Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Best Books of 1862 - And if thou wilt, remember, And if thou wilt, forget.

Emily Dickinson was in the middle of a creative rush that had lasted several years and would last many more.  Or so it looks now – she was having doubts.  In 1862 she sent four poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson who had just published an article in The Atlantic giving advice to new writers about publishing their work.  Dickinson asked “Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?”  He said it was, yet Dickinson did not try to publish.

The hidden and lost works of the past, the ones that survive by chance and magic, make for such interesting stories.  But this is not the story of the Best Books of 1862.  1862 was the Year of the Best-seller.

The big bookish events in France were 1) the publication of Victor Hugo’s massive Les Misérables, his first novel in thirty years, and 2) controversial upstart Gustave Flaubert’s followup to Madame Bovary, the gory and insane Salammbô.  Flaubert was understandably nervous that he would be crushed by Hugo, but both novels were hits.  Hugo’s audience was broader, a genuine mass readership, and much more international.  Salammbô has never had much luck outside of France.

Another international hit, albeit with a much smaller audience than Hugo’s, was Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.  I believe this was the novel that really introduced Russian literature to Europe.  It also began within Russian literature a chain of attacks and responses that is unlike anything I know in any other literature, but that story has to wait until 1863.  One of the participants was Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose House of the Dead is from 1862.

Meanwhile the new craze in English fiction was the Sensation Novel: Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, No Name by Wilkie Collins, and even Orley Farm by Anthony Trollope.  The latter two could easily have been titled Lady _____’s Secret, and in the case of the Trollope should have been, since Orley Farm is a crummy title.  Trollope was only a half-hearted Sensationalist, divulging the secret about halfway through the novel, but at least he tried.

Lady Audley’s Secret was a dead book for a while, but scholars interested in women writers and so-called genre fiction resurrected it.  I just finished it and may write about it a bit after the holiday.

If the Collins and Trollope novels feel a bit second-tier compared to their best-known books, as does George Eliot’s Romola (which began serialization in 1862), English poetry was anything but.  Lucky Victorian poetry readers enjoyed, amidst the mound of poetry that now looks tediously unreadable,  George Meredith’s Modern Love, posthumous collections by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Arthur Hugh Clough, and the almost shockingly assured debut of Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market and Other Poems.  Here is one of the others, the first half of “Song”:

When I am dead my dearest,
    Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
    Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
    With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
    And if thou wilt, forget.

Édouard Manet’s 1862 “Music in the Tuileries” is in the London National Gallery.


  1. He, nice overview of the year 1862, Tom!

  2. It was an unusually populist year, if that is the right word.

  3. this reminds me of Matthew Pearl's Dante Club. It is about the great writers who lived around the same time in Boston when Longfellow was translating Dante's Divine Comedy. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. It never ceases to amaze me that my beloved son, who was in remedial reading for Kindergarten, First, Second and Third grade, now loves Hugo's Les Miserables as his favorite book of all time. Go figure.

    I'm crazy about Russian literature. Why haven't I read Fathers and Sons yet? Or, maybe I did in college, and it's all become a massive blur. Time to pick it up again, I can see that!

  5. Nana - that is a good point. Sometimes it all just looks like a coincidence - a bunch of writers happened to live and work at the same time.

    But other times there is a story - the writers know each other, work together, or at least respond to each other's books.

    Fathers and Sons is impressive looked at in any number of ways. It is short, too, actually short. I should re-read it soon.

  6. That's quite amazing thans for pointing me to your post. I had no idea this year saw such a lot of important publications.

  7. Such are the pleasures of literary history. Stories about stories.