Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The 8 Best English Novels of the 1840s

The 1840s were tumultuous years in England, a period of labor and health reform and industrial development. By far the most influential novelists of the decade were Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray, who would begin to publish under his own name with the release of Vanity Fair. The Victorian era was particularly fruitful for the English literati and the first full decade of Queen Victoria's reign saw the beginning of the careers of some of the most renowned English novelists of all time, who in the decade to come would be joined by such luminaries as George Eliot and Wilkie Collins.

8. Agnes Grey - Anne Bronte
It would be fair to consider Agnes Grey a lesser Jane Eyre. Like her sister's more popular novel, Anne Bronte's debut tells the story of a young governess and examines the vulnerability experienced by poor and unattached young women of the period. While few would argue that Charlotte and Emily were not finer novelists, Anne was far more political and pointedly addressed proto-feminist concerns (as well as animal rights) through her writing.

7. The Old Curiosity Shop - Charles Dickens
Wildly popular in its day, this novel follows Little Nell and her grandfather, whose desperation to deliver her out of poverty leads him to a gambling addiction and a dangerously high debt to villainous moneylender Daniel Quilp, one of the most sinister of Dickens's lowlife characters. The character of Little Nell has become an icon of the Victorian era, of its sentimentality and its idealization of female innocence and moral wholesomeness, but despite the difficulty we might have today with such a character, the novel is suspenseful, moving, and a superb example of Dickensian storytelling. 

6. Shirley - Charlotte Bronte
Charlotte Bronte's novel, set during the Luddite uprisings in Yorkshire and the Napoleonic Wars, has one of the most fascinating heroines of the period - Shirley (whose name at the time would have had a distinctly male connotation) is an independent landowner, keenly interested in running her own business affairs and invested in relieving the miseries resulting from the labor unrest and economic depression of the time. Bronte demonstrates an avid and fiercely intelligent understanding of the complex roles class, money, family connection, and morality played in the lives of women of the time.

5. A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
This novella, one of the most influential and popular stories of all time, is about the miser Ebeneezer Scrooge, who is redeemed one Christmas Eve night by the visits of three spirits. Despite the story's overt sentimentality and its emphasis on moral development, a theme that has decidedly fallen out of favor in recent decades, A Christmas Carol continues to strike a deep chord with readers and is regularly adapted and retold in pretty much every medium invented to date. It is also entirely deserving of being one of the most beloved novels in the English language.

4. Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte
This tale of obsessive love, obsessive hate, and even more obsessive revenge on the moors of York, the only novel of Emily Bronte, is one of the greatest books of the Victorian era. Its rather weird fatalism, its mixture of stark brutality and romanticism, its damning condemnation of class hypocrisy, and most especially the stirring, terrifying character of Heathcliff make Wuthering Heights, no matter how frequently imitated, a completely unique, not to mention masterful, work of literature.

3. Vanity Fair - William Makepeace Thackeray
Thackeray's most enduringly popular novel begins with Becky Sharp - quick-witted, ambitious, and increasingly ruthless - and Amelia Sedley - a trifle simple-minded and angelically good - as they attend finishing school and it follows the trajectory of their romantic and matrimonial adventures during the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Thackeray's satire of a vanished English society is still very funny and few novels can boast a heroine as provocative as Becky. For feminists, Vanity Fair offers a fascinating (albeit at times misogynistic) examination of the contrast between a "good" woman of the period and a "bad" one.

2. Dombey and Son - Charles Dickens
This, my favorite of Dickens's novels, is about chilling businessman Paul Dombey and his children, the lovely Florence and the delicate Paul, Dombey's sinister manager Mr. Carker, the poor and caring Solomon Gills, and Gills's nephew, Walter Gay. Like many works of the period, Dombey and Son is wide-ranging and includes characters from all walks of life, including one of my favorites, Captain Cuttle, who is as good-hearted as they come, but terribly anxious to avoid a matrimonial fate, especially to a "widder."

1. Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
One of the greatest novels of all time and almost certainly the greatest gothic novel ever written, Jane Eyre is about a poor, unconnected governess and her relationship with her charge's guardian, the tortured but nevertheless alluring Rochester, who hides more than a few sinister secrets within the walls of his gloomy estate. Much imitated, but never bettered, Jane Eyre remains highly popular and frequently adapted.

I felt, while doing a bit of research prior to writing this post, great frustration when faced with the paucity of information available online about older literature. I was unable, for example, to find any lists of best selling novels of the time or successfully track down books or authors that have become obscure over the past 175 or so years. Surely such information is available through academic or historical databases, but I confess that I hope my own difficulty in unearthing more obscure works is not matched by disappointment in the reader.

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