This past year I took a Victorian Fiction course. It was actually called “British Fiction 1832-1900” — but Victorian Fiction, I think, is what is really meant. English Victorian fiction, at that; for all the “British” in the title we only ended up reading one work which weren’t by an English author.
At any rate, here’s what we got through in the last eight months:
Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte.
Vanity Fair, by William Thackeray.
David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens.
North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell.
Adam Bede, by George Eliot.
Lady Audley’s Secret, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy.
The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells.
Those are a lot of very big books. One of the things about publishing fiction serially is that authors, being paid by the word or at least by the installment, write a whole hecka lot of words. And, you know, I’ve read all of them — except for the last chapter of North and South, and the last three hundred or so of Middlemarch. But I do intend to finish them. Someday.
And, since the books are so long, let’s do some two-sentence reviews:
Oliver Twist: I’m Oliver Twist and I’m perfect and syrupy sweet! I don’t understand why you hate me so much!
Wuthering Heights: I used to think that this book was garbage, over-rated rubbish, and a complete waste of time. After writing two papers on it, however, I’ve found that it’s really grown on me.
Vanity Fair: This is another long mother, clocking in at about more than 800 pages. It’s quite fun, but I found it difficult to keep who was who and who married whom straight in my head.
David Copperfield: This is one of the optimistic Dickenses, which makes it easier to get through the 900+ pages of story. Oh, and I cheered when David’s first wife died, the little twit.
North and South: This is a sweet and feminine novel about the some of the North-South clashes during the earlier days of industrialization, with a romance and a couple of riots thrown in to boot. I still don’t know how it ends.
Adam Bede: I love George Eliot’s novels. This is one of them, and I love it.
Lady Audley’s Secret: This is actually the best-selling novel of the Victorian period, having reached its eighth printing just two weeks after its initial publication — although you’ve probably never heard of it.
Middlemarch: I haven’t finished Middlemarch, but I liked it enough to buy my own copy. I had been reading for class from a copy borrowed from someone who had taken the class last summer.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Very boring. Blessedly short.
Tess of the D’Urbervilles: This is probably my favourite book from this class, and probably in my top-twenty favourites of all time (don’t ask for the rest; the list is highly amorphous). It is beautiful and sad.
The War of the Worlds: It was nice to read the original text of something so widely adapted. This book may just teach you to appreciate germs, at least if an alien invasion is expected.
The class moved through these at a fairly steady rate of one book every two weeks, with some of the larger books getting two and a half or three weeks, as needed. I didn’t much enjoy the class itself — I especially did not enjoy the amount of time spent reading passages aloud — but I really enjoyed the fiction that we read. That I read. I love nineteenth-century fiction.
Don’t be scared of the classics. You might have to make some adjustments to your reading — read more slowly, for example, so that you can get through those long twisty sentences — but these books are well worth the read (except maybe for Jekyll & Hyde). These books aren’t worthy just because they are old, but it is telling that they have withstood the test of time. The above list is, I think, a good place to start.
But don’t take my word for it. Why not read one, and tell me what you think?