Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Best Books of 1861 - Yet if ye will but stay, whom I accost, And listen to my words a little space

What an amazing run the Victorian novel had from 1859 to 1861, or, really, from 1847 ( the annus Brontëus) through the 1870s.  Amazing in the quantity and quality of books of books that are still read, and not that the French and Russian and even, finally, American literatures of the period are insufficiently bulky.

This is only partly due to the irritatingly productive Anthony Trollope, who finished Framley Parsonage in 1861 and began serializing Orley Farm.  I am not sure how often the latter is read, but the former has survived pretty well.  Charles Dickens finished Great Expectations.  George Eliot published Silas Marner.  Margaret Oliphant wrote her first Carlingford stories.  This is a good haul, I would say, without having to resort to – I am on Wikipedia, 1861 in Literature – Mrs. Henry Wood’s East Lynne or Thackeray’s Adventures of Philip.

One more wonderful piece of English, or semi-English, literature dates from 1861, the first version of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s The Early Italian Poets, a book of translations of 13th and 14th century poems.  The centerpiece of the book is a complete translation of La Vita Nuova, Dante’s – the other Dante, the Dante-Dante – peculiar blend of prose and poetry celebrating his love for and mourning his loss of Beatrice:

Yet if ye will but stay, whom I accost,
  And listen to my words a little space,
    At going ye shall mourn with a loud voice.
It is her Beatrice that she hath lost;
  Of whom the least word spoken holds such grace
    That men weep hearing it, and have no choice.

NYRB has kept Rossetti’s version of The New Life in print.  Much of it, I would guess, is unsurpassable.

Let’s see.  Emily Dickinson was writing energetically, to the knowledge of no one.  Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs, now one of the most-read slave narratives, is from this year.  Frankly, the Civil War seems to have done in American literature for a few years.

I have no idea what was good in the French literature of 1861.  That Wiki page includes George Sand’s wacky Consuelo, but that is wrong by almost 20 years.  Come back next year for 1862.  Good, good French stuff in 1862.

Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured in Russia (I have not read this one).  The symbolic patriotism of Gottfried Keller’s The Banner of the Upright Seven in Switzerland (I have read it, and recommend it to the most dedicated readers of Keller).  Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald’s Kalevipoeg, the Estonian national epic.  Sorry, the what?  Now I am itching, ridiculously, to read the thing.

I expect most of these books to still be on this list when I repeat this exercise 50 years from now.  In the face of books as strong as Great Expectations and Silas Marner, 50 years does not sound so long.

The 1861 painting up top is John Morgan’s “Gentlemen of the Jury,” borrowed from Wiki.


  1. A wonderful list (and even better than I expected when playfully throwing the fifty-years-later comment around!). How about some non-fiction I just Googled: 'London Labour and the London Poor', the work of Victorian journalism by Henry Mayhew, and 'Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management', edited by Isabella Beeton and first published as a book in 1861.

    Now that's a year :)

  2. For influence, for its contribution to human welfare, no book will possibly top Mrs. Beeton. A fine addition to the list.

    The bulk of the Mayhew book is from a decade earlier, but it seems that an additional volume was published in 1861. I have not read Mayhew, not at all, and should see what he is like. His subject is certainly interesting.