When discussing novels to read, there’s always a focus on the new and the upcoming. New is always exciting, the idea that you’re going to encounter something you’ve never seen before. But if you haven’t read older books, they’re new to you, which is more or less the same thing—and when it comes to novels, new is certainly not always better.
The fifty books on this list were all published more than a hundred years ago, and yet remain fresh and exhilarating reads. There’s a temptation, of course, to mutter the names Dickens, Tolstoy, and Twain and assume you’ve covered the 19th century—but a deeper dive proves the novel was alive and well in the 1800s.
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
You really can’t discuss 19th-century American literature without discussion of Twain and his two most enduring works. Still controversial more than a century after publication, both novels remain hilarious examples of Americana while carrying potent social commentary, especially concerning race in America—commentary that is still, sadly, applicable. Twain’s skill in couching serious criticisms of the world he lived in within an entertaining and engrossing adventure remains unparalleled in American literature.
The Last of the Mohicans, by James Fenimore Cooper
Considering how much Twain disliked Cooper’s writing (devoting an entire essay to the subject of Cooper’s “offenses”), it’s fitting to follow Twain on this list with The Last of the Mohicans, chronologically a sequel to Cooper’s The Deerslayer. Often cited as the first truly successful American novel, set during the French and Indian War, it continues the story of Natty Bumppo’s adventures and is often seen as an allegory for the rise of America itself, as both a country and a symbol.
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
It seems strange today, but the concept of “childhood” as a separate and distinct period of life is pretty recent. Of course, the odds of surviving childhood have greatly improved fairly recently, too, so it’s not entirely surprising. Alcott’s Little Women is one of the earliest books to have all the features of young adult fiction: a focus on youthful characters and their struggles, a story that presents an idyllic starting point that becomes complicated by adult concerns, and a realistic approach to the concerns of youth. It’s easy to see the seeds of the genre in this wonderful book.
McTeague, by Frank Norris
It’s usually Norris’s later novel The Octopus that people are familiar with, but his debut is the more satisfying read. It’s a grim story of a romance soured by financial pressures and dreams deferred, descending rather alarmingly into insanity and murder. It’s an evergreen story; anyone who has ever bickered over money with a loved one will see themselves in it.
The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne
One of the most complex novels ever written, dealing subtly with issues of sin, justice, shame, and religion, this is one of those novels that many people encounter first in school. The tragic and thoughtful story of a 17th-century New England woman named Hester Prynne who is sentenced to wear a red letter “A” after being convicted of adultery, it uses its seemingly obvious symbolism to incredible effect, exploring life in America in ways that applied to both the 19th century when it was published as well as today.
The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephen Crane
Many books have explored the true terror and dread of combat, but one of the first and most powerful to subvert the cliché of glorious warfare is Crane’s 1895 masterwork. What makes it so interesting is it explores the subject without succumbing to the temptation to become an anti-war screed, presenting the protagonist, Henry, as a young man who dreamed of glory but finds his first experience in combat to be terrifying. After fleeing the battlefield, he returns to his regiment seeking the “Red Badge of Courage”—that is, a wound—and behaves more bravely, only to discover his whole unit is considered expendable. Crane manages to make Henry’s inner struggle a noble one without undercutting the inhumanity of warfare.
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice remains so powerful a template for romance fiction that it’s still used as the inspiration for new novels, films, and more to this day. The tale of vivacious Elizabeth Bennet and her unwitting ensnaring of proud, rich Mr. Darcy has launched a million first-date conversations, and contains multiple speeches and lines of dialogue worth memorizing. You could (and people have) rewrite this book today with modern slang and language and sell millions of copies.
The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James
The essential irony of a young woman who revels in her independence losing that freedom because she inherits great wealth drives this classic novel. That Isabel Archer faces the consequences of her decisions even though they take her further and further away from her desires makes her one of the most interesting characters in American literature.
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville
Moby-Dick has the distinction of being perhaps the most well-known novel no one has read. Its reputation for 19th-century density and complex language makes it fearsome. The trick to Moby-Dick? It is hilarious. There are more dirty jokes in this book than you can shake your peg-leg at (see what we did there), and the whaling stuff? Absolutely thrilling, once you get used to the rhythm of the language.
The Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
More than a century after its initial publication, no one totally agrees on what actually happens in this brilliant short novel. A young governess is hired to care for two children on an isolated estate, ordered by their uncle not to bother him in any way. She comes to have great affection for the children, especially young Miles, who has been mysteriously expelled from his boarding school. She begins to see two mysterious figures, a man and a woman, and learns that her predecessor and another employee were lovers and are both now dead; she becomes disturbed because no one else seems to notice the pair. Here we are a hundred years later and no one is entirely certain whether this is a ghost story, the story of a woman going insane—or both.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll
Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical story of a young girl falling down a rabbit hole and entering the strange, perilous world of Wonderland is so influential, so commonly referenced, reimagined, and reinterpreted, it transcends time. It might have been written yesterday as easily as 1865, and its clever wordplay and Carroll’s loose view of the rules of logic and language guarantee it will remain a fixture on bookstore shelves for a very long time to come.
Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling
Kipling’s 1897 novel is the story of a spoiled rich American teenager named Harvey who is washed overboard in a storm and rescued by a fishing boat. The crew doesn’t believe his stories of wealth, but the Captain takes him on as a crew member. Harvey slowly accepts his fate and becomes a valuable member of the crew until they finally put into port and he contacts his parents. Celebrated as a testimonial to the American spirit, the book remains thrilling to anyone who has ever sat in a boring lecture or meeting and wished fate would intervene with a dose of adventure.
David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens
Speaking of Dickens and his dominance of the 19th century book-writing business, David Copperfield may well be his most beloved novel (it’s certainly one of his most adapted). Originally serialized, the story of the titular character’s life is largely autobiographical. Not many writers get the chance to fictionalize their own lives in such grand style, and no other Dickens novel exemplifies his wordy, fluid style like this one.
Dracula, by Bram Stoker
Stoker’s classic novel has been filmed so many times, it’s possible some don’t realize there’s a source novel. Stoker’s genius is using a series of diary entries and letters (plus a few newspaper clippings filling in background material) to limit the awareness of his characters, ratcheting up tension as the reader realizes they know more than the people they’re reading about. The result is an air of claustrophobic, gothic horror that has kept us reading for centuries.
Emma, by Jane Austen
Featuring one of literature’s great characters in the self-satisfied, well-intentioned, misguided Emma Woodhouse, Austen’s 1815 novel continues to be repurposed in the modern age (it was the basis for the film Clueless, after all) owing to its timeless themes of class, romance, and self-awareness. These evergreen concepts converge on the story of a wealthy young woman who fancies she is an expert matchmaker based on little more than her own high opinion of herself. The hilarious mess she makes as she pursues her newfound avocation is as entertaining and perceptive today as it was back then; we all know at least one Emma.
Far from the Madding Crowd, by Thomas Hardy
Hardy’s best-known novel tells the story of Bathsheba Everdene and Gabriel Oak. Gabriel falls in love with Bathsheba when he is well-off, but she rejects his proposal because she values her independence. As their fortunes wax and wane, Gabriel and Bathsheba remain in each other’s lives, dealing with tragedies and mysteries, more or less until Bathsheba has been through enough turmoil to realize that Gabriel is her only true love. Along the way you get to enjoy some of the finest writing the English language has ever produced.
Flatland, by Edwin Abbott
Somehow, impossibly, combining social commentary with serious mathematics, Flatland is one of the least-read books everyone should read. It’s set in a two-dimensional world where every character is a geometric shape and the main character is a square (named, yes, A Square) who has a vision of a one-dimensional world inhabited by points on a line, and who then is visited by A Sphere, a visitor from three-dimensional space. It’s a lot of fun, and manages to be very sneaky as it educates you about dimensions and social structures.
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Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens
The story of the orphan Pip as he makes his way through his life, from a childhood being brought up “by hand” by his harsh sister and gentle, loving brother-in-law, through his callow young adulthood, covers every aspect of our existence, dealing in universal themes including misplaced gratitude, unrequited love, and regret. It doesn’t hurt that it contains some of Dickens’ best-known characters, including the tragic Miss Havisham, who perpetually wears her rotting wedding dress after being jilted at the altar.
Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
Conrad’s exploration of what it means to be “civilized” unfolds as one of literature’s most iconic plots, the search for the enigmatic and ultimately insane Captain Kurtz in the Free State of Congo (adapted in nightmarish fashion in the film Apocalypse Now). Examining how supposedly civilized Western forces turned the Congo into a nightmare, Conrad’s story remains horrifying and compelling to the modern reader, and continues to be recycled and to inspire new works that seek to illuminate similar themes.
The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H.G. Wells
More than a century after its publication, Wells’ classic novel retains its power to horrify—a power that only increases as medicine advances. The question of whether or not we should do some of the things medical science is now capable of—or will shortly be capable of—will never be an easy one to answer. While Moreau’s insane experiments on animal/human hybrids may be a bit far-fetched no matter how far genetic science advances, the story demonstrates in horrific fashion just how much suffering awaits us if we ever decide that things like ethics and morals are holding back our ability to control the most fundamental aspects of biology.
