What were the Best Books of the Year in 1814? What I have usually done in a post like this is scrounge together every book of any literary consequence at all from a given year, which is not as hard a task as it seems since two hundred years culls the herd of books so brutally (as does twenty years; as does two). But 1814 was unusual because its best books were so influential.
Another change is that I did more anniversary reading than usual this year (usual: none), so I will just link back to some recent posts. One of these influential, foundational works was E. T. A. Hoffmann’s The Golden Pot, for example, which is back here. Another German novella from the same year, Peter Schlemihl by Adelbert von Chamisso casts almost as long a shadow. It’s about a guy who sells his shadow to the devil. That’s why I said – ah, never mind. It’s good, too, if narrower than Hoffmann’s fantasy.
Then there’s Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s best book, which is more read now than anything else I will mention, but the influence of which is complicated by the fact that it is Jane Austen’s worst book. At the time it was published, Austen was something like what we would now call a midlist writer, not a bestseller, but a seller, a writer with a lot of good readers, including Walter Scott and the dissolute Prince Regent who would later become King George IV. If she had only lived a few more years, she would have been a guest of the king, and then she could have written a hilarious novel about that. And she could have finished Sanditon. And, and, and.
We do not have enough Austen novels, but we have more Walter Scott novels than anyone wants to read. The first was Waverley, from this year, the novel that went viral, as the youngsters say, that did not literally invent the idea of the historical novel but in effect did so. Waverley must have directly inspired hundreds of novels; further Scott novels must have led to thousands. Within twenty years Balzac, Hugo, Gogol, Pushkin, Manzoni, and Dickens had written historical novels that were clearly Scott-like. Dumas and Cooper made careers out of the form. On and on, to the present, even if the amount of Scott in contemporary novels has become homeopathic.
And Scott really was doing something innovative, and he knew it. That’s why he spends the first chapter, and plenty of later passages, describing what he is doing:
I would have my readers understand, that they will meet in the following pages neither a romance of chivalry, nor a tale of modern manners… (Chapter First)
Just the kind of thing many readers find deadly. Scott certainly never seems to be in any hurry. But Waverley is nevertheless a fine novel, funny, perceptive, and in some places fairly exciting. I am rereading it now, so I will likely poke at the book more in the new year.
The final case, making at least four, is Lord Byron, who published some works key in the other viral phenomenon of the time, Byronism. I want to save these for tomorrow, though.
So that’s: the novel that created historical novels, Byronism, Hoffmann fantasies, and an Austen novel. Plus Peter Schlemihl. And the earliest known Keats poems, but we have to wait two more years for the good stuff.
One final example, the reverse of the above. The consensus Book of the Year in England, appearing on all of the lists, if there had been lists, would easily have been The Excursion by William Wordsworth, a book of great Significance and greater Tediousness. It is close to unread now, and the curious thing is that it was made obsolete by Wordsworth himself, by the publication of The Prelude in 1850, a poem which does everything of value that The Excursion does except better – with more beauty, more narrative interest, and much less artificiality. It took some time, but The Prelude eventually murdered The Excursion. I doubt this happens very often.
From this distance, the number of surviving books from 1814 is hardly the point. A good year. I put a page from John Constable’s 1814 sketchbook, owned by the Victoria and Albert Museum, up top.