The best Victorian novels that have lessons for today

Why am I passionate about this?

I was a little girl who fell in love with stories who grew up to be an English professor--which is another way of saying that it's my job to help others fall in love with great stories, too! I especially love novels from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because so much new was happening in the world then that continues to shape how we understand ourselves today. So much has changed and yet the human condition--with all its challenges, disappointments, and dreams--hasn't changed.

I wrote...

On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books

By Karen Swallow Prior,

Book cover of On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books

What is my book about?

Reading great literature well has the power to cultivate virtue, says acclaimed author Karen Swallow Prior. In this book, she takes readers on a guided tour through works of great literature, both ancient and modern, exploring twelve virtues that philosophers and theologians throughout history have identified as most essential for good character and the good life.

Covering authors from Henry Fielding to Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen to George Saunders, and Flannery O'Connor to F. Scott Fitzgerald, Prior explores the most compelling universal themes found in the pages of classic books, helping readers learn to love life, literature, and God through their encounters with great writing. The book includes end-of-chapter reflection questions geared toward book club discussions. The hardcover edition was named a Best Book of 2018 in Religion by Publishers Weekly.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Great Expectations

Karen Swallow Prior Why did I love this book?

There is so much that is magical, mysterious, and surprising in this delightful tale. But at its heart is a story we all can learn from.

The young hero of the novel, an orphan named Pip, wishes to become a “gentleman” in order to overcome the shame he feels at his treatment by a haughty but beautiful girl with whom he falls in love.

When Pip unexpectedly comes into money, he mistakenly thinks that this is what will make him a gentleman, win the girl, and help him achieve all his big expectations.

The lessons he learns about what it really means to be a “gentle” person are ones most of us need to learn, or at least be reminded of.

By Charles Dickens,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Great Expectations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'His novels will endure as long as the language itself' Peter Ackroyd

Dickens's haunting late novel depicts the education and development of a young man, Pip, as his life is changed by a series of events - a terrifying encounter with an escaped convict in a graveyard on the wild Kent marshes; a summons to meet the bitter, decaying Miss Havisham and her beautiful, cold-hearted ward Estella; the sudden generosity of a mysterious benefactor - and he discovers the true nature of his 'great expectations'. This definitive edition includes appendices on Dickens's original ending, giving an illuminating glimpse into a…

Book cover of Jane Eyre

Karen Swallow Prior Why did I love this book?

Of this novel, Virginia Woolf famously remarked, “The writer has us by the hand, forces us along her road, makes us see what she sees, never leaves us for a moment or allows us to forget her.”

The voice of Jane is so powerful, so real, that some thought that she and her author were one. But no.

In Jane, Bronte presents a truly modern self that all can relate to.

We may not be orphaned, abused, and alone as Jane is. But we do have to, like her, fight for our own sense of self and dignity in a world that too often insists we choose as it would have us choose, live as it would have us live, and compromise our beliefs in order to fit in.

Jane does not (hard as that choice is), and through her example of strength and courage, we might find our own. 

By Charlotte Brontë,

Why should I read it?

36 authors picked Jane Eyre as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

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 Tess of the D'Urbervilles

Karen Swallow Prior Why did I love this book?

Structured as a classical tragedy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles devastatingly exposes what Hardy saw as the worst Victorian hypocrisy: the sexual double standard that deemed a woman to be “ruined” for what was easily excusable for a man.

Despite the novel’s harsh judgment on society, Hardy renders the characters as complex, human figures torn by competing desires, faulty teaching, and innate human nature.

Even the various settings, described in the lush, often arcane prose that is Hardy’s signature, are vivid enough to become characters, too, in this story that will break your heart in the best way.

By Thomas Hardy, Simon Gatrell (editor), Juliet Grindle (editor)

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Tess of the D'Urbervilles as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'She looked absolutely pure. Nature, in her fantastic trickery, had set such a seal of maidenhood upon Tess's countenance that he gazed at her with a stupefied air: "Tess- say it is not true! No, it is not true!"'

Young Tess Durbeyfield attempts to restore her family's fortunes by claiming their connection with the aristocratic d'Urbervilles. But Alec d'Urberville is a rich wastrel who seduces her and makes her life miserable. When Tess meets Angel Clare, she is offered true love and happiness, but her past catches up with her and she faces an agonizing moral choice.

Hardy's indictment of…

Book cover of North and South

Karen Swallow Prior Why did I love this book?

No less than in 1854 when North and South was first published, our world is marked by the rise of industry and technology, clashes between geographical groups and socio-economic classes birthed by the industrial world, and the rise of religious doubt.

All of which serves as the background for this love story that requires two characters to bridge all of these wide chasms.

As in the best Victorian novels, in this one we are introduced to characters from all walks of life who come from a range of life experiences.

Meeting them in their trials and triumphs and seeing life from their various perspectives through the artful narrative voice Gaskell employs accomplishes what literary fiction does best: enlarge our imaginative horizons and expand our empathic range.

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…

Book cover of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

Karen Swallow Prior Why did I love this book?

This literary masterpiece employs some of the most common tropes of early novels: letters, a diary, an old mansion, forbidden love, rumors, gossip, and an overall air of foreboding mystery.

These are the ingredients that make for a gripping story. Yet, Anne Bronte does so much more in this remarkably pioneering work.

In fact, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall is one of the earliest novels address head on alcoholism and domestic violence. It is at once a feminist novel and one that celebrates love that endures—but, most importantly, love based on equality.

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall resists the age-old myth that a woman can change a man (or vice-versa).

By Anne Brontë,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Tenant of Wildfell Hall 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'

A beautiful edition of Anne Bronte's most enduring novel, to accompany her sisters' greatest books in Penguin Clothbound Classics.

Gilbert Markham is deeply intrigued by Helen Graham, a beautiful and secretive young woman who has moved into nearby Wildfell Hall with her young son. He is quick to offer Helen his friendship, but when her reclusive behaviour becomes the subject of local gossip and speculation, Gilbert begins to wonder whether his trust in her has been misplaced. It is only when she allows Gilbert to read her diary that the…

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Thorn City

By Pamela Statz,

Book cover of Thorn City

Pamela Statz

New book alert!

What is my book about?

Dressed to kill and ready to make rent, best friends Lisa and Jamie work as “paid to party” girls at the Rose City Ripe for Disruption gala, a gathering of Portland's elite.

Their evening is derailed when Lisa stumbles across Ellen, a ruthless politician and Lisa’s estranged mother. And to make matters worse, Lisa’s boyfriend, Patrick, crashes the party to meet his new boss, Portland's food cart drug kingpin. Lisa makes a fateful choice that traps her, Jamie, and Patrick in Ellen’s web. In this gripping thriller, Lisa must reconcile a painful past and perilous present.

Thorn City

By Pamela Statz,

What is this book about?

Suspected murder, eclectic food trucks, and artisanal cocaine: just another day in Thorn City.

It’s the night of the Rose City Ripe for Disruption gala—a gathering of Portland’s elite. Dressed to kill in sparkling minidresses, best friends Lisa and Jamie attend as “paid to party” girls. They plan an evening of fake flirtations, karaoke playlists, and of course, grazing the catering.

Past and present collide when Lisa stumbles across Ellen, a ruthless politician who also happens to be Lisa’s estranged mother. Awkward . . . When Lisa was sixteen, Ellen had her kidnapped and taken to the Lost Lake Academy—a…

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