Ivanhoe, by Walter Scott
One of the first true examples of a historical novel, Ivanhoe is set in the 12th century and focuses on one of the few Saxon noble families still intact after the Norman Conquest. Wilfred of Ivanhoe supports King Richard and is disinherited for his trouble, joining the king on the crusades. The story includes jousts, kidnappings, and plain old-fashioned adventure, and was thrillingly unlike anything that had come before it.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
This revolutionary novel is in part responsible for our modern concept of storytelling, as it was the first to delve directly into the inner life of its protagonist. The story is told firmly from Jane’s point of view, embellished, dramatized, and rendered slightly unreal by virtue of her perception, memory, and prejudices. While telling a love story about a complex proto-feminist character, the novel finds time to offer thoughtful critiques of what was then modern life—critiques that still ring true today.
Lorna Doone, by R.D. Blackmoore
If you’re thinking of the cookies, you’ve missed out on a great book. This classic story set in 17th-century England tells the story of the Doones, a formerly aristocratic family that has devolved into a gang of impoverished criminals. John, a farmer whose father was murdered by the Doones, falls in love with a beautiful girl named Lorna only to discover she is the granddaughter of Sir Ensor Doone. Remarkably, Blackmore perfectly captures the lilt and rhythm of a regional dialect without it becoming distracting or comedic, giving this book a feeling of verisimilitude rarely matched.
The Luck of Barry Lyndon, by William Makepeace Thackery
The source material for Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, this novel follows the entertainingly incompetent attempts of Redmond Barry, born into an aristocratic but poor Irish family, as he seeks both a fortune and an English title. Redmond thinks a lot of himself, and is a very unreliable narrator always seeking to make himself look good, but Thackery skillfully reveals his failings as both a person and a social climber, making this a book that can be read several times, each reread revealing something new.
Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens
Dickens’ story borders on being an exposé of how orphans were treated in the 19th century, as Oliver Twist’s horrible childhood, sale into indentured servitude as an apprentice, and absorption into a criminal gang (led by the iconic Fagin and including the equally iconic Artful Dodger) was all too possible at the time. Dickens combined a bracingly realistic look at criminal life with a satisfyingly happy ending in a book everyone should read at least once in their lives.
Tom Brown’s School Days, by Thomas Hughes
The semi-autobiographical story of Tom Brown’s experiences at school offers universal themes of childhood and the intimidating, exciting moment when you take those first steps toward independence and adulthood. These themes still resonate, as do the episodes of impish pranks and adventures (including the occasional dorm room explosion).
The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells
Wells’ classic sci-fi story remains so modern in execution it’s easy to forget it was written more than a century ago, especially since sci-fi to this day continues to explore the narrative possibilities of time travel. The ending of the story remains among of the most chilling sequences in literature—you will be depressed, disturbed, and, finally, haunted by the traveler’s ultimate mysterious fate.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy
Hardy’s deeply considered rumination on morality, man’s relationship with both nature and modern technology, and sex is perhaps his greatest work. Tess, a good young woman from a poor family, is raped, her sickly son dies weeks after birth, and her marriage with a stalwart young farmer is ruined by the stain to her reputation—and things only get worse from there. Yet the story is animated by a deep level of empathy and contemplation that renders it not entirely bleak.
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens
The nearly infinite opening passage of this novel, beginning with the famous “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” signals the wide range of themes the book intends to cover; Dickens wanted nothing less than an examination of the human condition and all of history in the confines of a story. Set in London and Paris before and during the French Revolution, Dickens captures the frenetic spirit of the times in the unsteady adventures of his characters, resulting in one the most sprawling epic novels of all time.
Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
The story of fierce social climber Becky Sharp and her ascent—and rapid descent—in life as she schemes, steals, and seduces those who can assist her until an almost-too-late epiphany, is extremely well-done on the surface, entertaining and well-written. But then comes the moment when the narrator reveals that he’s heard her story through gossip and has no actual knowledge of the events, and the book suddenly twists itself into a brilliant puzzle. Trying to figure out what’s true and what matters in the story has been keeping people up past their bedtime ever since.
The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
There’s little argument that Collins’s novel about a mentally deranged woman, amateur sleuths, and a plot to steal a fortune is one of literature’s first true detective tales. Marian Halcombe and Walter Hartright are genuine amateurs, employing nothing more than their good sense and keen eye to slowly unravel a mystery involving switched identities and an enormous amount of money. The novel is also notable for Collins’ somewhat progressive take on women’s rights, as the mystery centers on the lack of legal standing a wife had at the time when it came to her own money, and is written in a lively tone that makes it seem more modern than it actually is.
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë
Bursting with passion, Emily Brontë’s only novel is concerned with the destructive power of that unbridled emotion, demonstrating how feeling unchecked by reason can distort life and ultimately destroy it. Part romance, part ghost story, Wuthering Heights offers one of the best characters ever created in Heathcliff, a shifting character of uncertain parentage and legacy who is ultimately undone by his mad love for foster sister Catherine and taste for vengeance following her death.
Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
A fascinating novel that refutes any claim that the 19th century was prudish, this story of a man who volunteers to be a woman’s slave, encouraging her to treat him in increasingly awful ways so he can attain what he calls “suprasensuality,” is unsettling, and ends on an unexpected note. The woman is initially put off by the man’s request, and eventually meets another man she wishes to be dominated by, souring the original relationship. It’s basically Fifty Shades in 1870.
Flowers in the Mirror, by Ju-chen Li
A brazenly feminist novel written in 1827 in China? Why wouldn’t you read this classic fantasy? A lighthearted story that begins when a power-mad empress orders all the flowers of the world to bloom the next day; when the flower spirits, fearing her, comply, the gods punish them by reincarnating them into the mortal bodies of young girls, whose adventures make up the rest of the surprisingly modern story.
The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
Dumas’ classic revenge story is also the ultimate adventure story, centered on a man who is wrongly imprisoned, escapes, makes a fortune, and seeks to get back at his enemies. All of this is set against the backdrop of one of the most politically and militarily unsettled periods of European history—a moment when it seemed literally anything might happen, lending the story an urgency that still jumps off the page today.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, by Jules Verne
Sea monsters and what is essentially the first steampunk submarine: it doesn’t get more adventurous than this. Verne’s classic work of adventure and sci-fi isn’t exactly scientifically rigorous—at one point Captain Nemo exits his submarine and strolls about on the floor of the ocean without difficulty—but its spirit of discovery as the captain and his companions travel to various incredible places (including the lost city of Atlantis) is unparalleled.
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
In some ways Russian literature has been an unending reaction to the nearly endless social change that has swept and re-swept the country for the last two centuries. After an era of rigidity in the social structure, Russia began what could be seen as a still-ongoing struggle with its past and its future, unsettling everybody. Tolstoy’s vivid story of three complicated romantic relationships—particularly that of its titular character, who leaves her husband and the safety of societal approval in order to pursue a great love affair—is also a study of how Russian society adjusts, or doesn’t, to its ongoing social friction.
Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Dostoevsky explores what some see as the inherent nihilism and violence of Russian society in this novel, in which a man named Raskolnikov plots and commits a murder partially out of a belief that he is predestined to do so. Raskolnikov’s torment and struggle with his burgeoning conscience eventually result in his confession and a clear implication that he can be saved despite his brutal actions, and in some ways the novel still encapsulates the Russian view of morality, justice, and human nature.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
In some ways, any consideration of Russian literature starts here—in fact, any consideration of the novel as an art form could start here, or at least nearby. The epic story of Russia during and immediately after the invasion by Napoleon, the novel combines fiction, philosophy, history, and a clear-eyed study of 19th-century Russian society and culture. If you read just one Russian novel, this would be the right choice.
Cousin Bette, by Honore de Balzac
With subtle homoerotic themes, Balzac’s greatest novel is a dark and delightful story of a woman purposefully working to destroy her own family. Cousin Bette, middle-aged, spinsterish, and bitter, works with the beautiful and greedy Valérie Marneffe to seduce and destroy the men of the Hulot family until Bette’s burning resentment literally kills her. She’s one of the greatest characters in literary history, and you should read this book immediately.
To Have and to Hold, by Mary Johnston
It’s an old-school melodrama, but one of the most popular books of 1899 is a well-done one. In 16th-century Jamestown, an English soldier named Ralph buys a wife, a woman named Jocelyn who initially loathes him. Unknown to Ralph, Jocelyn is actually a ward of the king, and already betrothed to an aristocrat. Adventures ensue in a surprisingly convoluted plot that’s got plenty of action, making this a nearly forgotten gem.
King Solomon’s Mines, by H. Rider Haggard
Written in a time when Africa seemed infinite and largely unexplored, at least from a Western point of view, Haggard’s classic adventure novel created the template still followed today—the Indiana Jones films, for one, owe a huge debt to Haggard. Adventurer Allan Quatermain agrees to locate a man who went missing searching for the titular mines in exchange for a share of any treasure found, and encounters hidden kingdoms and terrible dangers on the way.
Fathers and Sons, by Ivan Turgenev
If you’ve ever heard or used the word nihilism, you can thank Turgenev’s novel, which popularized the term. A study of the growing generational divide in early 19th-century Russia, Fathers and Sons is sometimes regarded as Russia’s first modern novel. The changing times in the country background an intense study of the characters as they mature and change, leaving nihilism behind in favor of a more spiritual and traditionally Russian outlook on life.
The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy
This devastating short novel hits everyone right where they live, as its tale of an absolutely average man diligently advancing in his career, tolerating his unhappy marriage, and engaging in the sort of dull, meaningless existence most people know all too well is suddenly forced into an existential crisis as a seemingly minor injury inexorably turns fatal, leaving him to face the terror of death—and the worse terror of assessing how he has spent his time. Don’t read this if you’re feeling fragile, but do read it before it’s too late.