The 100 best novels: #22 – The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope (1875)

Anthony Trollope is the epitome of the 19th-century English writer, indefatigable, popular and tightly wired-in to his society, a monument of productivity. In the course of his 67 years, Trollope published more than 40 novels including two series (the Barchester Chronicles and the Pallisers) that anchored him in the public mind as the model of the Victorian literary man.

His peers were less complimentary. To Henry James, he was “a novelist who hunted the fox”. After the disastrous publication of his AnAutobiography, his reputation became damaged by his ruthless attitude towards his art (so many words per day; his characters clinically subordinated to the needs of his narrative, and so on). Trollope’s facility was held against him, and so was his popularity with a middle-class reading public. However, if there is one Trollope novel, written in a white heat during 1873, that rescues him from accusations of shallow commerciality, and puts him in the premier league, it must be The Way We Live Now.

The novel, fuelled by indignation, began as a satire. Trollope, who had been living in Australia for 18 months, had returned to London in 1872, to find a society (as he saw it) mired in corruption. He was appalled, he wrote later, by “a certain class of dishonesty, dishonesty magnificent in its proportions, and climbing into high places… so rampant and so splendid that there seems to be reason for fearing that men and women will be taught to feel that dishonesty, if it can become splendid, will cease to be abominable.”

At first, what he called “the Carbury novel” was to be focused on Lady Carbury, a coquettish fortysomething operator “false from head to foot” on the brink of a shameful literary career. Here, Trollope’s portrait owes something to his redoubtable mother, Frances Trollope, the bestselling author of Domestic Manners of the Americans. But once he introduced the character of Augustus Melmotte, one of English fiction‘s most memorable monsters, all literary equilibrium was lost. Perhaps because Trollope was now untethered from a lifetime of careful plotting, and scrupulous narration, he was able to plunge deeper into his subject unencumbered by the restraints of literary technique. The Way We Live Now has a raw and edgy vitality (fading towards the end) that’s often missing in Trollope’s more routine novels.

Melmotte, based on some scandalous financiers of the 1870s, is a figure we have come to know only too well: arrogant, ruthless, corrupt and so unfeasibly rich he believes he can buy anything, including political influence. In painting this character, Trollope’s satirical fury is at full stretch. Melmotte is a “horrid, big, rich scoundrel… a bloated swindler… a vile city ruffian”. How often, in the 1980s and 90s – Robert Maxwell comes to mind – have we not seen such characters in contemporary English life ?

Melmotte’s story, which occupies the heart of The Way We Live Now is the tale of a railway fraud, mad speculation and, finally, the bursting of the bubble in a crash that utterly disgraces the deluded interloper. This is hardly the moment to reveal Melmotte’s fate, which must be implicit in his corruption. Suffice to say that, once he has left the scene, a more familiar cast of bounders and rogues takes over: Lady Carbury and her feckless son Felix, whose contemptible ambition is “to marry an heiress”; Hamilton Fisker, Melmotte’s crooked partner; “Dolly” Longstaffe, the pointless clubman; Mrs Hurtle, the social climbing American, plus an entertaining galère of literary types (Trollope has fun here) from Broune and Booker (yes!), Yeld, Barham and Alf, any one of whom could step into British literary prize management today, no questions asked.

One of my favourites in this series, The Way We Live Now is a wonderful, melodramatic tale-of-the-times, by a master of his craft. It begins in satire and finally resolves into entertaining social comedy. As a savage commentary on mid-Victorian England by a marvellously addictive writer steeped in every aspect of an extraordinary society, it could hardly be bettered. No wonder the first reviews were atrocious.

A note on the text

Trollope, professional to his fingertips, often kept a calendar for the composition of his fiction. Before starting The Way We Live Now he made the following, slightly chilly, calculation: “Carbury novel. 20 numbers. 64 pages each number. 260 words each page. 40 pages a week. To be completed in 32 weeks.”

But he was wrong. The “Carbury novel”, begun in May 1873, took just 29 weeks, and ran to about 425,000 words. Incredibly, Trollope also polished off another work of fiction (Harry Heathcote of Gangoil) simultaneously. Meanwhile, the publishers Chapman & Hall had already made a contract with Trollope (an outright sale for £3,000) for The Way We Live Now, securing serialisation as well as volume rights. But the heyday of magazine publication was over. The novel did badly in serial form, from February 1874 to September 1875. A two-volume edition was published in July 1875, pre-empting the last stages of the serialisation. The reviews were poor. Trollope himself rather defensively wrote in An Autobiography: “I by no means look on the book as one of my failures; nor was it taken as a failure by the public.” The Way We Live Now would not be recognised as the masterpiece it is until the 1940s. Now it is seen as his greatest achievement.

Other Anthony Trollope titles

The Warden (1855); Barchester Towers (1857); Can You Forgive Her?(1865).

The 100 best novels: #21 – Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871-2)

Middlemarch is one of those books that can exert an almost hypnotic power over its readers. Few other titles in this series will inspire quite the same intensity of response. When, for instance, in 1873, the poet Emily Dickinson referred to the novel, she wrote in a letter: “What do I think ofMiddlemarch? What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances ‘this mortal [George Eliot] has already put on immortality’.

As well as moving its admirers to rhapsody,Middlemarch is also supremely a work of serious literature. According to Virginia Woolf, it is “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”. Later in the 20th century the influential critic FR Leavis made Middlemarch a central element of his “Great Tradition”. Today it stands as perhaps the greatest of many great Victorian novels.

