The ’80s Had Big Hair and Big Novels. (The 1880s, That Is)

SheEvery decade has its share of memorable novels. Today I’m going to focus on the 1880s.

Why? Because I recently finished a spellbinding 1887 book called She. An imperfect novel — author H. Rider Haggard has some troubling views on race, gender, and class even as he can be relatively enlightened for his time — but also a book that offers an eerie take on mortality and immortality (the ruthless but at times sympathetic title character, shown above, is 2,200 years old!). A thrilling adventure tale that contains many philosophical ruminations and impressive writing flourishes.

The 1880s were semi-dominated by multiple great novels from Henry James, Mark Twain, and Emile Zola, but that long-ago decade essentially began in a literary sense with the 1880 classic The Brothers Karamazov. Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s book is more sprawling and uneven than his 1866 masterpiece Crime and Punishment, but when Brothers is good it’s amazing. Dostoyevsky reportedly intended the novel to be the first of a trilogy, but he died in early 1881.

Another 19th-century Russian writing legend, Leo Tolstoy, sort of ended the decade’s literary output with one of his best short novels — 1889’s gripping and controversial The Kreutzer Sonata.

But back to the three authors who semi-dominated the decade. Henry James started things off with the compelling Washington Square (1880), about a not-nice doctor and his sweet-but-dull daughter; and then wrote what is my favorite novel of his, the heartbreaking classic The Portrait of a Lady (1881). Among James’ many other works during those productive years was The Aspern Papers (1888), about an obsessed man trying to get his hands on the letters and such of a famous dead poet by ingratiating himself with that poet’s aged lover.

Mark Twain? There was The Prince and the Pauper (1881), Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884), and A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1889). Huckleberry Finn, of course, is considered Twain’s best novel — and it totally deserves that designation despite faltering a bit in the last third when Tom Sawyer makes an annoying and unwelcome appearance. Connecticut Yankee, an early time-travel work, is fiercely antiwar amid the frequent hilarity.

Zola zoomed through the 1880s with eight novels in his famous Rougon-Macquart series. My four favorites are Nana (1880), about a prostitute; The Ladies’ Delight (1883), about a Paris department store that wreaks havoc on small retailers; Zola’s masterpiece Germinal (1885), about a mining town that experiences a dramatic strike; and The Masterpiece (1886), about a prototypical tortured artist.

Taking the time-travel route a year before Twain was Edward Bellamy and his utopian Looking Backward (1888), set in the year 2000. It was one of the 19th century’s three bestselling novels — after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) and Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880), the latter of which I haven’t read so I can’t discuss it in this post. One of the many interesting things about Looking Backward (whose author was a cousin of “Pledge of Allegiance” creator Francis Bellamy) is that an early debit card appears in it!

Other notable novels of that decade included Thomas Hardy’s depressingly excellent The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Robert Louis Stevenson’s very influential Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (also 1886), and William Dean Howells’ rags-to-riches-themed The Rise of Silas Lapham (1884).

An honorable mention goes to Billy Budd — which was started by Herman Melville in 1886, left unfinished at the time of his 1891 death, and finally published in 1924. Many consider it Melville’s second-best novel behind Moby-Dick.

Your favorite novels of the 1880s, including those I didn’t name?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning β€œMontclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest piece — which again looks at the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on my town — is here.

45 thoughts on “The ’80s Had Big Hair and Big Novels. (The 1880s, That Is)

  1. Germinal – definitely, despite being a set book, in French –
    Woodlanders – despite the inevitable and classic Hardyesque sadness,, – the one maybe confused with Under the Greenwood Tree- and all Rider Haggard – encountered again later, unexpectedly, for his role in housing reform for the poor…

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    • Thank you, catonthedovrefell! “Germinal” is a gripping novel — Zola at his peak. “The Woodlanders” is a book I’ve never read, but the excellent Thomas Hardy could indeed be very depressing. (Haven’t read “Under the Greenwood Tree,” either.) Did not know the conservative-in-some-ways H. Rider Haggard was a reformer — good for him!

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    • Thank you for those two great additions, Mary Jo!

      I’ve read and enjoyed “Treasure Island,” and hope to read “Heidi” in the not-too-distant future.

      Wonderful to have that nostalgic feeling of having read those books to your daughter. πŸ™‚

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  2. A very interesting decade to focus on! πŸ™‚ I will admit my reading from these years is a bit sparse, but I have dabbled in a lot of Mark Twain and I also always loved Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which I also enjoy in its Broadway Musical form! πŸ™‚ I have read a lot of books that take place in the 1880s, even if they weren’t written then! Like our favorite Anne of Green Gables, the Phantom of the Opera (which I think is 1875 actually but close enough), and Little Town on the Prairie.

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    • Thank you, M.B.! Twain is almost always a great read, of course, as is Robert Louis Stevenson (to a somewhat lesser extent). I never saw the “Jekyll and Hyde” Broadway musical, but like the late-1970s song of the same name by the band Renaissance.

      Nice references to novels set in the 1880s but written later! There’s also Edith Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” which is set in the 1870s and then jumps about 25 years near the end, so I suppose the 1880s had to happen in between. πŸ™‚ And Jack Finney’s mostly 1882-set “Time and Again,” one of the best time-travel novels ever!

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  3. I freely admit that I rarely read books from this time period, although I know I should try. I did read short stories or novellas by several of the authors mentioned for classes, but that’s as far as I got. As a child, I remember enjoying “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew,” written by Margaret Sidney, and I see this first book in her series about the family was published in that decade. It reminds me a great deal of “Little Women,” and it was a pleasant read.

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  4. I remember reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin and thinking it was a quite good piece of propaganda, understandably so. When using fiction as social commentary with a call to action for the reader, a writer has to make a judgement to remain true to the story and the characters or cross the line into polemic for fear people won’t heed a subtle call. For me, it’s a fascinating artistic question.

