In the 19th century, authors in the United Kingdom (we are counting authors from Ireland and Scotland here) produced novels that challenged class systems, trained an eye on the deplorable living conditions of the working class, gave us some of the earliest works of feminist literature, invented many of the tropes used and reused in modern literature, and created some of the most unforgettable characters ever. It may be silly and futile to argue that the literature of Great Britain in the 1800s was more important or of higher quality than writing from different periods and parts of the world — but these 50 novels do prove that it was (for better or for worse) a very English century, and one that left a massive mark on everything that came after.
50. The Wanderer or, Female Difficulties, Fanny Burney
William Hazlitt said of the book, “The difficulties in which [Burney] involves her heroines are indeed, ‘Female Difficulties;’ — they are difficulties created out of nothing.” Not only is this a great historical novel written during a tumultuous time on the European continent, but it’s also evidence that Burney was one of earliest female authors to get mansplained by a famous critic.
49. Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens
A young man’s father dies, leaving his family with nothing, and suddenly the young man is supposed to take care of everything and grow as a person against all odds. It’s downright Dickensian!
48. Villette, Charlotte Brontë
A woman makes it on her own in the harsh world, denounces Catholicism, and serves up a healthy dose of the famous Brontë proto-feminism we all love.
47. Sybil, or The Two Nations, Benjamin Disraeli
There’s plenty of social commentary to be found in the great English novels of the century, but Disraeli is the only author who truly had the power to enact change in his country; he became prime minister nearly 30 years after the publication of novel that took a long look at the horrible conditions in which the country’s working class lived.
46. The Return of the Native, Thomas Hardy
Sex and how society treats outsiders are two of the most fascinating themes Hardy explores in his sixth novel.
45. The Adventures of Mr. Verdant Green, Cuthbert M. Bede
It’s not exactly the easiest book to find in print, but you can go to Project Gutenberg to read this early college novel about Oxford student Mr. Verdant Green, who “was not altogether freed from those tyrants of youth.”
44. Mary Barton, Elizabeth Gaskell
So many of the great books of the 1800s take place in London, yet Gaskell’s 1848 social novel is one of the first great works to feature the industrial gloom of Manchester and the hard lives of the city’s inhabitants.
43. Windsor Castle, William Harrison Ainsworth
It looks like a historical novel about Henry VIII chasing after Anne Boleyn, but Windsor Castle is also a creepy gothic tale complete with a dead hunter who haunts the pages.
42. Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii
Spoiler alert: Pompeii gets destroyed. But this novel, which has fallen out of favor in the last few decades, does deserve another look as a strange piece of historical fiction.
41. Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson
The original title to this book written for boys gave a little too much away: Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751: How he was Kidnapped and Cast away; his Sufferings in a Desert Isle; his Journey in the Wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he Suffered at the hands of his Uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so-called: Written by Himself and now set forth by Robert Louis Stevenson. And no, it wasn’t actually a memoir.
40. Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott
Medievalism wasn’t so hot in the 19th century, but Sir Walter Scott’s novel — which even features Robin of Locksley (you know, Robin Hood…) — was one of the few exceptions.
39. Emma, Jane Austen
Lovely and smart, Emma Woodhouse was the prototype for so many characters to follow her (and not just Cher Horowitz). Is it Austen’s best? No. But this comedy of manners is still required reading.
38. The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins
“There, in the middle of the broad, bright high-road — there, as if it had that moment sprung out of the earth or dropped from the heaven — stood the figure of a solitary Woman, dressed from head to foot in white garments.”
One of the earliest mystery novels, The Woman in White should have taught us once and for all that if you spot something like the woman described the quote above, maybe you should just keep going.
37. Coningsby, Benjamin Disraeli
An acceptable genre description for this book might be a “political coming-of-age novel.” Coningsby grows from the orphan grandson of a very wealthy man who eventually cuts him off for his political views, but keeps striving in that Victorian-era manner we all know and love.