George Eliot’s masterpiece, Middlemarch, appeared after the deaths of Thackeray (1863) and Dickens (1870). This is hardly an accident. Subtitled “a study of provincial life”, the novel has a didactic realism that’s a world away fromVanity Fair or Great Expectations. Indeed,Middlemarch looms above the mid-Victorian literary landscape like a cathedral of words in whose shadowy vastness its readers can find every kind of addictive discomfort, a sequence of raw truths: the loneliness of the disappointed failure, Dr Lydgate; the frustrations of his discontented wife; the humiliation of a good woman, Dorothea; the corrosive bitterness of Casaubon, and so on.

Few of Eliot’s characters achieve what they really want, and all have to learn to compromise. Some learn the lessons and achieve a temporary happiness. Others refuse or are incapable of learning, and spend their lives resenting their situation, and blaming others. And others still realise their mistakes but are trapped by a wrong decision and never escape. Dr Lydgate is especially emblematic of Middlemarch: dying young, a bitter and disappointed man who knew he had married the wrong woman and could do nothing about it.

The action takes place some 40 years before the moment of composition. As well as making allusions to the death of George IV, outbreaks of cholera and the passing of the Great Reform Bill of 1832, its characters discuss the coming of the railway and the impact of industrialisation on a settled Midland English world. Here, the organising metaphor of Middlemarch becomes “the web”, Eliot’s representation of English society in all its airy complexity and resilience. In the middle of this web we find the character whom all readers ofMiddlemarch will argue about and identify with, the fascinating figure of Dorothea, wife of the cold-hearted monster Rev Edward Casaubon. Dorothea becomes a true heroine because – despite all she suffers, her humiliations and heartache – she still tries to be a good person, and to do the right thing. Lydgate, in particular, sees this and understands to his great sorrow what sort of woman he should have married and how different his life could have been. In a larger sense, Dorothea’s fate (and also the torments self-inflicted by Rosamond Vincy) dramatise another of the novel’s major themes, the place of women in a changing but still patriarchal society.

There are no easy resolutions in a great novel. Some readers will be dismayed to find, in the final chapters, Dorothea discovering fulfilment in her work for Will Ladislaw as he becomes a reforming MP. But Eliot has the last word, a famous and deeply moving valedictory page celebrating Dorothea’s “finely-touched spirit”. Here, Eliot concludes that “the effect of [Dorothea's] being” was “incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs”.

A note on the text

At the beginning of 1869, George Eliot listed her tasks for the coming year in her journal, including “A Novel called Middlemarch”. However, progress was slow, interrupted by the fatal illness of Thornie Lewes, the second son of her partner George Henry Lewes. By September, only three chapters of the story had bee completed, and by the time Thornie finally died in November 1869, Eliot had stopped work on a novel that was at this stage just a study of Middlemarch society, with Lydgate, the doctor, and his ill-matched wife Rosamond Vincy, as the main characters.

However, more than a year later, in November 1870, she began work on a new story entitled “Miss Brooke”, which introduced Dorothea. Eventually Eliot combined Dorothea’s story with the Lydgate-Vincy narrative, and began to unfold the full majesty of the Middlemarch we have today.

As it took wing the work became so unlike the traditional Victorian “three-decker” novel that Lewes, acting as his partner’s agent, requested John Blackwood, the publisher, to launch the novel in eight parts, at two-monthly intervals from December 1871. Once Blackwood had agreed, the eight books appeared throughout 1872, culminating in the closing chapters of November and December 1872, although the title page of the first edition bears the date 1871. Middlemarch was immediately recognised as a work of genius, and secured Eliot’s place high in the pantheon of English fiction. The first one-volume edition was published in 1874, and sold well to an enthusiastic reading public. In 2003 the novel was chosen as no 27 in the BBC survey “the Big Read”.

Some other George Eliot titles

The Mill on the Floss (1860); Silas Marner (1861); Daniel Deronda(1874-6)

The 100 best novels: #20 – Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9)

Little Women is probably unique in this series: it was conceived, and commissioned, by a publisher. An instant bestseller, and a coming-of-age classic, it continues to appear in polls of Anglo-American reading, and remains among the most widely read novels of all time.

Born in 1832, Louisa Alcott had grown up as the second of four daughters to a well-known Boston educationist with a penchant for reading aloud to his family from The Pilgrim’s Progress. As a girl, Louisa was always “scribbling”, selling her juvenile efforts to a range of publications aimed at the market for young women.

By her mid-30s, Alcott had published books for children, a first novel entitled Moods, and some journalism about her experiences as a nurse in the American civil war (Hospital Sketches). Pseudonymously, she had also written several romances and adventure stories for a variety of “penny-dreadful” publications.

At first, when, in 1867, the editor of the Boston publisher Roberts Brothers asked her to write “for girls”, Alcott demurred. She wasn’t interested, she said; but the idea stuck. Plus, she had some family debts to settle and, as a professional writer, Alcott would have been well aware of the booming market in contemporary fiction for young women.

As early as May 1868, she confided to her journal that although she was now at work on “Little Women” (the title also came from her publisher), she did not “enjoy this sort of thing” because she “never liked girls nor knew many, except my sisters; but our queer plays and experiences may prove interesting though I doubt it”.

