An illustration of a top-down view of a book with the numbers 1901 written on the pages
An illustration of a top-down view of a book with the numbers 1901 written on the pages

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.

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.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1849)

You can’t have a list of Victorian novels without Dickens, and David Copperfield is his most humane work. At least partly autobiographical, it’s the story of a young boy’s life as he grows towards maturity, narrated by David Copperfield himself. It becomes a dramatic and all-encompassing portrait of human nature, by turns sad, funny, beautiful and wise. And it features several of the most memorable characters in fiction, including Betsey Trotwood, Mr Micawber and Uriah Heap.

Dickens himself was particularly pleased with the novel. In the preface to the 1869 edition, he wrote: “Of all my books, I like this the best… I have in my heart of hearts a favourite child. And his name is David Copperfield”. Other writers agreed. Virginia Woolf said it was “magnificent” and re-read it at least six times; Leo Tolstoy called it “the best work of the best English novelist".

North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell (1854)

The shifting face of England during the Industrial Revolution provides stark contrasts in Gaskell’s coming-of-age novel featuring a young woman named Margaret Hale. Uprooted from her idyllic childhood in the south of England by her father, to live instead in a smoky industrial city in the north, Margaret is shocked by the noise and dirt, the inner-city poverty and harsh working conditions, and the sudden violence of workers’ strike action. She soon meets John Thornton, a brusque mill owner who at first horrifies her, but over the course of the novel, Margaret’s understanding of the landscape of industrial Britain develops into a nuanced perspective on a changing age.

Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands by Mary Seacole (1857)

This is not strictly a novel, but it deserves a place on the list as the first autobiography by a Black woman published in the UK, written with a strong sense of narrative style. Mary Seacole, who was born in Jamaica, was a widely known and admired figure for her work as a nurse during the Crimean War. Her truly extraordinary subsequent memoir of her experiences is written with all the pace, wit and verve of the most adventurous fiction.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (1859)

One of the first great mystery novels and proto-detective stories, written in 1859, The Woman in White is a chilling and gripping story of a young woman in increasing danger, and her friends’ attempts to save her. It was radical and influential in style, with the story being picked up by different character narrators in turn, suggesting witness statements at an inquest or trial. It was hugely popular on publication, and explores the unequal financial position of married women, whose property all belonged to their husbands prior to 1882, and who were extremely vulnerable to exploitation as a result.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

The great work of nonsense literature is an insight into explorative Victorian ideas of logic and reason, told through the medium of children’s literature, a form of fiction that was just beginning to become popular in the 19th century. A young girl called Alice tumbles through a rabbit hole into a dream world of strange anthropomorphic animals, cakes and drinks that make her grow bigger and smaller, a Cheshire Cat, a mad tea-party, a mock turtle, and the trial of the knave of hearts, accused of stealing the Queen’s tarts.

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (1876)

George Eliot’s final novel, published in 1876, is also the only one that she set in her own contemporary society, rather than in the distant past. Like all of Eliot’s novels, it presents a challenging moral picture, but one of the reasons it was most controversial in its day was for its unusually positive portrayal of Jewish people and Zionism – rare in British literature of the time. Also covering gambling, manipulation and family secrets, the novel is a dual narrative of the relationship between the highly moral but troubled title character, and the beautiful and stubborn Gwendolen Harleth.

Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)

Short, psychologically fascinating and thoroughly disturbing, Stevenson’s famous gothic novella explores the duality of human nature, and how good and evil can coexist in one body. It was such a sensation that the idea of a “Jekyll and Hyde” nature has passed into the vernacular, to mean someone who is apparently good and decent, but hides within them the capacity for terrible thoughts and deeds. Stevenson is said to have written the first draft in a feverish fit of horrified inspiration that took him only three days.

A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887)

The first appearance in print of Sherlock Holmes, the great detective, is not to be missed. One of the most vivid characters ever written, Holmes bursts forth into this story as the new housemate of Dr Watson, who moves in to 221B Baker Street and is quickly stunned by Holmes’s powers of deduction. What follows is a twisting tale of murder and revenge that crosses continents and is all the more remarkable for having been written by Conan Doyle in just three weeks when he was 27 years old. It’s also worthy of note as seemingly the first work of detective fiction in which the detective uses a magnifying glass.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome (1889)

Written in 1889 and still one of the funniest novels around, this travel writing romp takes three hapless young men (plus a dog) on a leisure boating trip along the Thames, as they seek out perfect picnic opportunities, fine fresh air and a smattering of local history. Sometimes it almost attempts to be a straight and even romantic bucolic travel narrative, but comedy always creeps in. It’s an unbeatable and hilarious summer read, as well as an insight into the mind of the more privileged Victorian at leisure.