36. New Grub Street, George Gissing
Today we have plenty of tales about two young writers trying to make it, but with Jasper Milvain and Edwin Reardon of New Grub Street, we get one of the earliest, and better, examples of writers writing about writers and the things they look to gain from their work.
35. Agnes Grey, Anne Brontë
Anne Brontë’s debut was once compared to Jane Austen, citing the least famous of the famous sisters’ “perfect prose narrative.”
34. Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell
It becomes obvious that this book, one of Gaskell’s best known, whose collection of episodes are all centered around a quaint English town and its various inhabitants, was initially serialized.
33. Rob Roy, Sir Walter Scott
Some might say that Ivanhoe is his best work, but this book about the son of an English merchant who travels to Scotland to collect a debt really is the better of Scott’s novels, thanks in large part to its descriptions of northern England and the Scottish Highlands.
32. The Light that Failed, Rudyard Kipling
From England to India and Sudan, Kipling’s 1890 debut novel is about an artist who completes his masterpiece as he goes blind. If you have a hard time finding it, Project Gutenberg has you covered.
31. Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson
Stevenson’s famous novel about a doctor and his two very different personalities is one of those stories that you think you know, but you truly need to read the book for the full experience.
30. Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell
Gaskell’s last book isn’t as concerned with looking closely at social ills or people who have fallen on hard times (although you do get a dose of that); it’s more sketches of its protagonist, Molly, and other people living in a provincial town.
29. Bleak House, Charles Dickens
Maybe the most complex of Dickens’ works, we wouldn’t suggest this as the first novel of his to pick up, but it certainly is a very necessary read.
28. Dracula, Bram Stoker
A new interpretation of Stoker’s famous blood-sucking count seems to come out almost every week, but it’s just about impossible to beat this original work that some might count as British Invasion literature.
27. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
Modernity slowly breaking down tradition is a theme that runs through the veins of so many great works of literature. Hardy’s novel, set in impoverished Essex, took things a step further by challenging sexual double standards — namely, the main character being looked down upon in society because she lost her virginity as a victim of sexual assault. Gripping, and very ahead of its time.
26. Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
Fanny’s journey from almost literally a forgotten stepchild (in her case, an unwanted niece and cousin to her family at Mansfield Park) to a woman who is beautiful, modest, proper, and kind is a somewhat cliché formula in 1800s literature. But Austen pretty much created the formula, and this novel will help you understand why it became so popular.
25. The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
Truly one of the greatest early science fiction novels. The War of the Worlds is a book about alien invasion, but if you dig deeper, you’ll find commentary on racism and British imperialism.
24. Lord Jim, Joseph Conrad
Since Heart of Darkness is held in such high esteem, Conrad’s other book — which shows just how ugly imperialism was in the Victorian era — is too often relegated to a footnote.
23. The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Anne Brontë
Poor Anne Brontë. She didn’t survive to see her novel set in a spooky old mansion (of course…) go on to become a big success, or proclaimed an early work of feminist literature.
22. Vivian Grey, Benjamin Disraeli
The future prime minister’s debut novel also acted as sort of a manifesto, or plan for his own lifetime, as we see our eponymous hero grow from boyhood into the world of politics. Also to note: Vivian Grey contains the first use of the term “millionaire” in print.
21. Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens
The first English novel with a child protagonist is littered with famous characters like the titular protagonist, the Artful Dodger, and old Fagin. But, with Oliver Twist, Dickens also gave us the ultimate rags-to-riches tale, a novel against which all other similar stories must be compared.
20. A Study in Scarlet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle first introduced us to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson with this novel, he basically created the modern detective story.
19. Daniel Deronda, George Eliot
You’ve read Middlemarch, but Daniel Deronda, Eliot’s lush and lovely novel, is one of the great Jewish books not even written by a Jew. Eliot’s treatment of her characters, their heritage, and her avoidance of clichés shows how brilliant and ahead of her time she truly was.
18. Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
Set aside all the adaptations you’ve seen and really sit down with Carroll’s book about a young girl who finds herself in a fantastical realm. It’s weirder and more wonderful than you know (or remember).
