Jumping into Victorian literature can seem daunting. So many of them are huge and feature complicated plots with dozens of characters. It’s overwhelming, a little scary, and seems almost impossible to start. I’m here to make it feel a little more doable. These are some great books to start with if you are just getting into Victorian literature.
Since Dickens was one of the most popular authors in his time and is still considered one of the best Victorian novelists, it makes sense to start with him. Though he did write many long novels, plenty of his are also quite accessible. A Christmas Carol is a novella that’s far shorter than your average Dickens novel with a much simpler plot. The fact that the story has become so ingrained in our Christmas culture also helps. There is a 99% chance you’ve encountered this story of miserly Scrooge being visited by spirits on Christmas in some shape or form.
Oliver Twist is another Dickens story that may be familiar to you. It’s been adapted so many times and into so many mediums that most people will at least recognize the famous “Please, sir, I want some more” scene. Though longer than A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist is one of Dickens’ earliest works and is, as such, a bit less complicated than some of the later ones. It’s a fairly straight forward tale of Oliver’s journey from a workhouse to a gang of thieves in London to, finally, a loving family.
Fin de Siècle Gothic
The Gothic genre started a century before the Victorian era but continued well into it. The nice thing about later Gothic novels is that they tend to be shorter than their predecessors (I’m looking at you, Mysteries of Udolpho! Jeez that book is long). Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a short novel–my edition is only about 76 pages–that really packs a punch. The London he creates is claustrophobic, creepy, and easy to jump into.
What’s a Victorian literature post without some Sherlock Holmes? The Hound of the Baskervilles is inarguably the best of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories about the beloved detective. Holmes and Watson set out for Dartmoor to investigate a mysterious, ghostly hound that has been haunting the Baskerville family for generations. It’s a fast paced and fun, which makes it a good book to start with for Victorian literature. And it’s perfect for October since it’s full of mystery and spookiness!
Some of the greatest novelists of the Victorian era were women. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre is often recommended as a place to start with literature for the period, and with good reason. Her writing is accessible and Jane is a delightful narrator who pulls you right into the story. Jane’s desire for liberty and her attempts to break out of the role society has cast her in make her an easy heroine to root for as we follow her from a miserable childhood at Lowood School to her Gothic romance at Thornfield Hall.
Much less well known is Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop, which also deals with women breaking out of traditional roles. When the Lorimer sisters lose their father, they decide to carry on his legacy by opening a photography shop. As they face the many trials of being female business owners in the Victorian era, they must also deal the troubles that come from falling in love. This is a short, easy to read book with enjoyable characters that’s great for anyone interested in female-focused stories.
If you’re looking for an unintimidating read, it’s always great to turn to children’s literature. And the Victorian period has plenty of it! George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin may be familiar to some of you from the 1991 animated film (or maybe I’m the only one who saw that strange little movie). It’s a fairy tale-like story about Princess Irene and Curdie the miner boy who are trying to stop the evil goblins from attacking. MacDonald is considered one of the major figures in modern fantasy and this book inspired many later writers, including J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.
Now you may be thinking, “Wait Elizabeth, get your eyes checked. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess isn’t Victorian. It was published in 1905.” If you are thinking that, you are partly correct. The full novel was published after the end of the Victorian period, but Burnett originally published it as a serialized short story in 1887. The story is about Sara Crewe, a young heiress who is forced into servitude at her boarding when her father dies and her fortune seems lost. But through it all, Sara remains kind and selfless. The values displayed in the book make it a Victorian novel through and through even with the 1905 publication date.