10 fantastically diverse Victorian novels

Many people think Victorian novels are boring novels. I blame schools, for only ever teaching the really dull ones. In fact, Victorian novels are span every genre, style and topic you can think of. Here’s a list of ten fantastically diverse Victorian novels, showing there really is something for everyone.

1: Middlemarch by George Eliot

George Eliot was of course the pen name of Mary Anne Evans, who like many female writers of the time had to pretend to be a man to get a work of ‘serious’ fiction published. This is exactly the type of book that Victorian-haters hate: a long and leisurely novel, detailing the lives and milieu of several people in a fictional Midlands town. Well, tough luck for you, haters, but it’s the greatest work of realism of the Victorian age. The struggles of poor Dorothea, a lonely and misguided intellectual trapped in a disastrous marriage, mirror Eliot’s own struggles as a woman in an age that gave women very little freedom.

2: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte 

In a fight between Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre would win. Jane Eyre gives us the tortured Mr Rochester, evil school teachers, sinister priests, a madwoman in the attic, and a whole maelstrom of melodramatic gothic romance. It also has Jane, one of literature’s greatest heroines: a true fighter, trapped between her immense passion for life and her deeply held religious and moral convictions. On the other hand, Wuthering Heights has a complex literary structure, a damp moor in Yorkshire and a sadistic, wife-beating, semi-literate, pet-murdering bastard called H**thcl*ff, who is supposed to be a romantic hero. I rest my case.

3: Dracula by Bram Stoker

The Victorians could do horror just as well as anyone writing since. Possibly even better, since the morals of the time required required a discreet veil to be drawn over sexual matters, making everything even more mysterious and exciting. Dracula has a complex, epistolary style, and is an intense, vivid, adventure story, with some brilliant scenes and a great cast of characters: Jonathan Harker, Van Helsing the Vampire hunter, Renfield the asylum inmate, Lucy the unfortunate victim, and of course Dracula himself.

4: The Picture of Dorian Grey by Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s only novel, published in 1890, was greeted by howls of outrage, calls for him to be prosecuted for indecency, and was censored before it was even published. It tells the story of Dorian, who remains forever young and beautiful while he pursues a life of hedonism and debauchery. Meanwhile his portrait, stored in the attic, changes to reflect the hideousness of his soul. The novel is both an example of the aesthetic movement which coined the phrase ‘art for art’s sake’, and a critique of its hollowness. Adaptations never do the novel justice: it’s interest lies more in its decadent, literary style than the plot.

5: Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell 

This state of the nation novel deals with factory workers in Manchester. It has a fantastically exciting plot, combining murder, romance and revolution. This makes the novel’s left-wing political stance and realism in depicting the hardships of ordinary people’s living conditions even more startling. It’s paints a far grimmer picture of the class divide than Dickens ever did, but also gives a voice to the working classes, including many genuine ‘folk’ discourses of the day, from political speeches to poetry and quack remedies.

6: Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll 

Alice has become such an iconic part of our culture that it’s easy to forget it was originally a surreal Victorian children’s book, written by a mathematician and possible pervert, and one of the finest examples of the ‘nonsense’ genre. As it was aimed at children, it’s a lot easier to read than many Victorian novels, which do tend towards the ‘stodgy’… If you only know the book through pop culture, it’s well worth reading the charming original, which includes many more mathematical puzzles than you might expect.

7: She by H Rider Haggard

She is one of the best-selling and most influential novels OF ALL TIME, and yet very few people seem to have read it. It’s a sort of colonial adventure story meets fantasy, one of the first of the ‘lost world’ genre and an inspiration to sci-fi and fantasy writers ever since. The novel features two intrepid chaps who discover a hidden country in darkest Africa, ruled by Queen Ayesha or ‘She-who-must-be-obeyed.’ Of course it’s all terribly imperialist, racist, sexist, and worryingly obsessed with degeneration theory and eugenics, but don’t let politically correct distaste put you off! It’s a really wild book, with treasure maps, cannibals, eternal life, magic and romance. It’s also soooo badly written – which is all part of its crazy appeal!

8: The War of the Worlds by HG Wells

This science fiction novel features actual genuine Martians – in suburbia! Humanity (or at least southern England) is nearly wiped out, until the Martians all die from a common cold. The novel is pretty violent, and explicitly compares to the Martians, with their environmental destruction and imperialism, to the British Empire. Plus, it’s impossible to think of without immediately belting out some tunes from Jeff Wayne’s wacky 1978 musical album. Altogether now: ‘the chan-ces of an-y-thing com-ing from Mars, are a million to one they said!!!’ You will now be singing that for the rest of the day. You’re welcome.

9: The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The second Sherlock Holmes, published in 1890, introduces Dr Watson’s future wife Mary, who brings a baffling and mysterious case to Sherlock. It features a secret hoard of Treasure stolen from British India, soldiers, convicts, family feuds, murders, ludicrous disguises, and a villainous one-legged man and his dwarf assistant. It’s also the novel that introduces Holmes’ drug habit – Watson tells him that taking cocaine three times a day is bad for his health, but Holmes counters that he would be bored without the constant mental stimulation. In fact at the end of the novel, Holmes is not too bothered that the bungling police take all the credit for solving the case – he has plenty of cocaine to cheer him up.

10: Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the dog!) by Jerome K Jerome

And finally, to prove the Victorian’s weren’t such a po-faced lot as we think, a comedy. This delightful novel tells the story of 3 clerks taking a boating holiday on the Thames. It was originally intended as a serious travel guide, but the author’s silly side got the better of him. The critics hated it, dubbing it a vulgar book for ‘Arrys and ‘Arriets – people who *shudder* dropped their aitches. But it sold millions of copies. And who can blame people for enjoying it? It’s light, carefree tone perfectly captures the delights of lazy holidays, friendship, the eccentricities of the English, and elevates life’s minor disasters into high farce. A joy.


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