17. The Time Machine, H.G. Welles
A novella, sure. But we’re counting The Time Machine among these books because Welles’ book is one of the ultimate time-travel stories, as well as one of the era’s best dying-Earth dystopian tales. We’re still hugely influenced by this one today.
16. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Sometimes one is in the mood for a simple novel of manners and marriage, and obviously P&P is the example par excellence of that genre. — Michelle Dean
15. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Dickens loved the faux-autobiography Copperfield the most out of any of his novels, which should really say a lot about this one.
14. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
A satire that was as talked about and popular as anything Dickens wrote in the 19th century, Vanity Fair remains the type of book modern readers tend to ignore, going instead for more well-known titles or the magazine that borrowed the book’s name. That’s truly a big mistake, as the book has retained so much of what made it wonderful when it was published in 1847.
13. The Mill on the Floss, George Eliot
Another example of how Eliot could fit so much into a novel without any of it being overkill. Like many novels from the time, the characters in The Mill on the Floss are victims of circumstances out of their control; only Eliot wrote those situations better than just about anybody from the 1800s or any other period.
12. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
Just about everything we’ve come to associate with pirates is because of this book, and we highly suggest you go and reread at some point this summer.
11. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
It’s not just that we have now spent over a century watching adaptations of this monster story; it’s that in a world of well-developed horror genres, it’s remarkable how Frankenstein remains in a class by itself — not quite a zombie story, not quite a gothic romance like Dracula either. It’s sui generis. — Michelle Dean
10. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
The unforgettable Dashwood sisters are the center of this lovely comedy of manners, which was the first published work Austen ever produced. Not such a bad way to make an entrance, we’d say.
9. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
Is it racist, in the sense that it was written in the context of the racial politics of the 19th century? Yes. Is it still the source material to which most narratives of colonialsm and post-colonialism return to react against? Yes. — Michelle Dean
8. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde
A short one, but the importance and influence of Wilde’s only novel is still very noticeable today. Youth, vanity, art, and society’s superficial nature are all explored in this book. You may have read in high school, but it deserves a second, closer look.
7. Persuasion, Jane Austen
A lot of people think that Austen’s best novel is Pride and Prejudice, but Austenians know that it’s only the one that’s been most popularly adapted. There’s something about the tremendous loneliness in Anne Elliott’s life that is very affecting. — Michelle Dean
6. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Number six? A Tale of Two Cities at number six? Not one, not two, not even three? We will concede that this look at Europe in a time of upheaval and change is an absolute masterpiece. Is it the best Dickens? The best of the century? Almost, but not quite.
5. Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy
Hardy might be the kind of novelist best appreciated in adolescence. And yes, Jude, even in the pantheon of Hardy books, is a particularly depressing book, what with the deaths of pigs and children which are a part of its plot. — Michelle Dean
4. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
The spooky and isolated English moors provide the setting for Nelly Dean to tell us the story of Heathcliff (who is one of literature’s great complex characters) and the other residents of the area. Once you read it, it takes a long time to mentally remove this book’s powerful grip.
3. Middlemarch, George Eliot
An easy add since Middlemarch has been on the popular mind lately, thanks to Rebecca Mead’s book on the novel. Dorothea Casaubon’s attempts to survive a disastrous first marriage and the pathos of Lydgate’s love for his silly wife Rosamond are memorable. Several eminent writers count this the greatest novel in the English language. We place it below, here, out of a slight preference for novels that do not have quite so many storylines. — Michelle Dean
2. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
There is probably no story from these novels that women know better by heart than tragic-governess Jane’s. The Madwoman in the Attic is a legit trope. — Michelle Dean
1. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
It’s difficult to do a list of English novels of the 1800s without including several works by Dickens. It’s even more difficult to argue that he wasn’t the defining author of his place and time, and that this bildungsroman which tells Pip’s unforgettable story, and also gives us one of literature’s most unforgettable characters in Miss Havisham, isn’t his defining work. Not just one of the best novel to come out of 1800s England, Great Expectations is easily one of the best, most beloved, and most imitated novels of all time.