Rarely has an interim verdict on work-in-progress been so far from the mark. Alcott’s use of her sisters’ lives is crucial. The structure of Little Women was loosely inspired by The Pilgrim’s Progress (No 1 in this series), but its material is mostly semi-autobiographical, drawn from Alcott’s childhood memories. She, unequivocally, is Jo, the fearless girl (and aspiring writer) who longs “to do daring things”, and who struggles to escape the Victorian prison of her gender. Jo March and her sisters would become vital role models for many subsequent generations of American woman.

Another key to the success of Little Women is Alcott’s direct and easy style which is grounded in the reality of everyday life. The four girls – Jo, Margaret (Meg), Elizabeth (Beth), and Amy – speak and feel like regular young American women of their day. The device of the absent father (away serving as an army chaplain in the civil war), enhances their independence and places this lively quartet at the fulcrum of the narrative. In turn, this is conceived in a wholly original voice that’s deeply realistic. For instance – spoiler alert – in the chapter (“The Valley of the Shadow”) where Beth dies, Alcott draws, documentary-style, on her own journal of her sister Elizabeth’s premature death.

Finally, Alcott’s use of Bunyan’s “quest”, together with the romantic elements she weaves into her tale of “little women” (whom we might call “young adults”), ensured that her all-American girls became an immediate hit with the public. Little Women was published in October 1868. By 1 November, in the same year, Alcott was already at work on the sequel. Since then, neither book has ever been out of print.

A note on the text

The Roberts Brothers edition of Little Women appeared on 1 October 1868 in a print run of some 2,000 copies. This success continued the following year with the publication of Little Women, Part Two, sometimes called Good Wives. Now the reprints of both titles were averaging about 1,000 copies a month. In 1881, both texts were revised, reillustrated and republished in a single volume.

Meanwhile, in England, although Sampson Low was the “official” publisher, he did not have a free market. In the absence of copyright agreements between the US and Britain, there were several competing editions from rival publishing houses (notably Routledge, Warne, Blackie etc). Among UK readers, Little Women has never held quite the same iconic place it occupies in the United States.

Some other Louisa May Alcott titles

Little Men (1871); Jo’s Boys (1886)

The 100 best novels: #19 – The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)


The Moonstone is often said to be the godfather of the classic English detective story, its founding text. TS Eliot, claiming that the genre was “invented by Collins and not by Poe”, declared it to be “the first, the longest and the best of modern English detective novels”. Dorothy L Sayers, a queen of crime in the 1930s and 40s, echoing Eliot, pronounced it “probably the finest detective story ever written”. Its influence continues to animate the work of crime writers such as PD James.

Certainly, Collins adheres faithfully to the rules of detective fiction: a mysterious and compelling crime takes place in an English country house; a large cast of potential suspects is assembled, each with plenty of motive, means and opportunity; an incompetent constabulary is replaced by a celebrated sleuth/ investigator who, after a “reconstruction” of key elements in the crime, comes up with a satisfying explanation of the puzzle, based on a brilliant analysis of the clues. Finally, there’s a denouement replete with surprise, excitement and a plausible solution. The Moonstone has this, and more, all of it brilliantly executed.

The original crime in The Moonstone, the theft of the Tippoo diamond after the fall of Seringapatam, is Collins’s masterstroke. It connects every detail of the plot to the great imperial drama of India, the society over which Queen Victoria would eventually declare herself “Empress”. The Indian factor imbues the tale with the sinister mystery of the east. Mid-century, this “moonstone” is given to a young Englishwoman, Rachel Verinder, on her 18th birthday and then mysteriously disappears. A quest ensues in which, after murder and marriage, the Moonstone is restored to its Indian source.

However, although this is classic detective fiction, its greatness really lies in its qualities as a novel. Collins signalled his ambitions for the book in the preface to the first edition, in which he wrote: “In some of my former novels, the object proposed has been to trace the influence of circumstances upon character. In the present story I have reversed the process.” So it’s the enthralling interplay of character (Rachel Verinder, the hunchbacked servant girl Rosanna Spearman, Sergeant Cuff, the great detective, and compelling Franklin Blake, Rachel Verinder’s cousin) that will hook the interest of most readers. Rosanna’s tragic obsession with the adventurer Franklin Blake is among the most poignant renderings of thwarted love in Victorian literature. The fascinating and eccentric figure of Cuff (based on Scotland Yard’s real life Inspector Whicher) introduces a figure central to the unravelling of the mystery on whom most readers come to dote.

A second, crucial element to the success and longevity of The Moonstone is less about detection than storytelling. This is Collins’s virtuoso exploitation of the narrative viewpoint. In this series, we have already seen the power of epistolary fiction (Clarissa, No 4; andFrankenstein, No 8). Collins first uses garrulous Gabriel Betteredge, then meddlesome Miss Clack, then the solicitor Matthew Bruff, and then the opium addict Ezra Jennings (drawing on his own opium habit). The narrative dividend for Collins is that he can use these different voices to vary the tone and tempo of a complicated (but not impossibly so) plot.

The upshot is his masterpiece, a brilliant marriage of the sensational and the realistic. In short, a classic.

A note on the text

The Moonstone was originally serialised by Charles Dickens, a close friend of Wilkie Collins, in his magazine All the Year Round between 4 January and 8 August 1868. It was published in three hardback volumes on 16 July 1868 by Tinsley Brothers of Catherine Street, in Covent Garden. A second, revised edition was issued in 1871. In 1877, Collins adapted the novel for the stage, a production that ran for about two months.

