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10 Favorite Novels from the 19th Century

  • Nov 16, 2010
As an English major in undergraduate school I found myself drawn to the 19th century novels (particularly British and American), many of which broke ground in terms of highlighting social dilemmas and inequities of the time. While I'm not sure that it was the intention of all the authors on this list to act as crusaders for equality, I find that reading them makes me more aware of the blessings of living in the world as it is today, particularly for middle-class women. It's true that we still have far to go before all people are treated fairly, but from time to time I think it's good to acknowledge progress.
The Odd Women
This is the earliest, male-authored novel I know that might fairly be thought of as "feminist." And the characters names are great too, e.g., the female hero is Rhoda Nunn.
Return of the Native by Thomas Hardy
Heroine Eustacia Vye may have been "the raw material of divinity" but nevertheless Hardy takes her, step by step, to her inexorable fate as a woman doomed by ambition in a society that allows a female to succeed only in that most rigid of social constructions, a Victorian marriage.
House of Mirth
This may be my favorite 19th century American novel. (Although there are so many great ones to choose from that I am easily swayed.) Lily Bart, a social climber who strives to marry up, falls in love with her male counterpart, who also seeks to marry money. What to do, choose love or follow money? Take a guess and then read this truly captivating book to find out if you're right.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Yep. Huck makes my list. Not only is this a brilliant and funny story of an adolescent nation, it's a story that addresses the question of slavery in terms that are deeply personal, moral, political, social and economic. Through Huck and the fugitive slave Joe, Twain looks at broad issues of marginality, not just for people of color, but for people of all sorts who live outside of social norms, either by accident of race and class, by virtue of fate, or by a choice they have made, for one reason or another, to follow a road less traveled.
See the full review, "A Timeless Classic".
Wuthering Heights
This may be my favorite novel of all time. I love the drama, the romance, the stark beauty of the moors and the peculiar mix of love and fear that bind Cathy and Heathcliff. If you've only seen the film, you haven't had the full experience of that enigmatic place called 'Wuthering Heights,' and I urge you to take the time to read Emily Bronte's novel in the old school way -- on paper, under a good light, preferably in a cozy spot during a bleak, autumn month. (A cool, rainy summer day will do nicely too.)
A Tale of Two Cities
This is Charles Dickens' master work. It explores powerful issues of class, as played out against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Certain of the Dickens' characters in this novel have become emblematic of the times, such as Madam DeFarge, the probably insane working class woman who knits and cackles as she screams for others to be executed by guillotine. And Sydney Carton, the drunken wastrel whose bravery and self-sacrifice crown the story. This is a must-read.
See the full review, "Excellent edition of Dickens' master work".
Count of Monte Cristo
Who doesn't love a great tale of revenge? Alexandre Dumas serves up one for the ages in this novel about a successful young man, Edmond Dantes, who becomes the victim of his friends' jealousy. He is thrown in prison and through a series of fortunate events escapes and becomes rich. Then he goes home to settle the score.
War and Peace
I read this classic on the NYC subway, 100 pages a day over a two week period, during my long commute into Manhattan. During that time I had a dozen or more people comment on what a great book it was -- people of all types and from all walks of life. This is an essential novel that crosses boundaries of culture and geography to speak to all readers about an individual's place in the grand sweep of history.
Barnes and Noble books
No 19th century list would be complete without at least one selection from Jane Austen, but which one? I want only one book by each author, so I was torn between this title and Emma, another Austen masterwork. Pride and Prejudice is, however, the novel that Austen is most known for, so here it is. One of the great things about Austen (and there are many) is that she manages to impress readers with social themes of broad scope while writing stories about small events, in small communities among ordinary people. Ordinary, perhaps, but incredibly memorable.
What did I miss?
I'm leaving this last spot open for readers of this list to complete. What great novel of the 19th century did I miss and why does it matter? I will post the best suggestion I receive (assuming I get any). Thank you for reading my list.

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December 09, 2010
Love the list! It's a shame most young people will not be reading these, even if required for a class they'll just browse though the book and read some cliff notes! I especially like four, five, seven, and nine. :)
December 02, 2010
Awesome list! I especially liked #10. :)
November 17, 2010
I read Huckleberry Finn as a kid and loved it - How about something by Oscar Wilde ?
November 16, 2010
Great list ... how about THE MOONSTONE by Wilkie Collins widely credited as being the first book in the detective mystery genre!
December 02, 2010
Great suggestion! I was thinking about nominating that one too. I never read it, but I've heard good things about it from others.
About the list creator
Bonnie McEwan ()
Ranked #128
I own a communications consultancy in NYC called MAKE WAVES, which serves nonprofit organizations and foundations. I also hold a Visiting Lecturer position at Milano: The New School for Management & … more
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