For someone who has taught courses in the 19th Century English novel, I have decidedly unorthodox tastes. For instance, I have yet to read Anthony Trollope or William Thackeray extensively, because I find them almost unbearably superficial.
Instead, my preferences run to the Gothic and psychological, like William Godwin’s Caleb Williams or James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Although I haven’t taught now for years now, I still keep a library of novels drawn from the century, and periodically renew my acquaintance with old favorites.
Over the years, the book I find myself returning to are:
7.) Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights: This novel is for the young. It is a vision of romance by someone with little or no first-hand experience, who can see dying for love as a desirable ending. I suspect its intensity scares many scholars, who prefer Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre to it. But if Wuthering Heights is morbid to an extreme, it has ten times the poetry of Jane Eyre, and a tighter structure as well, both of which justify the somewhat guilty pleasure of reading it.
6.) Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island: You know that a writer is under-rated when they are treated as children’s writers. But the vivid descriptions and memorable characterizations show how unfair this treatment is in Stevenson’s case. His work may be light, but it is also intelligent, making it first rate reading just before bedtime.
5.) Charles Dickens, Great Expectations: Dickens is usually at his best when he fictionalizes his early life or dabbles in the macabre. In Great Expectations, he combines both, although it is his early aspirations rather than actual events that inform the plot. Scenes like the meeting of the convict Magwitch in the graveyard, or the passages about the reclusive Miss Havisham are dark and full of wonder. As always in Dickens, comic workers (Joe) and misogynistic portrayals of women (Estella) grate on modern sensibilities, but in general I agree with Dickens that Great Expectations is his finest work.
4.) Wilkie Collins, No Name: No Name is the best depiction of a woman by a man in 19th century literature. Deprived by an accident of her legal rights, a young woman descends to impersonation and fraud to retrieve what is rightfully hers, meeting a comic and grotesque set of characters that out-Dickens Dickens. Naturally, she must repent at the end of the novel, saved by her virtuous sister, but Collins clearly sympathizes with her until then.
3.) Jane Austen, Emma: Today, Austen is popularly known for only Pride and Prejudice, but Emma is far more interestingly psychologically. Somehow, Austen manages to make the protagonist’s mis-perceptions humorous while ensuring that she keeps readers’ sympathies.
2.) Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure: Hardy’s knowledge of rural life and lore is unique in his era; although he sometimes uses comic rustics modeled on Shakespeare’s, ultimately he has a familiarity and respect for the working class that few of his contemporaries share. The earnest, self-taught protagonist is a figure with a dignity of tragic proportions – and who surprised me by having an inner life that often sounds like an echo of my own.
1.) George Eliot, Middlemarch: This novel explores different aspects of marriage through a variety of sub-plots. The main plot involves an intelligent, but inexperienced young woman, who, restricted by the roles available to her, makes a disastrous first choice in marriage, and has to live with the consequences. Unlike most of my selections, Middlemarch is more about eccentricity than the macabre, but the depth of characterization make it the greatest English novel of its century, if not of all time.
I could easily double or triple this list, but by the end I would probably be slipping in titles to impress, or because I think more people should read them. These are the books from the 1800s that I have not only read dutifully, but five or six times of my own free will. They are the ones that catch my eye when I’m scanning my bookshelves – the ones I am likely to pull out to re-read a favorite scene, and then find myself starting all over again, renewing my acquaintance with them like with an old friend who has just come into town.