Subsequently, there have been many film, radio and television adaptations. In 1934, The Moonstone was made into a critically acclaimed American film. In 1959, the BBC made the novel into a TV serial; in 1972, it was remade for Britain and the United States. In 1996, it was remade again, also in the United Kingdom, for television by the BBC, starring Greg Wise as Franklin Blake and Keeley Hawes as Rachel Verinder. It continues to earn its reputation as the founding text of the classic English detective story.

Other essential Wilkie Collins titles

The Woman in White (1860); No Name (1862)

The 100 best novels: #18 – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865)

On 4 July 1862, a shy young Oxford mathematics don with a taste for puzzles and whimsy named Charles Dodgson rowed the three daughters of Henry Liddell, dean of Christ Church, five miles up the Thames to Godstow. On the way, to entertain his passengers, who included a 10-year-old named Alice, with whom he was strangely infatuated, Dodgson began to improvise the “Adventures Under Ground” of a bored young girl, also named Alice. Wordplay, logical conundrums, parody and riddles: Dodgson surpassed himself, and the girls were enchanted by the nonsense dreamworld he conjured up. The weather for this trip was reportedly “overcast”, but those on board would remember it as “a golden afternoon”.

This well-known story marks the beginning of perhaps the greatest, possibly most influential, and certainly the most world-famous Victorian English fiction, a book that hovers between a nonsense tale and an elaborate in-joke. Just three years later, extended, revised, and retitledAlice’s Adventures in Wonderland, now credited to a pseudonymous Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland (its popular title) was about to become the publishing sensation of Christmas 1865. It is said that among the first avid readers of Alice were Queen Victoria and the young Oscar Wilde. A second volume about Alice (Through the Looking-Glass) followed in 1871. Together these two short books (Wonderland is barely 28,000 words long) became two of the most quoted and best-loved volumes in the English canon.

What is the secret of Carroll’s spell? Everyone will have their own answer, but I want to identify three crucial elements to the magic of Alice. First, and most emphatically, this is a story about a quite bad-tempered child that is not really for children, while at the same time addressing childish preoccupations. (Who am I? is a question Alice repeatedly vexes herself with.) Next, it has a dreamlike unreality peopled with some of the most entertaining characters in English literature. The White Rabbit, the Mad Hatter, the Mock Turtle, the Cheshire Cat and the King and Queen of Hearts are simply the most memorable of a cast from which every reader will find his or her favourite. Third, Carroll possessed an unforced genius for the most brilliant nonsense and deliciously mad dialogue. With his best lines (“What is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?”) he is never less than intensely quotable.

As well as the enchantment of Carroll’s prose, both volumes of Alice contain numerous songs and poems, many of them parodies of popular Victorian originals, which have passed into folklore, like Alice herself: You Are Old, Father William; The Lobster Quadrille; Beautiful Soup; and (from Through the Looking-Glass) Jabberwocky; The Walrus and the Carpenter; and The White Knight’s Song.

Finally, for 21st-century readers, it is now almost obligatory to point out that these books are pre-Freudian, with a strange, bruised innocence whose self-interrogations also evoke the tormented banality of psychoanalysis.

A note on the text

On 26 November 1865, the Reverend Charles Dodgson’s tale was published by the house of Macmillan as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandby Lewis Carroll, illustrated by John Tenniel, with whom Dodgson had a most uneasy relationship. Indeed, the first printing, some 2,000 copies, was withdrawn after Tenniel objected to the print quality of his drawings. A new edition, released in December of the same year, but carrying a new date, 1866, was rushed out for the Christmas market.

Later, the discarded first edition was sold with Dodgson’s approval to the New York publisher, Appleton. The title page of the American Alicebecame an insert cancelling the original Macmillan title page of 1865, and bearing the New York publisher’s imprint with the date 1866. Here, too, the first print run sold quickly. First editions are now rare and highly prized. Both Alice books have never been out of print. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been translated into about 100 languages, including classical Latin.

Other essential Carroll Titles

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871); The Hunting of the Snark, An Agony in Eight Fits (1876).

The 100 best novels: #17 – Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851)

On 5 August 1850 a party of writers and publishers climbed Monument Mountain in Massachusetts, during the American equivalent of a hike in the Lakes. Among the literati on this excursion were Nathaniel Hawthorne, 46, author of The Scarlet Letter (No 16 in this series), a recently published bestseller (although a term not yet in use), and the young novelist Herman Melville, who, after a very successful debut (Typee), was struggling to complete an unwieldy coming-of-age tale about a South Seas whaler.

Melville, who was just 31, had never met Hawthorne. But after a day in the open air, a quantity of champagne, and a sudden downpour, the younger man was enraptured with his new friend, who had “dropped germinous seeds into my soul”. Rarely in Anglo-American literature has there been such a momentous meeting.

It was the attraction of opposites. Hawthorne, from an old New England family, was careful, cultivated and inward, a “dark angel”, according to one. Melville was a ragged, voluble, romantic New Yorker from mercantile stock. Both writers had hovered on the edge of insolvency and each was a kind of outsider.

A fervent correspondence ensued. Melville, indeed, became so infatuated that he moved with his wife and family to become Hawthorne’s neighbour. Thus liberated, fulfilled, and inspired to say “NO! in thunder, to Christianity”, he completed Moby-Dick; or, The Whale, in the spring of 1851. After an early reading of the manuscript, Hawthorne acclaimed it in a letter that remains, tantalisingly, lost. All we have is Melville’s ecstatic response (“Your heart beat in my ribs and mine in yours, and both in God’s…”), and, subsequently, a dedicatory declaration of Melville’s admiration for Hawthorne’s “genius” at the front of Moby-Dick (the first edition hyphenated the whale’s name).

