The best books for unique insights on the Victorians

Who am I?

I’m the sort of person who reads history books for fun. It’s perhaps odd to be a novelist who prefers nonfiction for my personal reading, but then again, I’ve managed to utilize those traits for writing 9 historical novels. The Victorian era has fascinated me since childhood. (The first play I ever saw was Oliver!, inspired by Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I still remember it vividly.) The Victorian era was a time of momentous change, becoming more like the world we know today and yet still within living memory of a very different way of life. The books I’ve chosen here reflect that time of upheaval and how, for better or worse, people dealt with it.

I wrote...

Line by Line

By Jennifer Delamere,

Book cover of Line by Line

What is my book about?

Alice McNeil resolved at a young age to travel through life unencumbered by love or marriage. A seasoned telegrapher, she’s recently acquired a coveted position at an important trading firm. But when the company’s ambitious junior director returns to London, things begin to change. For Douglas Shaw, years of hard work and ingenuity enabled him to escape a life of grinding poverty. He’s also determined to marry into high society—a step that will ensure he never returns to the conditions of his past.

When Alice accidentally raises the ire of a jealous and vindictive coworker who’s intent on ruining her life, Alice and Douglas are forced to confront what is truly important in their lives. Will their growing bond give them the courage to see the future in a different light?

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870

Why this book?

This is the first detailed history I ever read about the Victorians, and it’s still my favorite.

Picard brings mid-Victorian London to life—the sights, smells, and sounds of the city, the lifestyles of the rich and the poor, the changing attitudes in politics, romance, and religion.

She covers the decades when London was making strides in things we think of as “modern,” from running water and better sanitation to the railways, education, and the rising middle class.

Her chapter notes and references provide endless fodder for anyone interested in learning more about this period. Picard’s writing is lively, fluid, and fascinating.

Anyone who thinks history must be dry and dusty need only to read this book to discover otherwise.

Victorian London: The Life of a City 1840-1870

By Liza Picard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Victorian London as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Like her previous books, this book is the product of the author's passionate interest in the realities of everyday life - and the conditions in which most people lived - so often left out of history books. This period of mid Victorian London covers a huge span: Victoria's wedding and the place of the royals in popular esteem; how the very poor lived, the underworld, prostitution, crime, prisons and transportation; the public utilities - Bazalgette on sewers and road design, Chadwick on pollution and sanitation; private charities - Peabody, Burdett Coutts - and workhouses; new terraced housing and transport, trains,…

Book cover of The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers

Why this book?

This delightful book traces the history of the telegraph and compares its impact on the world in the nineteenth century to that of the internet in the twenty-first.

The spread of the telegraph was roughly concurrent with the railways, and together they sped up the entire pace of life. The world got smaller, news traveled faster, and businesses were completely altered.

As with the internet, there were even scams, problems with privacy, and long-distance romances! Another sad parallel was that widespread expectations for this invention to bring greater understanding among nations and perhaps more peace to the world did not exactly materialize.

Of personal interest to me was learning that women worked as telegraph operators almost from the start. That discovery led me to a new trail of fun research that resulted in writing my book.

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers

By Tom Standage,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A new paperback edition of the book the Wall Street Journal dubbed “a Dot-Com cult classic,” by the bestselling author of A History of the World in 6 Glasses-the fascinating story of the telegraph, the world's first “Internet.”

The Victorian Internet tells the colorful story of the telegraph's creation and remarkable impact, and of the visionaries, oddballs, and eccentrics who pioneered it, from the eighteenth-century French scientist Jean-Antoine Nollet to Samuel F. B. Morse and Thomas Edison. The electric telegraph nullified distance and shrank the world quicker and further than ever before or since, and its story mirrors and predicts…

Book cover of George Muller: Delighted in God

Why this book?

The Victorian era is known for technological and scientific advancements, but it’s also worth noting that religious and spiritual inquiry was a very real part of most Victorians’ lives.

Their convictions often fueled their desire to better themselves and the lives of others, spurring efforts for improvements in living conditions, housing, sanitation, medicine, and education. The life of George Muller is a vivid example of one man’s application of Christian principles in everyday life.

