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Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Ulysses" (1833)
It's Tennyson's take on the end of Ulysses's journey. And that Victorian work ethic just won't let the adventurer settle down to island retirement.
Charles Dickens, The Pickwick Papers (1836-7)
A naively good-natured, bumbling gentleman goes in search of adventures—and meets a whole cast of Dickensian characters.
Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist (1836-7)
Orphans, pickpockets, and last-minute escapes? No wonder Victorians were hooked on Dickens's Newgate novel.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, The Lady of Shalott (1842)
A lady sits weaving and singing—but what's it really about? The nature of art? Isolation? The Victorian preoccupation with all things vaguely Arthurian?
Robert Browning, "My Last Duchess" (1842)
Browning developed the "dramatic monologue," a poetic form that stole some drama from the stage. "My Last Duchess" is a famous example. Take a listen and try to figure out what really happened to the last Duchess.
Benjamin Disraeli, Sybil (1845)
It's Disraeli's take on politics and the Condition of England novel—the divisions between the rich and the poor, and the past and the present. Disraeli knew what he was talking about. He served in Parliament and was even Prime Minister.
Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre (1847)
It's tough out there for a Victorian governess.
William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1847-1848)
Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley are about as different as two girls can be. Becky is sly and manipulative; Amelia is naïve and self-sacrificing. Although Thackeray was criticized for his heavy-handed satire, the novel remained popular.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam (1849)
Victorians were uncomfortably comfortable with death. Novels are full of characters dropping like flies (especially novels that look at the bleaker side of industrial life). So Tennyson's poem, a memorial for his friend Hallam, seemed to speak to the whole age, and especially to Queen Victoria, who had disappeared into mourning when she lost her husband.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1849-1850)
It's the novel closest to Dickens's own life, and David Copperfield might just be the go-to book for understanding the Victorians. Boy makes good and rises in the world? Check. Boy has to resist some charmingly bad (and some just downright bad) guys? Check. Oh, and there's a little dog, too.
Charles Dickens, Bleak House (1852-1853)
London life is at its grittiest in this Dickens novel: slums, disease, and even spontaneous human combustion. This one's full of gripping mysteries, especially about how exactly the totally impoverished and the crazily wealthy are somehow connected behind the scenes.
Charles Dickens, Hard Times (1854)
What would it be like to be raised entirely on the basis of a logical system? Dickens tests out Victorian ideals of rationality—and finds them wanting.
Elizabeth Gaskell, North and South (1854-1855)
It's got the extremes of Victorian England—from the southern countryside to the northern industrial cities; from the old slow traditions to the new bustling future. And did we mention the strike?
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (1856)
Okay, so it's a long poem about a poet. But Aurora Leigh—about how a Victorian girl becomes a poet—is still a good story.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Idylls of the King (1856-1885)
Arthur, the once and future king, seems to be the Victorian ideal of everything good—he's into progress, unity, and harmony. Even though he can be annoyingly perfect, we still think the Queen makes a huge mistake…
Anthony Trollope, Barchester Towers (1857)
Trollope published all over the place, all the time—and this is just one novel in a six-novel series called The Chronicles of Barsetshire. He seemed to present Victorian life as it was, even down to the latest fashions.
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities (1859)
Victorians continued to be fascinated by the French Revolution, even 70 years later. In Dickens's version, the Revolution gets a human face—and the guillotine is suddenly way scarier with Madame Defarge knitting away in the audience.
George Eliot, Adam Bede (1859)
George Eliot's first novel had the elements Victorian readers loved—like a marriage plot and some surprise melodrama—as well as some curveballs, like Dinah, a young woman who decides her calling is to be a preacher.
George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss (1860)
This novel has enough family drama to sustain whole seasons of soap operas. Maggie's family is kind of a mess: a lawsuit goes downhill, they lose their house, her brother is obsessive and judgmental—oh, and there's a flood.
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations (1860-1861)
So you want to be a gentleman? Dickens takes the Victorian rags-to-riches story and makes a dark fairytale of it. Moral: never trust someone whose name is a homonym for have-a-sham.
Christina Rossetti, "Goblin Market" (1862)
This one's got a lot going on: goblins, some seriously tempting fruit, and a mysterious wasting disease.
Matthew Arnold, "Dover Beach" (1867)
Sometimes a trip to the beach is just an excuse for brooding over how the age has lost faith.
Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone (1868)
A popular sensation novel, it's complete with stolen diamond, religious missions, and plenty of danger.
George Eliot, Middlemarch (1871-1872)
Eliot's novel is so totally Victorian. It's earnest, philosophical, and full of characters at cross-purposes.
George Eliot, Daniel Deronda (1876)
Eliot's characters face some big choices: whom to marry, and why? How to help others without losing yourself? And, is dedicating yourself to religious mysticism a good life choice?
Thomas Hardy, Return of the Native (1878)
Ever wondered how much sway your environment has on you? Hardy's novel is full of attempts to escape and to return. But it seems like nature keeps getting the upper hand (what is it with Victorian novels and floods?).
Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady (1880)
An American heiress travels to the old world. It's time to choose allegiances. Choices include the terribly endearing cousin, the English aristocrat, the old New England flame, and the intriguingly demanding Osmond.
Thomas Hardy, Jude the Obscure (1895)
A late Victorian novel, Jude is skeptical about lots of things that went unquestioned earlier in the century. Is the pursuit of knowledge really worth it? What if the institution of marriage is all wrong? And what if we've been following the letter instead of the spirit of the law?
H.G. Wells, The Time Machine (1895)
Wells takes Victorian technology to new (fictional) heights in The Time Machine. The future is not exactly reassuring.
Bram Stoker, Dracula (1897)
Victorians loved a good scare—from ghost stories at Christmas to one of the first vampire stories—and totally the most iconic—ever. Move over, True Blood.
Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest (1899)
Some of Wilde's best one-liners got their start here—it's a rollicking fun satire on the Victorian mindset. Pass the muffins.
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (1899)
A novel that took on the horror behind 19th-century imperialism—and made us all worry that we're one river cruise away from being as crazy as Kurtz.
George Eliot, "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists" (1856)
She hadn't yet published her first novel, but Eliot sure knew what she didn't want to write—none of your silly mind-and-millinery froth.
Henry James, "The Art of Fiction" (1884)
James gives advice on what it takes to make great art—and orders us to be people upon whom "nothing is lost!"