The best Victorian novels for complete beginners

Janet McNaughton Author Of Flame and Ashes: The Great Fire Diary of Triffie Winsor
By Janet McNaughton

The Books I Picked & Why

The Warden

By Anthony Trollope

Book cover of The Warden

Why 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.


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New Grub Street

By George Gissing

Book cover of New Grub Street

Why 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.


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Jane Eyre

By Charlotte Brontë

Book cover of Jane Eyre

Why 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.


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Vanity Fair

By William Makepeace Thackeray

Book cover of Vanity Fair

Why 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.


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Middlemarch

By George Eliot

Book cover of Middlemarch

Why 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.


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