The best books featuring the 1820s (officially the best decade ever)

Susan Grossey Author Of The Man in the Canary Waistcoat
By Susan Grossey

Who am I?

If you ask people to name a book set in the Regency period, your money is safe if you bet on them picking a Jane Austen. But the Regency was about much more than manners and matrimony. In my own areas of interest – justice, money, and financial crime – everything was changing, with the widespread introduction of paper money and cheques, the recognition that those on trial should have a defence as well as a prosecution, and the creation of modern police in the form of the Metropolitan Police. Dickens made the Victorian era famous, but the decades before good Queen V ascended the throne are equally fascinating.


I wrote...

The Man in the Canary Waistcoat

By Susan Grossey,

Book cover of The Man in the Canary Waistcoat

What is my book about?

I have written a series of seven novels set in London in the 1820s, all narrated by a magistrates’ constable called Sam Plank and all looking at the impact of financial crime. The second in the series, The Man in the Canary Waistcoat, is set in 1825 and looks at a surprisingly current topic: investment fraud. This crime touches many people in different ways, and Sam has to deal with a suicide, an embezzler, an arsonist, and a thief as he looks into where desperation and greed can lead. No corner of Regency London is immune, as he travels from the mansions of St James’s back to his own childhood haunts among the dank alleyways of Wapping.

The books I picked & why

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The Red and the Black

By Stendhal,

Book cover of The Red and the Black

Why this book?

The Red and the Black (or Le Rouge et le Noir) was published by French author Stendhal in 1830. The action across the two volumes takes place from 1814 to 1830, so the 1820s are included. The title refers to the two competing ambitions of the hero, Julien Sorel, who can’t decide whether he wants the glamour and excitement of a military career (red uniform) or the moral calm of life as a priest (black cassock). I was forced to read this in French at school and hated it, but when I returned to it in English years later I was completely absorbed by Julien’s struggles – although, to be honest, he’s a ghastly fellow and rather deserves his fate. It’s an epic, sweeping read and guaranteed to impress anyone French if you mention you’ve read it.

The Red and the Black

By Stendhal,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Red and the Black as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Traces the ascent and descent of a young, aspirational social climber in a harsh, monarchical country.

Julien Sorel, a handsome and aspirational man, is determined to overcome his lowly provincial upbringing. He soon realises that the only way to succeed is to follow the sophisticated code of hypocrisy that governs society, so he starts to progress by lying and self-interest. His successful job leads him into the centre of glitzy Parisian society, where he triumphs over the proud Mathilde and the kind, married Madame de Rênal. Then, though, Julien commits a shocking, terrible crime—leading to his own demise. In The…


The Pickwick Papers

By Charles Dickens,

Book cover of The Pickwick Papers

Why this book?

The Pickwick Papers is the first novel by uber-Victorian Charles Dickens, but the action takes place in 1827 and 1828.  The main character is Samuel Pickwick, founder and chairman of the Pickwick Club.  He and his three companions – Mr. Winkle, Mr. Snodgrass, and Mr. Tupman – travel around the country and then report on their adventures (or rather, misadventures) to members of the club. There is no grand plot as such; the tales were originally written for serialisation in a periodical and appeared in nineteen installments. This makes the book a perfect one to dip into for shorter reads, as it really doesn’t matter where you start and stop. Plus, of course, it is hilarious in its skewering of our human failings – it’s a go-to book for cheering me up.

The Pickwick Papers

By Charles Dickens,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Pickwick Papers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In The Pickwick Papers we are introduced not just to one of the greatest writers in the English language, but to some of fiction's most endearing and memorable characters, starting with the 'illustrious, immortal and colossal-minded' Samuel Pickwick himself. It is a rollicking tour de force through an England on the brink of the Victorian era. Reform of government, justice and commercial life are imminent, as are rail travel, social convulsion and the death of deference, but Pickwick sails through on a tide of delirious adventure, fortifying us for the future - whatever it might throw at us.

