Monday, September 28, 2009

The world's best novels, 1899 edition

I've been enjoying, a bit too much for my own good, the amazing 1899 London Daily Telegraph list of the "100 Best Novels in the World," brought to my attention by the Rose City Reader. The world, you don't say!

The top authors by number of books:

Walter Scott, 7
Charles Dickens, 5
Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 4
Captain Frederick Marryat, 4

And with 3 novels each:
W. H. Ainsworth
James Fennimore Cooper
Alexandre Dumas
Victor Hugo
Charles Kinglsey
Charles Reade
William Thackeray

Ten of the Best Novels in the World are in a language other than English: the six Dumas and Hugo novels, plus Père Goriot and Eugène Sue's The Wandering Jew in French; Anna Karenina in Russian; the recent international bestseller Quo Vadis in Polish. This is pathetic. In fairness, the editors and so on responsible for this list had no idea such a book as Dead Souls existed. The English-speaking world was about to get schooled in Russian literature. What excuse they had for the absence of Don Quixote, Candide, The Betrothed, and The Sorrows of Young Werther is beyond me. Ditto for Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver's Travels, and so many more.

The three Thackeray novels omit Vanity Fair. The single George Eliot novel is Scenes of Clerical Life. None of the five Dickens novels are Bleak House or Great Expectations or David Copperfield. Henry James, Herman Melville, Gustave Flaubert, Stendhal, Mark Twain, Thomas Hardy, Zola - all are absent. Instead, we find Elsie Venner by Oliver Wendell Holmes and Valentine Vox by Henry Cockton and The Deemster by Hall Caine and Soapy Sponge's Sporting Tour by R. S. Surtees.

I want to mock these obscurities. But a few minutes with Google Books reveals a horrible truth: these absurdly overrated books were good. Not great. But try a page 90 test at one of the links above. They're OK. The Surtees actually looks quite a bit better than OK. I'm sure there are a few truly hideous duds on that list (Sue's The Wandering Jew is my bet), but mostly these are good books. The bad books take care of themselves. Canon-formation is all about sorting through the good books. Almost none of them are going to make it. Curdles the blood, it does.

A useful point to note: not so long ago, Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret and Wood's Easy Lynne would have been in the "forgotten" pile. But they have been revived by scholars and teachers for various reasons. Maybe they will fade away again, replaced by something else. Or maybe not. But they remind me of part of the value of these lists. Books die, books are resurrected. Some intrepid visitor to the Rose City Reader may try out one of these puzzlers and find something no one knew was there.

Enough on this topic, for now, for a long time. Back to books I've actually read.


  1. I enjoyed thinking about this list too when I read about it at Rose City Reader.

    >Books die, books are resurrected...

    Yes, they do and they are. Interesting how tastes ebb and flow.

  2. Frederick Marryat, eh? He's fallen off the radar - or is it just my radar? I'm actually hoping to read Elsie Venner before the end of the year. I've read about it, and the critical commentary had me salivating. I agree on the absence of Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, and Gulliver's Travels. As far as I know, they were already considered "classics" well before 1899.

  3. Glad this list caught your fancy. It fascinates me. As does your analysis and the discussion it inspires -- here and on your original post about "overrated" books that prompted me to post the list in the first place.

    1. What, Tom wrote a post about overrated books? Where is it? Where is it!

  4. The strange thing about Marryat is that his seafaring novels are not at all dead. They're even, off and on, in print. Readers of Patrick O'Brian and C. S. Forester have kept them around. But I don't think anyone else reads Marryat.

    By the way, if you think some of these are obscure, be sure to take a look at the 1913 New York Times Hundred Best Books of the Year (selected for novels). Someday I will either read, or eat, The Catfish, by Charles Mariott.

  5. I have seen this list before, and I remember being staggered not only by the omissions, but also that the novels by Dickens and Eliot are different from the ones that would most likely be chosen today. Not only does the list have a strong English language bias, but it also has a strong nineteenth century bias which I think explains why "Robinson Crusoe" and "Gulliver's Travels" were left out.

  6. I like the thought that these sorts of lists are useful for reminding later readers of good books they've forgotten. These lists offer a picture of reading tastes at a particular time, and that's great, but they also help keep books alive. So yay for list-makers! Maybe I should go make my own "best of the millennium" list or something like that.

  7. The 1899 list actually includes 5 18th century novels (2 by Fielding, 2 by Smollett, and Tristram Shandy). Five percent isn't so biased. Not sure I'd go much higher than five percent myself. Of course, my list would have more room because of the complete absence of Marryat novels.

    Dorothy, do. I'm very pro-list. List-making is all the rage now.

  8. Soapy Sponge's Sporting Tour is one of the most hilarious titles I've ever heard. And yeah, the absence of Don Quixote is kind of shocking. I haven't heard there was ever a time when it fell out of favor...

  9. This is a fascinating list and I thought so when I saw it at Rose City Readers too. Thanks for breaking it down. It's very interesting to see which books are omitted. And I'm curious to give some of these unknowns a try. Well, after I get through the ones I'd heard of, at least.

  10. I didn't even notice that there's no Zola until you pointed it out.

    That's it. Now it's personal. This list has gone too far.

  11. Zola is presumably too far out and avant garde for these folks. I don't think there's a hint of naturalism in the list.

  12. Hi Amateur!

    Good Guess on Sue. Le Juif Errant would have been an almost tolerable "feuilleton" if only cut in half. Sadly, it was not. Probably too much readers was caught in during publication (in serial form), hence the distinct feeling that the end is page 350, that is 350 pages before the actual last word.

    I would say Dostoievsky and Stendhal are the most proeminent absentees for the XIXth. Nietzsche would agree.

  13. I'll admit that I was not just guessing with Sue. Ma femme translated a brief, cliché-ridden passage for me.

  14. Great find. I wonder (and will have to check in the fullness of time) if the Bulwer-Lytton books are among the good. I'm so used to seeing Bulwer-Lytton as the designated whipping-boy for 19th Century prose that I hadn't realized he was ever actually in favor.

  15. Bulwer-Lytton has gotten a bad rap from that prize. There were not only worse, there were much, much worse. He is paying for the sins of Snoopy.

  16. Well, SOMEBODY had to pay for the sins of Snoopy. "There were much, much worse" is not the most fulsome of praise, but -- dare I ask -- is there a Bulwer-Lytton work you would recommend for a trial run?

  17. I've read exactly one paragraph of Bulwer-Lytton (Paul Clifford, paragraph 1), plus whatever excerpts Poe used to tomahawk him. But The Little Professor can answer all Bulwer-Lytton queries. She points to The Last Days of Pompeii, I'm pretty sure in the interests of literary history, not because it's especially good.

  18. I've just put a library hold on The Last Days of Pompeii. But then, I've been drinking. We'll see how my resolve holds up when I have book in hand.

  19. It must be near this one. Let's see.

    Here it is. And the next day's table is relevant, too.