So how homoerotic was this friendship? No one will ever know; it remains one of the mysteries of American letters. All we can say for certain is that, after climbing Monument Mountain, Melville adopted Hawthorne’s idea of the “romance” as a mixed-genre, symbolic kind of fiction, and found his creative genius somehow released in the making of his new book.

And that is everything, because Moby-Dick is, for me, the supreme American novel, the source and the inspiration of everything that follows in the American literary canon. I first read it, inspired by my sixth-form English teacher, Lionel Bruce, aged about 15, and it’s stayed with me ever since. Moby-Dick is a book you come back to, again and again, to find new treasures and delights, a storehouse of language, incident and strange wisdom.

Moby-Dick is – among some fierce contenders which will appear later in this series – the great American novel whose genius was only recognised long after its author was dead. From its celebrated opening line (“Call me Ishmael”) it plunges the reader into the narrator’s quest for meaning “in the damp, drizzly November of my soul”.

Ishmael is an existential outsider. What follows is profoundly modern yet essentially Victorian, spanning 135 chapters. It is a literary performance that is exhilarating, extraordinary, sometimes exasperating and, towards its apocalyptic climax, unputdownable.

When Ishmael ships aboard the Pequod, his own quotidian search becomes inexorably joined to the darker quest, in which the captain of the doomed whaler, “monomaniacal Ahab”, sets out to revenge himself on the great white whale that has bitten off his leg. This “grand, ungodly, godlike man”, one of fiction’s greatest characters – “crazy Ahab, the scheming, unappeasedly steadfast hunter of the white whale” – is not only pursuing his nemesis, a “hooded phantom”, across the ocean’s wastes, he is also fighting the God that lurks behind the “unreasoning mask” of the symbolic whale.

Eventually, a whaling expedition from Nantucket – something experienced by the young Melville himself – becomes the story of an obsession, an investigation into the meaning of life.

Next to Ahab and Ishmael, this massive novel is also rich in minor characters, from the tattooed harpooner Queequeg, the ship’s mate Starbuck, Daggoo and Fedallah the Parsee – all told, a typically American crew. And so a “romance” (Hawthorne’s term) inspired by the true story of the Essex, a whaler that sank when it was attacked by a sperm whale in the Pacific in November 1820, becomes like a terrifying (at times, intolerable) sea voyage, culminating in a thrilling three-day chase in which Moby-Dick destroys the Pequod. Ishmael survives to tell his tale by clinging to Queequeg’s carved coffin.

Moby-Dick is usually described, as I’ve just done, as an elemental novel in which the outsider Ishmael is pitted against the fathomless infinity of the sea, grappling with the big questions of existence. That’s not inaccurate, but there’s also another Moby-Dick, full of rough humour, sharp comic moments, and witty asides. “Better sleep with a sober cannibal”, says Ishmael, when forced to share a bed with the tattooed harpooner Queequeg, “than a drunken Christian.” For those readers intimidated by the novel’s bleak majesty, I think the humour offers a good way in.

A note on the text

The pre-publication history of Moby-Dick has been the subject of endless scholarship, and provides a case study in Anglo-American co-publishing in the mid-19th century.

Melville, who was short of money, actually made his first contract for a new novel, then known as The Whale, with the British publisher Richard Bentley. But he kept the printing in New York so he could oversee the proofs, and wrote to Hawthorne, from New York, that he must “work and slave on my ‘Whale’ while it is driving through the press”. In fact, he was simultaneously working on revisions to his manuscript and proofreading what had been set.

Meanwhile, Melville had still not yet settled a contract with an American publisher. As a result, the British edition would differ from the American in hundreds of small ways. The most important was the change of title. Rather late in the day, he wrote to Bentley: “Moby-Dick is a legitimate title for the book, being the name given to a particular whale who, if I may so express myself, is the hero of the volume.”

Bentley seems to have been slow to respond. On 18 October, the English edition, The Whale, was published, in an edition of only 500 copies. Then, on 14 November, the American edition, Moby-Dick, (with its hyphenated title), finally appeared from Harpers. Almost as significantly, the US edition contained an “Epilogue”, which explains Ishmael’s miraculous survival and, thus, how the story of the great white whale came to be told.

For some unknown reason, the epilogue is absent from the British edition. British reviewers were puzzled to read a book with a first-person narrator who apparently did not survive to tell the tale. Accordingly, the Spectatorobjected that “nothing should be introduced into a novel which it is physically impossible for the writer to have known: thus, he must not describe the conversation of miners in a pit if they all perish.” Two other papers asked “How does it happen that the author is alive to tell the story?” The upshot was confusion, and poor English reviews. These, in turn, cast a shadow over the American reception of the novel. Melville’s career never really recovered. He told Hawthorne in 1856, “I have pretty much made up my mind to be annihilated.”

When he died, in 1891, Melville was virtually forgotten, with Billy Budd still in manuscript, unpublished. Today, Moby-Dick is, in the words of theOxford Companion to English Literature, “the closest approach the United States has had to a national prose epic”.

Other essential Melville titles

Typee (1846), Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853), Billy Budd (published posthumously, in 1924).

