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20 novels that shaped the Victorian era

With invention, imperialism and industrialisation all charging through the era, there was plenty to inspire the authors of the time. Charlotte Runcie rounds up the definitive Victorian novels. 

Charlotte Runcie

There are few periods in history that have had such a transformative effect on the development of fiction as the Victorian era, which spans the reign of Queen Victoria between 1837 and 1901. Writers sought to encapsulate something of the spirit of the age and its people in condition-of-England novels, working at a time of enormous industrial and social change. And instead of originally appearing as whole books, novels were often written and first read in serialised instalments in popular magazines, so the reading experience was very different from the modern phenomenon of picking up a paperback in the bookshop.

Not all Victorian novelists sought to paint the whole of British society. Some novelists chose a narrower focus, examining a particular emerging scientific or ethical dilemma, or breaking new ground in humour and satire. To pick up a book and venture into the world of the 19th-century writer is to explore a rapidly changing society structured around vast inequality, as well as thrilling scientific progress towards an alluring – and at times terrifying – possible future.

With so much going on, it’s no wonder that the Victorian era has also proved to be a popular period for modern novelists to set their books, too. Some of the best contemporary fiction has thrown open to doors to the Victorian age to tell gripping stories that also illuminate how we live today. 

Here are 20 of the best novels written during, or about, the Victorian era. Be warned: there are plot spoilers below.

Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli (1845)

This book by a future Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, is a portrait of the terrible conditions endured by the working classes, written to provoke outrage and sympathy. A strongly political condition-of-England novel, it’s not the most nuanced or elegantly written Victorian literature, but it shows a turning point in the purpose of the novel at the beginning of the Victorian period, as well as an insight into class politics and the intellectual priorities of an MP with a bright future.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte (1847)

One of the great romances and a pioneering work of fiction, Jane Eyre is an intense psychological narration, a coming-of-age story, and among the most influential novels ever written. It spans the life of its title character from her hard and abusive childhood, including her education at Lowood School, through to her employment as a governess for the enigmatic Mr Rochester and their growing relationship. For a companion piece, it’s well worth reading Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, an imagined prequel featuring Mr Rochester’s first wife, written over a century later.

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