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Beyond Dickens: Ten 19th century novels to get your teeth into

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Victorians: prim, proper and pretty dull, right?

WOMAN HOLDING AN UMBRELLA bears false signature

Well, no, actually. If you’re somebody who wants to read about insanity, feminism, social injustice, forbidden love, revolutionary science and dark creatures, the nineteenth century is as good a place to start as any. Often, we’re put off by memories of being force-fed Dickens at school or by the sheer size of the novels churned out during this era.

But if you’re ready to dip your toe in the water (I wouldn’t, sanitation wasn’t what it is now), then here’s ten nineteenth century novels to kick-start your Victoriana obsession.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë
When she’s placed up against her sisters, Anne gets quite a poor airing, which is a travesty. Whilst Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights get regular exposure in film, TV and on the school curriculum, the youngest sister’s two novels tend to get overlooked. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, her second and last novel, was actually the worst received of all the Brontës’ novels, because it was just so radical: here, a woman leaves her husband, takes her son and supports them through selling her artwork – all utterly taboo in that time. The descriptions of her suffering at the hands of her abusive alcoholic husband would stand up against any contemporary novel and raise issues we’re still grappling with today.

Dracula by Bram Stoker
It might not be the first vampire novel (look to Polidor’s The Vampyre if you want that), but it’s probably the best known one, and Stoker sets down the lore which has been obeyed ever since in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and True Blood (not so much Twilight...). Told through letters and diary entries, and sweeping across Europe from Transylvania to London and even Scarborough. This is altogether sexier, more violent and more gruesome than you might expect from a Victorian novel, and one of my top reads.

Tess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
Hardy novels tend to be quite miserable, and Tess is no exception, but it’s another one which will have you railing at the sheer injustices meted out to women. Tess herself is the kind of character you wish you could reach into the pages of the book and rescue from the frankly hideous people around her – and I’m mainly talking about the supposed ‘hero’ Angel Clare when I say this. Hardy stopped writing novels only four years after publishing Tess, because he was receiving so much criticism about his topics. The subtitle to this novel, 'A Pure Woman Faithfully Represented', feels very much like a challenge to his critics.

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
It might be seen as a kids’ book, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t offer a huge amount to adults too. The resurgence in interest in the Alice stories, from the live-action films and Once Upon a Time in Wonderland, to the fact that you can have a Mad Hatter’s afternoon tea in London, shows that this book has incredible staying power. If you’ve never read it, it’s a little different from the Disney-fied versions (don’t expect Tweedledee and Tweedledum), but is still fantastically weird and wonderful.

Adam Bede by George Eliot
It’s not one of Eliot’s best-known novels, but it’s definitely the one I enjoyed the most. It was described to me at university as 'Tess of the d’Urbervilles, but better written’, so this is one to try whether you enjoy Hardy’s novel or not! Centring upon a case of infanticide, this is far from the prudish moralistic novel you might expect: indeed, if you manage to finish the book without feeling some sympathy for the (admittedly frustrating) Hetty Sorrel, you’ll be a stronger person than me.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Apart from anything else, let’s recognise that this novel was written by a 19-year-old woman in the first half of the nineteenth century, and think about when we last heard of an achievement like that. That’s before you consider how influential this book has been, and that Shelley imagined scientific breakthroughs which we still haven’t achieved 200 years later. People tend to disagree over whether Frankenstein or Dracula are the better novel, so why not read both and enter into the debate?

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
No list of nineteenth century fiction could really exclude Dickens, even though he is in no way my favourite author. However, if you’re feeling the need for some Dickens in your life, this would be my recommendation. For one thing, it’s a great musical, and for another, it tackles some of the biggest issues of Victorian life, from child poverty to the status of women. Give it a try, but heed my health warning: Dickens is not the beginning and ending of nineteenth century fiction.

Black Beauty by Anna Sewell
I’ve written for TNS before on the importance of this book, but it bears retelling. This little book changed laws on the treatment of animals, and continues to touch people’s hearts today. If you were a pony-fiend as a child, that bug never quite leaves you, and this is the original pony-book. The range of settings is also a great insight into the different sectors of society at this time in history, making this interesting even if you’re not an animal-lover.

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell
If it’s the length of nineteenth century works which puts you off, this series of satirical sketches could be just what you need. More gossip than high-drama, this is the Victorian equivalent of a reality TV show, with added humour and bonnets. Dip in and out as you like – it took Gaskell two years to complete this sequence of stories, so there is no overarching plot: perfect for when you don’t have the time to commit to a door-stop of a novel!

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
A little bit of a cheat here, as whilst this is a nineteenth century novel, it can hardly be called Victorian as it was written and set in the United States. I couldn’t write this list without including one of my favourite books of all time. A sort of American Pride and Prejudice, this follows the March sisters as they mature, fall in love and navigate the problems that come along with all of that. It is a little sentimental, but is a treat I come back to over and over again.

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