The classics are classics for a reason, and while some novels hold timeless appeal, others have faded into obscurity. Earlier this week, TMN pointed us to a list highlighted in the The Times Literary Supplement, written by editor Clement K. Shorter for the Illustrated London News in 1898, who named 100 of the best novels ever written. There are some interesting observations to make from his list: almost half of the authors mentioned are women (a gender balance many contemporary journalists shockingly fail to pay attention to), living authors were excluded, and there are multiple first novels mentioned. We browsed Shorter’s picks and selected ten great books that should inspire further exploration.
Ravenshoe, by Henry Kingsley (1861)
Brother of novelist Charles Kingsley, English writer Henry Kingsley, regarded as the “black sheep” of his family, wrote what would become his most famous work, Ravenshoe. An 1894 review in a literary journal describes the tale about a hero who rides in the Charge of the Light Brigade against Russian forces (which happened in 1854):
“In Ravenshoe, Kingsley is unnecessarily tedious in the old exploded style. You live with generation after generation of Ravenshoes through chapters, where a modern writer would dispose of the ancestry in a paragraph. To be sure, it is so charmingly done we like our characters the better for having lived with them so long, but the modern mind shrinks at giving so much time to even the most fascinating personages.”
Another write-up stated that “the novel is notable for its gust, and for a plot which Kingsley himself thought too ‘intricate’ to summarize. The early narrative has some lively Oxford University scenes.”
Read the book’s humorous preface over here. Ravenshoe was later serialized in British monthly Macmillan’s Magazine.
The Maiden and Married Life of Mary Powell, by Anne Manning (1850)
Author Anne Manning was described as a “spinster” who wrote about the “quiet comedy of village and small town contemporary life.” She penned several “spuriously authentic historical diaries,” including The Maiden and Married Life of Mary Powell, which had an edge of “bitter satire.” The illustrations in this copy of The Maiden are charming.
Valentine Vox, by Henry Cockton (1840)
We were drawn to this 1840 title based on the name alone and were pleased to find out that Henry Cockton’s first novel, Valentine Vox, influenced the writing of Charles Dickens. The story about “a gifted ventriloquist who used his skills to play practical jokes” is described as “broadly comic,” but contains several “horrific lunatic asylum scenes.” That sub-plot involves Valentine’s uncle, Grimwood Goodman (another great name), being committed by “unscrupulous relatives” — and it remains an important, early study of the bias associated with mental illness.
Corinne, or Italy, by Madame de Staël (1810)
History buffs and Francophiles are probably familiar with the works of exiled author Germaine de Staël (aka Madame de Staël), who held court in salons in Paris and Coppet (Switzerland), and was hated by Napoleon. She was a prominent conversationalist, and political and intellectual leader who wrote plays, novels, essays, literary criticism, poetry, and several memoirs. Her works marked the development of Romanticism before authors like Byron and Shelley. Her controversial 1810 novel Corinne, or Italy gets a mention on Shorter’s list:
“Corrine, or Italy, is both the story of a love affair between Oswald, Lord Nelvil, and a beautiful poetess, and an homage to the landscape, literature and art of Italy. Stael, the subject of recent feminist rediscovery, weaves discreet political allusion into her romance, and upon its publication Napoleon renewed her order of exile.”
The Castle of Otranto, by Horace Walpole (1764)
Widely considered the first gothic novel, Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto is usually overshadowed by the works of Poe and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. The author published the novel from his private press, located inside his country home — the famous, gothic-style Strawberry Hill House in London. He released it under a pseudonym, using a fictional backstory to heighten interest. When he finally admitted authorship, many critics dismissed the work. The Castle of Otranto details “adventure, suspense, and supernatural occurrences. In a realm where a villain reigns, mysterious events aid in fulfilling a prophecy that spells doom for the ruler and justice for the rightful heir.” Also, incest.
Susan Hopley, by Catherine Crowe (1841)
Catherine Crowe led a fascinating, but tragic life. She was swept up in the spiritualist movement — which influenced her book of supernatural stories, The Night Side of Nature. She had a mental breakdown later in life, and her writing dwindled. Susan Hopley, also known as The Adventures of Susan Hopley, Susan Hopley, Or, The Adventures of a Maid-servant, and Susan Hopley, Or, Circumstantial Evidence — the story of a clever servant who solves a crime — brought her some fame. One critic called it, “a romance of domestic life, written with great simplicity and pathos. The narrative is natural, the characters well sketched, and the dialogue true to life.”
The Holy War, by John Bunyan (1682)
This 1682 allegorical classic, The Holy War, was written while English author John Bunyan was in prison (a 12-year sentence) for preaching without a license. Bunyan became one of the best-known authors of his time, and his previous book, The Pilgrim’s Progress, was the most widely read English-language book after the Bible. Shorter lists the story of good and evil in the number two spot, below Don Quixote. The Holy War takes place in the idyllic town of Mansoul (you get an “F” for subtlety, Bunyan). The wicked ruler Diabolus deceives Mansoul’s King Shaddai, and the town becomes a hotbed of sin — another Sodom and Gomorrah.
News from Nowhere, by William Morris (1891)
Admittedly, we included William Morris’ News from Nowhere, because it inspired a Nick Cave song on Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!. Set in England in 2102, the story details “an ideal pastoral society born out of revolution. It is as compelling a dream of the future as the nightmares of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.” Need we say more?
Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson (1759)
Often compared to the better-known Candide by Voltaire (the novels were published within months of each other), Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas doesn’t take the same satirical approach to his protagonist’s search for an answer to the eternal question: can we ever truly be happy? The adventures of a restless prince, who leaves his homeland hoping to learn more about the human condition, are detailed with empathy and great philosophical depth.
Evelina, by Fanny Burney (1778)
Dubbed the “chick-lit novel of 1778,” Fanny Burney’s first book, Evelina, was published anonymously, and the author went to great lengths to hide the manuscript from her father (published female authors were still a radical thing, though he later supported her endeavor). Told from the point of view of a 17-year-old girl (through her letters) about to enter London society, Evelina shares a comical view of the wealthy and the struggles the young woman faces along her journey. Burney’s work influenced a comparable, more popular author, one Jane Austen.