This Macmillan…


Vanity Fair

By William Makepeace Thackeray,

Book cover of Vanity Fair

Why this book?

Serialised in Punch magazine in 1847/8, Vanity Fair covers the period from 1813 to about 1831. The heroine is an ambitious young woman called Becky Sharp, whose plan on leaving school is to use her youth, good looks, flirtatious nature, and, well, feminine charms to climb the social ladder. She’s what my grandmother would have called a minx. And minxes are such fun to watch from a safe distance, particularly when their adventures take them to Brighton (Regency hotspot), Brussels (awaiting news from the field as the Battle of Waterloo rages), and even to Court to be presented to the Prince Regent. It’s a soap opera, but one with fabulous historical detail and great costumes.

Vanity Fair

By William Makepeace Thackeray,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Vanity Fair as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair depicts the anarchic anti-heroine Beky Sharpe cutting a swathe through the eligible young men of Europe, set against a lucid backdrop of war and international chaos. This Penguin Classics edition is edited with an introduction and notes by John Carey.

No one is better equipped in the struggle for wealth and worldly success than the alluring and ruthless Becky Sharp, who defies her impoverished background to clamber up the class ladder. Her sentimental companion Amelia Sedley, however, longs only for the caddish soldier George. As the two heroines make their way through the tawdry glamour…


The Night Before Christmas

By Clement C. Moore, Christine Brallier (illustrator),

Book cover of The Night Before Christmas

Why this book?

This poem was published anonymously in 1823. It’s such a Christmas staple that it’s hard to imagine how ground-breaking it was, but the simple plot – a family sleeps on Christmas Eve while the father hears a noise outside and sees Santa Claus in a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer – was the first to set that quintessential Christmas scene. A friend of the author was charmed by the poem and sent it anonymously to a New York newspaper. The author finally owned up to it in 1837, confessing that as a Professor of Oriental and Greek Literature, he had been uneasy about being associated with “unscholarly verse” that he had written only to amuse his children. But this “unscholarly verse” made his name and charms us still.

The Night Before Christmas

By Clement C. Moore, Christine Brallier (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Night Before Christmas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Twas the night before Christmas and Santa's late night visit has a man and his curious kitty investigating. Did you know that Santa can play the guitar? Well, he can! Each page is filled with thoughtful details, luscious color, and a joyful whimsy. Mosaic artist Christine Brallier has created fifteen stained glass mosaic illustrations in her unique rendition of the classic The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore. Reading the book with her family nearly five years ago, Christine was inspired to create her own version of the story and to put her family and their cat in it.…


The Last Man

By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,

Book cover of The Last Man

Why this book?

And this choice is a sneaky one: it was published in 1826, but it’s actually set in the late 21st century. I couldn’t resist including it for three reasons: it’s a product of the 1820s (and deals with several social concerns of the time, such as republicanism), it’s written by a woman (and my other four choices aren’t), and its rather apposite storyline concerns a mysterious pandemic that rapidly sweeps across the entire globe, ultimately resulting in the near-extinction of humanity (leaving just the last man)… It wasn’t popular at the time – widely considered to be Shelley’s weakest work – but to be fair to her, she was simply ahead of the game and had invented the genre of dystopian fiction. Read in that light, it’s a brave and fascinating work.  

The Last Man

By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Last Man as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

With an Introduction and Notes by Dr Pamela Bickley, The Godolphin and Latymer School, formerly of Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Last Man is Mary Shelley's apocalyptic fantasy of the end of human civilisation. Set in the late twenty-first century, the novel unfolds a sombre and pessimistic vision of mankind confronting inevitable destruction. Interwoven with her futuristic theme, Mary Shelley incorporates idealised portraits of Shelley and Byron, yet rejects Romanticism and its faith in art and nature.

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (1797-1851) was the only daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, author of Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and the radical…


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