I was an absolute beginner in the world of Victorian literature this time last year (I still am!) when I first started the ‘Reading Oxford’ project. If you would like to dip your toes into this era and genre but don’t know where to start, I can relate. You’re really spoiled for choice – maybe that’s part of the problem. There are so many great Victorian novels! In this post I’ll list all the novels from the Victorian era that I read last year to give you some ideas. Just in case you’re new here – hi, it’s great to have you! (An introduction to my ‘Reading Oxford’ project can be found here.
For each book I’ll give a brief summary for people like my dear husband who has foggy ideas about books in general, as well as share some thoughts and suggestions from my own reading experience. If I wrote a dedicated post on that book, I’ll link to it below.
1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
The book is a memoir of Jane Eyre looking back and telling her life story: the abusive childhood with her wealthy relatives, the ill-nourished years in school as a pupil and later as a teacher, and her chance to become a governess in a gothic mansion and her relationship with its residents.
I started the project with Jane Eyre. If you’re nervous about reading classics, it’s a good place to start. It’s a more familiar story compared to many others in this list, either because you watched one of the many screen adaptations, or because it’s your aunt’s favourite book. With a familiar storyline, I was less worried about losing the plot and could focus more on getting used to Victorian English. To be honest, the Victorian English was not bad at all. If you turned down the wrong lane and time traveled to the 1800s, you’d survive no problem. Of course watching a screen adaptation helps sometimes, but it can also ruin it big time. More on that later.
I read Jane Eyre twice and wrote a series of four blog posts called ‘The Faces of Christianity in Jane Eyre‘, analysing the characters of Mr Brocklehurst, Helen Burns, St John Rivers and Mr Rochester through the lens of the Bible. The post on St John Rivers took me record-breaking amount of time to write. Maybe one day an English student writing essays might find them helpful.
2. Middlemarch by George Eliot
Middlemarch is a story about the people in an English Midlands town, Middlemarch, and how their lives were interconnected on many levels in the open as well as behind closed doors.
After Jane Eyre, I boldly went forth into Middlemarch. I was nervous opening the first page of such a chunky book and the Prelude about Saint Teresa didn’t help at all. I went on reading the first page of chapter one still full of apprehension and discovered it was about a beautiful young woman called Dorothea Brooke. I remember distinctly saying to myself, it’s a story about a woman and, look, here’s her sister, discussing their mother’s jewellery, I can manage this.
Sure there were some long discussions about, for example, the medical profession in the 19th century and pages upon pages describing the thought process of a young doctor who was mixed up in exasperating petty politics. Honestly speaking, it did lose me every now and then. If you’re a newbie like me, my advice would be to scan through them (especially don’t worry about the Prelude). I used the dictionary up to a point but it broke up the flow too much.
By the half way point there was another distinct memory – the book suddenly became a page-turner. As a first time read, I had no problem following the various characters, their interconnected relationships, and their storyline, sometimes parallel sometimes crossing. I enjoyed meeting the residents of the place and had a few favourites (I’ve been secretly casting in my head for a TV adaptation).
3. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Great Expectations is about a boy who was brought up in a blacksmith’s home but one day suddenly became a gentleman through the provision of a secret benefactor. As a result, he started to live a different kind of life and make friends with different kinds of people, while waiting for the mysterious benefactor to reveal themselves…
I decided to start Dickens with Great Expectations. Halfway through I realised I’d read it before when I was a child, like all good children, who were encouraged to read classics. Although I couldn’t remember much except some curious fragments.
Compared to Jane Eyre and Middlemarch, Great Expectation can be counted as an action-packed drama. It might be fun, but I didn’t like it. I was particularly exasperated by the love interest. But it’s definitely a beginner-friendly option.
See my dedicated review here.
4. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell
A young virtuous woman was forced to move from a tranquil village in the South of England to an industrial town in the North. She and her family was from a higher class to the new circle of society in this new environment, but they were poorer. She was overwhelmed by all the changes and she thought she could remain arrogant and indifferent. But for how long…?
This book was also full of twists and turns and relatively fast-paced, especially when compared to Middlemarch, where most of the story happens in people’s minds. At one point fairly far on into the story, a new plot was introduced and I remember myself saying ‘oh wow another brand new character, where is this going?’. There are plenty of love interests, secrets, and death. I’d also recommend this to beginners.