Tess of the d'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891)

The sexual morality of Tess of the d’Urbervilles was highly controversial in its day, so rare was it to read such an in-depth and sympathetic life story of a 19th-century “fallen woman” (the novel’s subtitle is “A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented”). In fact, Tess is raped, and then gives birth to a child who dies – and her life does not improve much from this point. It’s by no means a cheerful story, but a searing indictment of the limited rights of women and labourers compared with men of the entitled middle and upper classes.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (1891)

The only novel written by Oscar Wilde is a darkly powerful and haunting exploration of beauty and hedonism. Handsome young Dorian Gray wishes that a portrait of him would age instead of himself. The wish comes true, and as Dorian lives a lifestyle more and more morally corrosive and debauched, his real face remains beautiful while the portrait steadily transforms into a grotesque. Dorian becomes a monstrous figure, trapped by his own aesthetic bargain. Seen as scandalous on publication, its popularity has grown over time.

Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith (1892)

A satire of Victorian pomposity, Diary of a Nobody features the absurd and ineffectual Mr Pooter, who is beset with woes courtesy of a variety of tradesmen, miscellaneous items in his possession, and his useless son. It was written as a collaboration between the Grossmith brothers in the 1880s and originally serialised in Punch magazine, spoofing the fashion for periodicals to print personal diaries and autobiographies, before being published as a novel. Its reputation as a work of comic genius grew steadily, and Evelyn Waugh later called it "the funniest book in the world”.

Trilby by George du Maurier (1894)

The grandfather of the now more famous Daphne du Maurier, George Du Maurier experienced runaway success in his lifetime. Trilby was a book which reached phenomenal levels of popularity, becoming an instant must-read following its publication in 1895. Following the lives of a group of Bohemians in 1850s Paris, it’s the story of how a young woman is mesmerised and controlled into becoming a stage sensation by a mysterious, hypnotic figure called Svengali (whose name has since become a byword for any malevolent puppet-master). Trilby partly inspired The Phantom of the Opera, and gave the trilby hat its name.

The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling (1894)

Kipling’s collection of animal fables with strong moral lessons has received increasing modern scrutiny for its imperialism and colonialism. Though the vivid storytelling reflects emerging Darwinian views on evolution in the Victorian era, the stories themselves are inspired by and borrowed from ancient Indian fables. Read with a critical modern eye, The Jungle Book stories are instructive in showing a particular English sensibility as it was self-defined in opposition to inhabitants of other parts of the British Empire, with potent overtones of class, race and nationalism.

The Time Machine by HG Wells (1895)

Science fiction came into its own towards the end of the Victorian period, and HG Wells’s fantastical 1895 story of time travel coined the phrase “time machine” and inspired countless other time-travel stories. In it, a Victorian scientist travels far into the future to find humankind split into two races: the elegant and carefree Eloi, and the savage, menacing Morlocks. As he tries to understand the relationship between them, the horrifying truth is revealed, and his life is put in danger.

Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897)

Not only does Stoker’s masterpiece contain one of the most famous characters in all of literature, the terrifying vampire Dracula, it still feels sharply modern and fresh to a reader today, despite the villain’s appearance in hundreds of screen incarnations since. It’s not just a horror story about a vampire, either; it’s a funny, dark and complex character-driven novel about sexual desire and liberation. But it has plenty of spine-tingling spooks, too.

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber (2002)

Michel Faber’s 2002 novel is able to take a more explicit look at the seamy underbelly of Victorian life than 19th-century writers could. And at 850 pages, it goes deep, following the entwined fortunes of a prostitute and a perfumier. Faber doesn’t leave the darker elements of his story to suggestion and hinting, as Victorian writers often did, but lays them out on the page with a modern writer’s willingness to appal, and a sharp eye for the cityscape of Victorian London at every social level.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (2002)

Sarah Waters’s erotic and feminist novel of Victorian Britain was published in the same year as The Crimson Petal and the White, and is particularly interested in the roles, experiences and romantic lives of women, and their often manipulative relationships with men. It’s a story set among an underclass of petty thieves, and concerns plans for a dramatic inheritance heist. A historical novel with the heart of a thriller, it re-imagines a Victorian world with a 21st century reader’s appetite for excitement.

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