In 1836, Muller opened a small home for orphans in Bristol, England. He never solicited donations or money; he was a man of fervent prayer and believed God would provide.

In time the work grew, along with the buildings, until the orphanage housed over 2,000 children! The children were cared for in modern, purpose-built housing and benefited from Muller’s forward-thinking ideas about education and training.

In 1857, Muller’s work was written about admiringly in Household Words, the journal edited by Charles Dickens. Steer does an excellent job detailing Muller’s astonishing and inspiring life.

George Muller: Delighted in God

By Roger Steer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked George Muller as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

George Muller's life is a powerful answer to modern scepticism. His name has become a by-word for faith throughout the world. In the early 1830s he embarked upon an extraordinary adventure. Disturbed by the faithlessness of the Church in general, he longed to have something to point to as 'visible proof that our God and Father is the same faithful creator as he ever was'. He was more successful than anyone could have believed possible and is as much an example to our generation, as he was to his.

North and South

By Elizabeth Gaskell,

Book cover of North and South

Why this book?

This novel is sometimes described as the Victorian Pride and Prejudice, and it’s true there are many similarities.

Margaret Hale moves with her parents from rural southern England to a northern manufacturing town and experiences profound culture shock. She spars with John Thornton, the wealthy owner of a cotton mill, whose outlook and opinions are very different from her own.

In time their antagonism gives way to mutual understanding, and finally to love. But North and South isn’t only a love story.

There’s the ongoing conflict between the mill workers and the owners, and Margaret’s discoveries about herself as she begins to find ways to help the downtrodden. Gaskell was a minister’s wife in Manchester and interested in social reforms.

In this novel she explores many issues that are still relevant today. The book delves more deeply into the spiritual lives of the characters than does the BBC mini-series (which is excellent, nonetheless).

(Side note: For those who enjoy audiobooks, I highly recommend the version read by Juliet Stevenson. She handles the accents beautifully and brings every character to life.)

North and South

By Elizabeth Gaskell,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked North and South as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

As relevant now as when it was first published, Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South skilfully weaves a compelling love story into a clash between the pursuit of profit and humanitarian ideals. This Penguin Classics edition is edited with an introduction by Patricia Ingham.

When her father leaves the Church in a crisis of conscience, Margaret Hale is uprooted from her comfortable home in Hampshire to move with her family to the North of England. Initially repulsed by the ugliness of her new surroundings in the industrial town of Milton, Margaret becomes aware of the poverty and suffering of local mill…

The Way We Live Now

By Anthony Trollope,

Book cover of The Way We Live Now

Why this book?

The book’s massive length is equivalent to about four modern novels, but it remains a fascinating read—even if I found few of the characters to be truly likable.

Like the Victorians themselves, Trollope’s writing style feels to me both old-fashioned and modern at the same time. To read this work today is to discover many similarities between their “now” (circa 1875) and ours.

Some things never change, including the chase for money and status, the societal traditions and prejudices that can be hard to overcome, and the ways lust and greed can upend just about any of our better human impulses.

I picked this novel for this list because it makes an interesting contrast to North and South, and not just because they deal with different levels of society (working class vs. “genteel”).

In Gaskell’s book, most of the characters are searching for moral high ground as they try to solve their problems.

In Trollope’s, the vibe is mostly “looking out for number one,” as we might say today. Then, as now, the world will always be filled with such vastly different kinds of people.

The Way We Live Now

By Anthony Trollope,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Way We Live Now as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Trollope did not write for posterity,' observed Henry James. 'He wrote for the day, the moment; but these are just the writers whom posterity is apt to put into its pocket.' Considered by contemporary critics to be Trollope's greatest novel, The Way We Live Now is a satire of the literary world of London in the 1870s and a bold indictment of the new power of speculative finance in English life. 'I was instigated by what I conceived to be the commercial profligacy of the age,' Trollope said.

His story concerns Augustus Melmotte, a French swindler and scoundrel, and his…

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