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  5. The best thing to happen in my newspaper career happened in the 1880s. Which is to say the founding of The Kansas City Star on Sept. 21, 1880, and with it, the first “Starbeams” column, a column that ran continuously under various bylines until 2004, when it died in my hands after I’d written it daily for 27 years or so. So thanks, 1880s.

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    • Thank you, Bill! Is the publishing of “The Brothers Karamazov” and the founding of The Kansas City Star in the same year a coincidence? I think not. πŸ™‚

      That was an impressive run you had writing “Starbeams”! I remember seeing some of those columns — you did a great job!

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  6. Of those you mentioned, I haven’t read as many as I should have, or if I did I don’t remember them. The ones I did read and liked very much were “The Portrait of a Lady,” “Washington Square” and “Nana.” Ones that I liked not noted in your column were “A Study in Scarlet” by Arthur Conan Doyle (1887) and “The Death of Ivan Ilych” by Leo Tolstoy (1886). Thanks for the recommendations from you and jhNY; “She” sounds like something I’d enjoy reading. I also agree with Clanmother that the title of your column was great!

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    • Thank you, Kat Lit! I totally forgot to include “A Study in Scarlet” and “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” both of which are really compelling. Glad you mentioned them!

      To me, “The Portrait of a Lady” is the perfect Henry James novel. Deep, psychologically nuanced, and kind of complex but more “readable” and “accessible” than a later classic like “The Ambassadors.”

      I appreciate the praise for the column title. πŸ™‚

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      • “The Portrait of a Lady” is one of my favorite classic novels ever, though I do need to read it once again. I’ve read most of the novels by James and enjoyed them all, but I couldn’t get into “The Bostonians” at all. I gave up after two attempts. Perhaps if I get bored enough of my crime fiction while in isolation (highly unlikely), I could download both of them on my new Nook and reread the former and attempt the latter for the third time. πŸ™‚ My alternative plan is to pull out all of my old comic collections and reread them, especially “Calvin & Hobbes” and “Pogo.” My best friend told me about getting the daily “MUTTS” strip online, so I now have it arrive in my inbox early every morning. A great way to start the day! πŸ™‚

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        • Oops — somehow I missed this comment earlier. Sorry, Kat Lit. Yes, “The Portrait of a Lady” is magnificent, and often very sad. I’ve never tried “The Bostonians”; maybe I’m glad I didn’t. πŸ™‚

          I also have “Calvin & Hobbes” and “Pogo” collections at home — great reading (and rereading)! As is “Mutts” by Patrick McDonnell — a really nice guy who happens to live not that far from either of us, in New Jersey.

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          • Ha! I wondered why you didn’t reply to my comment, because you always do — I just assumed you just missed it somehow. πŸ™‚ I’m glad to hear that Patrick McDonnell is a really nice guy; he surely seems to be from his comic strips and his newsletter. My best friend and I are both huge animal lovers as well.

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            • Somehow I didn’t get an email notification of your comment, but luckily/belatedly spotted it under the blog this evening!

              Yes, like you and your best friend, Patrick is a huge animal lover, both in real life and in his comic. πŸ™‚

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    • Thank you for the comment! Thomas Hardy IS an excellent novelist. And he indeed led an interesting life — both as a writer (his novel period and then his poetry period) and as a person.

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  7. You have the best titles, Dave!! I just read that T.S. Eliot spent his childhood mostly in solitude based on his congenital double inguinal hernia. He was unable to participate in activities and had little contact with his peer group. He became obsessed books, in particular Mark Twain. What a gift writers give us and the outcomes are synergistic. I believe that T.S.Eliot’s poetry and writing was based on his love of literature at a very young age. Another wonderful post. Thank you!

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    • Thank you, Clanmother! I was happy with that headline. πŸ™‚

      Didn’t know that about T.S. Eliot! Interesting how a health situation can be a partial blessing in disguise because it gives the person more time to think and write. And, yes, writers inspiring later writers inspiring later writers…very heartening.

      Excellent comment, excellently stated!

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      • If memory serves (a useful phrase when its user is too lazy to look something up), Eliot wrote “The Wasteland’ while convalescing from a nervous collapse brought on at least partly by the rigors of working for Barclay’s Bank.

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    • To my knowledge, this best-selling novel features the literally most powerful female character in the history of English literature, though it’s more adventure tale than literature outright. I was especially appreciative of the author’s dedication of “She” to Andrew Lang, the popular anthropologist, and to his inclusion of a potsherd with inscription, identical to the sort of illustration that accompanied more serious archeological studies. Makes a nice psuedo-scientific framing for a colonialist fantasy.

      My great-grandfather emigrated to South Africa from Austria. He likely developed his appetite for illustrated explorer’s accounts then, prior to moving here to the US. i inherited a few of his books as a boy, and loved to leaf through them– full-page engravings of lions rearing up before the hunter’s gun, elephants charging through the brush, etc.– with an exhilarating narrative to match. “She” is meant to stand on the shelf with such stuff, and probably includes only a bit more fiction.

      H. Ryder Haggard is the author of a prior, similar and even more popular work, which has endured cinematic treatment a few times: “King Solomon’s Mines” (1885).

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you, jhNY!

        As you note, Ayesha (the She in “She”) is definitely a powerful character in the literal sense (her near-immortality, her magnetism over men, her ability to kill with a look, etc., etc.).

        Wonderful that you inherited some of your grandfather’s books! The kind of adventure fiction he liked can be very compelling as part of a reading mix.

        I haven’t read “King Solomon’s Mines” but saw the 1937 movie version with the great Paul Robeson, I think when I was an undergraduate (at Rutgers, which Robeson attended).

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