era. The flamboyance of literature (of the dashing Walter Scott variety) in the earlier Romantic period was suddenly tempered by realism in the industrial age, by the urge to deal more directly with the social issues of the day.
With the novel (often serialised in monthly instalments) in huge demand, authors turned their sights on the working classes. As the Victorian period wore on, the novel, echoing the timbre of the times, got darker, preoccupied increasingly with the seamier side of life and moral and social decay. Fiction became phenomenally popular. Novels, both good and bad, were devoured by the newly literate middle classes.
Ten Victorian novels to get your teeth into
Vanity Fair (1847-48) William Makepeace Thackeray. Orphan girl Becky Sharp pulls herself up the social ladder in Thackeray’s satire on early 19th century England.
Wuthering Heights (1847) Emily Brontë. The most emotive of Victorian novels was an expertly structured maelstrom of love, anger and death. Stirring stuff.
Jane Eyre (1847) Charlotte Brontë. Jane negotiates a series of setbacks – fire, a mad wife locked in the attic and much more – to secure happiness with the dubious Mr Rochester.
Chronicles of Barsetshire (1855-1867) Anthony Trollope. A series of six novels set in the West Country with recurrent characters; the first great novel sequence of English lit.
Woman in White (1860) Wilkie Collins. Victorian Gothic horror par excellence, tinged with psychological realism and truly unpleasant baddies.
Great Expectations (1861) Charles Dickens. Humble Pip goes off to be a gentleman, but money and love aren’t all he’d hoped for in one of Dickens’ most twisting, didactic novels.
Middlemarch (1871-72) George Eliot. Multiple plots in a provincial Midlands town, linked by matrimonial strife and the constraints of class.
The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) Robert Louis Stevenson. The dichotomy of good and evil masterfully coined in one hideous character.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891) Thomas Hardy. The best of Hardy’s rural realism: a clever but poor woman is wronged and marginalised by various sanctimonious men.
Dracula (1897) Bram Stoker. Irishman Stoker wrote bits of the chilling epistolary tale in Whitby, setting for the appalling Count’s arrival in Britain in a box.
You can read more about the Victorian’s literary tastes (and learn the full story of British literature) in Speak the Culture: Britain.
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