The 100 best novels: #16 – The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

Nathaniel Hawthorne, describing “a tale of human frailty and sorrow”, insisted that The Scarlet Letter was “a Romance”, not a novel. This distinction, in his mind, was important. Where a novel, as he put it, “aims at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience”, a romance expressed “the truth of the human heart”. Here, in short, is the prototype of the psychological novel, a brilliant and groundbreaking example of a new genre within 19th-century fiction.

Hawthorne’s tale has a stark simplicity. In the 17th-century town of Boston, a young woman, Hester Prynne, is publicly disgraced for committing adultery and giving birth to an illegitimate child, a girl named Pearl. Forced to wear a scarlet “A”, Hester slowly redeems herself in the eyes of Puritan society. Over many years, she challenges the two men in her life – her husband and her lover – with the dark truth of their emotional responsibilities and failures, while at the same time wrestling with her own sinful nature. After seven long years of painful rehabilitation, she emerges as a strong, inspiring woman, while the pastor, Arthur Dimmesdale, who seduced her dies of shame. Hester, too, eventually dies and is buried near Dimmesdale under a tombstone marked with a simple “A”.

Such a bare summary does few favours to an extraordinary work of the imagination that burns from page to page with the fierce simplicity of scripture and an almost cinematic clarity of vision. The Scarlet Letter is an astounding book full of intense symbolism, as strange and haunting as anything by Edgar Allan Poe (No 10 in this series), a writer whom we know Hawthorne much admired.

The process of Hester Prynne’s acquisition of self-knowledge, the recognition of her sin and her ultimate restoration in a sequence of enthralling scenes, punctuated by moments of confrontation with Dimmesdale, is utterly compelling and, at times, deeply moving. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s understanding of the emotional transactions of the sexes is profound and modern, too. And very interesting about the price paid for the loss of love. Hester’s reflections on her relationship with Dimmesdale (“How deeply had they known each other then! And was this the man? She hardly knew him now”) could be found in many modern novels.

The most memorable and original aspect of The Scarlet Letter lies in Hawthorne’s portrait of Hester Prynne, who has been described as “the first true heroine of American fiction”, a woman whose experience evokes the biblical fate of Eve. Hawthorne’s achievement is to make her passion noble, her defiance heartbreaking and her frailty inspiring. She becomes the archetype of the free-thinking American woman grappling with herself and her sexuality in a cold, patriarchal society.

There is also something emblematic of the newly settled American society about The Scarlet Letter, the belief that the public individual, subjected to a merciless democratic scrutiny, is owed the human right of ultimate restoration, if he or she deserves it. Hester Prynne is more than just a mother with a baby, she is an outcast woman who will ultimately be welcomed back into American life, purged and cleansed of her sin. Readers of The Scarlet Letter during, for instance, the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the 1990s, could not fail to miss the resonance of Hawthorne’s “romance” with that bizarre political drama.

By chance, in his own time, Hawthorne was not alone in wanting to explore the mysteries of the American psyche through fiction. In summer 1850, after the successful publication of The Scarlet Letter, he met the young Herman Melville who had just begun, and was grappling with, his own dark meditation on America, the next volume (No 17) in this series,Moby-Dick.

A note on the text

The Scarlet Letter was published in Boston in the spring of 1850 by Ticknor, Reed and Fields. When he delivered the manuscript in February 1850, Hawthorne said “some portions of the book are powerfully written”, but cautiously added that it would probably not prove popular. Secretly, he hoped for much more. After the night of 3 February 1850, when he read the final part of the novel to his wife, he told a friend that “it broke her heart … which I look upon as a triumphant success. Judging from its effect,” he went on, “I may calculate on what bowlers call a 10-strike!” Hawthorne had struggled, with almost no recognition, for some 25 years. It’s clear that he anticipated some success.

In fact, the book was an instant bestseller, a term not yet in use. The Scarlet Letter was one of the first mass-produced books in America and the mechanised first printing of 2,500 copies sold out in 10 days. However, after a promising start, it brought the author only $1,500 and, in the end, sold barely 7,800 copies in Hawthorne’s lifetime. Thereafter, it continued to attract praise from perceptive writers. Henry James once wrote: “It is beautiful, admirable, extraordinary; it has in the highest degree that merit which I have spoken of as the mark of Hawthorne’s best things – an indefinable purity and lightness of conception… it has the inexhaustible charm and mystery of great works of art.”

Other Nathaniel Hawthorne titles

Fanshawe (published anonymously, 1828); The House of Seven Gables(1851)

The 100 best novels: #15 – David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1850)


David Copperfield was the first book Sigmund Freud gave his fiancee, Martha Bernays, on their engagement in 1882. It was the gift of a lifelong Anglophile to his beloved, a book encrypted with peculiar meaning to a man with a special fascination for the complicated relation of autobiography to storytelling.

Freud’s choice – and Dickens’s own opinion that David Copperfield was “of all my books” the one he liked “the best” – helps clarify an impossible selection midway through the 19th century. At the outset, I’m going to anticipate your howls of rage. Some Dickens aficionados will be dismayed. Why not Pickwick Papers? Or, better still, Great Expectations? Or Bleak House? Or Little Dorrit? And why not, here in the holiday season, that festive evergreen A Christmas Carol? Or the granite brilliance of Hard Times? Yes, in different ways, all masterpieces. Everyone has their favourite. This is mine.

