The best Victorian novels for complete beginners

Who am I?

In my childhood in the 1960s, girls still read novels like Jane Eyre and Black Beauty, and one of my grandmothers was a Victorian herself, born in Scotland in the 1880s, so my connection to that time feels organic. Even today, a new Victorian novel is my idea of vacation reading. Victorian writers looked deeply into the hearts of their imagined characters, leaving us with a vivid record of a world that is now gone. These novels help us understand the past with all its flaws and problems, giving us a way to think about how far we have come, perhaps, even, how much farther we need to go.

I wrote...

Flame and Ashes: The Great Fire Diary of Triffie Winsor

By Janet McNaughton,

Book cover of Flame and Ashes: The Great Fire Diary of Triffie Winsor

What is my book about?

On July 8, 1892, a barn caught fire in St. John’s, Newfoundland. The next morning, though almost no one had died, one-third of the residents were homeless and most of the downtown was gone. Eleven-year-old Triffie Winsor is the middle daughter of a prosperous merchant, an active girl with a wild imagination who is deeply devoted to her sickly younger brother. When all the beautiful things that surrounded her disappear overnight and her family moves into an abandoned warehouse, Triffie learns to see the world in a new way.

I hope young readers will have as much fun with this Victorian-style novel as I had writing it. Flame and Ashes is part of Scholastic’s Dear Canada series.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Warden

Janet McNaughton Why did I love this book?

A short book even by our standards, The Warden was Trollope’s first novel. He went on to write forty-seven more, as many short stories and nonfiction books as well, all while working as an important official with the Royal Mail. I love Trollope’s books because he was a master at creating life-like characters who may be filled with flaws, but are always portrayed with loving humour. While The Warden is about a controversy over how the Church of England manages a poor house, the story is carried by the complex people and relationships at the centre of the squabble. This is the first book in the Chronicle of Barsetshire series which spins out the lives of these characters across decades.

By Anthony Trollope,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The Warden introduces us to the lives of some of the most beloved characters in all literature.

Part of the Macmillan Collector's Library; a series of stunning, clothbound, pocket sized classics with gold foiled edges and ribbon markers. These beautiful books make perfect gifts or a treat for any book lover. This edition has an introduction by Margaret Drabble and illustrations by F. C. Tilney.

Scandal strikes the peaceful cathedral town of Barchester when Septimus Harding, the warden of charitable foundation Hiram's Hospital, is accused of financial wrongdoing. A kindly and naive man, he finds himself caught between the forces…

Book cover of New Grub Street

Janet McNaughton Why did I love this book?

Gissing is forgotten now because he was a realist working in romantic times. Fiction writers were the rock stars of Victorian England. New Grub Street explores the other side of the coin: the vast number of struggling writers who hankered after the fame and fortune that was never to be theirs. At the heart of the story are two friends, the pragmatic materialist Jasper Milvain and the talented but idealistic Edward Reardon. The modest success of one novel prompts Readon to marry, saddling him with an overwhelming financial burden that crushes his talent. Milvain values money over everything else in life at a time when everything else in life depends on money. I found Gissing’s hard-boiled novel touching because, without flinching, he shows the inner conflicts of people trapped by circumstance.

By George Gissing,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked New Grub Street as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Because one book had a sort of success he imagined his struggles were over.'

Scholarly, anxious Edwin Reardon had achieved a precarious career as the writer of serious fiction. On the strength of critical acclaim for his fourth novel, he has married the refined Amy Yule. But the brilliant future Amy expected has evaded her husband. The catastrophe of the Reardon's failing marriage is set among the rising and falling fortunes of novelists, journalists, and scholars who labour 'in the valley of the shadow of books'.

George Gissing's New Grub Street was written at breakneck speed in the autumn of…

Book cover of Jane Eyre

Janet McNaughton Why did I love this book?

This is more of a potboiler than my other picks but it’s a wonderful read. I was about eleven when I read it for the first time. Jane Eyre is a plain but passionate orphan who becomes the governess to the out-of-wedlock child of a wealthy man. Her independence and wit win the love of her employer, Mr. Rochester, who proposes to Jane but is exposed, at the altar, as the husband of the mad woman who haunts the attic of his house. Jane Eyre was wildly popular in Victorian England even though many were scandalized by the undercurrent of sexual tension. Charlotte Bronte accidentally caused an uproar by dedicating her book to Thackeray without realizing his wife had been certified insane.

By Charlotte Brontë,

Why should I read it?

30 authors picked Jane Eyre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Introduction and Notes by Dr Sally Minogue, Canterbury Christ Church University College.

Jane Eyre ranks as one of the greatest and most perennially popular works of English fiction. Although the poor but plucky heroine is outwardly of plain appearance, she possesses an indomitable spirit, a sharp wit and great courage.

She is forced to battle against the exigencies of a cruel guardian, a harsh employer and a rigid social order. All of which circumscribe her life and position when she becomes governess to the daughter of the mysterious, sardonic and attractive Mr Rochester.

However, there is great kindness and warmth…

Book cover of Vanity Fair

Janet McNaughton Why did I love this book?

Like Jane Eyre, Becky Sharp is an orphan who becomes a governess. The similarity ends there. Determined to sleep her way to the top, she secretly elopes with Rawdon Crawley, younger son of her employer, only to discover soon after that she could have married the employer himself. Her new father-in-law and his rich eccentric sister leave the newlyweds penniless. Soon after, most of the main characters go to Belgium for the battle of Waterloo, where Becky sleeps with her best friend’s husband just before he’s killed in battle. Thackeray wrote to expose the folly of social climbing and avarice. He also created one of the most memorable heroines in Victorian literature. No matter how badly she behaves, it’s hard not to cheer Becky on.

By William Makepeace Thackeray,

Why should I read it?

6 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…

Book cover of Middlemarch

Janet McNaughton Why did I love this book?

I think Middlemarch is the finest novel ever written and I’m not alone. In 2015 the BBC asked book critics to name the 100 best English novels. Middlemarch was number one. This sprawling story has overlapping plots involving many characters who live in Middlemarch. One of the most memorable, a scholar who will never publish anything, may have been based on Anthony Trollope’s father. Two unhappy marriages are explored in lifelike detail, each completely unlike the other. As in real life, there are happy endings and tragic ones. What stayed with me though was Elliot’s magical talent for bringing people and moments to life. This probably shouldn’t be the first Victorian novel you read, but, if you read Victorian novels, it’s one you shouldn’t miss.

By George Eliot,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

One of the BBC's '100 Novels That Shaped Our World'

'One of the few English novels written for grown-up people' Virginia Woolf

George Eliot's nuanced and moving novel is a masterly evocation of connected lives, changing fortunes and human frailties in a provincial community. Peopling its landscape are Dorothea Brooke, a young idealist whose search for intellectual fulfilment leads her into a disastrous marriage to the pedantic scholar Casaubon; Dr Lydgate, whose pioneering medical methods, combined with an imprudent marriage to the spendthrift beauty Rosamond, threaten to undermine his career; and the religious hypocrite Bulstrode, hiding scandalous crimes from his…

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Book cover of Cold Peace: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift, Part I

Helena P. Schrader Author Of Cold Peace: A Novel of the Berlin Airlift, Part I

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