See my dedicated review here.
5. The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
On one beautiful summer afternoon Dorian Gray had his portrait painted. As his appearance remained youthful and innocent, his life became more and more filthy and ugly…
One of the biggest assets to recommend this to a beginner is the length, considerably shorter than most of the novels on this list.
6. Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy
In a village in the southwest England, there was a beautiful young woman who arrived to take over her uncle’s farm. There were three men who offered their hand in marriage, three very different men. She made her choice and that choice turned her in an unexpected direction…
Far From the Madding Crowd was a film adaptation casualty. I watched the film not long before I decided to start this project and every detail of the story was so clear in my mind (plus it was a very faithful adaptation) there was little point reading the book. It was also a chunky book and I was very impatient to get to the end. (SPOILER ALERT) At one point I caught myself thinking, gosh Troy had just appeared in the book, he’ll have to meet Bathsheba, marry her, drown and come back to life before the book was anywhere near the end. This was probably unfair to Mr Hardy, I should read another book of his to get a more authentic idea.
One thing the film didn’t emphasise and I particularly loved was the character of the rural farming community and the role they played in the story.
7. Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
A new tenant listened to the drama of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange on his sickbed, narrated by a servant who was involved in the life of the two families: the love and hatred between two generations of the two houses.
Apart from the fact that everyone seems to have the same name, which was confusing at times, it’s easy enough to follow. However it’s not a very pleasant story. Overall Wuthering Heights is an anxiety-inducing book. I was anxious about everybody throughout: would they live, would they die, would they turn out good or bad. Why would everybody torture each other in the name of love? As a first time reader, I really couldn’t fathom and found it quite dreadful.
8. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
A young man walked home along a London street at night and was shocked to find a woman in white alone, looking lost and confused. He then went to be an art tutor in a mansion in the Lake District. All seemed peaceful until he fell in love and the woman in white appeared again…
When I got to this title, I felt myself sufficiently familiar with Victorian fiction (what a pig!). That was why I got such a (pleasant) shock reading The Woman in White. It’s a very different type of Victorian novel: it was narrated by various characters as if giving an account at a law court and it was a Sherlock-Holmes-like detective novel.
See dedicated post here.
9. The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Similar to Pip in Great Expectations, the young lady was penniless to start with and became a millionaire overnight. Similar to Bathsheba in Far From the Madding Crowd, she received offers of marriage one after another and she made a choice. And like Bathsheba, that choice turned her life to an unexpected direction, but did she have a happy ending like Bathsheba?
This one was less beginner-friendly. It had long paragraphs like Middlemarch and some complicated thought processes that lost me from time to time. But I did like it very much, especially Henry James’ observations and portraits of American and English gentlemen.
10. Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë
To help with her family’s finances, Agnes Gray decided to become a governess. The book is mostly about her horrid experience fulfilling that role before later on becoming a Jane-Austen vibe love story.
Among the whole list I like this one the least, especially the first half of the story. With high expectations, she became the governess of a first family and soon had to face the disastrous reality. With renewed spirit and expectation, she became the governess of a second family and soon had to face exactly the same disasters. It became repetitive and got better only after that.
Two bonus titles that are novellas in the speculative fiction genre. If you’d like to try this genre out, these are good places to start. In addition to the stories themselves, they give fascinating insight into some of the problems and concerns of the Victorians.
11. The Time Machine by H. G. Wells
The host of the house where a dinner was happening joined his guests late, looking exhausted and dishevelled. The guests found out he had just time travelled to the far future and listened to his recount of the extraordinary adventure.
12. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hide by Robert Louis Stevenson
A gentleman detected the worrying connection between the detestable Mr Hide and his friend Dr Jekyll and also the strange behaviours of his friend. His investigations led him to some very unexpected places.
Lastly, ‘Victober’ is just around the corner which would be a perfect excuse to jump on the bandwagon. ‘Victober’ is a month-long readathon hosted by a few BookTubers each October, all about reading Victorian literature. You can find the Victober 2021 Group on Goodreads here. The Group page gives you more details about the challenges this year as well as the links to the hosts’ YouTube channels. If you are a beginner like I was a year ago, which book would you like to try first?