I love David Copperfield because it is, in some ways, so un-Dickensian. The story – so appealing to Freud – is of a boy making his way in the world, and finding himself as a man and as a writer. In the first half, before Dickens’s irrepressible storytelling kicks in and the motor of the novel starts to hum with incident, we find him almost meditating on his literary beginnings. Dickens is one of the first to acknowledge the inspiration of the emerging English canon: Robinson Crusoe, The Adventures of Roderick Random and Tom Jones, the books he finds in his father’s library. His own early novels (Oliver Twist, Nicholas Nickleby and so on) are largely comic picaresques. But here, he focuses on the interior life of his hero, as if saving the plot for later.

 The second half of David Copperfield displays Dickens at his magnificent, and often uneven, best. There are the characteristic prose arpeggios, the virtuoso similes and metaphors, and the parade of timeless characters: Mr Micawber, Mrs Gummidge, Betsey Trotwood, Barkis, Uriah Heep, Steerforth, Mr Spenlow (of Spenlow and Jorkins) and Miss Mowcher.

At the same time, Copperfield and Dickens, autobiographer and novelist, become so indistinguishable, the one from the other, that the novelist no longer has the necessary detachment from his material. When the lovely, tranquil reflections on boyhood of the opening pages become replaced by the urgent demands of plot-making, protagonist and author morph together in ways that are not completely successful, though always revealing. As the novel builds to a climax, in which Heep is imprisoned and Mr Micawber, free of his debts, finds redemption as a colonial magistrate in Australia, Dickens succumbs to the pressure to please a hungry public with a satisfying fictional feast. Henceforth in his work, Dickens will become the supreme Victorian entertainer and moralist, the author of those mature, and darker, masterpieces, Bleak House, Hard Times and Great Expectations.

And so, as a key transitional text, David Copperfield becomes the antechamber to his subsequent mastery. But the door into the past is shut for ever; he can never go back. The young man daydreaming about literature among his father’s old books has been replaced by the bestselling writer, “the Inimitable”. Perhaps this was the poignant truth about creativity that so moved Freud.

Note on the text

The novel that Dickens described as his “favourite child” went through many titles, from Only Once A Year and Mag’s Diversions to The Copperfield Survey, The Copperfield Confessions and The Last Will and Testament of David Copperfield. Eventually, with serial publication looming, he settled on The Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of David Copperfield the Younger of Blunderstone Rookery (Which He Never Meant to be Published On Any Account).

It is hard definitively to identify the true first edition. Following serial publication from May 1849 to November 1850 – in 19 monthly one-shilling instalments, each containing 32 pages of text and two illustrations by Hablot Knight Browne (“Phiz”) – the novel, now simply inscribed David Copperfield on the title page, was published in a single volume of 624 pages on 14 November 1850 by Bradbury & Evans of Bouverie Street.

In any event, Dickens’s MS, which is now in the V&A, had already undergone significant revision in the transition from magazine to book form. Three further editions (1858, 1859 and 1867) saw additional changes. The most scholarly edition to date is probably the text edited by Nina Burgis (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981).

Other essential Dickens titles

Pickwick Papers (1837); A Christmas Carol (1843); Bleak House (1853);Hard Times (1854); A Tale of Two Cities (1859); Great Expectations(1861); Our Mutual Friend (1865)

The 100 best novels: #14 – Vanity Fair by William Thackeray (1848)


Vanity Fair jumps out of this list as a great Victorian novel, written and published deep in the middle of a great age of English fiction. Indeed, so commanding was Thackeray at the height of his powers (some say he never wrote as well, or as sharply, again) that Charlotte Brontë even dedicated Jane Eyre (no 12 in this list) to the author of Vanity Fair.

One hundred years after the publication ofClarissa (no 4 in this series), Thackeray not only revels in the possibilities of the genre, he even illustrated his own work with some decidedly inferior woodcuts. Vanity Fair was published in serial form (including some memorable cliff-hangers, for instance Becky Sharp’s revelation of her marriage to Rawdon Crawley) from January 1847 to June 1848. Thackeray, on top form, cheerfully exploited an ebullient tradition, transcending all his previous efforts as a writer, novels such as The Luck of Barry Lyndon(1844).

Early drafts of the book, which had the working title “a novel without a hero” lacked the all-important figure of William Dobbin, a thoroughly good and likable character who owes much to Thackeray himself. “Vanity Fair”, a title that came in a eureka moment to the author in bed one night, actually derives from Pilgrim’s Progress (no 1 in this series) and refers to the fair set up by the devils Beelzebub and Apollyon in the town of Vanity. Unlike Bunyan, Thackeray was hardly a die-hard Christian, but rather a man who relished a life of pleasure and luxury, and who, on the evidence of his letters, found much of the Bible either ludicrous or distasteful. As a title, however, “Vanity Fair” set the tone of the novel in its depiction of a society, rather as “The Bonfire of the Vanities” did for Tom Wolfe (who also illustrated his own work) in 1987.

Thackeray’s intention was satirical and realistic. Writing mid-century, he set his masterpiece in Regency England during the Napoleonic wars, intending the lessons of his tale to be applied equally to his own times. In contemporary terms that would be like a modern literary novelist setting their scene during the second world war, or the blitz.

