The best books for expanding your understanding of women in 19th century England

Who am I?

Some years ago, I believed that after I had read the “famous” 19th-century novelists Jane Austen at the beginning of the century, the Brontes, Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens more or less in the middle, and Henry James, Mark Twain, and Edith Wharton at the end, I had “done” the century and was disappointed that there was no more of worth to entertain me. Wrong, of course. Maria Edgeworth (Anglo-Irish) was a revelation; Catherine Maria Sedgewick (American) opened my eyes to New England; Margaret Oliphant (Scottish) combined the “weird,” spiritual, and a ruthless realism about family dysfunction. So I'm still reading. The 19th-century novels of Great Britain and America are an avocation and a passion.

I wrote...


By Jonatha Ceely,

Book cover of Mina

What is my book about?

In the musty attic of an upstate New York house, a woman finds a clasped box, hidden away for over a century. Inside, wrapped in cambric and tied with a green ribbon, is an old manuscript written by a girl dreaming of a better life, fighting for survival, and coming of age in a time of chaos and danger. This wondrously told tale is a stirring adventure set in nineteenth-century England, a novel of rich history and vibrant imagination.

The sights and sounds of nineteenth-century England come vividly to life in Jonatha Ceely’s magnificent novel, a tale that explores the intricate relationship forged by two people in hiding. Moving and unforgettable, Mina is historical fiction at its finest—a novel that makes you think, feel, and marvel…until the last satisfying page is turned.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England

Jonatha Ceely Why did I love this book?

Curious about the century that produced works as varied as Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, and Bleak House? This is the book for you! Because it is organized by topics—money and social precedence to begin and the workhouse and death to end—it is easy to dip in and out of. It has added greatly to my understanding of 19th-century fiction. The invaluable glossary at the end lists terms that are strange to us in the 21st century and gives clear brief definitions. Now I know that loo was not an English euphemism for a toilet and that a ha-ha was not a joke! 

By Daniel Pool,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A "delightful reader's companion" (The New York Times) to the great nineteenth-century British novels of Austen, Dickens, Trollope, the Brontes, and more, this lively guide clarifies the sometimes bizarre maze of rules and customs that governed life in Victorian England.

For anyone who has ever wondered whether a duke outranked an earl, when to yell "Tally Ho!" at a fox hunt, or how one landed in "debtor's prison," this book serves as an indispensable historical and literary resource. Author Daniel Pool provides countless intriguing details (did you know that the "plums" in Christmas plum pudding were actually raisins?) on the…

Book cover of Hester

Jonatha Ceely Why did I love this book?

If you think all 19th century novels are either romances or tragedies like Tess of the D’Ubervilles this novel will surprise you. Published in 1883 the novel reflects the English banking crises of the 1850’s, life in a provincial town, and the many ways in which money, whether a man or a woman possesses it, greed for it, the thrill of speculating, and the ability to use it to control others shapes the characters of the strong and the flawed. Hester has to grow and to find her own path against the restrictions of women’s choices and bias against their intellectual power and a family secret that everyone except she knows.

By Margaret Oliphant,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Margaret Oliphant is one of the great Victorian novelists and "Hester" is a masterpiece of psychological realism published in 1883. 
In exploring the difficulty of understanding human nature, it is also a compulsive story of financial and sexual risk-taking that inevitably results in a searing climax.

"Hester" tells the story of the ageing but powerful Catherine Vernon, and her conflict with the young and determined Hester, whose growing attachment to Edward, Catherine's favourite, spells disaster for all concerned.

Catherine Vernon, jilted in her youth, has risen to power in a man's world as head of the family bank. She thinks…

Book cover of A Sultry Month: Scenes of London Literary Life in 1846

Jonatha Ceely Why did I love this book?

There is something magical about this book. It’s a brilliant piece of research and a touching evocation of a particular summer when, among other things, the poets Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett were secretly planning their elopement, Tennyson was planning a walking tour in Switzerland that included a visit to Charles Dickens, P. T. Barnum was touring with “General Tom Thumb,” and the artist Benjamin Haydon was approaching suicide. I was bowled over by the richness of lives lived packed into just two hundred pages.

By Alethea Hayter,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Sultry Month as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Wine and dine with Victorian London's literati in a heatwave in one of the first ever group biographies, introduced by Francesca Wade (author of Square Haunting).

Though she loved the heat she could do nothing but lie on the sofa and drink lemonade and read Monte Cristo .