The climax of the novel comes with the battle of Waterloo. Unlike Tolstoy, whose War and Peace was influenced by Vanity Fair, Thackeray was squeamish about military matters, and chose to leave most of the fighting off-stage. This makes the irruptions of violence all the more shocking, as in the death of George Osborne, “lying on his face, dead, with a bullet through his heart” on the field of Waterloo, which occurs almost exactly halfway through the narrative.

Thackeray was highly conscious of his audience and repeatedly breaks off from his story to buttonhole and tease his readers (“the present chapter (8), is very mild. Others – but we will not anticipate those”). The tale, however, will not be denied for long. Upwardly mobile Becky Sharp, and her sweet, devoted friend, Amelia Sedley, are perfectly matched by the caddish rake, George Osborne, and clumsy, decent William Dobbin. The social trajectory of each pair gives the narrative an almost perfect symmetry.

The key to the novel’s magic, in addition to the delight it takes in the Regency pageant, probably lies in the contrast between scheming Becky, one of fiction’s great female protagonists and awkward, dutiful William whose unwavering love for Amelia mirrors Thackeray’s own passion for another man’s wife.

Finally, however, for all its realism, Vanity Fair is a bravura performance by a writer who has found his theme. As the serialisation of the novel that would transform its author’s reputation draws to a close, Thackeray himself concluded his tale with a nod to the gaudy theatricality of the whole business: “Come children, let us shut up the box and the puppets, for our play is played out.”

A note on the text

Vanity Fair, subtitled “A Novel without a Hero”, was first serialised inPunch, then published (from the same typesetting) by Bradbury & Evans of Bouverie Street in July 1848. A revised and more definitive text appeared in 1853, without illustrations. Vanity Fair was the first of Thackeray’s books to appear under his own name. As a further sign of his self-confidence, in the introduction to the 1848 edition, dated 28 June, the author acknowledges “the kindness with which it has been received in all the principal towns of England… where it has been most favourably noticed by the respected conductors of the public Press, and by the Nobility and Gentry. He is proud to think that his Puppets have given satisfaction to the very best company in this empire.”

Some other Thackeray titles:

The Yellowplush Papers; The Luck of Barry Lyndon; Pendennis; The History of Henry Esmond; The Newcomes.

The 100 best novels: #13 – Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847)

Emily Bronte

The above image of Emily Brontë – endlessly reproduced – is less a portrait, more an icon. Intense, fierce, inward, solitary, elusive and unknowable: the young author of Wuthering Heights in profile is of a piece with her first, and only, novel.



Her elder sister’s work – Jane Eyre (no 12 in this series) – hypnotises the reader through the calculated force of its tone, its “suspended revelations”, and its hints of suppressed eroticism. It builds, slowly, to a poignant climax in which, finally, its protagonists are redeemed, though not in a way that’s conventional.Wuthering Heights, by contrast, plunges impetuously into a wild and passionate exploration of love in all its destructive manifestations.

Brontë’s narrative – fragmented, discordant and tortuous – revolves obsessively around a single, explosive transgression, and the theme of jealousy in the lives of Heathcliff and Catherine, before making a calmer return to the theme in the often neglected second half.

Where Charlotte comes from the puritan tradition of John Bunyan (no 1 in this series), Emily is the child of the Romantic movement, and both sisters are steeped in the gothic. However, it is Emily who takes the bigger creative risks. The first reviews of Wuthering Heights were mixed. Critics who had been swept away by Jane Eyre did not know what to make of it. For a long time it was judged to be inferior. Readers who love Jane Eyre are sometimes less enthusiastic about Wuthering Heights. And vice versa. I’ve included both in my list because their influence on the English imagination, and on subsequent English-language fiction, has been incalculable.

Looking back, it’s clear that where Jane Eyre comes out of a recognisable tradition, and is conscious of that affiliation, Wuthering Heights releases extraordinary new energies in the novel, renews its potential, and almost reinvents the genre. The scope and drift of its imagination, its passionate exploration of a fatal yet regenerative love affair, and its brilliant manipulation of time and space put it in a league of its own. This is great English literature, the fruit of a quite extraordinary childhood.

To look forward, I think we can say that the work as we know it of Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, and even Rosamond Lehmann would have been impossible without it. As a portrait of “star-cross’d lovers” it rivals Romeo and Juliet. There is also something operatic about its audacity and ambition. No wonder film-makers, song writers, actors and literary critics have been drawn to reinterpret its story.

And then there are its quieter pleasures. Like Hardy and Lawrence, Emily Brontë has an uncanny eye and ear for the natural world. When Lockwood visits Heathcliff’s and Cathy’s graves at the end of the novel, the poetry in the voice is Brontë’s:

“I lingered round them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and hare-bells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how any one could ever imagine unquiet slumbers, for the sleepers in that quiet earth.”


Wuthering Heights was published three months after Jane Eyre in December 1847. A year later, Emily was dead, from consumption, aged just 30. Charlotte wrote later: “Stronger than a man, simpler than a child, her nature stood alone.”

A note on the text

Wuthering Heights, A Novel by Ellis Bell, was published by Thomas Newby in December 1847, three months after Jane Eyre. Several reviewers, impressed by the force of the book, believed it had been written by a man. After her sister’s death, Charlotte Brontë edited a revised second edition, the text that is generally followed today.

A letter from Newby does survive which seems to suggest that Emily Brontë had begun to write a second novel, though the manuscript has never been found. If she had started a second novel, she was prevented by consumption from completing it. She died the same year in which Wuthering Heights was published, aged 30.

Other Emily Brontë titles:

Poems (1846)