'Never bettered.' Guardian
'Brilliant.' Julian Barnes
'Wholly original.' Craig Brown
'A pathfinder.' Richard Holmes
'Extraordinary.' Penelope Lively

June 1846. As London swelters in a heatwave - sunstroke strikes, meat rots, ice is coveted - a glamorous coterie of writers and artists spend their summer wining, dining and opining.

With the ringletted 'face…

Book cover of The Daisy Chain, or Aspirations

Jonatha Ceely Why did I love this book?

This novel was a big bestseller in 1856! I read it because I saw a reference to it as having religion as a strong theme and I thought it would be useful research for my book. While it turned out to be of little use for that, I found it fascinating for its picture of family life. I did not anticipate the subplot about the abuse of opium in infant care. Critics claim that the portrait of Ethel, the protagonist, made possible the later depictions of Jo March in Little Women and Anne Shirley in Anne of Green Gables. It’s a bit long-winded but a good read. And if you are looking at my list, you probably like long-winded 19th-century novels anyway.

By Charlotte Mary Yonge,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Daisy Chain, or Aspirations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Unlike some other reproductions of classic texts (1) We have not used OCR(Optical Character Recognition), as this leads to bad quality books with introduced typos. (2) In books where there are images such as portraits, maps, sketches etc We have endeavoured to keep the quality of these images, so they represent accurately the original artefact. Although occasionally there may be certain imperfections with these old texts, we feel they deserve to be made available for future generations to enjoy.

Book cover of The Famine Ships: The Irish Exodus to America

Jonatha Ceely Why did I love this book?

I love primary sources and histories that reproduce them. Here is another amazing feat of historical detection. “Details have been taken from eye-witness accounts; original Certificates of Registration, paintings, and contemporary lithograph drawings have been reproduced,” may sound dry but this book is alive with the voices of immigrants telling both tragic and triumphant tales. Anyone whose Irish ancestors came to North America between 1846 and 1851 will want to examine the numerous passenger lists that Laxton includes. I think of this book and all it taught me when I visit my hometown and stop by the monument commemorating Irish immigrants on the shore of Lake Ontario.

By Edward Laxton,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Between 1846 and 1851, more than one-million people--the potato famine emigrants--sailed from Ireland to America. Now, 150 years later, The Famine Ships tells of the courage and determination of those who crossed the Atlantic in leaky, overcrowded sailing ships and made new lives for themselves, among them the child Henry Ford and the twenty-six-year-old Patrick Kennedy, great-grandfather of John F. Kennedy. Edward Laxton conducted five years of research in Ireland and interviewed the emigrants' descents in the U.S. Portraits of people, ships, and towns, as well as facsimile passenger lists and tickets, are among the fascinating memorabilia in The Famine…

You might also like...

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

Book cover of The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

Alexander Rose Author Of Empires of the Sky: Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World

New book alert!

Who am I?

A long time ago, I was an early-aviation historian, but eventually realized that I knew only half the story—the part about airplanes. But what about airships? Initially, I assumed, like so many others, that they were a flash-in-the-pan, a ridiculous dead-end technology, but then I realized these wondrous giants had roamed and awed the world for nearly four decades. There was a bigger story here of an old rivalry between airplanes and airships, one that had since been forgotten, and Empires of the Sky was the result.

Alexander's book list on Zeppelin airships

What is my book about?

From the author of Washington’s Spies, the thrilling story of two rival secret agents — one Confederate, the other Union — sent to Britain during the Civil War.

The South’s James Bulloch, charming and devious, was ordered to acquire a clandestine fleet intended to break Lincoln’s blockade, sink Northern merchant vessels, and drown the U.S. Navy’s mightiest ships at sea. Opposing him was Thomas Dudley, an upright Quaker lawyer determined to stop Bulloch in a spy-versus-spy game of move and countermove, gambit and sacrifice, intrigue and betrayal.

Their battleground was the Dickensian port of Liverpool, whose dockyards built more ships each year than the rest of the world combined and whose merchant princes, said one observer, were “addicted to Southern proclivities, foreign slave trade, and domestic bribery.”

The Lion and the Fox: Two Rival Spies and the Secret Plot to Build a Confederate Navy

By Alexander Rose,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Washington's Spies, the thrilling story of the Confederate spy who came to Britain to turn the tide of the Civil War-and the Union agent resolved to stop him.

"Entertaining and deeply researched...with a rich cast of spies, crooks, bent businessmen and drunken sailors...Rose relates the tale with gusto." -The New York Times

In 1861, soon after the outbreak of the Civil War, two secret agents-one a Confederate, the other his Union rival-were dispatched to neutral Britain, each entrusted with a vital mission.

The South's James Bulloch, charming and devious, was to acquire…

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